THE MYSTERIOUS HABIRU
In our attempt to understand events surrounding Abraham, and the people
of Israel, we must keep certain factors in mind.
The family of Terah was not an isolated social unit which somehow inherited
all of Adam's genes while the rest of the world ran on without that benefit.
There may have been hundreds of such family units scattered around the
Near East. The Akkadian Adamatu illustrate those Adamic blood lines.
Terah was part of a Semitic stock which had divided into various branches
and groups including the Akkadians, Amorites, old Assyrians, old Chaldeans,
Canaanites, and so on. The family of Terah was merely part of that tribal
and linguistic diversity.
By the time of Abraham the Semitic languages had developed various branches
and dialects. The clay-tablet records from Sumeria, Babylonia, Mari, Canaan
and Egypt show the diversity in 2000 BC. Hebrew was not some magical language
which had been preserved intact from the time of Adam; it was one branch
of the Semitic languages which had developed its own peculiarities. Fortunately,
for us, it retained those roots which we now recognize in the world-wide
name phenomena. Some scholars speculate that the people we know as the
Hebrews did not use that language as their original tongue but adapted
it from their Canaanite neighbors when they moved into that territoryHOI.
However, the weight of linguistic evidence from around the world speaks
against such supposition. We simply do not have sufficient knowledge of
those times to say which language resided in which territory by which group
of people and how the people and the languages may have moved and mixed
from one area to another. But we now know with a wealth of explicit evidence
that Hebrew was the path God used to keep his secrets.
Those Near East scholars who worked from 1850 to 1950 saw themselves
as extremely fortunate to be opening new vistas into the planetary past.
In their pride they strained to show erudition and expert knowledge in
effort to elevate their reputations. Such motivations naturally colored
their thoughts and their actions. They rigidly classified languages and
groups, hardly providing room for dialectal variations or social diversity.
In the technical reports one reads such phrases as "barbaric Canaanite"
or "mixed Babylonian." Hebrews were Hebrews; Babylonians were Babylonians;
Sumerians were Sumerians; a great mixing and blending of people is not
openly acceded. Yet the high assimilation of Sumerian culture by the Akkadians,
and Akkadian influence upon the Sumerians, is witness to a process of cultural
exchange and integration.
Scholars debate whether Abraham was a nomadic shepherd; most believe he was; some say he was of Bedouin stock. The biblical accounts show that he lived in a pastoral environment but the data are not clear. When Terah moved his family from Ur to Haran it seems he moved from one urban setting to another. But when Abraham moved to Canaan he lived in tents. The Genesis accounts surrounding Abraham take place in a tent-living, stock-grazing environment. The story of Jacob's marriage into the family of Laban takes place in a similar environment. Yet Abraham's nephew Lot dwelt among the cities of the valley, Gen 13. According to Gen 14:12 he actually dwelt in Sodom. The accounts show that the Hebrew people could adapt to different conditions and that their life style and place of residence depended upon economic circumstances. We would
be in error to say that Abraham was a shepherd of Bedouin stock; he adapted to a shepherd life until he could establish
himself in the land that had been promised to him. Other families of similar Semitic stock probably lived in towns, and worked as farmers, artisans, as military people, and in
numerous other occupations. Rigid classification by scholars on origins and cultures obscures this diversity.
The mythologized report of the origins of the tribes of the earth descended from the sons of Noah are obviously confused. Ham was the father of the people of Africa, yet some of the Semitic tribes of Arabia were listed as his descendants. Shem should have been the father of the Semites yet Lud, his son, is thought to mean a non-Semitic people living in Anatolia, while the list also includes the non-Semitic Sumerians. Japheth was the father of all the people to the north and east, the Indo-Europeans. The total number of tribes listed are seventy, a magic number for Jewish scribes. The lists were hardly a reliable record. Shem was "the father of all the children of Eber," Gen 10:21; Eber was his great grandson. Laban was Abraham's great nephew; Bethuel, Laban's father was Abraham's nephew. Yet both are described as Arameans, Gen 25:20, not as Hebrews. Aram was the eponymous ancestor of the Arameans, while Arpachshad, the brother of Aram, was the forefather of the "sons of Eber," the Hebrews. These descriptions show that the Jewish scribes who made up the lists did not fully understand their source material; they did not adhere to sensible grouping of the different eponymous ancestors, names, and people. The Hebrew designation could not mean pure blood stock.
As the Hebrew tribes were instructed to confess, "A wandering Aramean
was my father," Deut 26:5.
The above factors are all pertinent to a more comprehensive view of
the origin of the Hebrew people. While the biblical accounts are brief
and confused, they directly enlighten historical data which has been accumulated
over the past hundred years.
Before proceeding to that historical data I shall first show the origins
of the name from the Semitic verb root system. This will permit ready reference
as I proceed into discussion.
Many Near East scholars believe the name "Hebrew" derives from Eber,
the eponymous ancestors of the Hebrew people. In Hebrew, the Hebrew name
is Ibri (Ibree), suggested as a possible contraction of Eberi
(Eberee). Possible shifts of Ibri to Ibru, with an initial
"H" added, then gave us Hibrew or Hebrew. Contrary to such
speculation, the name comes directly out of the verb root awbar,
meaning "to cross over."
