Hebrews (Hebrew: עברים or עבריים, Tiberian ʿIḇrîm, ʿIḇriyyîm; Modern Hebrew ʿIvrim, ʿIvriyyim; ISO 259-3 ʕibrim, ʕibriyim) is an ethnonym used in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible). It is mostly taken as synonymous with the Semitic Israelites, especially in the pre-monarchic period when they were still nomadic, but in some instances it may also be used in a wider sense, referring to the Phoenicians, or to other ancient groups, such as the group known as Shasu of Yhw on the eve of the Bronze Age collapse.
By the Roman era, Greek Hebraios could refer to the Jews in general, as Strong's Hebrew Dictionary puts it "any of the Jewish Nation" and at other times more specifically to the Jews living in Judea. In Early Christianity, the Greek term Ἑβραῖος ( NOM sg. masculine form, plural thereof Ἑβραῖοι; feminine: Ἑβραία, Ἑβραῖαι respectively) refers to Christianizing Jews, as opposed to the gentile Christians and Christian Judaizers (Acts 6:1 among others). Ἰουδαία is the province where the Temple was located.
In Armenian, Italian, Kurdish, Old French, Russian, Romanian and a few other languages the transfer of the name from Hebrew to Jew never took place, and 'Hebrew' is the primary used word for a Jew.
The origin of the term remains uncertain. The biblical word Ivri (Hebrew: עברי), meaning to traverse or pass over. In the plural it is Ivrim, or Ibrim. It is usually rendered as Hebrew in English, from the ancient Greek Ἑβραῖος and Latin Hebraeus.
Some authors argue that Ibri denotes the descendants of the biblical patriarch Eber (Hebrew עבר), son of Shelah, a great grandson of Noah and an ancestor of Abraham, hence the occasional anglicization Eberites.
Shasu of Yhw
The hieroglyphic rendering of the Egyptian word š3sw (Shasu) means "those who move on foot". The name "Shasu of Yhw", e.g. the name rings from Soleb and Amarah-West, corresponds very precisely to the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH. The demonym 'Israel' can reasonably be referred to a Shasu enclave, and it can be concluded that the Shasu originated from Moab and northern Edom and eventually helped to constitute the nation of 'Israel' which later established the Kingdom of Israel. The Shasu are mostly depicted hieroglyphically with a determinative indicating rather a land than a people, referencing people of that particular land.
Since the discovery of the 2nd millennium inscriptions mentioning the Habiru, there have been many theories linking these to the Hebrews. Some scholars argue that the name "Hebrew" is related to the name of the seminomadic Habiru people, who are recorded in Egyptian inscriptions of the 13th and 12th centuries BCE as having settled in Egypt. This is rebutted by others who propose that the Hebrews are mentioned in older texts of the 3rd Intermediate Period of Egypt (15th century BCE) as Shasu of Yhw. Modern scholars conclude that the attempts to relate apiru (Habiru) to the Hebrew word ibri (Hebrews) are not fruitful.
The Jewish historian Josephus maintains that the Hyksos were in fact the children of Jacob who joined his son Joseph in Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. The Hyksos first appeared in Egypt during the eleventh dynasty. They came out of the second intermediate period in control of Avaris and the Nile delta and ruled Lower Egypt as Semite kings (fifteenth dynasty). Kamose, the last king of the Theban 17th Dynasty, refers to the Hyksos King Apophis as a Chieftain of Retjenu (Canaan). At the end of the Seventeenth dynasty of Egypt, they were expelled by an ethnic Egyptian pharaoh. The term "Hyksos" derives from the Egyptian expression heka khasewet ("rulers of foreign lands"). Josephus records the false etymology that the Greek phrase Hyksos stood for the Egyptian phrase Hekw Shasu meaning the Shepherd Kings, which scholars have only recently shown means "rulers of foreign lands."
Use as synonym for "Israelites"
Israelites are defined as the descendants of Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. Eber, an ancestor of Jacob (seven generations removed), is a distant ancestor of many people, including the Israelites, Ishmaelites, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites and Qahtanites.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia the terms "Hebrews" and "Israelites" usually describe the same people, stating that they were called Hebrews before the conquest of the Land of Canaan and Israelites afterwards. Professor Nadav Na'aman and others say that the use of the word "Hebrew" to refer to Israelites is rare and when used it is used "to Israelites in exceptional and precarious situations, such as migrants or slaves."
Use as synonym for "Jews"
In some modern languages, including Armenian, Greek, Italian, Romanian, and many Slavic languages, the name Hebrews survives as the standard ethnonym for Jews, but in many other languages in which there exist both terms, it is considered derogatory to call modern Jews "Hebrews". Among certain left-wing or liberal circles of Judaic cultural lineage, the word "Hebrew" is used as an alternatively secular description of the Jewish people (e.g., Bernard Avishai's The Hebrew Republic or left-wing wishes for a "Hebrew-Arab" joint cultural republican state).
Use in Zionism
Beginning in the late 19th century, the term "Hebrew" became popular among secular Zionists; in this context the word alluded to the transformation of the Jews into a strong, independent, self-confident secular national group ("the New Jew") sought by classical Zionism. This use died out after the establishment of the state of Israel, when "Hebrew" was replaced with "Jew" or "Israeli". At the fringes of Zionist thought, the Canaanites, who were radically opposed to Judaism, drew a sharp distinction between "Jews" and "Hebrew".
The United States
Early in its presence in the United States, Reform Judaism attempted to distance itself from terms such as "Jew" or "Jewish." The organization of reform congregations in the United States was known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations prior to 2003 when it was renamed the "Union for Reform Judaism."
Name of the Hebrew language
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The Hebrew language is a member of the larger group of Canaanite languages within Northwest Semitic. The language has been known as "Hebrew" in English since the 11th century, from Old French Ebreu, in turn from Latin Hebraeus and Greek Ἑβραῖος, ultimately a loan from "Assyrian lettering" (Ktav Ashuri), the "square-script", by Ezra the Scribe following the Babylonian Exile.
Since the Hebrew Bible makes a point of marking the Canaanites as peoples set apart from the Israelites, the extent of the distinction between the culture of the Canaanites and the Israelites is a matter of debate. It has been argued that the Israelites were themselves Canaanites, and that "historical Israel", as distinct from "literary" or "Biblical Israel" was a subset of Canaanite culture. It is also known that Israelites and later the subdivision of Israelites known as the Judeans spoke Hebrew as their main language and it is still used in Jewish holy scriptures, study, speech and prayer.
- The Electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary <http://psd.museum.upenn.edu/epsd/> s.v. SA-GAZ. The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago volume H (1956) p. 13 & p. 84; volume Š/1 (1989) p. 70.
- Thayer's Lexicon
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- entry in britannica.com
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- Carvalho, Corrine L. (2010). Encountering Ancient Voices: A Guide to Reading the Old Testament. Anselm Academic. p. 68. ISBN 978-1599820507.
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