Hebrew, Hebrews

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