Don't Call Me Hebrew! The Mysterious Origins of the First Anti-Semitic Slur
Long before the children of Jacob were called Jews, they were Hebrews (עברים). Despite the commonplace use of this term today (as in Hebrew language – which never appears as such in the Bible!), the Torah does not offer us an explicit explanation, as it does for “Israel” in Genesis 32:29.
The majority of occurrences of “Hebrew” are in the books of Exodus and Samuel, where it appears tellingly as a label for the nascent Israelites in the disparaging words of Egyptians and Philistines. What is the meaning of this seemingly derogatory term? Further, if it really is a racial slur, why does Scripture use it so frequently, where even Israelites – not to mention God – employ this designation in reference to themselves?
Rabbinic commentators suggested at least two possible derivations for this term:
1. Hebrew - ever (עבר) meaning “side”
The first of these interpretations, anticipated by the Bible itself is from ever (עבר) meaning “side,” referring to Abraham’s origins on the other side of the Euphrates river. The covenant ceremony described in Joshua 24 begins with a historical prologue that starts with Abraham’s departure from his idolatrous family roots:
...יהושע כד:ב ...בְּעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר יָשְׁבוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם מֵעוֹלָם תֶּרַח אֲבִי אַבְרָהָם וַאֲבִי נָחוֹר וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים׃ כד:ג וָאֶקַּח אֶת אֲבִיכֶם אֶת אַבְרָהָם מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר
Josh 24:2 ...In olden times, your forefathers — Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor — lived across the river (עבר הנהר = the Euphrates) and worshiped other gods. 24:3 But I took your father Abraham from across the river...
This passage serves as an inner-biblical interpretation of the reference to “Abram, the Hebrew” (אברם העברי) in Genesis 14:13, depicting Abraham as a pioneer who crossed cultural and religious boundaries in founding a new faith.
2. Hebrew - Ever, the great-grandson of Shem
The second interpretation pertains to Ever, the great-grandson of Shem, son of Noah (Genesis 10:21, 24). Even though Shem has numerous offspring, he is referred to as “progenitor of all the descendants of Eber” in Genesis 10:21, giving precedence to the lineage from which Abraham will emerge (11:16–27). Further support for this view will be discussed below. However, it will be helpful first to examine a modern theory that has emerged in light of historical evidence from outside the Bible.
Apirus (= Hebrews?) in Ancient Canaan
In modern research, quite a sensation surrounded the discovery of a class of people designated the ḫabiru or ̔apiru; this group is mentioned in over 200 documents from throughout the ancient Near East over the course of the second millennium B.C.E.. The similarity of these designations to biblical ‘ibri, considering the variation in the initial consonants evident in the term ‘apiru/ ḫabiru itself, has suggested to many scholars that we may, in fact, have found extra-biblical evidence for Hebrews. Though the precise characterization of Apiru is still contested, it appears that this term was usually applied to groups of refugees and migrants who bore the status of outsiders in relation to the lands of their dwelling.
The most important evidence pertaining to the Hebrew question comes from the El-Amarna letters from Canaan in the mid-14th cent. B.C.E.. In these letters, which provide us with a tantalizing glimpse of the political situation in Canaan before the emergence of Israel, the apiru are described as rebels against Egyptian authority in Canaan. For example, the ruler of Jerusalem pleads with the Egyptian king to send military support to help defend against the apiru:
May the king turn his attention to the regular troops so that the regular troops of the king, my lord, may come forth. The king has no lands! The apiru have plundered all of the king’s lands. If there will be regular troops this year, the lands of the king, my lord, will remain. But if there are no regular troops, the lands of the king, my lord, will be lost (EA 286: 53–60).
The Great Hebrew Peasant Revolt
Passages such as this inspired the biblical scholar George Mendenhall (b. 1916) to suggest that the ancient Israelites were not a nomadic people who conquered the land from outside but rather socially marginal Canaanites who rebelled against their Egyptian feudal lords. This view was further refined by Norman Gottwald (b. 1926) in his peasant revolt theory of Israel’s origins. While a faction of the future Israelites may have actually left Egypt, the real liberation from Egyptian bondage and the key phase in the formation of Israel took place in the land.
In the decades since this theory was first advanced, its reception has been mixed. On one hand, the peasant revolt theory has suggested a way to explain Israel’s origins without a massive invasion or migration from outside of the land, which could address in part the lack of archaeological evidence for a large-scale Israelite conquest.
