A name applied occasionally to the early Israelites, primarily to distinguish them from other cultures and peoples of the ancient Near East. An ethnic term, it antedated the common sociopolitical names Israel or Judah in the monarchic period, as well as the more ethnoreligious appellative Jew in later times. The word Hebrews, used thirty‐three times in the Hebrew Bible, appears in only four texts (Jer. 34.9 [twice], 14; and Jon. 1.9) describing the period after the time of the Davidic kingdom. Contemporary sources outside the Hebrew Bible refer to the people not as Hebrews but as Israel.
The derivation of the word Hebrew (Hebr. ʿibrî) is uncertain. It may be related to the verb ʿābar, “to cross over or beyond.” Thus, the Hebrews would be understood as “those who crossed over” or “the ones from beyond,” meaning probably from the other side of the Euphrates River (Josh. 24.3) or perhaps the Jordan River (Gen. 50.10). Along this line, the Septuagint translates “Abram the Hebrew” in Genesis 14.13 as “Abram, the one who crossed over.”
A second possible etymology is based on the genealogies (Gen. 10.21, 24–25; 11.14–17; 1 Chron. 1.18–19, 25; Luke 3.35) that identify Eber, the grandson of Shem, as one of the ancestors of Abraham and all his descendants, thus the “Eberites.” No such explicit tie, however, is made in the Bible, and this connection would suggest that other peoples who are thought to derive from Abraham, including Edomites, Moabites, and Arabic tribes, should also be called Hebrews. The connections with Eber on the one hand and the motif of “crossing over” on the other, as well as a third possibility mentioned below, remain suggestive but inconclusive.
Virtually every reference to the Hebrews in the Hebrew Bible occurs in a context in which the purpose is to differentiate these people from those of neighboring countries, usually the Egyptians and the Philistines. Joseph, stemming from “the land of the Hebrews” (Gen. 40.15), is identified by this name (Gen. 39.14, 17; 41.12) in the story recounting his rise to prominence under the Pharaoh. A later Egyptian ruler charges the Hebrew midwives to kill all sons born to the Hebrews, but they refuse to do so, reporting deceitfully to the Pharaoh that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exod. 1.19). Moses is recognized by the Pharaoh's daughter as a Hebrew child, and she calls for a Hebrew woman to nurse him (Exod. 2.6–7). Subsequently, Moses defends a Hebrew, “one of his people,” from a beating at the hands of an Egyptian and then flees the land when he learns that other Hebrews have heard of it (Exod. 2.11–14). In confronting the Pharaoh to demand release of his people, Moses makes reference to “the Lord, the God of the Hebrews” (Exod. 3.18; 5.3; 7.16; 9.1). At all these points, the ethnic name serves to distinguish this people from the Egyptians, who are shown as using this designation as well. Genesis 43.32 reports that the Egyptians even considered it an “abomination” to eat with Hebrews, a custom for which there is no record in Egyptian sources.
In their dealings with the Philistines, the people are also often called Hebrews, especially by the Philistines themselves. At times it seems to be used as a term of contempt, parallel to the tradition in Genesis 43.32. In 1 Samuel 4.6, 9, the Philistines speak derisively of their opponents in battle and urge each other to fight courageously “in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you.” In a later episode the Philistines, considering the Hebrews to be unworthy fighters who cower in caves (1 Sam. 14.11), are easily routed by the bravery of Jonathan and his armor bearer. This story also raises the question of whether the Hebrews and the Israelites are identical groups. When Saul issues the battle cry “Let the Hebrews hear,” the text states that “all Israel heard” (1 Sam. 13.3–4)—which may not be the same as saying that all the Hebrews responded. It is in fact later reported that a number of Hebrews had previously attached themselves to the Philistines, and that after Jonathan's rout they disaffected and joined the Israelites (1 Sam. 14.21). This text may retain an ancient distinction that in later periods no longer applied: Hebrews as a larger socioeconomic group extending beyond Israel, and Israelites as the particular ones who banded together in the Canaanite highlands to form a new nation. In that case, the Philistines may have simply considered the Israelites to be part of the larger class of Hebrews whom they were attempting to control, for example by restricting their access to metal‐working (1 Sam. 13.19). A similar confusion occurs in 1 Samuel 29.3 when the Philistines prohibit David, who has been living with them, from joining them in battle against the Israelites—not because he is an Israelite but because he is considered a Hebrew.