The Ibri name, with plural Ibrim, is used in a number
of passages in Genesis and Exodus, but always as identification to foreigners.
In the Jewish tradition this designation is not used among Hebrew people;
they understood themselves as benai Israel, the Sons of Israel.
Abraham is thus called an Ibri in Gen 14:13. Joseph is known as
an Ibri in Gen 39:17. Moses saw an Egyptian smiting an Ibri
in Exod 2:11. This designation was being used as late as Jeremiah: "that
everyone should set free his Ibri and Ibreyah servants" so that none
would serve his Jewish brother, Jer 34:9.
Refer to Table 29-1. Ibree is from the Kal form, the feminine singular imperative, "One Who Has Crossed Over."
|Note that other forms appear in the tabulation. Eber shows as Ebor, the masculine singular imperative, an easy shift in pronunciation. Furthermore, Iber appears in the Pi'el form, "He impregnated." If surrounding people recognized Abraham and his descendants as Iberi, an easy substitution for Ibri, they were unwittingly admitting to a special role promised by God. Still more, the ibri and iber words are inflected to ibru, both in the Kal imperative, and in the Pi'el past plural.||
Obviously, there is no need to speculate on the origin of the Hebrew
name, or on its associated forms, as erudite scholars are wont to do in
order to show their erudition.
I shall now go on to demonstrate how the Hebrew people were known to the ancients in the Near East regions, their widespread social impact upon other cultures, the manner in which they left a record of their existence, and how special they considered themselves to be.
Egyptian Historical Texts
1) In an Egyptian tomb, belonging to one Puyemre, was carved on the
stone walls a scene depicting men working at a wine press. Beneath the
picture was a title which ran:
"Straining out wine by the Apiru."
The date of the tomb is believed to be during the reign of Hatshepsut
and of Thutmose III, circa 1470 BCHAB.
Scholars immediately recognized the similarity of the word Apiru
to Hebrew, with a scene depicting manual labor, as described in
Exodus for Hebrew people under bondage in Egypt.
2) At the end of his second Asiatic campaign Amenhotep II erected a
stele at Memphis on which he gave a list of booty he had collected, circa
List of the plunder which his majesty carried off:
Princes of Retenu (Syria): 127
The list appears to be given in descending
order of social status. First are listed princes, then brothers of princes,
and third Apiru. The Apiru rank below royalty but above the Bedouins, Hurrans,
and Nuhashians. The Apiru are differentiated from the Bedouin; the Apiru
are of a higher social class.
The Apiru are obviously countable; they are
a recognizable group distinct from others. If the Apiru were Hebrews many
of those in bondage arrived there as captives; not all were descended from
the original twelve tribes.
3) During a campaign in Palestine Seti I erected
a stele at Beth-shan on which he made the following remark, circa 1300
This day, then, one came to tell his majesty that the Apiru of Mt. Yarmut together with the Tayaru . . . are engaged in attacking the Asiatic nomads of Ruhma.
The Tarayu are understood by most scholars
to be a nomadic group. Yarmut is written as Jarmuth in Josh 21:29 in some
English translations. It was a location assigned to the tribe of Issachar.
Beth-shan was located to the east of Mt. Gilboa near the upper end of the
Jordan river on the line dividing the tribes of Issachar and Manasseh.
Obviously, the Apiru were engaged in open warfare against residents of the land of Canaan, in a setting typical of the book of Joshua, and at a period when the Hebrew tribes were attempting to gain control of the land, as we know it from the Bible. However, the books of Joshua and Judges do not describe Egyptian presence in Canaan at that time. Perhaps the Jewish scribes who compiled the accounts were reluctant to show such presence for fear of degrading the glory of their
forefathers. The unopposed conquest of Canaan by the Tribes is denied in this report from Egypt. The report confirms an
hypothesis that the Apiru are Hebrew
4) From the Papyrus Leiden, dated to
the reign of Ramses II, circa 1250 BC, the following statement is made
in a letter:
Issue grain to the men of the army and to the Apiru who draw stone for the great pylon of Ramses II.
Again we see Apiru in bondage in Egypt down
to the time of Ramses II. They were being used as quarrymen and manual
5) In a list of items dedicated by Ramses III,
circa 1170 BC, to the temple of Atum at Heliopolis are included:
6) A list of men sent to quarry in Wadi Hammamat
by Ramses IV, circa 1140 BC, included:
5000 men of the army
7) One other document is pertinent. In a story
in Papyrus Harris is an account of Thoth, a general of Thutmose
III. There the name Apir appears, without the "u" ending of Apiru.
The Egyptian general was besieging the port of Joppa and carrying on negotiations
with the chiefs of Joppa for their surrender. The general asks the chiefs
to permit his Maryannu to bring his horses into the town:
". . . because otherwise the Apir will pass near and steal them."
