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Hebrew, Hebrews (people)

See also Hebrew (people)


1. Language. 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 עִבְרִי֒, 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.

Bibliography 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.