Who Were the “Hebrews”?

Biblical scholars like something to argue about, because they are academics, and academics make their living by making arguments.  (I know; I am one.)  And since what is at stake in biblical scholars’ arguments is almost always the question whether the Bible can be trusted, for skeptics who wish not to believe as much as for believers who wish to do so, biblical scholars’ arguments often degenerate into battle lines.  Often, I feel, a little more careful attention to the text may shed some useful light on the subject.

One debate which has intrigued me in the past is the question of the (non-)relation between the Hebrew word “Hebrew” (ʿibri) and the word “Habiru” and its variants in Akkadian and Egyptian.  It seems that some conservatives have argued that Habiru = Hebrews = Israelites, and thus the Ancient Near Eastern texts which mention the Habiru corroborate the biblical accounts of the Israelites.  Against this, some skeptics have argued that the term Habiru is used in contexts where the biblical Hebrews cannot possibly be intended, and sometimes carry non-Semitic names, which these scholars take to indicate that the Habiru were a mixture of Semitic and non-Semitic.

Now, I am not an expert in the Ancient Near East, nor do I read Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or any of the other languages, so I can only approach this question from the Hebrew side.  But it seems to me that what the Bible says about Hebrews is not what most people have presumed, and may open the door to a different solution to the relationship between the Hebrews and the Habiru.

The English language gets Hebrew pretty wrong, on the whole.  I think these days “Hebrew” is primarily the designation of a language (at least, a Wikipedia redirect seems to think so).  In the nineteenth-century, “Hebrew” was a common enough synonym for “Jew.”  This usage, I suspect, derives from classical Latin and Greek usage, which seems very old to us, but is long after the main phenomena discussed here, and therefore irrelevant for the question under discussion.  In the Hebrew scriptures themselves, the language is never called “Hebrew”; when it is referred to, it is called “Judaic” (yehudith; 2 Kings 18:26 = Isaiah 36:11, 2 Chron 2:18), the language of the kingdom of Judah.

The term “Hebrew” is used exclusively of people in the Old Testament, the earliest being Abraham (Gen 14:13), and the latest Jonah (Jonah 1:9) in the 8th C BC.  After Jonah, the only use of the term “Hebrew” in the Old Testament (remembering that “Hebrew” in Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem is not “Hebrew” in Hebrew) is in Jeremiah 34:9 and 14, where it occurs twice in reference to Exodus 21:2-6, the law given at the time the Israelites left Egypt, or its recapitulation at the end of the exodus in Deuteronomy 15:12-17.  But the term had clearly lost its usage by Jeremiah’s time, as he had to gloss it by “his fellow Jew.”

It also strikes me that these references all have to do with these people in relation to other peoples.  The sole reference to Abraham occurs in the account of the Battle of the Nine Kings, the only chapter of Genesis concerned with international relations.  Apart from the two legal references cited above, all of the other references in the Pentateuch refer to a non-Egyptian living in Egypt and discussing with an Egyptian (Genesis 39:14, 17; 40:15; 41:12; 43:32; Exodus 1:15-16, 19; 2:6-7, 11, 13; 3:18; 5:3; 7:16; 9:1, 13; 10:13).  Then nothing for quite a while, until the term “Hebrew” was picked up again in contrast to the Philistines in 1 Samuel (4:6, 9; 13:3, 7, 19; 14:11, 21; 29:3).  Most of these latter references are in the mouth of Philistines, although Saul apparently uses the term once (1 Samuel 13:3) and the narrator twice (1 Samuel 13:7; 14:21).  The nature of Hebrew as an external label is shown by the contrast of 1 Samuel 13:19, where a practice “in the land of Israel” according to the narrator is justified by a Philistine fear of what the “Hebrews” might do: “Now no blacksmith could be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, ‘Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears.'”  The final use of the term, by Jonah as a term of self-description, again occurs in discussion with a group of foreign sailors (Jonah 1:9).  Evidently the term “Hebrew” was not often used by Israelites in self-reference.

