The Mysterious "Habiru" and the Hebrews
"Shem, the father of all the children of 'Ever..."
What is the meaning of this statement? Why Ever, the fifth of eleven patriarchs from Noach to Avraham, was mentioned in this particular way, as one who is acknowledged ancestor of some special descent that actually begins six generations later? The genealogic line splits into two branches after him, implying that many peoples are his children before Avraham was born, including the branch from which Avraham does not come...
The eleven-generation line from Noach to Avraham is: Noach, Shem, Arpakshad, Shelach, Ever, Peleg, Re'u, Serug, Nachor, Terach, Avraham, who is considered the father of all Hebrews, but also the father of other nations... actually, the people universally recognized as Hebrews began to exist even two generations later, after Yitzhak and Ya'kov, who is Israel. Was Avraham a Hebrew, being himself the father of Hebrews? Do the statement in Bereshyit 10:21 convey any meaning?…
Some scholars speculate that the Israelites did not peak Hebrew as their original language but adopted it from their Canaanite neighbours when they moved into that territory. However, the weight of linguistic evidence from around the world speaks against such supposition. We simply do not have sufficient knowledge of those times to say which language resided in which territory by which group of people and how the people and the languages may have moved and mixed from one area to another. But we now know with a wealth of explicit evidence that Hebrew is the language in which the Scriptures were written, and they are among the most ancient documents we have.
Some Egyptian monuments mention an enigmatic people: the "Apiru". In one of them, a scene depicting men working at a wine press was carved on the stone walls. Beneath the picture was a title: "Straining out wine by the Apiru". The date of the monument is believed to be during the reign of queen Hatshepshut and Tutmose III, about the year 2290 (1470 b.c.e.). Scholars immediately recognized the similarity of the word "Apiru" to "Hebrew", with a scene depicting manual labour, as described in Exodus for Hebrew people under bondage in Egypt.
From the Papyrus Leiden, dated to the reign of Ramose II, about the year 2510 (1250 b.c.e.), the following statement is made in a letter: "Issue grain to the men of the army and to the Apiru who draw stone for the great pylon of Ramses II". Again we see Apiru in bondage in Egypt down to the time of Ramose II. They were being used as quarrymen and manual labourers.
These references to the Apiru in Egyptian documents and on monuments show their presence in Egypt, and their social importance, for more than three centuries. The same people are called elsewhere "Habiru" or "Habiri".
Er-Heba, the Egyptian ruler in Jerusalem, wrote a series of letters to the king in which he complained about the "Habiru". The Habiru were plundering the lands of the king. Er-Heba wanted to know why the king was leaving them behave in this way; why was he not sending archers to protect the king's properties. If he did not send military help the whole land would be given to the Habiru.
If the events of this period were those described by Yehoshua in the Scriptures they would place the Exodus prior to the fourteenth century b.c.e., in agreement with more traditional estimates.
The activities of the Habiri in Southern Canaan concerns many scholars; they believe this area was not attached to Israelite territory until much later. However, Chapters 10 to 12 in the Book of Yehoshua describe just such conquest, with the very names listed in the Amarna tablets, including Lachish, Gezer, Gath, and the king of Jerusalem. A quote from one tablet shows the state of affairs: "See the deed which Milkilu and Shuwardata have done to the land of the king, my lord! They have the troops of Gezer, troops of Gath, and troops of Qeila. They have seized the land of Rubute. The land of the king has fallen away to the Habiri. And now, even a city of the Jerusalem district, Bit-nin'ib by name, a city of the king, has fallen away to the side of the people of Qeila. Let the king listen to Er-Heba, your servant, and send an army of archers that they might restore the land of the king to the king. For if there are no army of archers the land of the king will fall away to the Habiri.".
The identification of groups of Habiri and their activities corresponds well to the conquest of Canaan described in the Book of Yehoshua. The Amarna letters suggest that this class of people held unique status in the Near East. All these documents lead to fully identify the Habiru with the Israelites, until other sources bring great perplexity...
The Apiru are obviously a recognizable people distinct from others. If the Apiru were Hebrews, not all of them were descended from the original twelve Tribes, and other Semitic groups (maybe the Hyksos among them) were included.
