The name Hebrew as ethnonym
The ethnonym Hebrew is one of a few that in modern times apply to Jews but in Biblical times had a far wider application (and actually meant something, and had nothing to do with religion or nationality). In the following table, every ethnonym except the first is a subset of the preceding one:
|Ethnonym||Patriarch||Biblical identity (as opposed to their modern ones)|
|Sons of Adam||Adam||Adam means Earthling and although the ethnonym "sons of Adam" is used only to denote men (Deuteronomy 32:8, 2 Samuel 7:14, Jeremiah 32:19) it would technically cover every living thing on earth (it means something like "the mortals"). Adam's wife Eve is therefore the mother of "all life" (Genesis 3:20) which is a phrase that occurs about half a dozen times in the Bible and always covers all living things (show me). Eve is what we today call the biosphere. Adam and Eve's notorious original sin therefore affects the whole of creation (Romans 8:19-22).|
|Sons of Noah||Noah||Noah marks the level of complexity (or synchronicity) at which human behavior becomes distinct from animal behavior. Hence Jesus could say that "they knew not until the flood came" (Matthew 24:39), and on several occasions, people who take leave of the quality that defines homo sapiens are equated with animals (Psalm 73:22, Ecclesiastes 3:18, 2 Peter 2:12, Jude 1:10). Still, the "sons of Noah" people the whole earth (Genesis 9:19).|
|Semites||Shem||Shem is one of three sons of Noah, and personifies both a trait of the human mind and a characteristic of human culture. Shem's family of Semites (or Shemites) peopled the Levant (Genesis 10:21-32, 11:10-32), including Babylon, from whence hailed Abram of Ur. Strangely enough, modernity does not speak of Japhethites when referring to Indo-Europeans, or Hamites when discussing Africans (although a Hamite language group was once proposed but then rejected).|
|Hebrews||Eber||Hebrews, or rather: Eberites, are "sons of Eber" (Genesis 10:21). It's not immediately clear which level of complexity of human mentality is personified by Eber, but since Eber's sons are Peleg (in whose days the earth was divided) and Joktan (whose many sons constitute the final generation before the tower of Babel), Eber probably marks the level of synchronicity needed for the development of modern human language(s).|
|Sons of Abraham||Abraham||Abraham, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Eber and the first to be called Hebrew or Eberite in the Bible, marks the level of international trade. Abrahamites, or sons of Abraham, are nations who interact with other nations (see our article on the name Abraham for more details).|
|Israelites||Jacob||Abraham had at least ten sons and Jacob was one of his great many grandsons. Jacob was renamed Israel at his attempt to cross the river Jabbok (Genesis 32:28). Whatever the name Israel signifies in the grander scheme of human mentality (because Israel was never just a nation, but rather the focal point of all nations — Genesis 12:3) is no longer obvious but it had to do with a level of interaction that sits somewhere between commercial trade (Abraham) and self-sacrificial love (Jesus of Nazareth).|
|Jews||Judah||Judah was one of twelve sons of Jacob (the fourth, actually, but he obtained first-born prominence after the crimes of Reuben, Levi and Simeon), and the ethnonym Jew literally means Judahite. Judah was formally the only tribe to return from exile, but since Levites and Simeonites were dispersed in Israel, they also lived among the Judahites and returned with them. The "land of Israel" was dubbed the "province of Judah" by the Babylonians (which was copied by the Romans, who called it Judea) and the people living in it became collectively known as Jews — later nationalism restricted this ethnonym to true and proven Israelites, as opposed to Samaritans and gentiles.|
|Christs||Jesus||A follower of Jesus is someone who, like Jesus, has been anointed and is now an ordained king, high priest and prophet. The word Christ means "anointed one," and denotes anyone who's been anointed (2 Corinthians 1:21, 1 John 2:20; the name "Christian" is an embarrassing misnomer). Jesus never stopped being a Jew (or actually a Levite-in-Judah: compare Luke 1:5 with 1:36), or an Israelite, or a son of Abraham, or a Hebrew, or a Shemite, or a son of Noah, or a son of Adam, and neither did any of his followers (Romans 11:17).|
The name Hebrew in the Bible
The name Hebrew, as we shall see below, literally denotes someone who passes through a liquid or watery medium and comes out dry on the other side. There is some indication that certain patriarchal names where in use in the Semitic language area long before the Biblical namesakes came to the scene (but this according to traditional dating, which is also dubious), and certain scholars propose that the Biblical stories are playful commentaries on the actual relations between naturally formed nations (for example: the adjacent nations of Israel and Edom had such a typical love-hate relationship that the Bible writers described them as coming from two twin brothers named Jacob and Esau, and so on).