The name Apir is similar to Iber and strengthens the association between Apiru and Hebrew.
In 1887 an Egyptian peasant woman discovered
a collection of cuneiform tablets at Tell El-Amarna in Middle Egypt. They
were located in a room of a palace buried in sand. They contained the archives
of the Asiatic campaigns of the Pharaoh Akhnaton in the mid-fourteenth
century BC. (Amarna had been newly built as Akhnaton's capital.) The tablets
were letters of correspondence to Amenhotep III, the father of Akhnaton,
and to Akhnaton himself. A very few were to Tutankhamen, his successor
and son-in-law. They were written by Canaanite scribes who were located
in Palestine, Phoenicia, and southern Syria. They were mostly in the Akkadian
language, "full of canaanitisms in grammar and vocabulary." Occasionally
a letter was written in Canaanite with scattered Akkadian formulas and
ideogramsNET. They described mostly a state of anarchy then
These historical records show that Egypt had
previously taken control of Canaan but that law and order had deteriorated;
local princes and tribal chiefs were trying to overthrow their Egyptian
rulers. Akhnaton apparently was preoccupied with other matters. He was
vigorously pursuing a program to reform the religion of Egypt. With his
mind and energies devoted to that enterprise, and to the establishment
of his new city at Amarna, he may have had little time to tend to the affairs
of the empire. Furthermore, he had antagonized the powerful Egyptian priesthood;
they were intent on removing him from power. Amidst this unsettled period
tribes were on the move in Canaan.
Er-Heba, the Egyptian ruler in Jerusalem, wrote
a series of letters to the king in which he complained about the Habiru.
The Habiru were plundering the lands of the king. Er-Heba wanted
to know why the king was favoring them in this way; why was he not sending
archers to protect his, the king's, properties. If he did not send military
help the whole land would be given to the Habiru.
The letters contain not only the familiar name
Jerusalem but also other names from the BibleHAB:
Out of seven references by Er-Heba to the Habiru,
four of the names are given as Habiri. The Habiru and Habiri names
were fully interchangeable. Their similarity to the Ibru and Ibri
names, can be easily seen in Table 29-1.
If the events of this period were those described
by Joshua in the Bible they would place the Exodus prior to the fourteenth
century, in agreement with more traditional estimates.
The activities of the Habiri in southern
Palestine concerns many scholars; they believe this area was not attached
to Israelite territory until much later. However, Chapters 10 to 12 in
the Book of Joshua describe just such conquest, with the very names
listed in the Amarna tablets, including Lachish, Gezer, Gath, and the king
of Jerusalem. A quote from one tablet shows the state of affairs:
See the deed which Milkilu and Shuwardata have done to the land of the king, my lord! They have the troops of Gezer, troops of Gath, and troops of Qeila. They have seized the land of Rubute. The land of the king has fallen away to the Habiri. And now, even a city of the Jerusalem district, Bit-nin-ib by name, a city of the king, has fallen away to the side of the people of Qeila. Let the king listen to Er-Heba, your servant, and send an army of archers that they might restore the land of the king to the king. For if there are no army of archers the land of the king will fall away to the Habiri.
Other evidence strengthens a postulate that
the Habiru/Habiri were Hebrew people. In the Bible two names are
coupled together in lists of the tribes. In Gen 46:17 the sons of Beriah
are given as Heber and Malchiel. In Num 26:45 the sons of Beriah
are listed as "Heber, the family of the Hebri, and Malchiel,
the family of the Malchieli." This same name association is in one of the
letters of Er-Heba where he remarks that "This deed is the deed of Milkilu
and the deed of the sons of Labaya who have given the land of the king
to the Habiri."
Another illustration is found in another letter
among the Amarna tablets where Er-Heba states that Labaya gave Shechem
to the Habiri.
While these are the only explicit references
to the Habiri in the Amarna tablets many other tablets contain similar
descriptions of unrest, and activities of groups hostile to Egyptian interests
who were called SA-GAZ, from an ideogram used in Akkadian writing.
Scholars debated identification of the SA-GAZ for many years until
it was discovered in other Near East documents that the SA-GAZ ideogram
was an equivalent for the Habiru/Habiri.
Rib-Addi, the royal governor of Gubla, (Hebrew Gebal, also known as Byblos, just south of modern Beirut), dated the uprising of the native Canaanite tribes of southern Syria, of Phoenicia, and of Palestine, from the return of Thutmose IV from his Asiatic campaigns, circa 1410 BC. His address was to Amenhotep III:
Since the return of your father from Sidon - from his days the lands have been going over to the SA-GAZ.
This report is an explicit historical reference to the conquest of Canaan by Hebrew tribes.
If general unrest existed in the area from
southern Syria through Canaan down to the Negev it would have been possible
for those tribes to move readily into and through the area. One reason
for their forty-year trek in the wilderness may have been Egyptian control
in the promised land. As that control relaxed the door was open for their
movement into those regions.
