Hebrews – New Bible Dictionary

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Meredith G. Kline, Hebrews in The New Bible Dictionary, ed. by J.D. Douglas. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962, pp. 511-512.

From the eponym Eber (Gn. x. 21 ff., xi. 14 fr.) comes the gentilic ‘ibri, ‘Hebrew’, used in the Bible as a patronymic for Abraham and his descendants. In the Old Testament ‘ibri is confined to the narrative of the sons of Israel in Egypt (Gn. xxxix-Ex. x), the legislation concerning the manumission of Heb. servants (Ex. xxi; Dt. xv; cf. Je. xxxiv), the record of Israelite-Philistine encounter during the days of Samuel and Saul (1 Sa. iv, xiii, xiv, xxix), plus Gn. xiv. 13 and Jon. i. 9.

‘ibri first appears as an ethnicon for Abraham (Gn. xiv. 13), being prepared for by the notice that Shem was father of all the descendants of Eber (Gn. x. 21). Accordingly, this designation serves to tie the Abrahamic revelation to the covenant promise to Shem. The Noahic doxology in praise of the covenantal union of Yahweh with the family of Shem (Gn. ix. 26) is echoed in Gn. xiv in the doxology of Melchizedek (19, 20) celebrating God’s covenantal blessing on Abraham the Hebrew, i.e. of the lineage of Shem. That the divine favour is shown to Abraham the Hebrew in a conflict which finds him in military alliance with the ‘sons of Canaan’ against the forces of an Elamite ‘son of Shem’ (cf. Gn. x. 15 fr., 22) is indicative that the covenantal election of Shem announced by Noah was being more particularly realized through the Eberite (Hebrew) Semites (cf Gn. xi. 10-26).

The broad significance of ‘ibri in Gn. xiv. 13 might also be plausibly assumed in the Gn. xxxix-Ex. x context (cf. especially Gn. xl. 15, xliii. 32; Ex. ii. 11). However, the usage there is perhaps not uniform, since there seems to be a simple equation of Hebrews and Israelites in Ex. v. 1-3 (cf. iii. 18), for example, though in speaking of ‘the God of the Hebrews’ Moses possibly designates his brethren ‘Hebrews’ as being the Hebrews par excellence.

In view of this broader application of ‘ibri, the appearance of non-Israelite or even non-Abrahamite ‘ibrim need not come unexpectedly in non-biblical texts of the patriarchal and Mosaic ages. According to a popular theory, the ha-BI-ru, who figure in numerous texts of the second millennium DC, are such ‘ibrim. The term ha-BI-ru is usually regarded as an appellative denoting nomads, dependants, or foreigners. However, the phonetic equation of ‘ibri and ha-BI-ru is highly improbable. Moreover, the extant evidence suggests that the ha-BI-ru were professional militarists with a non-Semitic nucleus drawn from the northern ethnic intrusion which brought the Hurrians and Indo-Aryans into the fertile crescent in the third millennium BC.

On the basis of the interpretation of the term ha-BI-ru in Nuzi servant contracts as an appellative meaning ‘foreign-servant’, it has been contended that ‘ibri in the legislation of Ex. xxi. 2 and Dt. xv. 12, whose terms correspond closely to the stipulations of the ha-BI-ru contracts, denotes not a specific ethnic identity but the status of an alien and, therefore, that the ‘ebed ‘ibri is like the Nuzi ha-BI-ru a foreign servant. But that interpretation of ha-BI-ru in the Nuzi texts seems to be inaccurate, and certainly the biblical legislation is concerned with Israelite servants. Dt. xv. 12 identifies the Heb. servant as ‘thy brother’ (cf. 3; Je. xxxiv. 9, 14). It is objected that what Ex. xxi allows for an ‘ebed ‘ibri, Lv. xxv forbids for an Israelite; but what Ex. xxi. 2 ff. allows is a voluntary perpetuation of an agreeable type of service, while Lv. xxv. 43, 44 forbids compulsorily permanent, rigorous slavery. The Jubilee stipulation of Lv. xxv is a supplementary privilege granted the Heb. servant, which apparently yielded precedence to the servant’s further right of voluntary lifelong service (Ex. xxi. 5, 6).

It has been maintained that the ‘ibrim in 1 Sa. xiii and xiv are non-Israelite mercenaries (a role characteristic of the ha-BI-ru). But in xiii. 3, 4 ‘the Hebrews’ are obviously the same as ‘all Israel’. Moreover, it is apparently the ‘men of Israel’ described in xiii. 6 to whom the Philistines refer in xiv. 11, designating them ‘Hebrews’. There is similar identification of the ‘ibrim in xiii. 19,20 (cf. also iv. 5-9). In xiii. 6,7 the ‘ibrim are not, as alleged, distinguished from the ‘men of Israel’; rather, two groups of Israelites are described. Verse 6 refers to those who had been excused from military service (2b) and later hid in the hills west of Jordan. Verse 7 refers to certain Israelites, here called ‘Hebrews’, who had been selected by Saul (2a) but afterwards, deserting, sought refuge east of the Jordan (note the reduction in Saul’s army-xiii. 2, 11, 15, xiv. 2). As for xiv. 21, even if, following EVV, the ‘ibrim are regarded as having fought for the enemy, they might have been Israelite traitors. The original text of verse 21, however, supports the exegesis that certain Hebrews after a lapse of courage resumed their former active hostility against the Philistines by rejoining Saul. These ‘ibrim are those mentioned in xiii. 7a. Along with the men of Israel who had hidden in the hill-country of Ephraim (xiv. 22, cf. xiii. 6) they returned to swell the ranks of Saul’s unexpectedly triumphant army.

The Old Testament usage of ‘ibri is thus consistently ethnic. Most occurrences being in discourse spoken by or addressed to non-Israelites, many would see a derogatory nuance in ‘ibri. The suggestion that ‘ibri is an alternative for ‘Israelite’ in situations where the person is not a free citizen on free soil is perhaps not unsuitable to any of the Old Testament passages. But even if such a connotation were intended it would be neither primary nor permanent. Indeed, by New Testament times, ‘Hebrew’ had become an exclusivist epithet claimed with pride by those Jews whose basic cultural-religious heritage had not been decisively influenced by the process of Hellenization (cf. Acts vi. 1; 2 Cor. xi. 22; Phil. iii. 5). A progressive restricting of the denotation of ‘ibri is evident from Abraham to Paul.

M. G. Kline, ‘The Ha-BI-ru — Kin or Foe of Israel?’, WTJ, XX, 1957, pp. 46 ff.; J. Lewy, ‘Origin and Signification of the Biblical Term “Hebrew”‘, HUCA, XXVIII, 1957, pp. 1-13.

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