One other passage relevant to our understanding of the use of the term “Hebrew” does not actually contain the word.  Genesis 10:21 describes Shem as “he is also the ancestor of all the sons of Eber.”  Since Eber is the son of Shelah, the son of Arpakshad, the son of Shem (Genesis 11:10-14), you might say this is obvious.  Anyone’s great-grandfather is in fact the ancestor of any of their descendants, by the transitive property.  So why would this be stated?  It must mean that, for the original author, “the sons of Eber” were a known group, evidently mentioned nowhere else in scripture.  Except that the “Eberites,” as we might otherwise term these “sons of Eber” by analogy with “sons of Israel/Israelites,” would be written in Hebrew ʿibrim, i.e. “Hebrews” (the initial “H” has nothing to do with the Hebrew word, but is a Greek invention, passed on to English through Latin).  In fact, since “sons of” is the usual Hebrew way of indicating “members of the group,” it may be that the “Eber” in the phrase “sons of Eber” is not referring to Shem’s great-grandson at all, but instead the sentence may be asserting that all Hebrews are Semitic.  (Also note that the vocalization of Eber in Genesis 10:21 was supplied by masoretes two millennia after it was written; the original vocalization might have been “Abir” or “Ibar” for all we know.)

So where does this take us?  It seems to me that the texts which we call the Old Testament do not identify “Hebrews” with “Israelites,” but rather consider Israelites to be a subcategory of Hebrews.  This is shown by calling Abraham a Hebrew, when he was too early to be an Israelite, since Israel was his grandson.  And if I am correct about my reading of Genesis 10:21, the author asserts that all Hebrews are Semitic.  In any event, the use of the term is primarily as an external label, and almost exclusively around non-Israelites.  Someone may object that the legal injunctions about Hebrew slaves show that this Israelites used this term to refer exclusively to their own people.  This is certainly how Jeremiah interprets the passage in his day, but apart from the word “kinsman” in Deuteronomy 15, the two passages of the law can be read entirely with reference to a larger class of people which included Israelites.

How does this usage compare to the term “Habiru”?  First, it should be noted that the Egyptian term ʿPR.W is actually phonetically closer to the Hebrew ʿibri than the Akkadian “Habiru,” because the H and the ʿ are not interchangeable in Hebrew (and remember that the H in “Hebrew” is a Greek insertion).  So I am curious whether the Egyptian term and the Akkadian term are actually the same word between languages (I am not competent to judge the question).  But it does strike me that the usage of the term “Hebrew” almost exclusively with foreigners suggests that we would expect to find a foreign equivalent, and if it came into Hebrew through Egyptian, say during the pre-exodus sojourn of the Israelites there, ʿibri is what we would expect it to look like.  And the term “Hebrew” is used in the Old Testament for just about exactly the same range of time as found in non-Old Testament texts, with the except of the Jonah passage and the Jeremiah quotation of the earlier law.  So some connection between the words seems very likely.

The objection from the skeptic side is that the term “Habiru” is used in a range of contexts where Israelites cannot be the referent.  But if “Hebrew” is a larger group of people than “Israelites,” that is what we would expect.  The “Habiri” (plural of “Habiru”) are alleged to include both Semitic and non-Semitic people, which would contradict the statement in Genesis 10, if I have interpreted it correctly, that all the Hebrews are Semitic.  But I’m not sure of the evidence for the assertion that some Habiri are non-Semitic; to judge from the Wikipedia site, it seems to be that extant names of known Habiru are often non-Semitic (e.g. Hurrian).  But the Egyptian texts (again, to judge from the Wikipedia site) seem to list ʿPR.W and Hurrians as separate groups, and not to list Habiru with Hurrian names, so if the Egyptian term is not in fact the same as the Akkadian term, this is no objection.

It is also possible that the Hurrian names were carried by non-Hurrians.  The fact of the matter is that names do not precisely indicate genealogy.  The name “John” is derived from Hebrew, for example, but most people named “John” that I know have no Semitic ancestry.  If we were to conclude that all people named “John” or “Mary” are Semitic and all people named “Peter” or “Lois” are Greek, we would have a very skewed view of US demographics.