The ideogram SA-GAZ and the name Habiri
was not limited to the Israelite tribes. If the mixture of blood lines
was strong in the Phoenicians, the Amorites, and other Semitic tribes,
the designation Habiri may have been applied to all of them. This
is illustrated by Rib-Addi at Byblos calling the area "the land of the
Amurru," that is, the land of the Amorites. The designation fits well
with the location of the Amorites during this period. The Amurru were also
regarded as SA-GAZ. Rib-Addi's arch foe was Abdi-Ashirta, prince
of the Amurru, a SA-GAZ man.
The entire region was in upheaval; the Israelite
tribes entered into, and became part of, that restless scene. The widespread
unrest should not be attributed solely to the Israelite tribes; the biblical
accounts, slanted to give glory to Israel, are an indication of general
territorial rebellion against Egyptian authority.
The SA-GAZ hired out as mercenaries.
Biridiya, prince of Megiddo, complained about the sons of Labaya, a rebel
Now behold the two sons of Labaya have given their money to the SA-GAZ and to men of the land of Kashshi to make war against me.
Acts of pillage, looting and murder were commonplace.
This is indicated clearly in Judges 9 where Abimelech sought rulership
at Shechem. After a speech to the townspeople they gave him seventy pieces
of silver with which he hired "worthless and reckless fellows" who
The SA-GAZ designation is evidenced
further in letters from various local governors, including those of Sidon,
Tyre, Tubihi, Hazi and others. Zimridda of Sidon states that:
All the cities that the king gave in my charge have gone over to the SA-GAZ.
In another letter one Biryawaza, a local loyalist
governor, states that rebel troops:
Its horses and its chariots they have given to the SA-GAZ.
The events surrounding Mayarzana of Hazi are
very similar also to those described in Joshua 11, and his battles with
the king of Hazor. The SA-GAZ, under a rebel leader, Amanhatbi,
seized the cities of Mahzibti, Giluni, Magdali, and Ushte and burned them.
Joshua seized the cities of Hazor, Achshaph, Shimron, and Madon and burned
them, 11:13. In the El-Amarna letter the SA-GAZ raided Hazi but
Mayarzana, with unspecified allies, repulsed the SA-GAZ and killed
them. Joshua burned the chariots with fire, 11:6,9, a foolish action for
such valuable weapons of war, while the SA-GAZ brought their chariots
to a local rebel governor who had gone over to their side.
These descriptions from historic records show
that military activities in the land of Canaan were not at all with the
glory portrayed in the Bible. They reduce those glamorized accounts to
In a few of the El-Amarna tablets it is stated
that the SA-GAZ supported the loyalist governors. Apparently they
did not all identify with rebellion; they were not a united group with
one political conviction. The evidence from Syria and Palestine in the
El-Amarna letters shows also that the SA-GAZ/Habiri were not identified
with any particular tribe or group of people. They could hire out as warriors
of rebel leaders, and they used the lack of Egyptian power as a convenience
for acquiring control of the territory.
The identification of groups of Habiri (SA-GAZ)
and their activities corresponds well to the conquest of Canaan described
in the book of Joshua. The Armarna letters suggest that this class of people
held unique status in the Near East. Although not of tribal identity, with
a specific geographical location, it was given special regard. The location
of the SA-GAZ/Habiri in southern Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine
suggests that the term was used generally for the Semitic tribes of those
areas. It described a particular Semitic stock which, by historical times,
had divided into numerous tribes and separate, identifiable ethnic groups.
The Ibir were merely another branch of that special genetic stock.
While the term Ibri clung to the Hebrew people for another thousand
years, (witness Jeremiah), the Habiru/Habiri designation eventually
was lost among other groups with that special blood.
The glorified accounts of the conquest of Canaan cannot be considered in isolation from the political environment of the day, nor disregard the activities of neighboring Semitic people. The framework which gave rise to the biblical accounts was complex, and laden with many inglorious elements.
The earliest known reference to the SA-GAZ/Habiru
are from Sumer and date from the Third Dynasty of Ur, circa 2000 BC. A
Sumerian renaissance began under Gudea of Lagash and reached its political
and economic peak under the kings of the Third Dynasty. A special mark
of this period was the rise of Semitic elements to social attention. This
included not only native Akkadian speaking Semites, but also an infiltration
of western "Amurru" (Amorites). Concurrent with this influx of western
Semites the terms SA-GAZ/Habiru/Habiri begin to appear in Sumerian
documents. The documents show that the SA-GAZ were a new element
in society, that they were attempting to establish themselves, and that
the judicial system was having difficulty defining their legal status.
One document reads:
Nannakiag, son of Lugaladda, said to the ensi (Judge?): "Anzika, the SA-GAZ, is not my man." Ur-Mami was sent with him as supervisor. Nannakiag cleared the man with regard to what he said. He did not confirm him regarding SA-GAZ (activity?).
The text seems to say that Nannakiag had suffered some wrong and had first accused the SA-GAZ man. The case was brought to court whereupon Nannakiag states that Anzika was not the one who did it. He cleared him concerning the SA-GAZ activity. The activity seems to have a pejorative air about it, as though the SA-GAZ were engaged in conduct that was regarded as acceptable among themselves, but that was not permitted in Sumerian society.
