From Habiru to Hebrews: The Roots of the Jewish Tradition
by Robert Wolfe (October 2009)
I come from a secular Jewish background, the son of Jewish parents who belonged to the Communist Party during the 1930s. They left the Party in 1939, around the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and also left each other, getting divorced when I was about two years old. I was raised in the home of my mother in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan which at that time was about half Jewish. Most of my boyhood friends were Jewish, and so too were most of my mother’s friends, who tended to the same “progressive” point of view as she did. My father too remained a “progressive”, meaning someone who agreed wiith many of the positions of the Communist Party without necessarily belonging to it. So from an early age I received a heavy dose of Jewish secular culture along with a sense of identification with the progressive current in American life.
By the time that I graduated from college in 1958, that current had been very much submerged by the anti-Communism of the 1950s. I decided to go to graduate school and was fortunate enough to be admitted to the history program at Harvard University with a Woodrow Wilson scholarship. I formed the resolve to specialize in the study of revolutions and wrote my PhD thesis on the subject of the popular organizations in the Paris Commune of 1871. In 1965 I got a job teaching history at the Washington Square College of New York University, but unfortunately for me, I was even more interested in making revolutions than I was in teaching about them. My involvement with the radical student movement at NYU led eventually to my participation in the spring of 1970 in the student takeover of the Courant Institute at NYU, a building which housed a huge computer belonging to the Atomic Energy Commission. To make a long story short, I ended up fired from my job at NYU and sentenced to three months in prison for helping to hold the computer for ransom.
After I got out of prison in 1971, I remained active in what we called “the Movement” for about five years, but I gradually came to feel alienated from it due to its slow descent into anti-Semitism. For the first time in my life, I began to take an interest in Jewish history. My initial motive in doing so was to prove both to myself and to my friends in the Movement that Jewish tradition contained a progressive component and was not the bastion of reactionary thinking which so many on the left now claimed it to be. But the more I learned about Jewish history, the more convinced I became that Jewish tradition not only contained a progressive component but was itself the source of many of the progressive ideas disseminated in an anti-Semitic form by Christianity, Islam and Marxism, the three dominant ideologies of the modern world. Starting in the late 1970s, I began work on a book intended to validate this insight, while at the same time earning a living teaching history as a lowly adjunct at a number of small colleges in the New York area.
It was at this point in time that I discovered the Habiru. Even though I was a professional historian, I had never heard of them until I began to study Jewish history. A hot topic in the small world of “Biblical scholarship,” their existence had remained almost completely unknown to everyone else. For 100 years, archaeologists had been unearthing clay tablets in the Middle East which made reference to a group of people variously described as “Habiru” or "Apiru” in the scholarly literature. Hundreds of such references were found, all dating from the 2nd millenium BCE. None of these clay tablets discussed the Habiru at length but rather made reference to them in passing in some larger context. Sometimes the Habiru were described as mercenaries, other times as day laborers, yet other times as bandits. The Biblical scholars were in general agreement that the reality behind these different descriptions was that of bands of armed men, most of them fugitives, who camped on the outskirts of the more settled areas and made a living as best they could. References to such Habiru bands were found in many different parts of the Middle East, making it clear that they did not constitute a tribe or nation but rather a social class, one that was generally viewed by the scribes who mentioned them with a mixture of fear and contempt.
What really got my attention in the scholarly literature about the Habiru was the evidence that many of them were fugitive slaves. For example, William Albright states on page 86 of Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan:
However it soon became apparent to me that most Biblical scholars did not share my assumption. Virtually without exception, Biblical scholars both past and present approach the question of Hebrew origins from a religious point of view. Rather than adopt what is reliably known about the Habiru as the starting point of their investigation, their normal tendency is to try to fit the Habiru into a picture of Hebrew origins which is ultimately derived from the story told in the Bible. But approached from this angle, the Habiru simply don’t fit. In particular, the Hebrews described in the Bible constitute a tribe or nation, but the Habiru were clearly a social class. While many Biblical scholars are willing to admit that there may be a connection between the words “Hebrew” and “Habiru,” only a small minority are willing to entertain the possibility that the Hebrews may have actually been Habiru. James Hoffmeier, on page 124 of Israel in Egypt, published in 1996, presents the standard view as follows:
The bottom line is that most Biblical scholars simply don’t want the Hebrews to be Habiru. Even George Mendenhall, who is thought by many to have affirmed the identity of the Hebrews and the Habiru, did not really say this. In The Tenth Generation, published in 1973, he raised the question of why the term “Apiru” came to be applied to the “Israelites,” and answered it this way, on page 137:
Founded by German Protestant theologians in the 19th century, modern Biblical scholarship has had a dual character throughout its history. On the one hand Biblical scholars have made great strides in the direction of developing a realistic understanding of when and by whom the Torah was written and what was the historical background behind it. Yet on the other hand the great majority of Biblical scholars have continued to believe that somewhere at the core of the “Biblical” tradition was a divine revelation which formed the original basis not only for Judaism but also for Christianity. One of the few Biblical scholars to have commented on this dichotomy is Niels Peter Lemche, author of Early Israel, published in 1985. Lemche pointed out that most Biblical scholars adopt a sceptical attitude towards the historical narrative in the Torah, while at the same time treating its religious ideology as the result of a “divine intervention in history.” Lemche rejected this approach, concluding on page 413: “Therefore it is out of the question to regard Israel’s hypothetical religious experience as a starting point for a survey of the early history of Israel.”