The span of dates covers the period of the exile in Egypt and also well after the Exodus. It seems evident that not all Apiru left Egypt; some remained behind. This means that not all Semitic peoples in Egypt joined the Israelites, though many did.
Although not of tribal identity, with a specific geographical location, it was given special regard. The location of the Habiri in Southern Syria, Phoenicia, and Canaan suggests that the term was used generally for the Semitic tribes of those areas. It described a particular Semitic stock which, by historical times, had divided into numerous tribes and separate, identifiable ethnic groups.
The earliest known reference to the Habiru are from Sumer and date from the Third Dynasty of Ur, about the year 1760 (2000 b.c.e.). A characteristic of this period was the expansion of Semitic peoples; mainly native Akkadian speaking groups. Concurrent with this influx of Semites the terms Habiru/Habiri begin to appear in Sumerian documents. The documents show that the Habiru/Habiri were a new element in society, that they were attempting to establish themselves, and that the judicial system was having difficulty defining their legal status.
All the Sumerian records show that the Habiri were active in service roles in the community, as well as the Israelites did in Egypt, and later in the court of Nebukhadnetzar.
Excavations at Kultepe and Alishar in ancient Anatolia, uncovered several hoards of letters and legal and economic texts, belonging to Assyrian trading stations of the old Akkadian period. Among these documents was a letter from one Assyrian merchant to another requesting that he seek the release of Habiri men who were in custody at the palace of Shalahshuwe, an unidentified neighbour, possibly north of Alishar. This land is near the residence of Avraham's family after they left Ur. From this ancient record we see that the Habiri are located in central Anatolia and show the widespread dispersion of those people before Avraham's times. If the recipient of his letter is uncertain of the cost he is reminded that the Habiri themselves have much money and could use it for their own release. In any case, the author of the letter wants to make sure they are released. He held them in high regard.
An Amorite kingdom dominated Mesopotamia after Avraham's times, from Babylon in the south to Haran in the north. This period was the golden age of the city of Mari, that included some minor states among which there were some Habiri rulers. One document states that Yapah Adad had built up the town of Zallul on the banks of the Euphrates and, with 2000 Habiri soldiers, was then located in that town. In another document Izinabu, a Yamubalite chief, had 30 Habiru men march in his charge. In still another letter in which the destination and sender have been lost "3000 asses of the Habiri" are mentioned. (Note the corresponding use of asses by the Hebrew tribes described in the Scriptures). In other letters the Habiru men went by night and seized the town of Yahmumam, attempted to seize other towns, and raided Luhaya seizing 500 sheep and 10 men. The Habiri were a recognizable part of the population.
The Habiru are mentioned in many documents of the city-state of Nuzi, where they have been an important part of society.
What is remarkably interesting is that the ancient peoples ascribe to the Habiru a mysterious relationship with the Divinity. In Hittite documents long lists of gods are invoked to protect the treaties. They include deities from many different regions and people. The curious nature of this invocation is illustrated by a treaty with Egypt. This list concludes with the following words: "and so on to... and the Hapiri Gods...". Significantly the Hapiru/Habiri Elohim had special mention, and although they are not identified by Name, they also could not be forgotten.
The same particularity has been found in Assyrian temples, in which the Habiru are mentioned among the deities. This mention of the Habiru among a list of deities shows explicitly that they were considered as having divine origins. They were different from ordinary people, including rulers and magistrates.
Several Assyrian omen texts were discovered in which it appears that the Habiri were associated with ominous celestial phenomena and with some unknown afflictions. They were thought to carry divine powers.
In Egypt the Apir name appears a number of places combined with a divine name; the titles suggest specific identification as Apir deities. From Anatolia to the Mesopotamian Basin to Egypt, the Habiri were regarded with special social and religious status. Based on the historic evidence, an association of the Habiri with divinity cannot be avoided. While the exact significance of each of these references is unknown, it would not have been possible for the people who lived, worked, and travelled with Habiri to ignore the divine association. That factor must have been present in the mind of everyone; it was universally recognized and accepted. They were of special genetic stock, a "Chosen People".