This state of affairs is suggested again in another document which reads:
Ku-u, Dada-u-numun, Nur-ili, and Zulala were judges. The SA-GAZ sued but was unable to substantiate his case.
In still another, mutilated, text:
If a man rented a boat, and he set it on a journey, for him, the owner, and its journey . . . he altered, and the . . . of the . . . boat was employed for SA-GAZ activity, the man who rented the boat, the boat he shall restore.
In all cases quoted here it appears that the
social roles of the SA-GAZ are being defined.
Some of the documents show SA-GAZ receiving
rations of cattle and sheep from court livestock. Apparently the SA-GAZ
were in government employment; the livestock were used as payment for services.
In another case clothing were given to sergeants
of the Habiri, demonstrating that the SA-GAZ/Habiri were
employed in military service. According to army records:
Four suits of clothing for the sergeants of the Habiri (were) received by Ibni-Adad . . . out of the midst of the treasury of Bit-Shamah from the hand of Ili-ippalsa. Month of Nisanu, 11th day, year Rim-Sin became king.
The Sumerian records all show that the SA-GAZ/Habiri were active in service roles in the community, as the Israelites served in Egypt, and as later Jews served in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.
Excavations at Kultepe and Alishar in ancient
Anatolia, now modern Turkey, uncovered several hoards of letters, and legal
and economic texts, belonging to Assyrian trading stations of the old Akkadian
period. This location is beyond the Anti-Taurus mountains far distant from
the cities of Sumer. Among these documents was a letter from one Assyrian
merchant to another requesting that he seek the release of Haberi
men who were in custody at the palace of Shalahshuwe, an unidentified neighbor,
possibly north of Alishar.
Concerning the Haberi men of the palace of Shalahshuwe who are present in custody, I sent word to you thus: "Consult there with the princes and the chamberlains as to whether they will return them or will not return them. Then send word to me. If they will not return them, redeem those men. Whatever the ransom for them the palace asks of you, let me know in your message that I may send it to you. Let your hand seize those men. Whatever response the palace makes to you concerning those men, let me know in your message. The men have much ransom money."
The name Haberi here is essentially
From this ancient record we see that the Haberi are located in central
Anatolia and show the widespread dispersion of those people in 2000 BC.
In this document they are considered worthy of ransom and are being detained
apparently for that purpose, although the merchant hopes to effect their
release without such exchange. If the recipient of his letter is uncertain
of the cost he is reminded that the Haberi themselves have much
money and could use it for their own release. In any case, the author of
the letter wants to make sure they are released. He held them in high regard.
An Amorite kingdom dominated Mesopotamia during the 18th century BC, from Babylon in the south, to Asshur in the northeast, to Haran in the northwest, and across to the Mediterranean. This Mari period was unsettled with a half-dozen larger states composed of smaller clustered kinglets. Amidst the strife among these petty kings appear SA-GAZ/Haberi. One document states that Yapah-Adad had built up the town of Zallul on the banks of the Euphrates and, with 2000 Habiri soldiers, was then located in that town. In another document Izi-nabu, a Yamubalite chief, had 30 Habiru men march in his charge. In still another letter in which the destination and sender have been lost "3000 asses of the Haberi" are mentioned. (Note the corresponding use of asses by the Hebrew tribes described in the Old Testament. Note also the interchange of the Haberi and Habiru inflectional endings.) In other letters the Habiru men went by night and seized the town of Yahmumam, attempted to seize other towns, and raided Luhaya seizing 500 sheep and 10 men. The Haberi were part of the Amorite population.
In a letter from Babylon, the famous Hammurabi
instructs a certain Sin-idinnam to send an overseer of SA-GAZ men
to him when he receives the tablet. In another document twelve SA-GAZ
names are listed. They are mostly Akkadian with two Amorite names, showing
that the SA-GAZ/Haberi were spread throughout the region, with names
other than Hebrew Semitic.
In one Alalah text it was stated:
Year Irkabtum, the king, Shemuma, and the Habiru soldiers made peace.
In another text from Alalah a prince named
Idrimi went into exile.
My horse, my chariot, and my groom I took and departed. The wasteland I crossed and into the midst of the Sutu warriors I entered. With them I spent the night in my covered chariot. The next day I moved along and went to the land of Canaan. In the land of Canaan the town of Ammiya is located. In Ammiya dwelt people of Halab, Mukish, Ni and Amau. When they saw that I was the son of their former lord they gathered about me and said: "It has been much for you, but it will cease." Then I dwelt for seven years among the SA-GAZ warriors. I interpreted (the flight of) birds; I inspected (the intestines and livers of) lambs; and thus seven years of Adad/Teshup turned over my head.
In other texts from Alalah lists of SA-GAZ/Habiru soldiers are given. They come from wide areas of the country and serve in all levels of activity, as foot soldiers and as charioteers, alongside Maryannu. One name in the lists is Ibri-beli. In still another list is a census of the sheep holdings of various SA-GAZ. The texts show them to be a heterogeneous group at all levels of society, from Princes down to lowly foot soldiers and sheep herders.
