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