According to the Biblical account of Genesis chapter 10, Shem, the son of Noah, begat five sons: Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram. The names of four of these sons are readily recognized as the patronyms of the nations which their descendants later became: Elam, the ancestor of the Elamites and Persians; Asshur, the ancestor of the Assyrians; Lud, the ancestor of the Lydians of Asia Minor; and Aram, the ancestor of the Arameans or Syrians. Whereas, the name of the other son, Arphaxad, has not been recognized as equivalent with any important nation in archaeological nor historical records of the Ancient Near East. Although, it should be pointed out that, even before the list of his sons is given, Shem is emphasized as “the father of all the children of Eber” (Gen. 10:21). This “Eber” was a descendant of Arphaxad, and the “children of Eber” are the Hebrews, from whom came the children of Israel – the chief subjects of the Scriptures. In this way, we find that the main purpose of Shem’s genealogy here was to trace his descendants from Arphaxad to the Hebrew line, and in the following chapter, the genealogy continues down to Abraham, the son of Terah.
In this two-part study, we will seek to establish who the Israelites, as Hebrews, were. However, it will not simply be the patriarchs and the Israelites on whom our focus will be set, but rather on the Hebrew people themselves. We will examine the Hebrews as they lived before, during, and after the time of Abraham, as separate from the children of Israel. And with this, focus will also be set on the mysterious “Habiru” people attested to in ancient cuneiform texts, who not only in name, but in nature, resemble the biblical Hebrews. Evidence will be gathered and parallels drawn to decide whether the Habiru can be identified as Hebrews.
Using the Scriptures as a basis and utilizing language studies and ancient texts, we will seek to answer the question: who are the Hebrews and what is their importance to history?
“Hebrew” in Hebrew: עׅבְךׅי "‘Ibriy”
One fact that some may find surprising is that “Hebrew” is not a commonly used word in the Old Testament. This might seem surprising because of course “Hebrew” is the name of the language, and also because those who today purport to be descended from the ancient Hebrews commonly use the word to reinforce their “identity.” However, the word “Hebrew” appears only 33 times in the Old Testament Scriptures. Truly, the term did apply to the patriarchs and the children of Israel, but the name “Israelite” prevails by number of usages. It should be understood that the children of Israel used the name “Hebrew” for themselves, until the name “Israelite” (which came from the name of their forefather Jacob-Israel) became prevalent as their identity. Howbeit, we find that other peoples continued to identify the Israelites as “the Hebrews” in the Bible, since it was more commonly known. (For examples see: Gen. 39:14, 17; 41:12; Ex. 2:6; I Sam. 4:6, 9; 13:19; 29:3.)
So indeed, if we expected to find reference to the ancient Israelites in contemporary texts, they would most likely be designated as Hebrews.
Now, the Hebrew word for “Hebrew” is עׅבְךׅי = ‘Ibrîy, which is #5680 in Strong’s Concordance. So since the word in Hebrew is עׅבְךׅי, or properly ‘Ibrîy (pronounced, ib-ree), one may wonder where the modern spelling “Hebrew” came from. This is simple to acknowledge when one understands the transition of words across languages. The modern spelling of “Hebrew” came from the Greek ̒Εβραιος = Hebraios (Strong’s #1445), and, as we know, such terms usually entered the English language from Greek and Latin (many times by way of French). Such is the case with the term “Hebrew.” The actual Hebrew spelling ('Ibrîy), in fact, brings more credence to and clearly shows the nominal identification of the Hebrews with other related peoples – the ancient Iberians of Spain, Hiberni of Ireland, ect.
The first mention of the term “Hebrew” in the Scriptures is found in Genesis 14:13, where the patriarch Abram is entitled “the Hebrew.” To perform a proper study of the name, we must first ascertain its origin. It is quite legitimately surmised that the term originated from the name of one of Abraham’s distant ancestors, Eber (Ἕβερ = “Heber” in the Greek Septuagint). The name in Hebrew writing is עֵבֶך = ‘Êber (#5677 in Strong’s), from #5676, which is the same basic Hebrew word. When comparing this name with the actual term “Hebrew” - עׅבְךׅי = ‘Ibrîy (Strong’s #5680) - it is quite clear to see that “Hebrew” denotes a descendant of Eber. However, in addition to this, the term itself bears another meaning as well. Both “Eber” and “Hebrew” derive from a common Hebrew root: עׇבַך = ‘abar (Strong’s #5674), which generally means “to cross over” or “to travel/migrate.” Therefore the noun form of such a word could be “traveler” or “nomad,” even perhaps “pioneer” or “colonizer.”
