Who Are The Hebrews

Who Are The Hebrews

Ancient Near East Levant
Who Are The Hebrews

Who Are The Hebrews

Who Are The Hebrews may sound like a silly question to ask, one might say the biblical Hebrews were the Israelites or the jews. These words have in modern times become synonymous with each other but when we look closely at the origins of these words and how they were used, and more importantly who used these words the meaning of these words paints a different picture than our contemporary understanding and usage of the words.

I hear people say you have to read the bible in context, then they go on to interpret the bible in a modern western thinking context. So if you want context you must interpret the words in the text the same way they were written, in an ancient near east mindset. With text from the surrounding nations of antiquity, we get a fairly complete understanding of the thoughts and beliefs of the ancient near east. when we compare the biblical Hebrew with text like those from Ugarit, Elba, and even Mesopotamian text like Sumerian and Akkadian we get a full understanding of the depth of what the texts are conveying.

Who Are The Hebrews
Egyptian Depiction of Hebrews

The Jews

So what is the difference between the words Israelite, Jew, and Hebrew then? Well, A jew is not a race, it is not an ethnicity, In the modern sense of the word, a Jew is a person who practices the Jewish religion But taken in its ancient biblical content the word is derived from the word Yehudi, meaning “from the Kingdom of Judah”. In the book of Genesis,  Judah (יְהוּדָה‎, Yehudah) was the fourth son of the patriarch, Jacob. In the book of Exodus, the name was given to the Tribe of Judah, the descendants of the patriarch Judah. After the conquest and settlement of the land of Canaan, Judah also referred to the territory allocated to the tribe. After the splitting of the United Kingdom of Israel, the name was used for the southern kingdom of Judah. The kingdom now encompassed the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon, along with some of the cities of the Levites. With the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel “Samaria”, the kingdom of Judah became the sole Jewish state and the term y’hudi (יהודי‎) was applied to all Israelites. So a Jew is therefore someone from the southern kingdom of Judah, and may or may not be a member of the tribe of Judah, so not all Israelites were in fact Jews.

The Israelites

So now we have established the kingdom of Judah to the south of the kingdom of Israel, and Israelite is first all of the tribes when the kingdom of Israel was united. So in the united kingdom, all the tribes together were called Israelites, or Israel or the children of Israel (Hebrew: בני ישראל‎ Bnei Yisra’el). The kingdom of Israel was also referred to as Samaria (not to be confused with the word Sumeria Mesopotamia). The name “Samaria” is derived from the ancient city of Samaria, the second capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel. Sargon II of Assyria invaded the kingdom and turned the kingdom into the province of “Samerina”. Thus the territorial designation is credited to Sargon II of the Assyrians and dated to that time, however, “Samaria” probably long before that had been designated Israel when Samaria became the capital. The name likely began being used for the entire kingdom not long after the town of Samaria had become Israel’s capital. And so an Israelite is a member of any tribe in the united kingdom of Israel, alternatively, a member of any tribe of the northern kingdom of Israel or Samaria.

The Hebrews

This word will be the hardest for some to accept. It will go against everything you have been taught and everything you thought you understood about the word. First of all, the word Hebrew is not a proper noun or even a common noun. The biblical term “Hebrew” is in fact an adjective. I know this comes as a surprise because everyone knows the “Hebrews” were the ethnic tribal people who became Israel, But Hebrew is not a race or a homogenous ethnic group either. The Biblical term Ivri עברי meaning “to traverse” or “to pass over”, is usually rendered as Hebrew in English. The Biblical word Ivri has the plural form Ivrim, or Ibrim. Hebrew ‘ivri’ as the adjective, Hebrew suffix -i formed from the word “ever” (עֵבֶר) ‘beyond, across’ (avar (עָבַר) ‘to cross, to traverse’), as a description of migrants “from across the river” as the Bible describes the Hebrews, “Joshua 24:3 But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through all the land of Canaan, and I multiplied his descendants. I gave him Isaac”. This is also supported by the 3rd century BCE Septuagint, which translates ivri to perates (περατής). “Abram the Hebrew = Αβραμ τῷ περάτῃ”., a Greek word meaning ‘one who came across, a migrant.