On the other hand, the identification of Hebrews with the apiru has been met by much criticism. In addition to linguistic difficulties, a fundamental difference in these two terms cannot be easily glossed over: whereas apiru is consistently employed to designate a social group and not an ethnicity in the ancient Near Eastern evidence from all periods, the designation Hebrew in the Bible is employed explicitly in reference to an ethnic group, the Israelites.
A Mere Coincidence?
A further point pertains to the dating of texts. Whereas the Near Eastern evidence for the apiru disappears at the end of the 2nd mil. B.C.E., most scholars would date the composition of the relevant biblical materials to a much later period. Yet it remains intriguing that the biblical references to Hebrews are concentrated in the earliest periods of Israel’s national existence, that is, they appear in an appropriate narrative context. This point suggests that the reliability of biblical traditions should not be dismissed a priori on the basis of the contested issue of text dating.
In light of these contradictory indications, one things seems certain: no simple identification of the apiru and Hebrews is possible. But the question remains: Are the striking similarities between the two terms in their phonetic form, their reference to marginal groups and their negative connotations purely coincidental? Or is it possible that the biblical authors appropriated the term apiru and gave it a modified (ethnic) meaning and folk etymology?
The First Anti-Semitic (Shemitic) Slur
A final approach starts from a much more secure basis – an analysis of the usage of the term “Hebrew” within the Bible itself. As intimated above, the bulk of occurrences of this term in the Bible appear in the speech of Egyptians and Philistines in reference to the Israelites, and a more thorough survey of these occurrences suggests that this term was indeed a derogatory racial slur (see examples below).
The most thorough exposition of this approach is the literary critic Meir Sternberg’s epic work Hebrews Between Cultures (1999), who argues that “‘Hebrew’ is a codeword for the Bible’s in-group as misrepresented from the outside by the arch-foreigner, the Hamite antigroup and anticulture.” In other words, the rabbinic commentators who derive ‘ibri from Eber, the son of Shem, have caught on to a very intricate subplot in which the Bible depicts the offspring of Shem from the perspective of their anti-Shemitic oppressors, the offspring of Ham (Egyptians and Philistines).
An example can be found in the Hebrew midwives clever tactic to evade culpability for not killing the Hebrew males as commanded (Exod. 1:19):
כִּ֣י לֹ֧א כַנָּשִׁ֛ים הַמִּצְרִיֹּ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת כִּֽי־חָי֣וֹת הֵ֔נָּה בְּטֶ֨רֶם תָּב֧וֹא אֲלֵהֶ֛ן הַמְיַלֶּ֖דֶת וְיָלָֽדוּ׃
Because not like the Egyptian women are the Hebrewesses, because they are instinct with life (כי חיות הנה); before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth.
This reading of חיות takes it as a reference to the Hebrewesses extraordinary birthing capacity, as in the etymology of the name Eve (חוה) given in Genesis 3:20 as the “mother of all living” (אם כל חי), but it can just as easily be read “because they are animals  (חיות).” Accordingly, the midwives turn the pharaoh’s paranoia of exploding Israelite population growth against him by claiming that they just can’t keep up with the phenomenal birth rate of the animalistic Hebrewesses. Here the dehumanization of the Hebrews plays an ironic function, as the pharaoh’s final solution is undermined by his own racist logic.
God of the Hebrews: Seeing Yourself as the Other Sees You
A key aspect of Sternberg’s analysis is to address the question: If “Hebrew” is a derogatory term, why do we find it used by Israelites, by the narrator and even by God? His attempt to meet this challenge leads to fascinating insights. A particularly interesting case is the burning bush episode. In appointing Moses for his mission, God employs the designation “Israel” as part of the emphasis on their chosenness and promises to “free my people, the Israelites (בני ישראל), from Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). Yet a few verses later, when giving the message that is to be related to pharaoh, God switches codes and takes on an Egyptian perspective:
וּבָאתָ֡ אַתָּה֩ וְזִקְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֗יִם וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֤י הָֽעִבְרִיִּים֙ נִקְרָ֣ה עָלֵ֔ינוּ וְעַתָּ֗ה נֵֽלְכָה נָּ֞א דֶּ֣רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֤שֶׁת יָמִים֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְנִזְבְּחָ֖ה לַֽיהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ׃
You shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him, “The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, manifested himself to us. Now , let us go, please (נא), a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD, our God” (3:18).