The SA-GAZ/Habiru were highly active
in the Hurrian principality of Nuzi. Texts from that region are significant
in that they describe Habiru as selling themselves in service to
Sill-Kubi, a Habiru, by his own statement into service to Tehiptilla, son of Puhisenni, made himself enter.
Other individuals who called themselves Habiru
made the same voluntary entrance into service, including both men and women.
In one case Tuntukatil, a Habiru woman, with her offspring, made
herself enter into service with Tehiptilla. In another case Atal-Teshup,
a Habiru, together with the people of his household, sold themselves
These records probably were made as official
statements of contract among the parties.
In other, more detailed records, the conditions
of contract are stated.
Nan-Teshup, a Habiru, made himself enter into service to Tehiptilla, son of Puhisenni. If Nan-Teshup should infringe the agreement and leave the house of Tehiptilla he must compensate Tehiptilla with a substitute man as able as he.
We do not know the length of the term of this
agreement but it seems to be for the lifetime of Tehiptilla. In another
text the agreement for departure from the household of Tehiptilla is the
payment of silver and gold minas. This is also found in other texts where
one makes the remark, "We are not maid-servants." They were to pay
a tenfold mina of gold for release from the service.
Some of the terms of contract with Habiru were
Sin-balti, a Habiru woman, made herself enter as a maid-servant into the house of Tehiptilla. If Sin-balti should infringe the agreement and go into another house Tehiptilla may put out both eyes of Sin-balti and sell her for a price.
This contract is similar to conditions specified
in the Code of Hammurabi, were the loss of an eye or of sale into
slavery was permitted. A blind servant would not be sellable; we must deduce
that the conditions were specified to prevent breaking of the contract.
Sums of 10 gold or silver minas probably were made with the same expectation;
anyone who possessed that kind of wealth would not have to sell himself
into servitude. Of course, he could always be redeemed by someone else.
In some cases a person might sell another into service. Mar-Ishtar, a Habiru of the land of Akkad, thus sold his son Zilgenuri. According to the agreement, if he withdrew his son from service he had to give ten slaves for Zilgenuri. Again, this was a condition which could not reasonably be fulfilled.
In other documents the contracts call for the benefit of food, shelter and clothing in return for entry into service by the Habiru. Economic benefit appears to be the reason for most of the agreements. The Habiru came upon hard times and sold themselves in return for such protection. But they were regarded as a special group; they were distinguished from ordinary slaves. Although they were compelled, presumably by necessity, to exchange their services for food and clothing, they did not sell their persons. In none of the contracts is a price paid, or money exchanged. This contrasts sharply with contracts involving outright self-enslavement.
These were labor contracts, not slavery contracts.
They were the same form of contract used by Joseph to sell the Hebrew tribes
into service with the Egyptians. The provision which permitted them to
provide substitutes or money shows they were free to go if they could meet
the terms of the agreement. Also, the terms of the contract are reminiscent
of adoption contracts. In those agreements the adoptee is to "serve" or
"respect" the foster parents throughout the latter's lifetime. There is
a similarity between the punishment for repudiating the connection with
the Nuzi official and that of denying one's foster parents.
The Romans had a practice of clientage in which
individuals belonged to a household, not as free guests, and not as slaves.
These dependents, or clients, lived under conditions of protected freedom.
They included refugees who sought a protector, or slaves who had been granted
release by their masters but who needed the protection of the household.
In both cases they had conditional freedom as members of the household
but were subject to the will of their patron.
In the feudal system of medieval times a similar
agreement could be arranged. The following is the blank form of application
which was used by the Franks of the 7th century for commendation to a noble.
To that magnificent lord ________, I ________:
Since it is very well known to everyone how very little I have wherewith to feed and clothe myself, I have therefor sought your piety, and your good will has allowed me to hand myself over or commend myself to your guardianship. This I have done in the following manner: that you are to aid and succor me with food and clothing insofar as I shall be able to be of service to you and shall deserve it.
As long as I live I am to provide service and honor to you in accordance with my status as a free man.
During my lifetime I shall not have the power to withdraw from your guardianship and power, but all the days of my life I am to remain under your power and your defense. Hence it is agreed that if either one of us wishes to make any changes in this agreement he shall pay _____ shillings to his companion and this agreement shall remain in force.
Wherefore it is agreed that they should make up or confirm between them two documents with the same meaning as this form. This they have doneIIEH.
One of the most curious aspects of the Habiru
name is its association with divinity. Several examples can be cited.
1) In a series of Hittite treaties from Boghazkoi
in Anatolia long lists of gods are invoked to protect the treaties. They
include gods from many different regions and people. The curious nature
of this invocation is illustrated by a treaty with EgyptNET.
This list begins with the Sun and storm gods:
The Sun-god of Heaven, the Sun-goddess of Arinna, the Storm-god of Heaven, the Hattian Storm-god, Seris and Hurris, Mount Nanni and Mount Hazzi, the Storm-god of Halab . . .