The result of this research leads to the following conclusions:
The Habiri existed since the most ancient times. They are present in the first documents available to us, hundreds of years earlier than Avraham. They were scattered all over the Near East from Egypt to Mesopotamia, to the extremities of Assyria, along the coast of the Mediterranean through Canaan, and in the regions of Anatolia. They are not limited to any geographical area, any nation, or any social category; they appear at every level of society, in many different activities. They usually wandered from place to place. The movements of Terah, Avraham, and other members of that family were according to the habits of the general Habiri people. This is the reason by which the Sumerians were attempting to define their social roles. They truly were "wandering Arameans", though their origin is Akkadian/Assyrian, being descendants from Arphakshad. Notwithstanding, these "wandering Arameans" were the path through which the ancient Semitic linguistic world memories were preserved. They certainly played an unique role in reconnecting us with the remote history of mankind. They also brought a genetic line down into historic times, with Avraham chosen as the outstanding representative of that blood blessing.
The Habiru had a Deity whose Name was unknown to the other peoples, and also to themselves, as the Name was not revealed to anybody before Mosheh Rabainu. The fact that their Divinity's name was unknown is a further proof that identifies them with the "Children of Ever". The enigmatic MalkiTzedek, kohen of El-Elyon (Bereshyit 14:18), whoever he was corresponds to the characteristics of a Habiru authority, holder of the original spirituality which Avraham himself followed.
Their bondage in Egypt is now better understood. It was an economic bondage contracted during a time of need. They bought food and shelter in Egypt by selling their services, under established practices of those days. Succeeding generations were born into that bondage for lack of means to buy their freedom. The Egyptians probably perpetuated severe conditions in order to preserve a source of cheap labour. When Egypt was ravaged by plagues, Shemot chapters 7 to 11, the whole country was in havoc. The Israelites seized that opportunity to make their escape.
The documentary evidence shows they were extremely versatile and socially flexible, and were regarded with social respect. The Habiri had no fixed place in the social order where they chose to live; they were accepted in a foreign sense, not as part of a local social group.
The "Children of Ever" were many peoples. Ever himself is the father of all Yoqtanites, who settled in Southern Arabia, but the "Habiru" line continued through his other son, Peleg, from whom came Avraham and his brothers. Avraham engaged his son Yitzhak within his brother's family, in order to keep the bloodline, while Yishmael married an Egyptian and the Habiru tradition did not continue through him. The other sons of Avraham, that he had with Qeturah, seem that have partially followed the Abrahamic line, at least some Midianites (the Qeynites, of whom was Yethro, the father-in-law of Mosheh Rabainu) and Yoqshanites (the Ashurim, Lethushim and Le'ummim) were Habiru. Yitzhak followed his father's example and sent his son Ya'kov to the house of Betuel, his brother-in-law, to marry a daughter of him.
When the term "Habiru" disappears from ancient documents, the name "Ivri" (Hebrew) is applied in a restricted sense, only to Israelites. Apparently the Habiru were a social class who lost their unique identity. Their bloodline became submerged by interbreeding with other people, and could no longer be distinguished. The Hebrew people attempted to preserve the genetic lines, and thus preserved the Habiri distinction. The strength of that consciousness is witnessed yet today among the Jews who believe they are fulfilling the promises of the Scriptures, and that they have a right to the lands promised to Avraham. A few simple sentences written millennia ago carry the weight of destiny and modify the lives and actions of people living today.
The Hebrew Tribes were Habiru but not all Habiri were Hebrews. The Israelites came out of that special people and thus acquired the "Ivri" name. The statement in Bereshyit that Shem was the father of all the children of Ever now has a different meaning. The Hebrew/Habiri were the children of Ever, as that genetic line was remembered by the later Jewish scribes. This brief survey casts light on the antecedents of the Hebrew people, the Children of Israel. It offers us some insight into the selection of Avraham, the "Habiri" as the "Father of many nations". Therefore, Avraham was both a Hebrew (Habiri) and the forefather of Hebrews (Israelites).