Both the references to “God of the Hebrews” and to “our God” (with a relativistic frame of reference) are adapted to show deference to the pharaoh’s sense of racial superiority and his polytheistic sensibility. However, when time comes to actually confront pharaoh, the heavy-lipped prophet mixes up the codes:
וְאַחַ֗ר בָּ֚אוּ מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ אֶל פַּרְעֹ֑ה כֹּֽה אָמַ֤ר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֱ-לֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת עַמִּ֔י וְיָחֹ֥גּוּ לִ֖י בַּמִּדְבָּֽר:
Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: “Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness” (Exod. 5:1).
The law-giver’s attempt to lay down the law is an utter failure. Predictably, pharaoh repays the dishonor:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֔ה מִ֤י יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶשְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹל֔וֹ לְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לֹ֤א יָדַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֶת־יְ-הֹוָ֔ה וְגַ֥ם אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֹ֥א אֲשַׁלֵּֽחַ:
Who is the LORD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go (Exod. 5:2).
At this point, Moses and Aaron attempt to salvage the situation with a less confrontational approach:
וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֱ-לֹהֵ֥י הָעִבְרִ֖ים נִקְרָ֣א עָלֵ֑ינוּ נֵ֣לֲכָה נָּ֡א דֶּרֶךְ֩ שְׁלֹ֨שֶׁת יָמִ֜ים בַּמִּדְבָּ֗ר וְנִזְבְּחָה֙ לַֽי-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֵ֔ינוּ פֶּ֨ן יִפְגָּעֵ֔נוּ בַּדֶּ֖בֶר א֥וֹ בֶחָֽרֶב:
The God of the Hebrews has manifested himself to us. Let us go, please (נא), a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, lest He strike us with pestilence or sword (Exod. 5:3).
Not only do they revert to God’s original message, they attempt to compensate for their initial misstep by showing deference and emphasizing the danger to themselves if the sacrifices are not offered. But it is too little, too late: their request is rejected.
Many such examples can be given. The key point here is that references to “Hebrew” reflect the adaptation of the Israelite (and even God) to the code of the Hamite suppressor. But what appears as “identification with one’s captor” turns out to be an ironic set-up, preparing for the great reversal of fortunes.
Turning Slurs into Slogans
It is this sophisticated play on perspectives that characterizes the Bible’s treatment of Hebrewness. While certainly ethnocentric (as religious texts of the world tend to be), it is far from simple-minded. On a basic level, the self-appropriation of the Other’s derogatory term serves as a subversive expression of self-empowerment, comparable to the use (albeit controversial) of “nigger” in hip-hop music. But there is much more to it.
The import of the term “Hebrew” in the Bible takes place on multiple levels – one might say in parallel universes. In the tacit contract (or covenant!) between implied (divine) author and the Israelite audience, Israel is expected to attain supremacy over the offspring of Ham in accordance with Noah’s blessing in Genesis 9:25–26. This blessing is turned upside-down in the narrative world where Hebrews are subjugated by the Hamites. The implied promise is that, just as the roles are ultimately reversed in the narrative action (e.g., in the Exodus), so too, the subjugation experienced by the Israelite readers in their own socio-political context (whether in the exile or under foreign sovereignty in the land) must inevitably come to an end.
In summary, we have reviewed here three lines of interpretation for the enigmatic term “Hebrew.” Each of these bears its own message for the modern reader. The first focuses on the role of Abraham, the border-crosser and iconoclast who was not afraid to break with his idolatrous family history. A second view focuses on the fight of the Canaanite apiru to liberate themselves from economic and political oppression. The third view (which fits the rabbinic derivation from Eber, son of Shem) focuses on the derogatory connotations of this label, especially when used by Hamite protagonists. This interpretation suggests an even more profound liberation: freeing one’s identity from subjugating stereotypes imposed by Others.
The saga of the Israelites masquerading as “Hebrews” calls attention to the disparity between these false images and the reality they purport to represent. Consequently, in its multi-layered subtlety, the “Hebrew” Bible invites us to engage in a much deeper reading of the text, of others – and ourselves.
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January 9, 2015
July 5, 2020
Dr. Yitzhaq Feder is a lecturer at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). His upcoming book, Contagion and Cognition: Defilement as Embodied Discourse in the Hebrew Bible, examines the psychological foundations of impurity in ancient Israel.
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