Since he wasn’t interested in forcing the Habiru to fit into the Biblical narrative, Lemche had no difficulty in seeing them as the original Hebrews. He put it this way, on page 427:
But just how and why did the Habiru become the founders of the Biblical tradition? Since Lemche thought that the Exodus narrative was more or less entirely mythical, he had to find an origin for the Biblical tradition within Canaan itself. However he was most reluctant to credit “outlaw groups of freebooters” with the creation of such a prestigious tradition. He therefore argued, on page 434, that “the phenomenon which came to be the specifically Israelite religion was fundamentally what might be termed an isolation of one particular aspect of Canaanite culture, namely the ethical.” These Canaanite ethical thinkers, Lemche added, must have come from “the upper strata” of Canaanite society. To me it seems obvious that Lemche did not actually like the Habiru any more than the other Biblical scholars did and hence felt compelled to invent an upper class Canaanite ethical tradition, no evidence of whose existence he was able to cite, in order to explain the origins of Biblical religion. Moreover I am not so sure that “ethical” is the most precise term to describe the religion of the Hebrews, which might be more accurately characterized as “egalitarian.”
One Biblical scholar who made a point of describing this religion as “egalitarian” is Norman Gottwald, author of The Tribes of Yahweh, published in 1979. As he put it on page 643, “The religion of Yahweh appeared from the start exclusively as the religion of socially egalitarian peoples.” Gottwald saw the Habiru as part of the social movement that gave rise to what he called “the religion of Yahweh,” but not the dominant part. Like Mendenhall, he thought that the nation of Israel originated in a rebellion of Canaanite “villagers” against the rule of the Canaanite city-states, but unlike Mendenhall, he thought that many Habiru also participated in this rebellion. He argued, on page 408, that the line between Habiru and villagers “was probably a rather indistinct one in many cases, becoming less and less distinct as central authority crumbled.” As time passed, the Habiru began to settle down, while the villagers started to develop self-defense groups. Finally:
Moreover, although Gottwald saw Habiru culture as “egalitarian,” he did not feel that it was the source of “the religion of Yahweh.” Gottwald tended to emphasize the references that described (or could be interpreted as describing) the Habiru as “mercenaries,” making it possible for him to argue that despite their rebellious outlook and outsider status they were nonetheless integrated into the Canaanite social system and hence incapable of evolving an alternate social ideology on their own. That ideology, Gottwald believed, could only have come from the “Moses group,” which Gottwald depicted, on page 39, as “composed of a mixture of stock breeders (sheep, goats, and cattle), small gardeners, and fishermen, including war captives or migrants from Canaan.” Just where he got this information Gottwald did not say, nor did he explain why he chose to omit from this list the Habiru who were known to have been brought to Egypt as prisoners of war and set to work there as slaves on building projects.
Open to criticism as it may be, the work of Mendenhall, Gottwald and Lemche still contained many valid insights into the question of the relationship between the Hebrews and the Habiru. Their books came out in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when the memory of the 1960s was still fresh in many minds. But in recent decades, as Hoffmeier rightly claimed, linking the Hebrews and the Habiru “has been discouraged.” Gottwald for one was clearly influenced by the “Liberation theology” of the 1960s and 1970s, but the political and intellectual climate since the 1980s has been quite different. The notion that the Biblical tradition originated in a revolution of some kind, possibly led by outlaw bands of armed men known as Habiru, has lost what little appeal it ever had for Biblical scholarship. Yet in reality, the evidence of the identity of the Hebrews and Habiru is overwhelming. The reason why I began this article by describing my background is so readers will understand why I am more open to this evidence than many others. But in the final analysis it is the evidence itself which is decisive, and although I am no Biblical scholar, I have enough experience as a historian to recognize a buried truth when I see one.
Although references to the Habiru have been unearthed all over the Middle East, far and away the most important source of information about them is the large collection of clay tablets unearthed at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt towards the end of the 19th century. Many of these tablets consist of letters written in Accadian cuneiform hieroglyphics during the 14th century BCE and sent to the Pharaoh in Egypt from various Egyptian puppet rulers in Canaan. The letters are filled with complaints about the Habiru, who are said to be leading a rebellion against Egyptian rule in Canaan and plundering the cities of those local rulers who still remained loyal to the Pharaoh. And in one such letter, reproduced on page 200 of Shechem by G. Ernest Wright, appears a threat by Abdu-Hiba, the ruler of Jerusalem, to align himself with the Habiru unless he receives more support from the Pharaoh. In particular, Abdu-Hiba threatened: “Now shall we do as Lab’ayu, who gave the land of Shechem to the ‘Apiru?”
Labayu is mentioned in many letters: he was the ruler of Shechem and the main rival of Abdu-Hiba for control of the hill country of Canaan. Whether he actually “gave the land of Shechem” to the Habiru is not clear. Perhaps Abdu-Hiba exaggerated, perhaps not. The important point is that his letter shows that the Habiru exercised a considerable degree of control over the region of Shechem in the 14th century BCE. And the reason why this point is important is because Shechem was without a doubt the main political and religious center of the Hebrews throughout their early history.
Numerous indications of the significance of Shechem for the Hebrews may be found in many of the books of Tanach, the Hebrew word (acronym actually) for what is commonly called the Jewish Scriptures or the Old Testament. In the Book of Genesis, Shechem is the place where Abraham first sets foot when he arrives in the land of Israel and where he builds a sacred altar. In the Book of Joshua, Shechem is the place where Joshua convokes the Hebrews just before his death in order to enter into a solemn covenant to remain faithful to God. In the Book of Judges, Shechem is the place where Abimelech, the very first would-be king of the Hebrews, goes in order to declare his candidacy. And in the First Book of Kings, Shechem is the place where Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, is forced to go in order to try to get the Hebrew tribes assembled there to accept him as king. When the tribes decide to elect Jeroboam instead, Jeroboam makes Shechem the first capital of the kingdom of Israel. Even if some of these references are wholly or partially legendary, they still show that for the authors of Tanach, Shechem was thought to be a place which had a special meaning for the early Hebrews.