And so on. The list continues with patron gods:
. . . the Patron-god, the Hattian Patron-god, Zithariyas, Hapantalliyas, the Patron-god of Karahna, the Patron-god of the shield, Ea, Allatum . . .
And so on. The list continues with warrior
. . . Hantdassus of Hurma, Abaras of Samuhas, Katahhas of Ankuwa, the Queen of Katapa, Ammammas of Tahurpa, Hallaras of Dunna, Huwassanas of Hupsina, Tapisuwa of Ishupitta . . ., and so on to . . . and the Hapiri gods, . . .
In reading the long list one immediately recognizes
that it was intended to cover every possible god and divine authority known
to the authors, of native or foreign origin, to guarantee that the treaty
could not be revoked by technical lapse, and that no god would be insulted
by failure of mention.
Significantly the Hapiru/Habiri gods
had special mention, although they are not identified by names. They also
could not be forgotten.
2) In a list of gods in the temple of Adad
in Assyria is the following:
Total: 10 gods in the temple of Adad.
The Habiru obviously have an important place among the divinities, ranking even with a statue of the king, who was regarded as a god. This mention of the Habiru among a list of gods shows explicitly that they were regarded with origins in divinity. They were different from ordinary people, including rulers and magistrates.
3) Several Assyrian omen texts were discovered:
If a halo surrounds the moon and a planet stands within it, the SA-GAZ will rage. If on the 12th day, moon and sun appear together, the reign will come to an end, the people will perish, the SA-GAZ will cut off the head. If a foetus . . . the Habiri will enter . . .
In one case a SA-GAZ appears in a star list.
These texts are sinister. We do not know their
significance from the brief remarks but it appears that the Habiri
were associated with ominous celestial phenomena and with some unknown
affliction of the foetus. They were thought to carry divine powers.
4) In Egypt the Apir name appears a
number of places combined with a divine name. The titles suggest specific
identification as Apir gods.
From Anatolia, to the Mesopotamian basin, to
Egypt, the Habiri were regarded with special social and religious
status. Based on the historic evidence, an association of the Habiri
with divinity cannot be avoided. While the exact significance of each of
these references is unknown, it would not have been possible for the people
who lived, worked, and traveled with Habiri to ignore the divine
association. That factor must have been present in the mind of everyone.
It was universally recognized and accepted.
The Habiri take on a status which is reminiscent of Gilgamesh in the old Assyrian myth. In that tale he was regarded as part god and part man. The evidence reviewed here suggests also that the Habiri were regarded as containing divine blood. Their line of descent from the "gods" was remembered. They were of special genetic stock.
|The Form of the Habiru/Habiri Name|
In the tabulations provided by Moshe GreenbergHAB
the Habiru/Habiri name appears about 75 times, excluding the SA-GAZ.
Of those less than half are Habiru; the remainder are Habiri
(or Haberi). Habiru appears mostly in the Nuzi texts; Habiri
appears mostly in the Tell El-Amarna and Boghazkoi texts. It seems safe
to conclude that both were interchangeable but that one was preferred over
the other by local pronunciation. There can be no serious objection to
equating the "u" and "i" terminations, since both are merely inflectional
variations of the basic Hebrew verb.
The question then is the initial sound. How
does the "Ha-" relate to the "I-" or the "E-" of Ibri/Eberi?
In Hebrew the initial phoneme for the basic
root is an ayin. This shows in the corresponding Egyptian "A" form.
When taken over to Akkadian it becomes "Ha-." The further question is the
sound formed in the pronunciation of the ayin. It is a guttural
sound but was formed to obey the vowel inflections. In modern scholarly
written texts this is denoted by 'A or 'I, with the reverse
apostrophe. This appears as 'Aber, or as 'Iber.
The guttural pronunciation was not easy for all people, and shows in English translations as the modern "A" or "I." The Hebrew guttural sounds, (identified as consonants by most Semitic scholars), showed the same difficulty in pronunciation when the Greeks borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians. The location of "aleph" as the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet was borrowed directly as the first letter "alpha" of the Greek alphabet and became our vowel "A." The location of the Hebrew "ayin" is in the same position as the Greek and western "O," following "L," "M," and "N." These gutturals were both borrowed as vowels.
Another guttural with difficulty in other languages was the hard "Kh." It shows as "H" or as "K," and even as "G," depending on context and on the language of the borrowing culture. The earlier reference to Heber and Hebri were "H" substitutions for the hard "Kh."
GreenbergHAB shows translation of
the name "Halbi" in texts from Ugarit as "Aleppo" in English. Here the
"Ha-" is understood to be an "A". PritchardNET also shows several
examples of this same relationship:
Hamani becomes Amanus,
and so on.
Therefore the "Ha-" form would be rendered
in English as "A-" or perhaps "O-," since the two are interchangeable in
pronunciation. Habiru/Habiri would normally be translated into English
But another difficulty faces us. The ayin
is pronounced as "A-" in the raw root, but as "I-" in imperative and Piel
forms. Awbar becomes Iber or Ibri. Therefore Abiri
would become Iberi, depending on the form used, but all derived
from the same root. On this basis it seems that Iberu is merely
another way to pronounce Apiru/Habiru.