But even if the Egyptian term is in some sense “the same as” the Akkadian “Habiru,” and Hurrian names indicate Hurrian descent among the Habiru of central Mesopotamia, we must face the fact that words (and especially people names) change over time, and different groups use the same words differently.  So perhaps the term “Habiru” included Hurrians at one time, but later generations excluded Hurrians from their concept of the Habiru.  Or if the Akkadians included some Hurrians among the Habiru, the Egyptians perhaps distinguished between them, and the usage of “Hebrew” in the Old Testament more closely reflects Egyptian usage, as it also more closely reflects Egyptian pronunciation.  Either case would be entirely unsurprising, although again, let me emphasize that I am speculating without knowing any Egyptian or Akkadian.  But we must carefully avoid seeking a universal concept of the “Habiru/ʿPR.W” which applies to all cultures and all times, and then using such a false construct to argue for the identity or non-identity with the linguistically similar term “Hebrew.”

What about the objection that the term “Habiru” seems to be not a name of an ethnicity, but a term somewhat along the lines of “lowlife scum”?  Well, the Bible itself tells us that Egyptians thought the Hebrews were pretty disgusting and refused to eat with them, which led to the funny scene where Joseph in Egypt, entertaining his brothers while unknown to them, could eat with neither his guests nor his household staff (Genesis 43:32).  Ethnic terms have often been turned into insults and leveled at people who do not belong to the ethnicity in question; to take a proximate example, American anti-Semites of the twentieth century often called any stingy person a “Jew,” which of course is offensive, but doesn’t change the fact that the term was thus used.  Similarly, in the ancient world, the term “Habiru” may have started as an ethnic term, and then been used as a pejorative label reflecting the surrounding rulers’ views of the Habiru.

So there is a lot we simply don’t know, but that is usual about the ancient world.  But it seems to me that the usage of “Hebrew” in the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament actually accords reasonably well with the usage of ʿPR.W in Egyptian texts from the same period, and none of the arguments (presented in the Wikipedia article) against the identification seem to me insuperable.  In any event, it is clear the Old Testament texts use the label “Hebrew” generally as a larger classification including Israelites as well as some unspecified others, and they typically do so in presenting the Israelites as viewed by non-Semitic foreigners.  The term “Hebrew” did not attain widespread currency among the Israelites themselves, even though it was incorporated into their scriptures, and in any event it died out some time between the 8th C, when Jonah used it to describe himself to foreign sailors, and the early 6th, when Jeremiah had to gloss the term for his fellow citizens of Jerusalem.  Incidentally, this implies that the Book of Jonah, which biblical scholars often date to the post-exilic period, must have been composed before Jeremiah’s day, or the term “Hebrew” would have needed a gloss there too.

Why did the term “Hebrew” come to refer to the Jews?  I suspect it is because, as the languages of the second millennium BC fell out of use, and the term itself seems to have fallen out of use in the middle of the first millennium BC, the Old Testament became the only continuously used document which contained the term.  And since the texts contained the term, they continually demanded that readers and listeners explain what that term meant.  In light of the gloss in Jeremiah 34, the term “Hebrew” came to be understood simply as a synonym for “Jew,”  and that understanding led to a revival of the term, this time as “Hebraios,” among the Greeks, and from them to the Latins, to the French, and to the English “Hebrew.”



  1. It’s always seemed odd to me that the names we read in the Bible aren’t really the actual names. After all, we don’t translate Johann Bach to John Brook, but we read about Moses, David, and Jesus instead of Moseh, Dawid, and Yeshua. And it apparently contributes to linguistic confusion, as here.

    1. The reason is that English Christianity is really a tertiary Christianity; biblical names were translated from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek, and then from Greek into Latin. Sure, Jerome came along and translated the Vulgate directly from Hebrew, but he kept the Old Latin names derived from the Greek intermediary, so that people could recognize who was being mentioned. The earliest English names of these people came either from Latin directly or through the medium of French (hence the -ew ending of apostles like Andrew and Bartholomew, which is as bizarre to Latin as it is to Greek and Hebrew). Later English Christians translated from the Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic for the relevant portions of Daniel, Ezra, and Jeremiah), but chose to keep the older form of the names so that lay Christians would recognize who was being discussed. And that’s why so many Old Testament names start with “J”: because a Latin consonantal “I” moved into English through French, and came to be pronounced very differently in English. So Jacob in Hebrew is Ya’qov, in Greek is Iakobos, in Latin is Iacobus, and in English is Jacob (but at least it’s not Jacques, as in French). Babel certainly did cause a lot of confusion…

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