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Habiru, Hapiru

HABIRU, HAPIRU hä’ bĭ rōō. A people known as “habiru” or “hapiru” appear in cuneiform texts dated from the 20th to the 18th centuries b.c. in southern Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and in the Haran and Mari areas. They are frequently mentioned in the Amarna letters (14th cent. b.c.). The cuneiform ideogram for the habiru is SA GAZ. In Egyp. texts they are called ’apiru. The Ugaritic form is ’apiruma. Many scholars note the similarity of these forms with Heb. ’ibri and conclude that the habiru (hapiru) are identical with the Biblical Hebrews.

The Habiru covered a geographical area much wider than that in which the Biblical Hebrews moved. It may be reasoned that the people who were usually known as Israelites were at times identified as Habiru, but that the term Habiru included many other peoples of similar status as the Israelites.

That Habiru is a more inclusive name than Israelite is evident from the fact that Eber (Gen 10:24), a son of Shelah and a grandson of Shem, for whom the Hebrews are named, lived eight generations before Jacob (Israel) for whom the Israelites are named. In this sense all Israelites are iberi, “Hebrews,” but all Hebrews need not be Israelites.

In the non-Biblical lit. of the Near E. the habiru appear as landless individuals who live outside the established social order. They appear as mercenaries in texts from Babylon. At Nuzi they sold themselves into slavery in order to earn a living. Letters from Abdi-Hiba of Jerusalem to Akhenaton of Egypt complain that the habiru were posing a threat to the status quo in Canaan. Some scholars see in these references the Canaanite version of the conquest of Canaan under Joshua.

The Heb. root from which the name of Eber and the word Heb. are derived, conveys the idea of crossing over. This has been interpreted geographically, with the thought that Eber and the Hebrews came from the region beyond the Euphrates River. Perhaps the word was coined by the settled inhabitants who looked upon the newcomers (wherever they appeared) as “people who had crossed over” or trespassers. The word would thus lose any ethnic significance, and could be applied to any group of people who did not have land or social status within the established social order. The word gypsy has had a comparable history in more recent times.

Once (Gen 14:13) Abraham is named “the Hebrew.” To his fellow prisoners, Joseph was “a young Hebrew” (Gen 41:12). The term Heb. is usually used in contexts in which the Biblical people—Israelites as they came to be called— identify themselves to, or are addressed by, foreigners. In such contexts the presumably familiar word “Hebrew” appears to have been a useful means of identification.

In this sense, the term Habiru includes the Biblical Hebrews, or Israelites. It includes many other peoples, however.