Origin of the name “Hebrew”
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 1:08pm
Someone asked about the origin of the Hebrew term used for the Hebrew people. I take it that the question is about the term “Hebrew” itself, not “Jew” or “Israelite.” The best way to answer such a question is to look in a good Bible dictionary. The following is simply taken from the Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, ed. Merrill F. Tenney; and Unger’s Bible Dictionary.
In the Bible the name “Hebrew” is applied to Abraham and his descendants through Jacob, and is equivalent to “Israelite.” One explanation for the origin of the term is that it is from the word “Habiru,” found in documents from the 15th and 14th B.C., a name which along with Semitic equivalents refers to “wandering peoples greatly restricted as regards financial means and without citizenship and social status.” This name applied to many nomadic peoples. “In Egypt, the Israelites were reduced to a lowly position and later moved about in the wilderness. Conceivably they could, therefore, have been known as ‘Hebrews’” (i.e., “Habiru,” or poor wandering people). (As applied to the Jews, though, the name actually originated hundreds of years earlier, thus:)
Another possibility is that “Hebrew” can be traced to Eber, the father of Peleg and Joktan (Gen. 10:24-25; 11:12-16). Eber was a “prominent Semitic progenitor” and an ancestor of Abraham (Gen. 10:21-22). “The first person in the Bible called a Hebrew is Abram (Gen. 14:13).”
Still another possibility is that the name “is derived from the Hebrew root ‘to pass over’ and has reference to ‘a land on the other side,’ as the dweller [east] of the Euphrates might think of Canaan. So in Gen. 14:13, “Abram the Hebrew” may be “Abram who crossed the river,” i.e., the Euphrates. However, the possible equating of the Hebrews and the Habiru might suggest that the Hebrews were ‘those who crossed over’ in the sense of trespassing, i.e., ‘trespassers.’”
The bottom line is that no one knows for sure what the origin and significance of the name “Hebrew” are. The above suggestions are speculative; one of them may well be the correct explanation. One good thing, though, is that nothing is really at stake with regard to this issue.