These indications are all the more significant in that almost all of the books of Tanach were composed by the scribes of the kingdom of Judah, centered in Jerusalem, which was a bitter rival of the kingdom of Israel for authority over the Hebrews. The scribes of the kingdom of Judah had no reason to exaggerate the importance of Shechem in early Hebrew history, given the fact that it was so closely associated with the origins of the kingdom of Israel. If they nonetheless included material in Tanach, such as the convocation of the Hebrew tribes at Shechem by Joshua, which could be seen as legitimizing the kingdom of Israel, it must have been because they thought that the importance of Shechem in Hebrew culture was too well known and well established to be glossed over or denied. This importance was not only political but also religious, in that an altar of some kind was in fact set up there and religious ceremonies conducted in conjunction with the political decisions made there. These indications tend to suggest that Abdu-Hiba did not exaggerate and Labayu really did make some formal grant of authority to the Habiru in the region of Shechem which provided the original basis for the subsequent Hebrew view of Shechem as a holy meeting place.
Additional evidence of the central position of the Habiru stronghold of Shechem in early Hebrew history is provided by an unlikely source, the so-called “victory stele” of Merneptah. Sometime around 1207 BCE the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah set up a stone monument commemorating his alleged victories over the Libyans and Canaanites. The specific areas in Canaan which he claimed to have conquered are listed in geographical order proceeding from south to north. Near the end of this list comes a reference to the conquest of “Israel.” Hoffmeier, an expert on Egyptian hieroglyphics, translates the reference as stating, “Israel is wasted, its seed is not.” He then goes to state, on page 29 of Israel in Egypt, that based on the position of this reference in the list of geographical place names, “The tribes of Israel appear to have been located primarily in the central Hill Country and Upper Galilee.”
The “land of Shechem” too was located in the central hill country, in the northern part, bordering on the Jezreel Valley and Galilee. Nadav Na’aman, in an essay entitled “The Contribution of the Amarna Letters to the Debate on Jerusalem’s Political Position in the Tenth Century BCE,” appearing in Volume 3 of his Collected Essays, states on page 5 that at the time of the Amarna letters, “Two Canaanite kingdoms occupied almost all of the central hill country: Shechem and Jerusalem.” What all this suggests is that by the end of the 13th century BCE, the Habiru centered in the region of Shechem had begun to call themselves by the name of “Israel.” Just when they adopted this name is not known, but it is a reasonable hypothesis that they did so not long before the arrival in Canaan of a small band of Habiru fugitives fleeing slavery in Egypt and bringing with them a new ideology of Habiru rule over the entire “land of Israel.”
That there were in fact Habiru slaves in Egypt at this time is shown by a number of sources quite apart from the story in the Torah. Hoffmeier refers, on page 113, to a “victory stele” of the Pharaoh Amenhotep 2, dating from the 15th century BCE, which lists the various types of captives brought back to Egypt by the Egyptians after a successful campaign in Canaan and Syria. Included in the list are 3600 “Apiru.” Additional Habiru prisoners must have been seized on other occasions, for by the 13th century BCE we have evidence of Habiru slaves working on construction projects for the Egyptians. Abraham Malamat, on page 42 of his article in Haim Ben-Sasson’s anthology, A History of the Jewish People, cites the following inscription dating from the time of the Pharaoh Ramses 2: “Distribute grain rations to the soldiers and to the ‘Apiru who transport stones to the great pylon of Ramses.” And Hoffmeier, on page 115, has reference to an article by Ellen Morris describing scenes of forced labor in Egyptian wall paintings. Hoffmeier states: “The text accompanying the wine pressing scene in the tomb of Intef at Thebes, Morris observes, specifically identifies the workers as Apiru (i.e. habiru).”
What this evidence suggests is that there must be a kernel of truth in the Torah account of Hebrew slaves fleeing Egypt and taking up residence in Canaan. However, most of the details of the story as it appears in the Torah are clearly legendary. According to the Torah, some 600,000 Hebrew men fled Egypt at the time of the Exodus. If we include women and children, plus the “mixed multitude” which was said to accompany them, we are left with at least one million people subsisting for forty years in a barren desert on food which fell from the sky. A more likely scenario would be a small band of Habiru slaves, numbering perhaps some hundreds, escaping Egypt and making a quick passage across the Sinai to link up with the Habiru already in control of the region around Shechem. Very possibly the Habiru fugitives from Egypt were in fact led by a man named Moses, but in any case they seem to have brought with them a new ideology which played a key role in the subseqent Habiru conquest of Canaan.
A significant detail in this context is the fact, noted by a number of Biblical scholars, that most of the members of the tribe of Levi mentioned in the Torah and the Book of Judges had Egyptian sounding names. According to Tanach, the tribe of Levi was the only tribe that was not assigned a specific territory in the land of Canaan. It was the tribe of Moses, and its original function was to officiate at the religious ceremonies of the Hebrews. It seems probable that the tribe of Levi originated as the small band of Habiru slaves who escaped from Egypt and linked up with the Habiru already established in Canaan. Habiru are known to have been held as slaves in Egypt for a period of at least several hundred years, from the 15th to the 13th century BCE, and it would be only natural if many of them had become assimilated to the Egyptian language and culture. Yet assimilated as they may have been, the Egyptians continued to refer to them as Habiru, a usage which perhaps reflected the social gap which separated slaves from the rest of society in Egypt and Canaan alike.