Here it is also important to mention the Greek Septuagint which renders Abram’s title differently in Genesis 14:13. In place of “Hebrew,” the Greek word περάτη is used in the verse. Liddel and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon defines περάτη as “on the opposite side”; the common verb form of this word -περάω- means “to pass across or through”, basically having the same meaning as the above-mentioned Hebrew ‘abar. Thusly, in the Septuagint version of Genesis 14:13, the Greek “Ἅβραμ τῳ περάτῃ” can be translated literally as “Abram the passer [or ‘traveler(?)’]”. (Of course Brenton still translated it as “the Hebrew,” but this -περάτη- was the Greek term which the Septuagint scribes used for Abram’s title as they understood it in this verse.) And so, with evidence from the Hebrew and Greek, we find the dual nature of the term “Hebrew,” which distinguishes not only a descendant of Eber, but also a “traveler” or someone who “passes through.” From the perspective of a settled non-Hebrew people, the term could just as easily mean “foreigner,” “immigrant,” even “trespasser.” Perhaps if we investigate the nature of the Hebrews, we can better understand the reason why the name “Hebrew” is not only an ethnonym, but also a designation for one who “crosses over.”
Now, as we find in the book of Genesis, the Hebrews were not a settled people, in that they did not usually make permanent homes wherever they went. Instead, they usually traveled and sojourned in areas for a certain period of time, even several years. They commonly traveled in large parties and lived in their tents. In essence, the Hebrews were “semi-nomadic,” which basically meant that though they were not constantly moving from place to place and sometimes developed lasting ties to a land, they were likely to travel elsewhere if more favorable conditions were discovered. This was probably because of the livestock they kept, which consisted of sheep, goats, and cattle. They might have moved and settled in certain areas simply in search of plenteous pasture for their animals. This is indeed the depiction given of the Hebrew Patriarchs in the Scriptures, wherein the latter are described as rich in livestock. They even found it necessary to sometimes split their camps in order to bring their animals to wider pastures (Gen. 13:5-11). The early Hebrews, from the descriptions given in the Bible, are depicted as semi-nomadic pastoralists, who moved and settled when it suited their business and their cattle. Of course, there are other examples of Hebrews who seem to take up settled life, like the family of Nahor, the brother of Abraham, which settled in Padan-aram. However, in the case of the descendants of Abraham, we find that they do not settle permanently as an independent nation until the book of Joshua.
It should also be understood that the term “Hebrew” was not simply limited to the Israelites, but that it obviously represented a people even before the time of Abraham. If all the children of Eber were considered Hebrews, then we must accept that there were, in ancient times, non-Israelite Hebrews. We simply have to see the line of Eber’s other son Joktan (Abraham was descended from Peleg, son of Eber) for an example of this (Gen. 10:25-30; I Chron. 1:19-23). In other words, all Israelites were indeed Hebrews, but not all Hebrews were necessarily Israelites. The Hebrews would have constituted a wider population before the days of Israel. And if this were so, wouldn’t the Hebrew people be found in contemporary records of the time?
And now this brings us to the next subject, the Habiru, whose name has been considered convincingly similar to that of the Hebrews. As we shall find, there’s more to this possible connection than merely the name.
The Habiru as a People
Ancient Near Eastern history, though containing a plethora of proven facts and events, is filled with mysteries. One such mystery that has fascinated scholars for over a century is the mystery of the “Habiru” people. Particularly interesting is how these same scholars have made efforts to either prove or deny whether the Habiru can be identified with the Ancient Hebrews of Scripture. Both sides make convincing arguments, however, most now consider the identification ridiculous and have shelved the issue. It is hardly a dead argument for those who perceive the Bible as a legitimate historical work. There is indeed evidence in favor of the identification, especially several examples which probably speak of the Israelites themselves. Our efforts here will attempt to honestly introduce the “Habiru” as a people; an in-depth study into their similarities with the Hebrews will be conducted in the next segment. (One of the main sources for the ancient texts used here is the Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Relating to the Old Testament or ANET, edited by James B. Pritchard.)
