Were the Habiru the Biblical Hebrews?

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 120 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

The “Habiru.” In many cuneiform records dating from the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. (18th to the 12th centuries B.C.E.), at sites that extend from Egypt, Canaan and Syria, to Nuzi (near Kirkuk in northern Iraq) and Anatolia (Turkey) the Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) term habiru, or hapiru occurs, meaning “dusty, dirty.”[1] The Habiru were operating in southern Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Haran, and Mari. In addition, we have about 60 Amarna Tablets, located in Egypt, wherein Canaanite rulers, who were in a subordinate position to their overlord, Egypt, were writing to the Pharaoh of Egypt. These Canaanite rulers were complaining about numerous things but specifically, that their cities were under attack by certain rulers who were in alliance with the “Habiru.” Depending upon the context “Habiru” was used to describe a group of people as rebels, outlaws, raiders, mercenaries, bowmen, servants, slaves, and laborers.

Mesopotamia - Babylonian Empire - Assyrian Empire

Habiru and the Biblical Hebrews

The “Habiru” come on the scene in Mesopotamia as agricultural workers, slaves, rebels, mercenary soldiers, marauders, slaves, and so on, which lead them to a marginal and sometimes lawless life on the fringes of society. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land  tells us that, “Once settled, the Habiru served mainly as mercenaries or laborers in their new countries, but they were never considered to be citizens and their status differed from that of the local inhabitants, from whom they usually lived apart in quarters specially assigned to them.”[2]

BIBLICAL CRITICISM - Beyond the Basics THE NEW TESTAMENT how-to-study-your-bible1 How to Interpret the Bible-1
Cuneiform Habiru
Cuneiform of Sumerian SA.GAZ and corresponding West Semitic Habiru.

The biblical word for “Hebrew” (ʽIvriʹ) refers to an ethnic group, not a social class, while Habiru indicate a social category, not an ethnic group.[3] Since the discovery of the inscriptions that date to the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., which mentions the Habiru, there have been many theories by some scholars, who have endeavored to link the Habiru with the Israelite conquest of Canaan or the Hebrews of the Bible in general. However, the evidence does not support such a conjecture. On this, The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology states: “Since the first revelation of the Habiru in the Amarna texts late in the nineteenth-century scholars have been tempted to associate the Habiru with the biblical ʽibrim or ‘Hebrews,’—a word that occurs thirty-four times in the OT, usually either by foreigners or in the presence of foreigners. . . . Most scholars reject any direct identification of the Hebrews with the Habiru in view of the following objections: (1) philological difficulties in the equation; (2) the probability that Habiru is an appellative term describing a class, whereas ʽibri is an ethnic term; (3) the considerable differences in the distribution, activity, and character of the two groups.”—Edited by E. Blaiklock and R. Harrison, 1983, pp. 223-224.

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The “Habiru” are found in Egyptian documents under the name ʿApiru. They were hired as mine workers, wine pressers, and to haul the stones from the quarry. Linguistically, there is no way of identifying the Egyptian word ʽapiru with the Hebrew word ʽIvriʹ. Furthermore, the documents that place the “Habiru,” in Egypt, do so long after the Hebrews had already left that land in the late 16th-century B.C.E. In this regard The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land tells us that, “A study of the personal names of the Habiru reveals that they were not composed of a single ethnic element, although the Semitic element was the strongest. On the strength of the similarity between the terms Habiru and Hebrews, many scholars have suggested identifying the Habiru of the 16th–15th centuries BC with the Hebrew conquerors of the 13th century, but this connection has not yet been satisfactorily proved.”[4]

Habiru Activity

Bibliography

  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph (2009). Judaism, the First Phase: The Place of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Origins of Judaism. Eerdmans.
  • Collins, John J. (2014). A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press.
  • Coote, Robert B. (2000). “Hapiru, Apiru”. In David Noel, Freedman; Allen C., Myers (eds.). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Eerdmans.
  • Finkelstein, Israel; Silberman, Neil Asher (2007). David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition. Simon and Schuster.
  • Hamblin, William J. (2006). Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC. Routledge.
  • Lemche, Niels Peter (2010). The A to Z of Ancient Israel. Scarecrow Press.
  • Manassa, Colleen (2013). Imagining the Past: Historical Fiction in New Kingdom Egypt. Oxford University Press.
  • McKenzie, John L. (1995). The Dictionary Of The Bible. Simon and Schuster.
  • McLaughlin, John L. (2012). The Ancient Near East. Abingdon Press.
  • Moore, Megan B.; Kelle, Brad E. (2011). Biblical History and Israel’s Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History. Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cambridge, UK.
  • Na’aman, Nadav (2005). Canaan in the Second Millennium B.C.E. Eisenbrauns.
  • Noll, K.L. (2001). Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction. A&C Black.
  • Rainey, Anson F. (2008). “Who Were the Early Israelites?” (PDF). Biblical Archaeology Review. 34:06 (Nov/Dec 2008): 51–55.
  • Rainey, Anson F. (1995). “Unruly Elements in Late Bronze Canaanite Society”. In Wright, David Pearson; Freedman, David Noel; Hurvitz, Avi (eds.). Pomegranates and Golden Bells. Eisenbrauns.
  • Redmount, Carol A. (2001). “Bitter Lives”. In Michael David, Coogan (ed.). The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Oxford University Press.
  • Van der Steen, Eveline J. (2004). Tribes and Territories in Transition. Peeters Publishers.
  • Youngblood, Ronald (2005). “The Amarna Letters and the “Habiru””. In Carnagey, Glenn A.; Schoville, Keith N. (eds.). Beyond the Jordan: Studies in Honor of W. Harold Mare. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

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[1] Rainey, Anson F. (2008). “Who Were the Early Israelites?” (PDF). Biblical Archaeology Review. 34:06 (Nov/Dec 2008): 51–55.

[2] Avraham Negev, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).

[3] Blenkinsopp, Joseph, Judaism, the First Phase: The Place of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Origins of Judaism. (Eerdmans, 2009), p 19; E. Blaiklock and R. Harrison The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology. (Grand Rapids, MI Zondervan, 1983), pp. 223-224.

[4] Avraham Negev, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).

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