In my opinion the greatest weakness of modern Biblical scholarship is to be found in its failure to deal with the issue of slavery. Most Biblical scholars act as if it were a minor or trivial point that there are numerous indications that many of the Habiru everywhere in the Middle East were fugitive slaves. And by the same token, the Biblical scholars never stop to ask: how likely is it that the authors of the Torah would have described themselves as the descendants of runaway slaves unless it were true? Throughout the world, in most times and places, there has been a stigma attached to people who have been enslaved, a presumption that they would not have become slaves if there were not something wrong with them in the first place. Yet each year, in the Passover ceremony, Jews are told to remember that their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. And even though only a small percentage of the Habiru who conquered Canaan could have been slaves in Egypt, this tradition still reflects the reality that the Habiru as a group were composed in large part of fugitives from one or another form of bondage.
Putting it all together, the known facts suggest that sometime towards the end of the 13th century BCE, perhaps following the death of Ramses 2 in 1213 BCE, a small group of Habiru slaves fled Egypt and made their way to Canaan, bearing with them three things:
(1) The practice of circumcision. According to the Greek geographer Herodotus, circumcision was an Egyptian custom. Whatever it may have meant for the Egyptians, for the Habiru it became a way of distinguishing themselves from the rest of the Canaanites and transforming their self image from that of a band of outcasts into that of a warrior elite.
(2) The use of alphabetical writing. So far as is known, alphabetical writing was first developed by Semitic miners working for the Egyptians in the Sinai desert around the middle of the 2nd millenium BCE. They wrote on stone using letters partially derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. Although it is often asserted that the Hebrews subsequently received their alphabetical writing system from the Canaanites or Phoenicians, it was the Habiru in Egypt who were most likely to have contact with the Semitic miners working for the Egyptians in the Sinai. In view of the importance attached by the Torah to the story of the writing of the ten commandments on stone in the Sinai, it seems likely that it was the Habiru fugitives from Egypt who introduced the knowledge of alphabetical writing into Canaan.
(3) The concept of a ruler god who sided with the slaves rather than the slavemasters. The concept of a supreme ruler god was well developed in Egyptian culture, but it was invariably associated with the person of the Pharaoh, who was said to be the earthly incarnation of this or that supreme god. Having endured forced labor on behalf of the alleged “son of Ra,” the Pharaoh Ramses 2, the Habiru in Egypt had every reason to reject this association. Their influence was no doubt reflected in the Hebrew ban on the worship of graven images, the production of which was a speciality of the Egyptians. At the same time, the Habiru in Egypt also had a strong motive to appropriate the Egyptian concept of a supreme ruler god and utilize it for their own purposes.
The Hebrew language narrative and literature found in Tanach appears to reflect a synthesis between the revolutionary adaptation of Egyptian culture associated with the Habiru fugitives from Egypt and the political culture of the Habiru bands already centered around Shechem. This political culture is reflected in Tanach first and foremost in the legend of the sons of Israel. It is apparent that this legend provided a mechanism whereby the Habiru active in the region of Canaan could identify themselves as members of one big family, which functioned in practice as a confederation of Habiru bands, and hence achieve a greater degree of unity than had previously been possible.
That this legend originated among the Habiru already established in Canaan rather than among the Habiru fugitives from Egypt is strongly suggested by a number of indications. Merneptah’s “victory stele” shows that the Habiru in the region of Shechem were already generally known as “Israel” around the time that the flight from Egypt took place. In Tanach, the “patriarchs” Abraham, Isaac and Israel are depicted as receiving a claim to the land of Canaan that was prior to and independent of the claim associated with Moses and the Exodus. Moreover, it would appear that the real life fugitives from Egypt were treated by the Habiru in Canaan as just another tribe, the tribe of Levi, which was not even given a territory of its own. No doubt the Levites did exercise a certain degree of authority relative to the other “tribes” by virtue of their religious role and beliefs, but it nonetheless appears that they were integrated into an already established political structure rather than establishing a new structure of their own.
However, it must have been just as obvious to the Habiru in Canaan as it is to the Biblical scholars today that the story of the sons of Israel was incompatible with their status as Habiru. The members of scattered bands of fugitives could not possibly have been related to one another to any significant degree, much less be all descended from the twelve sons of one father. In order to become the sons of Israel, they had therefore to cease being Habiru, or at least cease being known as such. There is every indication that they set out to do just this, spurred on by the fact that they had never liked being called Habiru in the first place.
What was the precise meaning of the term, “Habiru,” in its original context? And for that matter, was the term actually “Habiru,” or rather “Apiru”? These questions need to be answered in order to address the larger question of the relationship between the terms “Habiru” and “Hebrew."
For many decades after the tablets from Tell el-Amarna and elsewhere were first unearthed, no one doubted that they made reference to people called “Habiru.” In the English language translation of the Tell el-Amarna tablets published by Samuel Mercer in 1939, the term “Habiru” is used without any hint of the possibility of a different reading. By the way, in an “Excursus” at the end of the book, on page 843, F. H. Hallock stated:
Accadian cuneiform hieroglyphics, which is the writing system in which the Tell el-Amarna tablets were written, consist of wedge shaped indentations in clay. According to the experts, in the particular hieroglyph in question, the initial consonant could be read either as a “b” or as a “p.” The Accadian writing system apparently did not make any distinction between the two. However, by the 1950s a few references to Habiru in other writing systems had been discovered, and in these references the initial consonant seemed to be a “p.” At the same time, it was also asserted, for reasons which are not entirely clear to me, that the word should be read without an initial “h.” Some Biblical scholars were not convinced by these arguments and continued to use the term “Habiru,” but the majority gradually switched over to “Apiru,” which is generally considered to be the correct term today.
