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Hebrews (or Hebertes, Eberites, Hebreians; Hebrew: עברים or עבריים, Standard ʿIvrim, ʿIvriyyim Tiberian ʿIḇrîm, ʿIḇriyyîm, "traverse or pass over") is a term used in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and is regarded by many scholars as being synonymous with the Israelites.

In the Bible there are numerous references to Hebrews, but the exact scope of the references is the subject of some debate. For example, Abraham is referred to once as the Hebrew (i.e. Ivri). (Genesis 14:13) The term Hebrew occurs both as a name given to the Children of Israel by other peoples, and one used to refer to themselves. For example, Joseph says he came from the "land of the Hebrews" in Genesis 40:15, but that may be using terminology which is familiar to an Egyptian. YHWH the God of Israel, also uses the description "God of the Hebrews" when instructing Moses on how to address Pharaoh in Exodus 3:18, but that may be a reference to the terminology of the Egyptians for the Israelites. But the term is also used in Exodus 1:16-19 when addressing an Egyptian; but in 2:11 and 2:13 the term is used in the same passages that refer to the Children of Israel. The term is also used in a general sense in Exodus 21:2, Deuteronomy 15:12 and Jeremiah 34:9 to refer directly to the Children of Israel. Jonah calls himself a Hebrew in Jonah 1:9.

The Hebrews are generally regarded as either the same people or as ancestors of the Israelites, but some regard the use of the term by the Egyptians as referring to all peoples who came "across the river" (meaning a category of foreigner) of which the Israelites were a small part.


The origin of the term remains uncertain.[1] The biblical word Ivri (Hebrew: עברי), meaning to traverse or pass over, is usually rendered as Hebrew in English, from the ancient Greek Ἑβραῖος and Latin Hebraeus. In the plural it is Ivrim, or Ibrim.

The term is believed to be derived from the word eber, or ever, meaning beyond, or the “other side” and refers to Abraham, and the Children of Israel, who crossed over the Jordan River, into the land of Canaan. In Genesis 10:21 Shem, the elder brother of Japheth and first son to Noah is referred to as the ancestor of the Hebrews.

Some authors believe Hebrew/Ibri denotes the descendants of the biblical patriarch Eber (Hebrew עבר), son of Shelah, a great grandson of Noah and an ancestor of Abraham[2], though the term has not been found in biblical or extra-biblical sources for any tribe or nation other than Abraham and his descendants.[3]

The name “Hebrew” could also be related to the seminomadic Habiru people, who are recorded in Egyptian inscriptions of the 13th and 12th centuries BC as having settled in Egypt.[3]

Hebrews vs. Israelites vs. Jew

Israelites are defined as the descendants of Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham. Eber, an ancestor of Jacob (6 generations removed), is a distant ancestor of many people, including the Israelites, Ishmaelites, Edomites, Ammonites, Midianites, Qahtanite, and Moabites. Among historical scholars, there is some disagreement about the relationship between the Hebrews and Israelites.

The terms "Hebrews" and "Israelites" usually describe the same people, called Hebrews before the conquest of the Land of Canaan and Israelites afterwards.[3][4] Occasionally, "Hebrews" is used to designate the Jews, who use the Hebrew language.[5] The Epistle to the Hebrews was probably written for Jewish Christians.[6]
In some modern languages, including 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."

The term "Jew" describes all followers of the Jewish faith. The word comes from the Latin Iudaeus meaning "from the Iudaea Province". The Latin was derived from Hebrew: יְהוּדִי‎, Yehudi which sometimes refer to the members of the Biblical tribe of Judah but, most often, refers to the people of the kingdom of Judah.

Political implications

Beginning in the late 19th century century "Hebrew" terminology 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."[7] At the fringes of Zionist thought, the Canaanites, who were radically opposed to Judaism, drew a sharp distinction between "Jews" and "Hebrew".


Within the area known as the Land of Israel and prior to the establishment of the Israelite civilization, the Land of Israel was dominated by Phoenician, Philistines, and Canaanite tribes. There is a modern debate to the degree that the biblical account of a mass emigration to the Land of Israel is accurate or whether, as some archaeologists believe, that the Israelites simply arose as a subculture within Canaanite society. The Hebrews lived within the Land of Israel by at least the 2nd millennium BCE and in addition to speaking Hebrew also spoke Canaanite languages and dialects, which played a role in the Hebrew languages. The extent of the distinction between the culture of the Canaanites and the Hebrews is a matter of great debate, touching as it does on strong religious sensibilities. 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. Since the late 19th century, Hebrew has undergone a secular revival, to become the primary everyday language of Jews in Israel and became one of the official languages of the State (the other being Arabic).

Habiru vs. Hebrews

Some argue that the name “Hebrew” is related to the seminomadic Habiru people, who are recorded in Egyptian inscriptions of the 13th and 12th centuries BC as having settled in Egypt.[1] This is rebutted by others who propose that the Hebrews are mentioned in these Egyptian texts as Shasu.[8]

See also

  • Semitic peoples




  1. 1.0 1.1 "Hebrew". Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite.. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. 
  2. Jewish Encyclopedia article on Eber
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 entry in
  4. Hebrews entry in Jewish Encyclopedia
  5. entry in
  6. Encyclopedia Britannica: Hebrews, Epistle to the
  7. Shavit, Yaacov (1987). The New Hebrew Nation. Routledge. pp. xiv. 
  8. Rainey, Anson (2008-11). "Shasu or Habiru. Who Were the Early Israelites?". Biblical Archeology Review (Biblical Archaeology Society) 34 (06 (Nov/Dec)). 
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Hebrews. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.