At the “dawn" of civilization, one finds the lands of Sumer and Akkad, which constituted the southern part of Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. The Sumerians and Akkadians established their own city-states and later large kingdoms and empires within the Fertile Crescent. This was made possible by the united peoples who occupied these individual states and worked together to build their cities, keep their law codes, and create their civilization. There were some peoples on the outside, however, who did not associate with nor respect the “Sumerian way.” Among these were the “Habiru” people, who, as ancient records attest, lived on the outskirts of society. These same “Habiru” are spoken of throughout ancient near eastern literature from Egypt to Mesopotamia and the lands in between. They do not feature late in ancient texts either, for writings going back to even the third millenium B.C. record interaction with this people. The nations of that time appear to have had a mixed opinion of the Habiru. They seemed to despise the Habiru’s “uncivilized” way, and yet they found them to be hardy and skilled workers in various fields.
The Sumerian ideogram “SA.GAZ” appears as an early term for these people, and it was found to be synonymous with the Akkadian term “ha-bi-ru” - Habiru. It seems that SA.GAZ came to be a sort of pejorative for these people. For most scholars, SA.GAZ meant “raider,” “plunderer,” or even “killer.” Generally, SA.GAZ simply meant “outlaw,” which does not necessarily imply being a criminal, but simply one who functioned outside the capacity of the law of the time. This is true of the Habiru, who did not consider themselves (nor were they considered) citizens of the states in whose country they inhabited at a certain time. Now let us investigate to see if we can find a root cause for this “pejorative” and the reason for the Mesopotamians’ opinion of the Habiru.
The term SA.GAZ may factor as the general prejudice against nomadic pastoralists, like the Habiru. To understand this, we must understand the way of life in the ancient Middle East. Now in those days, the most common form of government in ancient Mesopotamia was the “city-state,” which consisted of a city and the territory which lay around it. Even at an early date, to have equal status in such a society, one had to be a citizen and had to worship the god of the city, who functioned ceremonially as the “king,” although the human king and hierarchy of priests truly ruled. There were some peoples who did not conform to this society, and instead maintained tribal communities of related families and groups. Among these were the Habiru who functioned as a semi-nomadic people (this same description fits the Hebrews as well). However, the advantage to settled living was agriculturalism, most of Mesopotamia’s food supply came from the earth. Farmers were at the heart of Sumerian culture. Meanwhile, other peoples, like the Habiru, who kept herded livestock and were sometimes constantly on the move, did not have the luxury of having a settled land on which to grow their food for years to come. And so the Habiru and related peoples were pastoralists who kept their animal stock as their main means of livelihood. They were thusly looked down upon by the “civilized” Sumerians. The Habiru were not the only people to live in this manner. Aside from them, there were other similar groups, most notably the “Amurru,” who are usually identified as Amorites. Although these Amurru later settled in their own lands.
The Habiru were, therefore, looked upon as outsiders with strange, “barbaric” customs, according to the Sumerians. Nevertheless, the settled peoples of Mesopotamia learned to accept the Habiru, though always remaining wary of their way. Most interesting is how the Habiru were employed by the Sumerians and others. They were commonly employed as laborers in a variety of vocations, for which the usual compensation was livestock, the true currency of the pastoralist peoples. Later in Mesopotamian history, there are even a few men recorded as “Habireans” who attained high governmental positions in service to the kings of Assyria and Babylon. Indeed, it is hard to find a time when the Habiru were not common in society, in those days. It is apparent that the Habiru/SA.GAZ were already widespread and well-known throughout ancient Near Eastern society by the start of the second millenium B.C. (around 2000 B.C.), perhaps two hundred years before the time of Abraham.
Another common vocation of the Habiru may offer another explanation for the use of the term SA.GAZ, which in some cases is said to mean “killer.” In many Mesopotamian accounts, the Habiru are recorded as hired mercenaries in military service to several states at different times. Troop movements of as many as 2,000 Habiru soldiers at once are known (ANET p. 483, “The Mari Letters”), and attestations to the hiring of Habiru mercenaries date as far back as the Third Dynasty of Ur in the 22nd century B.C. With the evidence of their regular hire into the military, it is obvious that the Habiru must have been formidable warriors and this must have gained them a certain reputation. This reputation was utilized by those who equipped them and feared by their enemies, which might have gained them the appellation SA.GAZ, or possibly “killers.”