I don’t consider myself qualified to pass judgment on whether “Habiru” or “Apiru” is the correct reading, nor does it appear to me that the evidence is conclusive either way. In Le probleme des Habiru, published in 1954, Jean Bottero surveyed the relevant data at considerable length, concluding on page 156 that he was not able to resolve the issue. He himself continued to use the term “Habiru” however. On the whole it appears to me that, with a few exceptions, those who deny the identity of the Hebrews and the Habiru prefer the term “Apiru,” whereas those who affirm the identity of the two groups tend to prefer “Habiru.” I too affirm the identity of the two groups, and therefore I too use the term “Habiru,” which sounds more like “Hebrew.” But ultimately it doesn’t really matter which term resembles “Hebrew” more closely, because of course “Hebrew” is not the Hebrew word for “Hebrew.” The word is “Ivri,” which doesn’t seem to resemble either one all that closely.
On the other hand, it’s not all that different either. In Hebrew, the letter “bet” can denote either a “b” or a “v” sound, depending mainly on its position in the word. “Ivri” is written with a “bet”, which is why many translations of this word, such as “Hebrew,” use a “b” rather than a “v” sound. As for the possibility that the Accadian word was pronounced with a “p” rather than a “b” sound, Manfred Weippert deals with this issue in The Settlement of the Israelite Tribes in Palestine. Weippert doesn’t believe that the Hebrews and the Habiru were the same, and he prefers “Apiru” to “Habiru”, but like many other Biblical scholars, he sees a linguistic connection between the Accadian and the Hebrew terms. In particular, he lists no less than 14 different examples of a “b” sound shifting into a “p” sound (or vice versa) in various Semitic languages, concluding on page 82: “In other words, the equation apiru = Hebrews can certainly be substantiated with linguistic proofs.” My own feeling is that the linguistic evidence doesn’t really prove the identity of the Accadian and Hebrew terms, but it does leave room for this possibility. The main reason why most Biblical scholars believe the two terms are related is because they were used in very similar ways.
Biblical scholars are generally agreed as to who the Habiru were, but there is a certain range of opinion as to how they were perceived. Bottero thought “refugee” was the most accurate term, while Weippert preferred “outlaw.” The one trait that defined the Habiru as a group is that they stood outside the established social order both literally - they camped on the outskirts of the settled areas - and figuratively. But there were evidently degrees of difference from one place to another as to how antagonistic was their relationship to that order. If they served as mercenaries, they might have a relationship to the state that was defined by some kind of formal agreement. Some Biblical scholars believe that they were generally seen as “foreigners,” whereas others emphasize their status as “fugitives.” There is no obvious reason for preferring one term over another, since all of them undoubtedly have some basis in fact.
However, a clue to how the term “Habiru” was generally understood in the 2nd millenium BCE is provided by the existence of similar terms in other Middle Eastern languages. In particular there is the Sumerian expression, “SA.GAZ”. I don’t know enough about Sumerian hieroglyphics to understand why it is written this way, but since that is how most Biblical scholars write it, I am following suit. The Sumerians were a people whose ethnic and linguistic background is not well understood and who were settled in the southern part of what is now Iraq by the time that they developed a hieroglyphic writing system around 3000 BCE. The Accadian writing system was derived from the Sumerian and it also took over the Sumerian term “SA.GAZ”, which was widely used in Accadian texts, including the Tell el-Amarna tablets, as a synonym for “Habiru.” Bottero, on page 82, notes that the two terms were used alternately in texts unearthed at Boghazkoy, the capital of the Hittite empire in what is now Turkey, and the Biblical scholars all agree that the meaning of the two terms was more or less identical.
According to Bottero, on page 149, the root meaning of SA.GAZ in its original Sumerian context “is pejorative and indicates a violent and criminal act of aggression, and most often the perpetrator of that aggression” [my translation]. Hence Bottero thought that “SA.GAZ” should be translated as “brigand” despite the fact that he also thought that “refugee” was the best translation for “Habiru.” But this contradiction is more apparent than real, for it would appear that the Habiru were refugees (or fugitives) who became brigands.
This is precisely the conclusion suggested by an article by Nadav Na’aman, “Habiru-like Bands in the Assyrian Empire and Bands in Biblical Historiography”, appearing in Volume 1 of his Collected Essays. In Assyrian inscriptions dating from the 7th and 8th centuries BCE there are references to a group called “urbi” in the Assyrian language. The meaning of the term has been variously given as “fugitives,” “bandits,” “irregular troops,” “a special type of soldiery” or “elite troops.” According to Na’aman, the term “urbi” was derived from a verb, “merubu”, which meant “to flee, run away, escape.” Na’aman continued as follows, on page 299:
The important point which emerges from all this is that for the people who wrote and read the texts in which terms like “SA.GAZ” or “Habiru” or “urbi” appear, all of these terms must have had a negative connotation. Sometimes this connotation became explicit, as in one of the Tell el-Amarna letters, appearing on page 261 of Mercer’s translation, where one Canaanite official says of another that he has become just like the SA.GAZ people, “a runaway dog.” The Habiru were outlaws by definition since they did not form a part of the established social system and did not consider themselves bound by its laws. Furthermore, the fact that many of them were fugitive slaves added an additional element of criminality to their image, since in all slave holding societies, flight from slavery is considered a serious crime, often punishable by death. To be sure, the Habiru also had the image of constituting a serious military force, but while this might have endeared them to some, for the established social order it was probably just another count in the indictment. Whether the Habiru themselves felt proud of their outlaw status is hard to say, but the weight of the evidence indicates that proud or not, they were eager to get rid of it.
