Published: 9 August 2021

Abraham The Habiru?

Habiru

The first time the word “Hebrew” appears in the Bible it describes Abram (Abraham):

“Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram.” (Gen. 14:13 ESV) 

Many Bible students speculate that the word Hebrew derives from “Eber” who was one of Abraham’s ancestors. According to Genesis 11, Eber was Abraham’s great-great-great-great grandfather and Eber himself was the great-great grandson of Noah. Eber had two sons and, combined, they in turn had more than a dozen sons. Clearly Eber’s descendants were numerous. 

Why aren’t all of Eber’s descendants called Hebrews?

If Abraham was called a Hebrew because he descended from Eber, why aren’t all of Eber’s descendants called Hebrews? The Bible restricts the description of Hebrew only to the nation of Israel and the Patriarchs who beget them. Abraham’s first born son, Ishmael, was a descendant of Eber, but he is never referred to as a Hebrew. The same is true of Lot and Esau (and many others). Since this is the case, we have reason to doubt that Abraham was called a Hebrew because of his ancestor Eber.[1]West, Stuart A. “The Habiru and the Hebrews from a Social Class to an Ethnic Group.” Dor le dor 7, no. 3 (1979): 102.

Why else might Abraham have been called a Hebrew?

There is another explanation for the name Hebrew:

The designation of Abram as a “Hebrew” may reflect a social status more than an ethnic identity. The term is usually used in the Bible to identify Israelites to foreigners (Gen 39:14-17; Ex 2:11; 1Sa 4:6; Jnh 1:9). As a social status it seems to have referred to dispossessed or disenfranchised peoples. This is the usage of a similar sounding term throughout a wide range of ancient texts (often transliterated habiru, more accurately, Apiru, referring to various people groups throughout the second millenium BC). At times the label implies an “outsider” status and that the people are unsettled or even lawless renegades. Other times they are refugees or political opponents. In the Amarna texts they sometimes serve as mercenaries. The term cannot be considered as a reference to ethnic Israelites, but it is possible that ethnic Israelites (and here, Abram) are being classified socially as Apiru.[2]John H. Walton, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 38.

The Habiru (also spelled Hapiru or Apiru) were not a tribe, family, or ethnicity. It was a  term applied to people of a certain social class – like calling someone a city slicker or hillbilly today.  

Similar name

If you have noticed that Hebrew and Habiru sound similar, you are not alone. This has not gone unnoticed by scholars.

“On the question of resemblance, it is now agreed upon that indeed there is a valid etymological relationship between the term “Habiru” and the biblical name “Hebrew” (`ibri).”[3]Waterhouse, S Douglas. “Who Are the Ḫabiru of the Amarna Letters?” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 12, no. 1 (2001): 31.

The word “ibri,” referred to in the quote above, is the word “Hebrew” in Hebrew. In other words, if you read the Old Testament in the untranslated Hebrew Scriptures, you’d read “Abraham the ibri” in Gen 14:13. In the ancient Semitic languages, Hebrew and Habiru share the same consonants: עבר.

Right time

Aside from the fact that Hebrew and Habiru sound similar, what reasons do we have to think that Abraham was a Habiru? In addition to the name resemblance, the timing is correct. Habiru is a “term used in cuneiform and Egyptian literature of the 21st to 12th centuries B.C. to designate disparate groups of peoples.”[4]BEITZEL, B. J. Bromiley, Geoffery W., ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised). Accordance electronic ed., version 1.2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979. This covers the time from Abraham through the time of the judges. 

Right place

In connection to the timing, the Amarna tablets record diplomatic correspondence from the rulers of Canaan requesting military aid from Egypt to combat invading Habiru. The Amarna tablets were discovered at el-Amarna in Egypt in 1887 and were part of an ancient Egyptian government records archive.[5]Na’aman, Nadav. Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Accordance electronic ed., version 4.2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. The tablets describe these Habiru as being concentrated in the hill-country of Canaan which is also where the Bible locates the invading Israelites during the initial phases of the conquest.[6]Waterhouse, S Douglas. “Who Are the Ḫabiru of the Amarna Letters?” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 12, no. 1 (2001): 34. Is this just coincidence?

Right people

As it pertains to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the term Habiru fits them well. The Habiru were semi-nomadic people who lived in tents and had herds. They tended to limit close contact with city dwellers, but did enter into covenants and agreements with them.[7]West, Stuart A. “The Habiru and the Hebrews from a Social Class to an Ethnic Group.” Dor le dor 7, no. 3 (1979): 104.

Habiru tended to be multi-ethnic groups often consisting of outcasts from society.[8]Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1142). Howard … Continue reading Recall that Abraham and his family were from Mesopotamia and left there with “the people that they had acquired in Haran” (Gen. 12:5 ESV). Along the way they acquired an Egyptian slave (Hagar, Gen 16:1) and prior to Isaac’s birth, Abraham’s heir was “Eliezer of Damascus” (Gen. 15:2 ESV). Abraham’s crew was certainly multi-ethnic and everything we know about them fits the description of the Habiru.

[I]t’s obvious that Canaanite city dwellers would have seen the multiethnic group of Abraham and his descendants as ‘Apiru. After all, what else could they call them?[9]Ibid., Kindle Location 1150. 

The reason all of Eber’s descendants aren’t called Hebrews is probably because most of them did not fit the description of Habiru. In fact, it is likely that the Hebrews are not named for their ancestor Eber at all.

Mixed multitude

It is an often overlooked fact that it was not just descendants of Abraham who Moses led out of Egypt. 

“A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.” (Ex. 12:38 ESV)

“Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp,” (Lev. 24:10 ESV)

So you see, even the large group that left Egypt under Moses’s leadership was an outcast group of multi-ethnic, semi-nomadic, shepherds who lived in tents and avoided contact with city dwellers. 

Not all Habiru were Hebrews

While not all Habiru were Hebrews, it is quite likely that all Hebrews were, at least in the beginning, Habiru. The term Hebrew probably originated from Habiru and after a time, it came to exclusively describe the nation of Israel. The word Habriu disappeared from the ancient Near Eastern literature at about the same time the nation of Israel – the Hebrews – were firmly established in Canaan as an independent nation.

References

References
1 West, Stuart A. “The Habiru and the Hebrews from a Social Class to an Ethnic Group.” Dor le dor 7, no. 3 (1979): 102.
2 John H. Walton, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 38.
3 Waterhouse, S Douglas. “Who Are the Ḫabiru of the Amarna Letters?” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 12, no. 1 (2001): 31.
4 BEITZEL, B. J. Bromiley, Geoffery W., ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised). Accordance electronic ed., version 1.2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
5 Na’aman, Nadav. Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Accordance electronic ed., version 4.2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
6 Waterhouse, S Douglas. “Who Are the Ḫabiru of the Amarna Letters?” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 12, no. 1 (2001): 34.
7 West, Stuart A. “The Habiru and the Hebrews from a Social Class to an Ethnic Group.” Dor le dor 7, no. 3 (1979): 104.
8 Collins, Steven; Scott, Latayne C.. Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament’s Most Infamous City. (Kindle Location 1142). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.
9 Ibid., Kindle Location 1150.