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Hebrew, habiru and 'apiru


This page reviews the Old Testament usage of the word "Hebrew" ('ibri), especially in the book of 1 Samuel. Similar words - habiru and 'apiru - appear in cuneiform and Egyptian sources. There is little doubt amongst linguists that these latter two words are essentially the same: the point in question is whether 'ibri is also related. The conclusion here is that at least as regards usage in 1 Samuel, there is a close similarity of usage.

Old Testament usage

Under construction.

Other textual usage

Cuneiform sources use the logogram SA.GAZ to represent the word habiru: Egyptian sources use 'apiru. The words are believed generally to be interchangeable. They generally indicate not a specific ethnic origin, but rather a social category. Typically such a person would be on the fringes of society, perhaps engaged in lawless or antisocial behaviour. It thus easily slides into becoming a pejorative or insulting description of another, used with the intention of discrediting the person concerned. This use is especially seen in the Amarna correspondence, in which various of the writers accuse each other of being or consorting with habiru. However, the word is used throughout the 2nd millenium and in the very early years of the first millennium.

The following extracts are representative.

From the Mari letters (conventionally 18th century BCE)

"Yapah-Adad has made ready the settlement Zallul on this side of the bank of the Euphrates River, and with two thousand troops of the Hapiru of the land is dwelling in that city"

Execration text (late 12th or early 13th dynasty)

"the ruler of Pella, 'Apiru-'Anu..."

Brooklyn Papyrus (from the reign of Sobekhotep III, mid 13th dynasty)

Amongst a list of domestic slaves we have the name 'Apiru-Rishpu.

Originating from the reign of Thutmose III, the papyrus from the time of Rameses II

"bring in the horses ... or an 'Apir may pass by [and take] them"

From the Asiatic campaign report of Amen-hotep II

"...princes of Retenu: 127; brothers of princes: 179; 'Apiru: 3,600; living Shasu: 15,200; Kharu: 36,300; living Neges: 15,070; adherents thereof: 30,652..."

Amarna letters

Numerous, under construction.

The Beth-Shan stela of Seti I

"On this day, lo [one came to tell] his [majesty]: The 'Apiru of Mount Yarmuta, with Teger ... [have ari]sen in attack upon the Asiatics of Rehem"

Papyrus Leiden 348, from the reign of Rameses II

"... the 'Apiru who drag stone for the great pylon of the [building?] 'Rameses-II-Beloved-Of-Truth"

Rameses III, the towns of Amon's estate, Heliopolis section

"Warriors, sons of (foreign) princes, maryannu, 'Apiru, and people settled who are in this place: 2093 persons"

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