In all these cases, what we may be dealing with in the term “Habiru” (which, as was stated, is equivalent with the Sumerian SA.GAZ) is a designation which originally began as an ethnic term, but was later expanded to also refer to certain types and groups of people, like raiders, outlaws, outsiders, and immigrants. Let us use the origin of the term “vandalism” as an example for the possible transference. “Vandalism” is the act of purposefully damaging or destroying property, and one who commits such an act is labeled a “vandal.” Both terms originally stem from the ethnic name of a certain group of Germanic tribes known as the Vandals. The Vandals were notorious as raiders and pillagers, and they contributed greatly to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. And so it was during the 18th century, in the “Enlightenment Era,” that the Vandals became closely associated with the destruction of property. Thusly the term “vandalism” (Vandalisme in French) was coined. The transformation and expansion of the term “Habiru” may have happened very similarly.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that “Habiru” was still used to reference a distinct ethnic group. Why else would certain “gods” be associated with them?
From the cities of the ancient Hittite empire (Hatti) in Anatolia, were recovered several tablets which contained treaties between the Hittites (Hattians) and their vassals. Contained in these tablets are listings of a multitude of gods, both local and foreign, who figured as the witnesses to the treaty. This great list of gods was made to discourage both parties from violating the treaty, lest they make these same gods their enemies. A few references are even made to the “Hapiri gods,” who feature in the list of foreign gods (ANET p. 205-206, “Treaty Between Mursilis and Duppi-Tessub of Amurru” and “God List, Blessings and Curses of the Treaty Between Suppiluliumas and Kurtiwaza”). “Hapiri” is simply an alternate rendering of Habiru in Hittite texts, and here we find the Habiru as a specific people with whom these “gods” are associated. No names are given of these “gods,” they are simply distinguished by their relation to the Habiru, even as the “Lulahhi gods” (who are listed before the “Hapiri gods” in the same treaties) are only distinguished as the gods of the Lulahhi people. So, as it appears from these treaties, the Habiru had their own “gods,” although perhaps another explanation for these “gods” will shine more light on their relation to the Hebrews. (This aspect will be revisited in the next part.)
Another reference which bears witness to the individuality of the Habiru people is found in Egyptian texts. Here we find the Egyptian term “‘Apiru,” which has been identified as the Egyptian rendering of Habiru (the variant “Hapiru” is considered testament to this). Recovered from two different Egyptian stelae (one from Memphis, the other from Karnak near Thebes) is an inscription which reports two military campaigns of King Amenhotep II, son of Tuthmosis III, in Canaan. This pharaoh, who reigned during the 15th century, returned from his second successful expedition with around 100,000 captives from among the inhabitants of the land. The inscription lists the numbers of specific groups of captives and distinguishes, though sometimes generally, the ethnic affiliations of certain peoples: “List of the plunder which his majesty carried off: princes of Retenu +(generally speaking of Canaan)+: 127; brothers of princes: 179; Apiru: 3,600; living Shasu: 15,200; Kharu: 36,300; living Neges: 15,070...” (ANET p. 247, “The Asiatic Campaigning of Amen-Hotep II”). The accompanying note from the ANET also sheds some light on this listing:
“The appearance of the Apiru… in a list of Asiatic captives is unusual. They are listed as the third element in a list, preceded by princes and princes’ brothers(?), followed by three terms having geographic connotation – Shasu, the Bedouin, especially to the south of Palestine; Kharu ‘Horites,’ the settled people of Palestine-Syria; and Neges, perhaps ‘Nukhashshe,’ the people of northern Syria… The Apiru are notably greater in number than the princes and princes’ brothers; they are notably fewer in number than the three regional listees or the retainers (or families). It is quite clear that the Egyptians recognized the Apiru as a distinct entity from other peoples, clearly countable.” - ANET p. 247, “The Asiatic Campaigning of Amen-Hotep II,” note 47 (emphasis mine)
As the note states, the Egyptians clearly saw the ‘Apiru as a distinct people. This text also interestingly points out how there appeared to be ‘Apiru living in Palestine at the time. Now if we were to identify these ‘Apiru/Habiru with the Hebrews and since this campaign seems to date shortly before the probable entry of the Israelites into Canaan, this may be evidence of non-Israelite Hebrews living in the land, though only as a small minority. As you can see, viewing the Habiru as the Hebrews radically revolutionizes the way we see history in relation to the Bible.
And so, while Habiru/SA.GAZ seems to have become a term of social distinction, at the same time, it remained an ethnic identification for a tribe of people who for a long interval remained disassociated from the kingdoms of the ancient Near East. And they still remain prime candidates for identification with the Hebrews.
In the next paper, we will present further evidence which supports the Habiru/Hebrew connection.