This theory may or may not have any merit, but it opens the door to the idea that the name Hebrew may have originally denoted someone from "the other side [of the river]," which may have been a nickname for either someone from Mesopotamia, that is to say: someone now given to social nomadism, or someone who is clueless in the wisdom sense of the word (see Joshua 24:2-3). The plural form עברים ('ibrim, the word for Hebrews) denotes general "passers-by" and probably not Hebrews in Ezekiel 39:11.
This common term 'ibri, or so the theory goes, was then recruited by the Bible writers to denote a kind of theological nomadism, that of the Hebrews, or the "school" of thought which is typically not pinned down in one particular position, or even organized in a political sense, but which travels with the herd from one grazy pasture to the next, learning from other nations and cultures as it goes along.
Israel's theology may seem unique to a careless observer, but comparative mythology shows obvious overlap with the traditions of Babylon (in the story, due to the origin of Abraham and the patriarchal wives) and Egypt (due to Moses' education). The Bible also acknowledges the invaluable inputs of the Canaanite Melchizedek and the Midianite Jethro and several others, and those are just the sources we are told of. Likewise early Christianity did not arrive fully formed in a theological vacuum but as an amalgamation of various already existing but separate sects and schools of though: Those Of The Way, the Nazarenes, and possibly even a pre-Jesus Christianity comprising militant Messianics such as the Zealots.
The Jewish problem
All this may shed a significant beam of light on why so many rulers had so much trouble with the Hebrews, Jews and early Christians: they wouldn't sit still! A people that huddles around a clearly visible effigy can be knocked into submission by knocking that deity off its socket (1 Samuel 5:3, 2 Kings 19:12). And a state that's formed on a particular set of "self-evident truths" can be easily dismantled by disproving the merits of these founding premises. But a nation of people that is devoted to learning, to changing, bending, doubting, refining and reforming can not possibly be molded into shape.
The Hebrews were investigators. They didn't buy into anything that couldn't be logically deducted, that didn't fit the ways of the universe or that didn't match the amassed wisdom of the ancients, which was refined as silver in a fire seven times over (Psalm 12:6). "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:20, also see 1 Corinthians 2:10, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 and even Matthew 2:2). "Let's reason together," said YHWH (Isaiah 1:18), and when He appeared to Moses in the form of the famous burning bush, Moses didn't fall prostrate in senseless awe but said, "I must deviate and investigate this odd occurrence of why the bush is not burning up" (Exodus 3:3).
Even the word Hebrew (עברי) is closely related to the preposition עבור ('abur), meaning "because of" (or: a flowing forth of a conclusion from something previously established). The Hebrews worshipped the Word, which had nothing in common with the deities of the surrounding nations. The temple of the Hebrews was empty; their deity was wind. He loved them and they loved Him. It was absurd, blasphemous and a disaster for any self-proclaimed god-king.
Since in the old world everything revolved around deities, people without clearly defined deities were atheists, and atheists (we know since Machiavelli) are awful subjects to dupe. The Romans even went so far as to execute people on account of their atheism, "a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned," wrote Cassius Dio (67.14).
