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Hebrews, Arameans, and Israelites

Dennis Bratcher

The two terms Hebrew and Aramean are both used in the biblical text to refer to Israelites. However, they are used quite differently since they refer to totally different aspects of ancient culture. The term Hebrew (Heb: ‘ibri) is actually relatively scarce in the Old Testament, especially in light of the importance we sometimes attach to it. It occurs first in Genesis 14:13 referring to Abraham, but then does not appear again until the Joseph story where it occurs five more times (39:14, 17, 40:15, 41:12, 43:32) in basically the same narrative. It occurs more frequently in the early chapters of Exodus, about 14 times between 1:15 and 10:3, again essentially in the same narrative. It only appears in two more places in the rest of the Pentateuch (Exod 21:2, twice in Deut 15:12), both in legal texts. In the rest of the Old Testament, the term only occurs about ten times, and those in only five passages (1 Sam 4, 6; 1 Sam 13:3, 19, 14:11, 21; 1 Sam 29:3; Jer 34:9, 14; and Jonah 1:9).

In terms of the provenance of these texts, all but Jonah are generally recognized as being from the earliest literary strata; that is, they are very old texts. It is also generally recognized that the book of Jonah uses the literary technique of archaizing, deliberately using older forms as a technique of writing. The book of Jonah is usually dated to the early post-exilic period roughly contemporaneous with Ezra’s reforms around 450 BC. All this suggests that the term "Hebrew" is an ancient one, and drops out of use by the era of the monarchy (c. 1000 BC) except to refer to people who had the status of slaves.

If we examine the actual context where the term occurs, we find it is used in only three ways: 1) by foreigners to describe Israelites, 2) by Israelites to identify themselves to foreigners, and 3) to refer to slaves. In other words, this is not an Israelite self-designation. They used the term bene yisrael, children of Israel or Israelites to identify themselves. "Hebrew" was what they were called by others, or how they identified themselves to others who would presumably know the term ‘ibri better than the term bene yisrael.

While the traditions traced the genealogy of the Israelites to Eber or Heber, one of the sons of Shem and grandson of Noah (Gen 10:24), we understand that those genealogies are political, ethnic, and geographical genealogies and not strictly biological or historical. The term ‘ibri (Hebrew) comes from the verb ‘abar which means "to pass over" or "to cross over." In noun forms, it means "the other side" or "the region beyond." The term Hebrew, then, means "the people from the other side" or "the people from the region beyond." In other words, Hebrew was basically a generic term for foreigners or aliens, people who came from somewhere else. That would fit quite well with how the Israelites, who had their origins in the nomadic Abraham and entered Canaan as escaped slaves, would be described by others who were more settled.

Here the issue moves to a much more complicated level that can only be touched on briefly, partly because there are aspects that are still highly debated among scholars, and partly because it is somewhat technical and boring to people who are not professional historians!

Many scholars have drawn both historical and etymological parallels between the term "Hebrew" and a common term that occurs in many ancient texts over a period of a thousand years. The term ‘apiru or habairu is a term used to describe a range of people in the ancient world. This term is found in most all of the ancient collections of texts from the 20th century BC to the 11th century BC, and occurs in texts from all over the ancient world: the Nuzi texts, the Amarna letters, the Hittite archives, the Ras Shamra texts, the Cappadocian texts, etc. The term basically refers to a class of people, not in terms of race or nationality or ethic identification but in terms of social class or strata. These were basically people who lived on the margins of society without a fixed place in society. Sometimes they are described as marauders and outlaws, or as mercenaries, and at other times simply as nomadic peasants or wanderers. In any case, the term did not identify a specific people, but could apply to anyone seen as outside settled society.

It is not at all certain, and in fact is unlikely, that all these references are to the people we know as Hebrews. But the relationship of the term, and the way it is used in Scripture, suggests that the term Hebrew is related in some way, if not linguistically then culturally, to the term ‘apiru. If so, it was a way to describe the Israelites in terms of their relationship to other more settled people, for example, to the Egyptians (Ex 1:15ff). This would also explain why the term dates only to the earliest levels of the Old Testament tradition. As the Hebrews settled in the land, they became a settled people and were no longer known as Hebrews but as Israelites, a national identification.

As to the term Aramean applied to Abraham (Deut 26:5), there is likewise a complex of historical issues. Basically, however, the biblical traditions remember that the origins of the Patriarchs lay in Mesopotamia or Aram as the region was called in Hebrew. The Hebrew term for what we know as Mesopotamia is aram-naharaim, Aram of the Two Rivers (referring to the Tigris and Euphrates), also called Paddan-Aram. While the details are not clear, there is ample evidence in the biblical narratives to conclude that the Israelites traced their origins to that area. For example, when Isaac and Jacob needed wives, the family returned to the ancestral home in Aram to find them (Gen 24:10, 28:2).

So, to identify Abraham as "a wandering Aramean" (Deut 26:5) was a recollection of these memories of the tribal ancestral home in Haran in Aram-Naharaim. To call Abraham an Aramean is simply a geographical reference to his homeland. In other words, Abraham can be an Aramean, because that is his origin. He can also be called a Hebrew as a social designation referring to his status without land or a settled home, on the fringes of established society. And he can anachronistically be called an Israelite because he is the ancestral father of the people who came to be called sons of Israel (Abraham's grandson).

-Dennis R. Bratcher, Copyright © 2016, Dennis R. Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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