The best way of finding out how the Habiru felt about being called “Habiru” is by examining how the Hebrews felt about being called “Hebrew.” All the texts which mention the Habiru were written by others and therefore don’t reflect a Habiru point of view, but the Hebrews had ample opportunity to make their views known. And the first thing which every Biblical scholar has noticed about the way the term “Hebrew” is used in Tanach is that it is hardly used at all. In the whole of Tanach, the term “Hebrew” appears only 33 times. In the Torah, the Hebrews are almost always described as the “sons of Israel” (“b’nei Israel” in Hebrew, usually translated as “children of Israel” or “Israelites”). In the later books of Tanach other terms are used, but hardly ever “Hebrew.”
Moreover, when the term “Hebrew” does appear, it is used in certain specific ways. Nadav Na’aman has probed this issue in depth in his illuminating essay, “Habiru and Hebrews: The Transfer of a Social Term to the Literary Sphere,” appearing in Volume 2 of his Collected Essays. Like most Biblical scholars, Na’aman doesn’t think that the Hebrews were Habiru, but he has no doubt that the term “Hebrew” was derived from “Habiru.” He points out, on page 270, that in Tanach, the term “Hebrew” is typically used to describe “Israelites in exceptional circumstancs.” In particular it is used to describe “Israelites migrating to a foreign country” or “Israelites in a position of slavery.” He adds that the use of the term “Hebrew” is especially prevalent “in the stories of the book of Exodus, in which it is applied to Israelites who were enslaved and exploited by the Egyptians for hard labor.” And he concludes, on page 271: “It seems clear that all biblical references to the ‘Hebrews’ reflect some traits borrowed from the image of the second millenium Habiru.”
A good example of the way the term “Hebrew” is used in Tanach may be found in Chapter 29 of the First Book of Samuel. After being forced to flee from the territory of “Israel” because of the wrath of king Saul, the future king David has gathered a band of malcontents around him and found refuge among the Philistines. Now the Philistines are preparing for battle with the forces of king Saul, and David and his band are ready to join them. But the “princes of the Philistines” cry out: “What do these Hebrews here?” Achish, David’s protector among the Philistines, is compelled to send David and his men away, because the other Philistine leaders do not trust him and fear he will join forces with king Saul when the battle is imminent. The use of the term “Hebrews” in this context may of course be understood as a reference to the ethnic group of which David and his men were members; but it also makes perfect sense as a synonym for “Habiru”, implying a ragged band of mercenaries viewed with disdain by most of the Philistine leaders. It would seem that the authors of Tanach could not help but make occasional use of the term “Hebrew” as a way of adding a note of realism to their story, while at the same time systematically avoiding any explicit identification of the Hebrews as Habiru because it would have conflicted with the legend of the “sons of Israel.”
According to Na’aman, what then happened is that the term “Hebrews” was rescued from oblivion by the Jewish writers of the late Second Temple period, who increasingly used it as a way of describing the ancestors of the Jews. It appears to me that by this time the connection between the Habiru and the Hebrews, which was clearly well known at the time the books of Tanach were written, had been largely forgotten, and the term “Hebrew” came to be surrounded with an aura of religious sanctity quite unlike its original connotations. Perhaps through the influence of Josephus, who used the term quite frequently, the word “Hebrew” then entered Christian (and ultimately also Jewish) discourse as a respectable alternative to the invariably pejorative term, “Jew.”
However the Hebrew language has still retained a trace of the original meaning of the term. The Hebrew word “Ivri” comes from a Hebrew root, ayin, bet, resh, whose basic meaning is to pass or cross over. The Hebrew word for the “past” is derived from this same root. But there are also a number of words in Hebrew derived from this root whose meaning is precisely equivalent to the English word “transgression,” namely to pass or cross over the line between permitted and forbidden. Thus we have “avaryan,” meaning “transgressor,” and “avera,” a violation of the rules. Indeed, several Biblical scholars have even gone so far as to suggest that the term “Habiru,” whose root in the Accadian language is not clear, was actually derived from the same “West Semitic” root as “Ivri” and had the same root meaning, namely to pass or cross over, whether as fugitives or as law breakers. Be that as it may, there can be no question that the terms “Hebrew” and “Habiru” are closely related, and the one obvious explanation for this relationship is that the Hebrews were in fact Habiru.
There remains the Jewish question, which is: what was the legacy of the Habiru for the Jews?
The word “Jew” is a shortened and humiliated form of the word “Judah,” which is the standard English language translation of the Hebrew word, “Yehudah.” Judah was the name of the Hebrew kingdom centered in Jerusalem that was founded by David sometime around 1000 BCE. The kingdom was called Judah because David came from the tribe of Judah, who was said to be one of the sons of Israel. The Persians called the kingdom “Yahud,” the Greeks called it “Ioudaia” and the Romans called it “Judea” until 135 CE, at which time they officially changed the name of the entire country to “Palestine” (in honor of the Philistines), at the end of the so-called “Second Jewish War,” during the course of which they murdered some 580,000 Jews according to the body count of the Roman historian Dio Cassius.