There are only two other similar references to Hebrews in the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 14.13, a context in which numerous peoples are mentioned, “Abram [Abraham] the Hebrew” appears parallel to “Mamre the Amorite.” In a much later period, the prophet Jonah, when pressed by sailors of the boat on which he sought escape, calls himself a Hebrew and a believer in the Lord who created the sea and land (Jon. 1.9).
The ethnic and sociopolitical origin of the Hebrews remains a contested point. In many respects the ʿapiru (or Ḫabiru; in Sumerian ʿrapiru were a diverse group of people with an inferior social status, living mostly on the fringes of settled civilizations from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and there is evidence of them in numerous sources throughout the second millennium BCE. They frequently were hired as mercenaries or sold themselves into servitude in order to survive. The Amarna letters (fourteenth century BCE) place them in the area of Syria‐Palestine and describe them as basically outlaws and raiders, but such antagonism with resident populations may not have been common.
While there is no basis for equating the Hebrews with the ʿapiru, the proto‐Israelites were probably a conglomeration of various Semitic groups, of which the ʿapiru was certainly one. Another was the shasu, pastoral nomads and plunderers also known to have been dwelling in Syria‐Palestine as well as elsewhere in the region. The tradition of a “mixed multitude” (Exod. 12.38 [NRSV: “mixed crowd”]) or “rabble” (Num. 11.4) led by Moses through the wilderness is consistent with this picture of the early Israelites as an amalgamation of diverse peoples. Calling them “Hebrews” is an early means of distinguishing this new entity from other existing ethnic groups.
Hebrews are mentioned in one other notable context in the Hebrew Bible. Two laws dealing with slavery distinguish those who are Hebrews from others who are not (compare Lev. 25.39–55). Exodus 21.2–11 provides for the release of every male Hebrew slave after a seven‐year period of service unless he should choose to remain for life with his master. Special rights are also reserved for a daughter who has to be sold into slavery. Deuteronomy 15.12–18 extends the law of manumission to include both male and female Hebrew slaves, stipulating that they are to be given ample provisions for starting their new life of freedom. Immediately before the fall of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE, according to Jeremiah 34.8–22, King Zedekiah proclaimed the release of all male and female Hebrew (here also called Judean) slaves, but after this was accomplished the Israelite masters took them back, eliciting from Jeremiah an ominous pronouncement of doom. It may be that these Hebrew slaves, especially in the earlier laws, are reminiscent of the often‐enslaved ʿapiru, but the Bible perceives them as compatriot Israelites deserving of treatment better than that normally afforded foreigners.
The name Hebrew, used rarely in the Hebrew Bible, thus occurs primarily to distinguish Israelites ethnically from non‐Israelites. At times it is applied by foreigners (mainly Egyptians and Philistines); in other instances, by the Hebrews themselves when addressing foreigners. Except for the slave laws, Israelites normally identify themselves to each other—and often to others as well—as the people of Israel and Judah. Similar usage continues in later literature (e.g., Jth. 10.12; 12.11; 2 Macc. 15.37).
In the New Testament, the term designates Jews, hence Jewish Christians who maintained their ties with the Jewish heritage and the Aramaic or Hebrew language. Acts 6.1 contrasts them with Hellenists, perhaps Jewish Christians who accommodated more to the Hellenistic culture by speaking Greek and following certain Greek customs. Paul, born in Tarsus, proudly identifies himself as “a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Phil. 3.5; also 2 Cor. 11.22; and Acts 22.2–3).
In modern usage, the term Hebrew is generally applied only to the language (see Hebrew) of ancient and modern Israel and of Jewish scriptures and tradition.
Douglas A. Knight