The Ancient Hebrews
The Ancient Hebrews and the Habiru
The term "Hebrew", and its use in designating the ancient Hebrews
associated with the Israelites of the Old Testament, is a term somewhat
shrouded in mystery.
were discovered, the term Habiru surfaced frequently for the first time.
Bible scholars and historians were quick to determine a connection
between the two, primarily based on the obvious linguistic similarity.
However, this initial connection was premature.
The Habiru have widely been accepted by scholars as representing a
social element only. This is one distinct difference between the Habiru
and the ancient Hebrews.
Habiru held no ethnic importance. It was used to designate a new
social element of displaced people forming new tribes. These people had
been displaced for a number of reasons (war, famine, debt, etc.) from
their native tribes and societies.
They were forced into exile, and would form up with other outcast individuals of similar fates.
These bands may include runaway slaves, overthrown kings, exiled individuals, bandits and outlaws, deserters, or migrants.
These tribes were internally composed of complex social elements
from diverse backgrounds and cultures, united under the common theme of
being forced from home.
Some Habiru bands became mercenary like units. Some individual Habiru
became mercenaries. Habiru are found integrating themselves into their
new societies at every level of society.
They ranged from domestic work, to government work, manual labor,
artisans, metal workers, musicians, indentured servitude, mercenaries,
They were found in every society of the ancient Middle East and
Near East. The term Habiru, and related terms, were first identified
around 3000 B.C., and cease to exist after 1000 B.C.
The ancient Hebrews connection to the Habiru is less easier to
define. What becomes clear in the Old Testament is that there are two
appellations used to denote the Israelites; with one being "Israelite",
and the second being "Hebrew".
A clear understanding of the context of the word "Hebrew" and its
use in ancient Hebrew culture is necessary in order to understand the
difference between the two names.
The first appearance of the word "Hebrew" appears in Genesis 14:13 in association with Abraham.
"Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was
living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother
of Aner, and these were allies with
Interestingly enough, a fugitive is mentioned in this particular passage
as coming to find Abram. Fugitives are a distinct and agreed upon
element found within the Habiru.
The interpretation of the Hebrew word rendered "Hebrew", has been
brought into question as well. The association of Abraham with a
fugitive, and the questionable interpretation of the word "Hebrew", pose
Though "fugitive" in this passage may indicate a broad spectrum of
meanings, it is generally agreed upon the word in antiquity implied
someone separated from his tribe and home.
Scripture seems to imply he immediately sought out Abraham, as if
he had some sort of acquaintance with him. The Habiru are known to have
existed throughout the later parts of the third millennium, and all
throughout the second.
It is not an illogical presumption to claim Abraham may have been
viewed as a Habiru chief. He did have soldiers in his household.
He was the head of a large household, eventually splitting into two, with
separating himself. He did migrate from another land. However, the use of the word "Ibriy" clearly distinguishes him from the Habiru.
This first reference to Abraham must pull into the equation a
brief discussion on the linguistic similarities between the Habiru and
the ancient Hebrews.
The actual word used in the Hebrew language in this passage is, "Ibriy", pronounced ib-ree.
In the Strong's Dictionary of the Biblical Hebrew and Chaldee
this word derives from a family name. In other words, it is a surname,
from the Hebrew word Eber, and designates an Eberite.
The Hebrew word Eber indicates "a region beyond". Eber is mentioned as a descendant of Shem, and ancestor of Abraham. Genesis 10:21 makes mention of Eber.
"Unto Shem, also the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born."
Interestingly enough, the word Eber finds its origins in the Hebrew word translated as "Abar". Abar is a primitive Hebrew root, found over 550 times in the Old Testament.
Two different meanings are taken from this root. One meaning is
to pass over, through, by, or pass on. The second meaning is to violate a
law, to be arrogant, become angry, or to transgress.
The significance of the above concerning the Habiru and the
ancient Hebrews emerges from the languages found throughout the land of
In short, many of the languages in Canaan are thought to have
originated from one, or a group of, similar unknown language(s) of
Semitic origin. This takes on significance when viewed in context with
the appearance of the word Habiru.
The ancient Hebrews were a West Semitic tribe in the days of
Abraham. Abraham, however, was the only one of the ancient Hebrews to
dwell permanently in Canaan. As has been shown, much of his family dwelt
in Haran and the surrounding villages and cities.
The ancient Hebrews, however, were not the only West Semitic
people living in Canaan. The Phoenicians and Amorites are just a couple
of the nations claiming West Semitic descent.
The Arameans were close relatives of Abraham and Jacob. The
Edomites would become the West Semitic descendants of Esau. The ancient
Hebrews would not become known as Israelites until God renamed Jacob
As shown in the previous sections, the earliest reference to Habiru is found in
sources. The term appears at the same time large numbers of native Akkadian speaking people appear in Sumeria.
These Akkadians became a new element in Sumerian society, and the
terms Habiru and Habiri begin appearing. Thus the earliest known
reference of the word is Akkadian in nature.
The word Habiru stems from an Akkadian root scholars have been unable to identify with certainty.