Just about everything which is known about the Hebrews, apart from the texts which mention the Habiru, is known because of what the Jews wrote about them in Tanach. According to the account in Tanach, after the death of David’s son Solomon, the kingdom of Judah split into two parts, a kingdom of Israel in the north and a much smaller kingdom of Judah in the south. However the kings of Israel allowed themselves to be seduced by pagan beliefs and practices, and therefore the kingdom of Israel was overthrown by the Assyrians and the ten Hebrew tribes who inhabited it were sent away into exile, never to return. Eventually the kingdom of Judah was also overthrown, by the Babylonians, and the Jews sent into exile, but because they had at least tried to resist pagan influence, they were permitted by God, acting through Cyrus, the conqueror of the Babylonians, to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
Many Biblical scholars agree on a slightly more sophisticated version of this account according to which the split between Judah and Israel was due to the existence of two distinct religious tendencies among the early Hebrews, the cult of “Elohim” and the cult of “Yahweh.” The cult of Elohim, they argue, grew out of the indigenous Canaanite worship of “El,” the supreme god of the pagan Canaanites, while the cult of Yahweh was introduced into Canaan by the “Moses group” coming out of Egypt and the Sinai. The Jews, it seems, were more drawn to the worship of Yahweh, while the supporters of the kingdom of Israel preferred Elohim. Although rarely stated explicitly, the clear implication of this version of events is that the worship of Yahweh was somehow more monotheistic than the worship of Elohim. Perhaps this was because it supposedly came out of the desert, and some Biblical scholars even speculate that the word “Yahweh” may have been derived from the belief system of a nomadic people living in or around the southern Sinai.
In any case, it has become an article of faith among Biblical scholars that first some Hebrews and then the Jews worshipped a god called “Yahweh.” The word appears in the title of some of their most prestigious books, such as Albright’s Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, or Gottwald’s The Tribes of Yahweh. With the exception of a number of Israeli authors, it is used by virtually every Biblical scholar accorded the status of Biblical scholar by the other Biblical scholars. It has also made its way to a wider public, so that while most educated people remain unaware of the very existence of the Habiru, they think they know that Yahweh was the god of the Jews. Some like him and some don’t, but thanks to the Biblical scholars, no one doubts that “Yahweh” is what the Jews called him.
They are wrong. The word “Yahweh” is a 19th century German language rendition of the Hebrew letters yod, hay, vav, hay, normally written in English language versions of Tanach as YHVH, which are used interchangeably with “Elohim” as representing the name of God in Tanach. Out of respect for the German Protestant theologians who founded the whole field of Biblical studies, modern Biblical scholars writing in English have not even bothered to replace the “w” in Yahweh with a “v.” The Hebrew letter “vav” is normally represented by a “v” in English, but in German, the “v” sound is represented by a “w,” hence “Yahweh” rather than “Yahveh.” According to the German Protestants, “Yahveh” was the correct way of pronouncing the letters YHVH, which had previously been pronounced as “Jehovah” by English Protestants. Just how they knew this they did not say, nor could they, because YHVH is not a word and was never pronounced as a word by any Jew prior to the discovery of Yahweh by the Germans.
Had the Biblical scholars both past and present even a modicum of respect for the Jews, as opposed to the Hebrews or “Israelites,” they would have paid more attention than they do to the fact that religious Jews are forbidden to pronunce the letters YHVH as a word. Wherever these letters appear in Tanach and elsewhere, religious Jews are supposed to pronounce the word “Adonai,” meaning “Lord,” in their place. The Biblical scholars know this, but they attach no importance to it, evidently assuming that the Jews don’t understand their own religion as well as the Protestants. Rainer Albertz deals with this issue in a typical manner on page 49 of Volume 1 of his book, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, published in 1994. According to him, “because of the reluctance to utter the divine name which began in the Hellenistic period, its pronunciation is not completely certain.” However, “Yahweh is the most probable pronunciation.” Albertz cites no evidence to show that the Jews pronounced YHVH as a word prior to “the Hellenistic period,” nor does it even occur to him that it might never have been intended as a word in the first place. Nonetheless there is abundant evidence to show that from the start YHVH was not considered to be a word but rather a place holder for the Hebrew sentence, “ehyeh asher ehyeh”, meaning “I will be what I will be.”
The sentence appears in Chapter 3 of the Book of Exodus; the relevant passage reads as follows:
But why did the Jews adopt the letters YHVH as a place holder for the forbidden name of God? The most likely explanation is that they did so because these are the letters out of which almost all of the forms of the verb “to be” are constructed in Hebrew. In modern Hebrew grammar, the root of the verb “to be” is normally given as hay, yod, hay, or HYH, but there is also a related form, hay, vav, hay, or HVH. However, these grammatical forms only date from the start of the systematic study of Hebrew grammar by Jews in Spain during the Middle Ages. It would have been only natural for the Jews who wrote Tanach to combine the two roots into one in the form of YHVH. In general, roots in Hebrew grammar are not supposed to be pronounced; they merely indicate the letters out of which various related words are formed.
