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There is the possibility, however, that in OT times the names “Hebrews,” “Habiru,” “Khapiru,” “Apiru,” and “pr” were forms of the same word (equivalent to the Akkadian SA.GAZ), a designation without national significance. Rather, they indicated wandering peoples greatly restricted as regards financial means and without citizenship and social status. Ancient records show the “Habiru” to be scattered over western Asia for centuries until about 1100 b.c. Nomadic peoples, mostly Semitic—sometimes raiders, sometimes skilled artisans—they frequently offered themselves as mercenaries and slaves, with individuals occasionally rising to prominence. In Egypt, the Israelites were reduced to a lowly position and later moved about in the wilderness. Conceivably they could, therefore, have been known as “Hebrews.” It is noteworthy that, in taking oaths, the Habiru swore by “the gods of the Habiru,” whereas similar phraseology, “the God of the Hebrews,” is found in Exod.3.18; Exod.5.3; Exod.7.16. “Hebrews” and “Habiru” were terms used prior to the name “Israel,” and both were discontinued generally about the time of the judges.

NT “Hebrews” references contrast people (Acts.6.1) and language (John.5.2; John.19.13, John.19.17, John.19.20; John.20.16) to differentiate between the Greeks and Hellenistic culture on the one hand and Jews and their traditional life and speech on the other. What is called “Hebrew language” may in John’s Gospel refer to Aramaic, but in the Apocalypse to Hebrew proper (Rev.9.11; Rev.16.16).

Etymologically, it has been debated whether “Hebrew” is to be traced to Eber, the father of Peleg and Joktan (Gen.10.24-Gen.10.25; Gen.11.12-Gen.11.16) or is derived from the Hebrew root “to pass over” and has reference to “a land on the other side,” as the dweller east of the Euphrates might think of Canaan. However, the possible equating of the Hebrews and the Habiru might suggest that the Hebrews were “those who crossed over” in the sense of trespassing, i.e., “trespassers.”——BLG

Semitic language in the Canaanite branch and the language of the OT, except for short Aramaic portions chiefly in Daniel and Ezra. It is called “the language of Canaan” (Isa. 19:18) and “Jewish”/“Judean” (2 Kings 18:26, etc.). Canaanite glosses in the fourteenth-century b.c. Amarna letters as well as the Ugaritic texts from the same period have thrown light on the early history of the language adopted by the Israelites after the Exodus. In common with the other Semitic languages the majority of Hebrew roots are triconsonantal, with a certain amount of evidence to suggest the priority of a biconsonantal theme. The alphabet has twenty-two letters; in the absence of a written vowel-system, certain consonants were used to represent pure long vowels. The ancient Phoenician script was replaced by the Aramaic square script about 250-150 b.c. By this time Aramaic had become the vernacular language in Palestine. From about the fifth century a.d. the Massoretes set about providing the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible with a written vowel-system. Much of the early rabbinical literature (Mishnah, Midrash, etc.) is written in Hebrew, and the chain continues through the medieval era to Modern Hebrew, the language of the state of Israel.

W.J. Martin, “The Genius of the Language of the Old Testament,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute, LXXIV (1942); W.L. Moran, “The Hebrew Language in its Northwest Semitic Background,” in The Bible and the Ancient Near East (ed. G.E. Wright, 1961); D.W. Thomas, “The Textual Criticism of the Old Testament,” in The Old Testament and Modern Study (ed. H.H. Rowley) 1951, 1961.



Old Heb. belonged to the northern group of Sem. dialects together with Phoenician and Aramaic. Akkadian (i.e. Assyrian and Babylonian) in the E and Arabic in the S were related dialects. (See Hebrew Language.)

Hebrew was adopted by the Aram. speaking Israelites together with the indigenous culture after they settled in Pal. In the course of time, words from other languages were adopted, esp. from Aramaic, Akkadian, Arabic, Persian, and Greek. Hebrew differed from period to period. Biblical Heb. is to be distinguished from that of the Mishnah, and from modern Heb.

However, classical Heb. did remain in use in the synagogue liturgy, and three fragments of Eucharistic prayers found in Dura-Europus testify to the fact that even as late as the middle of the 3rd cent. Heb. Christians were still using classical Heb. in their worship (cf. JQR, Oct. [1963], 99ff.).


Since the discovery of the Tell el Amarna tablets, an effort was made to identify the nationality of the Habiru. Possibly Habiru is not the name of a people. According to von Rad, it is an appellativum descriptive of a juridic-social position. The Akkad. occurrence seems to refer to mercenaries. On the basis of texts such as Exodus 21:2ff.; 1 Samuel 14:21; Jeremiah 34:8-11, 14 (v. 14 would have to read: “the slave, your brother” and not as RSV “fellow Hebrew”), von Rad surmises that Habiru originally described the legal position of servitude, or slavery, as opposed to חָפְשִׁי, H2930, the free person. Gradually, first by outsiders, and then by Israelites the word was used as a gentilicium.

It is difficult to decide which opinion is right, but there is much to be said for the view that regards עִבְרִי, H6303, as a topographical description—“those from across the Jordan.” The memory of Israel’s origin lingered long in Jewish tradition: “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:5). The land was God’s gift to His people. The Psalms repeatedly refer to the miracle of the Conquest. The Israelites knew themselves as Hebrews early in their history and were known as such (cf. 1 Sam 4:6; cf. Jonah 1:9). In the NT, there is complete identification between Israelite and Hebrew (2 Cor 11:22). The name stands as a constant reminder of the pilgrimage across the desert to the Promised Land. If this is the right interpretation, Israel’s history is a paradigm of humanity at large.


EBi, 1984ff.; KTW, III, 359; G. Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua (1929), 7ff.; P. K. Hitti, History of Syria (1951), 160f.; A. H. Van Zyl, The Moabites (1960), 188; D. Harden, The Phoenicians (1962), 116ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)