Am Haarez

AMHAAREZ ‘AM HA’ AREZ äm’ hä är’ ĕts' (עַ֣ם הָאָ֔רֶץ; LXX ὁ λαὸς τη̂ς γη̂ς); people of the land.''

General designation.

Status of the people.

Some go so far as to make the ’Am ha’arez of Israel the governing body or parliament (e.g., Mayer Sulzberger). Others, under the influence of the later opprobrium attached to the term, consider them poor and ignorant commoners. Neither extreme is clear from the Scriptures. Only once does the OT refer to poverty among them. The context is generally one of influence and power, though not necessarily of high government office. It may be simply the power inherent in responsible citizenship. They who own land have a vital concern in the government. Hebrew law was zealous to protect ownership and inheritance of land, with all the prerogatives, from generation to generation. Von Rad (Studies in Deuteronomy, pp. 63-66) calls the ’Am ha’arez peasant proprietors and credits them with the achievement of partial reform under Joash (2 Kings 11:13-18) and fuller restoration under Josiah (21:24). They seem to have been the chief support of national independence with all its religious implications. They were the most able to resist treachery and aggression. According to von Rad (OT Theology, I, 75), they were the only ones capable of keeping alive and fostering the Jahwistic tradition. They were believers of the old-fashioned kind or, at least, imagined that they were. As the hard core Israel, these people who owned and defended the land were also the special target of foreign powers who levied indemnities and taxes (23:35; 25:18-21).

Various inferences seem to indicate the power and prestige of the ’Am ha’arez throughout most of the Biblical times. According to S. Daiches (“The Meaning of עַ֣ם הָאָ֔רֶץ in the OT,” JTS, vol. 30, pp. 245-248), the best text of Genesis 47:20, 21 indicates that Joseph took the land from the owners and reduced them to town dwellers. The strength of the statement is in the implied power and position of free landowners. In a sense, every landowner is a lord. Together, they formed a solid block in government. In Israel, it was these responsible citizens against whom the prophets cried out. Good government, pure religion, and sound ethics depended on them in large measure. Their irresponsibility and self-indulgence could spell doom to the nation. Likewise, when Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem, the significance of the ’Am ha’arez is seen. Sixty of them were taken along with priests and rulers to be executed (2 Kings 25:19). Well-known imperial policy by-passed the weak and common people to transplant or kill only the potential leaders. Apparently the ’Am ha’arez were considered powerful and dangerous.

A term of reproach.

After the Exile, the term retained its connotation of responsible citizenry, but the land had fallen to people of mixed origins. They were no longer the conservative custodians of national tradition. Animosities grew between returnees and settlers.

Pharisees and rabbis elaborated laws and insisted on their universal application. They heaped opprobrium on the careless. The hostility was mutual. ’Am ha’arez became a term of contempt for common people who did not specialize in the law (John 7:49). This use, as preserved in the Mishna, almost completely overshadowed the etymological and earlier connotation. Montefiore (Hibbert Lectures, p. 502) calls the ’Am ha’arez the creation of the burdensome agrarian and purity laws. Jews now tend to account for the success of the Christian Gospel by reference to a more friendly attitude toward the masses.


C. Montefiore, The Religion of the Ancient Hebrews (Hibbert Lectures, 1892), 490-502; A. Büchler, Der galiläische ’Am ha-Ares des zweiten Jahrhunderts (1906); M. Sulzberger, Am Ha-aretz, the Ancient Hebrew Parliament (1909); “The Polity of the Ancient Hebrews,” JQR 3 (1912-13), 1-81; N. Sloush, “Representative Government Among the Hebrews and Phoenicians,” JQR 4 (1913), 302; A. Silver, “The Am Ha Arez in Sopheric and Tannaitic Times,” Hebrew Union College Monthly, Dec. 1914, 9-14; S. Daiches, “The Meaning of עַ֣ם הָאָ֔רֶץ in the OT,” JTS, vol. 30 (1928-29), 245-249; S. Zeitlin “The Am Haarez,” JQR, vol. 23, No. 1 (1932), 45-61; L. Finkelstein, The Pharisees, (1938) 25-42; M. Weber, Ancient Judaism (1952); S. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (1952) vol. 1, 278-280; G. von Rad, Studies in Deuteronomy (1953), 63-66; Old Testament Theology, vol. 2 (1962), 75.