The origin of languages remains one of the most bothersome
mysteries to historians and scholars. The ancient Hebrew alphabet is the
oldest language still in use today. Hebrew is a Semitic language, very
different from the Indo-European based languages of today. Some scholars
have suggested the word Habiru stems from the same West Semitic root as
This would account for the linguistic similarities between the
words. Both words, as they are, seem to indicate a state of passing
over, or, to cross over.
The Habiru consist of the criminal element of the word. Many of
their members crossed over into a life of crime, and were forced to flee
Many of the references regarding the Habiru involve legal
disputes. It is important to note that not all Habiru were criminals or
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The Hebrews, on the other hand, crossed over from a migratory
sense. Abraham and his family crossed over into the land of Canaan from
They literally had to cross over the desert to achieve this, by way of
Haran and Aram - Naharaim. In this sense, Abraham the Hebrew, may have
also been called, Abraham the Habiru.
Along these same lines, the ancient Hebrews could have been viewed as
part of the Habiru. It seems logical the ruling authorities would have
cared less about the Hebrew lineage, and presumably would have grouped
them in with the other "outcast" and "troublesome" elements found
amongst the Habiru of the Amarna Letters.
The ancient Hebrews, however, took careful pains to clarify their
ethnicity as being pure. Hebrew was an ethnic term. Habiru, as stated
earlier, was purely a social term.
Thus, though the two may stem from the same West Semitic root,
one was distinctly different from the other. Though in later Old
Testament stories, as will be seen, Hebrew became a derogatory term, in
the time of Abraham it was not so.
Something set Abraham apart as "Ibriy", as opposed to, "Habiru". Ibriy is Abraham's family name, thus consistent with Hebrew as an ethnic term.
This lineage is seen in the lines of Shem and Eber. Scripture lists five sons of
One of these sons is Arphaxad. Arphaxad is said to have had a son named Salah.
Salah, in turn, gives birth to a son named Eber. Eber was one of
the earliest post-flood members of this divine family. He was the
great-grandson of Shem.
Eber was the last man of the Bible to live an exceptionally long,
though still reduced, life. He lived to be 464 years old. Pelug, Eber's
son, died at 239. Ages continued to significantly reduce from that
From the line of Eber emerges the ancient Hebrews, and eventually
Abraham. By the time Abraham is referred to as the "Hebrew"(or Habiru
?) in Genesis, he is the sixth generation removed from Eber.
Eber (from root Abar) is recognized by many Bible scholars as the
father of the ancient Hebrews (from root Eber), through the lineage
The distinguishable characteristic of the line of Eber, which
from Shem can be traced to Adam, and extends to Abraham, was their
worship of God Almighty.
Scripture makes it clear, however, that Abraham's forefathers
worshiped other gods, and God Almighty may have just been one of their
The line of Eber perhaps held fast to the true God moreso than
other family tribes. Scripture indicates the ancient Hebrews, such as
Terah, previously had practiced idolatry from time to time.
Abraham, thus, fully established God Almighty as the Hebrew God
by answering His call faithfully, and living a life dedicated to the
worship of one God.
The linguistic similarities of the two words, coupled with the
unknown origins of the Akkadian root for Habiru, seem to lend credence
to theories supposing a fundamental connection between the two words.
Though different, perhaps, they may have stemmed from the same
language at some point in time. The ancient Hebrews were distinguishable
as an ethnic group.
Further connection between the ancient Hebrews and the Habiru
were found in ancient Hittite documents attributing special divine
powers to certain Habiru groups.
These Habiru groups were given special mention because of their
god, and their divine presence. The ancient Hebrews indeed possessed a
special Hebrew God, and a special Hebrew name for God.
It was this belief in God which separated the holy family from
the other tribes of its day. However, any further connections are but
speculation as to the linguistic and religious nature of the words.
The word translated as "Hebrew", "Ibriy", according to Scripture,
was the term used to designate Abraham. It appears to be used in a
similar way as Amorite is used to describe Mamre.
Hebrews, thus, predated the term Israelite. This term did not
surface until Jacob, the son of Isaac. Jacob was renamed Israel by God.
Thus, the sons of Israel became the foundation upon the Israelite
bloodline. This bloodline obviously included the Hebrew line from
The ancient Hebrews shared many similar traits to the Habiru. The
two shared similar linguistic traits, and Abraham may have been
considered as Habiru as well.
The unknown origin of the Akkadian root of Habiru indicates the
two words may have been related to the same West Semitic language.
However, Hebrew was a distinctly different appellation used to
designate a select ethnic group. Habiru designated a social element of
society, of which the Hebrews were most likely a part of.
It was only after the Israelites appeared, that "Hebrew" began to
take on a negative connotation. This only strengthened the connection
between the Habiru and the ancient Hebrews.
The Hebrew Israelites became a separate designation for
Israelites which found themselves in certain circumstances. The stories
of David found in I and II Samuel best illustrate the differences
between these two groups of Israelites.
These stories also serve to strengthen the identification of the
Habiru with the ancient Hebrews in ways other than purely linguistic.
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