According to the Hebrew Bible, the Kenites (/ˈkiːnaɪt/; Hebrew: קינים, [qeˈnim]) were a nomadic clan in the ancient Levant. One of the most recognized Kenites is Jethro, a priest in the land of Midian. They played an important role in the history of ancient Israel. The Kenites were coppersmiths and metalworkers. Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, was a shepherd and a priest in the land of Midian. Judges 1:16 says that Moses had a father-in-law who was a Kenite, but it is not clear from the passage if this refers to Jethro. Certain groups of Kenites settled among the Israelite population, including the descendants of Moses' brother-in-law, although the Kenites descended from Rechab maintained a distinct, nomadic lifestyle for some time.
Kenite is a rendition of Hebrew קֵינִי Qeyniy. According to Gesenius, the name is derived from the name Cain (קַיִן Qayin). According to A. H. Sayce, the name ‘Kenite’ or Qéní, is identical to an Aramaic word meaning a smith, which in its turn is a cognate of Hebrew Qayin, with the meaning ‘a lance’.
According to the Kenite hypothesis, Yahweh was historically a Midian deity, and the association of Moses' father-in-law with Midian reflects the historical adoption of the Midianite cult by the Hebrews. Moses apparently identified Jethro's concept of God, El Shaddai, with Yahweh, the Israelites' God.
The Bible mentions the Kenites as living in or around Canaan as early as the time of Abraham. (Genesis 15:18-21) At the Exodus, Jethro and his clan inhabited the vicinity of Mount Sinai and Horeb. (Exodus 3:1) Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a Kenite (Judges 1:16) resident in the land of Midian. Judges 1:16 says that his descendants "went up from the City of Palms with the men of Judah to live among the people of the Desert of Judah in the Negev near Arad." The "City of Palms" appears to be Zoara or Tamar in the upper Arabah.
However, in Exodus 3:1 Jethro is said to have been a "priest in the land of Midian" and a resident of Midian (Numbers 10:29). This has led many scholars to believe that the terms are intended (at least in parts of the Bible) to be used interchangeably, or that the Kenites formed a part of the Midianite tribal grouping. The Kenites journeyed with the Israelites to Canaan (Judges 1:16); and their encampment, apart from the latter's, was noticed by Balaam. (Numbers 24:21-22)
At a later period, some of the Kenites separated from their brethren in the south, and went to live in northern Canaan (Judges 4:11) where they lived in the time of King Saul. The kindness which they had shown to Israel in the wilderness was gratefully remembered. "Ye showed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt," said Saul to them (1 Samuel 15:6); and so not only were they spared by him, but David allowed them to share in the spoil that he took from the Amalekites. (1 Samuel 30:29)
Other well-known Kenites were Heber, the husband of Jael, and Rechab, the ancestor of the Rechabites.
According to the critical interpretation of the Biblical data, the Kenites were a clan settled on the southern border of Judah, originally more advanced in arts than the Hebrews, and from whom the latter learned much. They supposedly migrated from southern Asia. In the time of David the Kenites were finally settled among the tribe of Judah.
Their eponymous ancestor may have been Cain (Kain), to whose descendants the Jahwist in Genesis chapter 4 attributes the invention of the art of working bronze and iron, the use of instruments of music, etc. Sayce has implied that the Kenites were a tribe of smiths—a view to which Jahwist's statements would lend support. Moreover, in Jeremiah 35:7-8 the Rechabites are described as tent-dwellers with an absolute prohibition against practicing agriculture; however, other Kenites are described elsewhere as city-dwellers.
The Kenite hypothesis supposes that the Hebrews adopted the cult of Yahweh from the Midianites via the Kenites. This view, first proposed by F. W. Ghillany, afterward independently by Cornelis Petrus Tiele (1872), and more fully by Bernhard Stade, has been more completely worked out by Karl Budde; it is accepted by H. Guthe, Gerrit Wildeboer, H. P. Smith, and G. A. Barton. Another theory is that a confederation of regional tribes were connected to monotheistic ritual at Sinai.
German orientalist Walter Beltz believed the story of Cain and Abel was not originally about the murder of a brother, but a myth about the murder of a god's child. In his reading of Genesis 4:1, Eve conceived Cain by Adam, and her second son Abel by another man, this being Yahweh. Eve is thus compared to the Sacred Queen of antiquity, the Mother goddess. Consequently, Yahweh pays heed to Abel's offerings, but not to Cain's. After Cain kills Abel, Yahweh condemns Cain, the murderer of his son, to the cruelest punishment imaginable among humans: banishment.
Beltz believed this to be the foundational myth of the Kenites, a clan settled on the southern border of Judah that eventually resettled among the tribes of Judah. It seemed clear to him that the purpose of this myth was to explain the difference between the nomadic and sedentary populations of Judah, with those living from their livestock (pastoralists, not raising crops) under the special protection of Yahweh.