When those same Romans grafted the key words of this hated movement upon their governmental machine, modern Christianity was born, which was quick to point out that not a continued pursuit of the Great Unknown was holy, but the blind and uncritical obedience to Pope, Emperor and State (read our article on the name Nazarene for more on this). Later, Adolf Hitler adopted much of Rome's fanfare and policies of blind obedience to state and Führer, and offered the same final solution to the same Jewish problem. The only reason why Caesar Augustus is revered and Hitler is reviled is that the latter lost the war which the first had won. The rest is the same.
The atheist who wouldn't sit still
Modern atheists, especially those of the arm chair variety, tend to define themselves as people who don't believe in God, which is a statement that requires a theology based on a fixed definition of God, which violates the First Commandment just as much as any religion that won't budge (Exodus 20:4). Terah of Ur had no business with that kind of idolatry and wasn't going to sit still anywhere near a mentality that wouldn't change while everything else in the world did.
Terah famously left Ur of the Chaldeans — Ur means light and the Chaldeans were the priestly caste of Babylon; in other words: Terah was not simply a tourist; he had said goodbye to his religion. Terah died in Haran (means Mountainous and is possibly an image of multiple concentrations of wisdom), but YHWH spoke to his son Abram and he pressed on.
Abram traversed (יעבר, same as "hebrewed") the world as far as Shechem (means Sense Of Responsibility) and the oak of Moreh (Genesis 12:6; Moreh means Teacher and is related to the word Torah) and by the time Abram was called "the Hebrew", he was living at the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 14:13; Mamre probably means Bitter or Strong and is related to the name Mary).
In English all this oak-dwelling sounds like a pretty sturdy affair but in Hebrew it reveals that academically, Abram wasn't doing very well — see our article on the word אלון ('allon), meaning oak; an unmistakable symbol of weakness and foolishness.
The dude in the nude
The second person in the Bible sporting the epithet Hebrew is Joseph, one of Abraham's countless many great-grandsons (Genesis 39:14). One of the functions of the Joseph cycle is to explain how the Egyptian religious elite acquired the art of dream interpretation: it came from the Hebrews, who had sold it to Midianites (from Arabia, and note that the ethnonym Arabian, ערבי, is the name Hebrew, עברי, with the two middle letters reversed), who delivered it to Egypt, where it was misappropriated, misunderstood and buried until it found its way to the Pharaoh (not only a political king but also the highest of high priests) who appreciated it rightly and grafted it onto the religious tradition of On (41:45).
When Joseph explained where he was from, he said that he was abducted from the "Land of the Hebrews" (ארץ העברים, 'eres ha'ibrim; Genesis 40:15), which suggests that at that point in the story the name Hebrew was not yet restricted to the family of Jacob. At the time of the move to Goshen "Israel" consisted of less than six dozen people (Genesis 46:26); not enough to name a land after, or expect it to be familiar to anyone in an Egyptian jail.
Joseph's Land of the Hebrews probably denoted everything between Egypt and Babylon, including Arabia, and was undoubtedly known by the rest of the world as a dark place where barbaric peoples lived without the sophistication and restrictions of formal state-religion; people who shamelessly went about thinking and reasoning!
The verb ידע (yada') means to know but it also means to have sex (Genesis 4:1: "And Adam knew his wife Eve and she conceived..."). And sure enough, Joseph was besides clever, quite a hottie (39:6), with a solid pedigree of sexual emphasis:
Arch-father Abram rather parted from pretty Sarai than risk his life (12:14, 20:2) and seriously increased his wealth because of this. Their son he named Isaac (יצחק), which comes from the verb צחק (sahaq), meaning to laugh or to sport, and that of the kind that made Abimelech conclude with explicit certainty that Isaac and Rebekah were husband and wife and not siblings (26:8-9). Abraham's nephew Lot felt right at home in Sodom, until the men there wanted to rape his guests. Lot left Sodom and ended up drunk and impregnating his own daughters (Genesis 19). Joseph's half-sister Dinah was raped by Shechem (34:2). His half-brother Reuben had slept with Bilhah, his father's concubine and the mother of Dan and Naphtali (35:22). And his half-brother Judah had impregnated his own daughter-in-law Tamar (38:16).