The description of peoples and nations from their location ‘from across the river’ often the river Euphrates, sometimes the Jordan river was common in the ancient Near-East according to Beattie,1D. R. G.; Davies, Philip R. March 1, 2011. “What Does Hebrew Mean?”. Journal of Semitic Studies. 56 : 71–83. It appears as eber nari in Akkadian2A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, page 64 Example: definition of eber nari in Akkadian-language Treaty of Esarhaddon King of Assyria with Baal King of Tyre British Museum, London, UK and avar nahara in Aramaic both corresponding to Hebrew ever nahar, the Aramaic expression’s use being quoted verbatim in the Bible, for example in an Aramaic letter sent to the King of Persia in the Book of Ezra. Ezra 4:11, New American Standard Bible: “To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the men in the region beyond the River” Aramaic: enash avar nahara) or in the Book of Nehemiah,

“may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates“.

Nehemiah 2:7 NIV

The Hebrews and The Habiru

While some would have you believe that a consensus has been made discrediting the similarities between the words Habiru and Hebrew and that no linguist or scholars have linked these words together is false. There are some scholars who have linked the Habiru mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions dating to the 12 and 13th centuries BCE to the Hebrews. The Habiru were a seminomadic people recorded as having settled in Egypt during Egypts 3rd Intermediate Period. And other scholars tied the Hebrews to an Egyptian mentioning in the 11th century BCE as the Shasu of Yhw “nomads of YHWH”, which amazes me that scholars still have not just come out and identified these people with Israel, This seems to be obvious, Egypt talks about a pastoral nomad tribe that worships YHWH to its north, but will not identify it as the group of people who actually worshiped the God YHWH. While others connect the name Habiru as being a generic Akkadian parallel to the Hebrew ‘ivri‘ from the Akkadian equivalent of ‘ever‘ meaning “beyond, across” for describing foreigners from across the river. where the letter ayin (ʿ) in Hebrew corresponds to  in Akkadianas for example Hebrew zeroaʿ corresponding to Akkadian zuru

In the Hebrew Bible, the term Hebrew is normally used by foreigners namely, the Egyptians when speaking about the Israelites, and sometimes used by Israelites when speaking of themselves to foreigners3William David. Reyburn – Euan McG. Fry – A Handbook on Genesis – New York – United Bible Societies – 1997 In Genesis 11:16–26, Abram is described as a descendant of Eber, from which some claim the designation Hebrew is derived. In Genesis 14:13, Abraham is described as Avram Ha-Ivri (“Abram the Hebrew”), and which translates literally as “Abram the one who stands on the other side.” However, the Israelites are defined as the descendants of Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. The patriarch Eber, though is an ancestor of Jacob seven generations removed, and is a distant ancestor of many people, including the Israelites, Ishmaelites, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites, Amalekites, and Qahtanites. Professor Nadav Na’aman and others say that the use of the word “Hebrew” to refer to Israelites is rare and when used it is used for Israelites it is used in exceptional and precarious situations, such as migrants or slaves”.

So in essence, the term Hebrew was not only associated with the children of Israel or the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, but for many people living in the area of the Levant, or “Beyond the river”. So all peoples of Caanan were in fact a Hebrew, and if you want to say that Hebrews were descendants of the patriarch Eber, then Ishmaelites, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites, Amalekites, and Qahtanites were all Hebrews as well.

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  • 1
    D. R. G.; Davies, Philip R. March 1, 2011. “What Does Hebrew Mean?”. Journal of Semitic Studies. 56 : 71–83
  • 2
    A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian, Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, page 64 Example: definition of eber nari in Akkadian-language Treaty of Esarhaddon King of Assyria with Baal King of Tyre British Museum, London, UK
  • 3
    William David. Reyburn – Euan McG. Fry – A Handbook on Genesis – New York – United Bible Societies – 1997

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