We shall refer to the Iberi name again in following chapters.
From this survey of the Habiru/Haberi of the
ancient Near East, dating throughout the second millennium BC, we note
1) They must have existed long prior to 2000
BC. The evidence suggests they had a history predating the first documents
available to us. One questionable notation in Egypt would date them to
the Old Kingdom, hundreds of years earlier than Abraham. Their true antiquity
2) They are scattered all over the Near East
from Egypt to Sumeria, to the extremities of Assyria, along the coast of
the Mediterranean through Canaan, and deep into the regions of Anatolia.
They are not limited to any one geographical locale, any one tribe, any
one country, or any other definable ethnic group.
3) Many of their names are not Semitic. This
led scholars to conclude that they were not exclusively Semitic people
but rather a special social class that included many Semites. They argue
that all cultures follow habits of naming children after ancestors through
long-established practices. Therefore the many non-Semitic names would
mean that the Habiru were of a social category other than Semitic.
However, an alternate argument can be made. If Habiru women married
non-Semite husbands, or if Semitic Habiru men married non-Semite
women, as our thesis supposes in a great mixing of Adamic stock, the path
of inherited names would not be simple. Many of those classified as Habiru
might carry non-Semitic names.
4) This special group is difficult to define.
They appear at every level of society, in many different social capacities.
They are both rural and urban; they contract their services; they are in
bondage in Egypt. They do not fit into any simple social category.
5) Their bondage in Egypt is now better understood.
It was an economic bondage contracted during a time of need. They bought
food and shelter in Egypt by selling their services, under established
practices of those days. Succeeding generations were born into that bondage
for lack of means to buy their freedom. The Egyptians probably perpetuated
severe conditions in order to preserve a source of cheap labor. When Egypt
was ravaged by plagues in extraordinary geological and meteorological events,
Exod 7 to 10, State control may have been in havoc. The Israelites seized
that opportunity to make their escape.
6) The documentary evidence shows they were
extremely versatile and socially flexible. Although they were regarded
with extra social respect they did not often assume positions of leadership.
7) Many elements of the Haberi groups readily engage in warfare. They are found in military activities in Sumeria, Boghazkoi, Palestine, and Syria. They hire out as mercenaries and use all the weapons of war, including chariots. Although the biblical narrative does not show the Hebrews using chariots, (they burned those they captured), we do not know how much of the record has been omitted or altered. The nature of their mercenary employment, and the remarks made about their threat in the lands, suggest they were fearless fighters.
8) The Hebrew/Eberi tribes were Habiru/Haberi
but not all Habiru/Haberi were Hebrew/Eberi. The Israelites
came out of that special people and thus acquired the Eberi/Ibri
name. The statement in Genesis that Shem was the father of all the children
of Eber now takes on a different meaning. The Hebrew/Haberi/Iberi
were the children of Eber, as that genetic line was remembered by the later
Jewish scribes. Eber was a Semite, a son of Shem; this was the tradition
as it was understood in the 6th century BC, at the time of the Babylonian
9) The Habiru/Haberi term drops out of use in later Near East documents near the end of the second millennium. Records show that application of the Eberi/Ibri name is then limited to the Hebrew tribes. Apparently the Habiru/Haberi were a social class who lost their unique identity. Their blood lines became submerged by interbreeding with other people, and could no longer be distinguished. The Hebrew people attempted to preserve the genetic lines, and thus preserved the Haberi distinction.
10) The Abrahamic groups were chosen because
they still held a strong portion of that red Adamic blood. God selected
this group also, out of all the Haberi, because of their religious
attitudes. The promises to Abraham carried a deep significance that modified
their religious and social conduct down through the generations.
The strength of that tradition is witnessed
yet today among the Jews who believe they are fulfilling the promises of
the Old Testament, and that they have a right to the lands promised to
Abraham. A few simple sentences written millennia ago carry the weight
of destiny and modify the lives and actions of people living today.
11) The Habiri had no fixed place in
the social order where they chose to live. They were accepted in a foreign
sense, not as part of a local social group. They cannot rightfully be considered
nomadic, although they wandered from place to place. The movements of Terah,
Abraham, and other members of that family were merely following the habits
of the general Habiri people. This is the reason the Sumerians were
attempting to define their social roles. They truly were "wandering Arameans."
But the promises to Abraham were intended to
bring an end to that unsettled existence. He was to acquire a permanent
home, "in the land of milk and honey."
Finally, we note that these "wandering Arameans"
were the path through which the ancient Semitic linguistic world memories
were preserved. They certainly played a vital role in reconnecting us with
the remote history of our planet. They also brought a genetic line down
into historic times, with Abraham chosen as the outstanding representative
of that blood blessing.
This brief survey casts light on the antecedents of the Hebrew people, the Sons of Israel. It offers us some insight into the selection of Abraham as the "father of many nations."