Joseph had initially ended up in the house of Potiphar, and the latter's wife hoped that Joseph would live up to the Hebrews' reputation of wild pursuits (39:7), but much to her shock, Joseph had more manners than she did and declined. But all she had to do was cry "Hebrew!", point at Joseph escaping in the buff (39:12, see Mark 14:52) and holler of sport-making (again צחק, sahaq; Genesis 39:14, 17) and righteous Joseph was shipped off to jail.
Some while later, the Pharaoh rediscovered the merits of dream interpretation, and managed to acquire the rest of the Israeli tribes as well. He put them to work in Egypt's exorbitant building program (Exodus 1:11), but soon the presence of these theological nomads and their robust and resilient women (1:19) began to undermine the foundations and corrode the very fabric of Egyptian society.
The stone the builders rejected
The plural form עברים ('ibrim) also appears in the observation that Egyptians considered it loathsome to eat bread with Hebrews (Genesis 43:32). To modern readers this statement may reek of plain racism but there's much more to it. The Egyptian culture is a marvel of the old world, but what's most marvelous is that it barely changed over the course of thousands of years. The Egyptians appear to have abhorred deviation from traditional standards, whereas the Hebrews derived their identity from their cultural adaptability.
Still, even the Egyptian elite understood that a country's survival largely depends on its ability to change, especially when the world around it changes without scruples. And that explains how the Hebrews (a) were allowed to multiply like rabbits, and (b) were kept separate from the main culture, and were made to feed their products as unaccredited slaves into the main culture.
Events took a drastic turn when "one of the babies of the Hebrews" (and here at Abarim Publications we're guessing this was the invention of the Semitic alphabet, via which everybody would be able to acquire knowledge, which in turn made for hugely powerful nations) came "drifting down the Nile" and was "drawn out" (= the name Moses) and adopted by the "Pharaoh's daughter" (an obvious reference to Egypt's primary wisdom school; Exodus 2:6).
It appears that Egypt rejected whatever Moses represented, perhaps because the superior Semitic alphabet threatened to flood Egypt and push the millennia old traditions into oblivion (something that happened anyway, but a little later), and by rejecting Moses the Egyptians lost their hold on the entire Hebrew apparatus, which in turn led to Egypt's military and commercial demise (read our article on the Sea of Reeds for more details).
YHWH, God of the Hebrews (יהוה אלהי העברים, Exodus 3:18, (5:3), 7:16, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3), He who is, was and will be, liberated His people, and kept them and instructed them on their forty year trek through the Arabian wilderness (מדבר, midbar, from דבר, dabar, meaning word, as in the phrase Dabar-YHWH; the Word of God).
The ways of YHWH, which sound so clearly from the heavens, and which the Egyptians had tried to express in their vast and awesome buildings, now fitted on two portable slabs of stone, written "on both sides of them" (משני עבריהם, msheny 'eberyham, on both hebrews of them).
Etymology of the name Hebrew
The name Hebrew comes from the verb אבר (abar), meaning to pass over or through:
To us moderns the name Hebrew has a unique and exclusive (and even religious) ring to it, but it should be noted with some stress that this is not at all the case in the narrative of the Bible. The "name" Hebrew isn't an abstract label but much rather an ordinary word used as a appellative, like a nickname or even a signature quality. It means Passed Over or Passer Over or Transition or One Who Transits or One From The Other [Dry] Side or even Flower Forth or Deducer or He Who Looks At Something From All Sides.
In the Bible the name Hebrew obviously does not denote a particular religion or language or nationality, but rather the intrinsic human need to cut through all the legalizing and restricting, all the deceit and ballyhoo, and arrive at something timeless and natural; something as natural as we ourselves are: the natural laws upon which we were designed to operate, the same truth that famously sets us free (John 8:32), that existed before everything else (John 1:1) and in which everything holds together (Colossians 1:17); the same truth that purposes to hand over His kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power (1 Corinthians 15:24).