The Biblical scholars know all this yet they persist in the obsessive use of the term “Yahweh” (and also “Yahwism” and “Yahwistic”) anyhow. For example, George H. van Kooten in his Introduction to his anthology, The Revelation of the Name YHWH to Moses, published in 2006, states on page ix: “The name ‘Yahweh’, connected with the phrase, ehyeh asher ehyeh (‘I am that I am’: Exod 3:14), is of central importance in Judaism, and ‘Yahwism’ became tantamount to Jewish monotheism.” But how could the name “Yahweh” be of “central importance in Judaism” when there is no evidence that one Jew ever used this name for some 3000 years? Moreover, in this same anthology, van Kooten himself shows in his essay, “Moses/Musaeus/Mochos and his God Yahweh, Iao, and Sabaoth, Seen From a Graeco-Roman Perspective,” that the Greeks, who had no more respect for the Jews than the Biblical scholars, did not think that the name of the Jewish God was “Yahweh” but rather “Iao.” Van Kooten, on page 130, attributed the Greek ignorance of Yahweh to “the declining willingness of Jews to pronounce and invoke the name of Yahweh,” but like Albertz he could cite no indication that the Jews had ever used this name. It was probably precisely because the Greeks had never heard of Yahweh that Albertz and van Kooten asserted that the Jewish reluctance to pronounce this name began “in the Hellenistic period.”
To top it all off, Biblical scholarship has also obfuscated the meaning of the other name of God in Jewish tradition, namely “Elohim.” The god “El” was indeed the supreme god of the Canaanite pantheon, and the word “El” was used in exactly the same way as the word “God” in English, namely to indicate not only God Himself but any “god.” A “god” in Hebrew is an “el,” and the standard plural form of “el” is “elim,” meaning “gods.” However, there is also an archaic plural form of “el,” and that form is “elohim.” The word “Elohim” does not literally mean “God,” but rather “gods.” So which should it be: “The Lord our gods is one” or “The Lord our gods are one”? By an amazing coincidence, this question doesn’t arise in Hebrew, because in Hebrew the use of the verb “to be” in the present tense is banned. You cannot say “I am thin” but only “I thin.” In Hebrew grammar there is a form of the present tense of the verb “to be,” namely ”hovay,” but this form is never used as a verb, only as a noun to mean “the present.” Seeing as the “Shema,” the affirmation of the unity of “Elohenu,” meaning “our gods,” is probably the single most frequently repeated sentence in the entire Jewish liturgy, I find it hard to believe that there is not some connection between this fact and a grammatical system that makes it unnecessary to decide whether “our gods” exist (or exists) in the singular or the plural.
So there you have it: the Jewish religion is founded on the worship of a god called “gods” whose real name is said to be “I will be.” Were the Biblical scholars not blinded by their need to personify the god of the Jews (perhaps so that he could become a father), they would have noticed that they are dealing with a complex, dialectical mode of thought not unlike the complex, dialectical mode of thought associated with later generations of Jewish revolutionary thinkers and leaders. The one thing that “gods” and “I will be” have in common as names of God is that it is more or less impossible to personify them. It is hard to imagine a plural entity as a singular person or to form an image of an unknown future entity. Yet at the same time, these hard to personify names are attached in Tanach to the figure of a ruler god who constantly observes, warns, punishes and rewards just like a person might do. It seems evident that what we have here are two conflicting tendencies, on the one hand a need for a ruler god, on the other a profound suspicion of authority, both of which are amply represented in the pages of Tanach. To me it also seems evident that both of these tendencies grew out of the culture and mode of thought of the Habiru.
The Habiru who became known as Hebrews appear in the Torah and the other early books of Tanach not as they were but as they wished to be. Who they were was a warrior elite who gained control of the greater part of the land of Israel starting around 1200 BCE. There is no indication in Tanach that the early Hebrews differed from the Canaanites to any appreciable extent either in language or in physical appearance. They differed because they constituted a social class on the margins of Canaanite society, and they adopted the rite of circumcision as a way of formalizing this difference and defining themselves as fearless conquerors rather than hapless victims. But as conquerors they needed a ruler god to provide them with a title deed to the land of Canaan and to validate the way of life they wished to follow there. However, their ruler god differed from other ruler gods in that he was not originally associated with the institution of monarchy. It is only in the time of Saul and David, some 200 years after the start of the Hebrew conquest of Canaan, that God in Tanach shows the slightest interest in the political form of Hebrew rule. It seems that the Habiru did not want a ruler god with monarchical features and that it was for this reason that they extended the ban on the worship of graven images into the conceptual sphere, where it functioned as a ban on the personification of YHVH or Elohim.
Yet in order to rule over Canaan as a united force, the Habiru needed more than a ruler god: they also needed the legend of the sons of Israel, and it was for this reason that they did not portray themselves as they were in the Torah but rather as they wished to be. Instead of depicting their ancestors as fugitives and refugees, they depicted Abraham, Isaac and Israel as peaceful bedouin wandering around the Middle East tending their flocks. This was because the whole concept of the “b’nei Israel” was a bedouin concept, identical to that of the many bedouin tribes who traditionally described themselves as the “sons” (“banu” in Arabic) of some patriarchal ancestor. And having invented an idealized past as bedouin, the Habiru could not be seen as a warrior elite, but had to win all their battles through divine intervention vouchsafed to Hebrews who were entirely lacking in military experience and equipment. By the same token, all the Hebrew tribes had to experience the Exodus from Egypt, even if this made the Sinai rather crowded during their passage, just so the “tribe” of Levi could not lord it over all the other “tribes.” The end result was a Torah that is almost entirely mythical yet still conveys in a powerful way its attachment to the cause of the slaves as opposed to that of the slave masters.
How you feel about the Torah depends in large measure upon how you feel about the concept of a ruler god, but how you feel about the Habiru depends in even larger measure upon how you feel about the concept of revolutionary violence. Revolution implies violence, or as Mao Zedong put it back in 1927:
As you might expect, the Biblical scholars who don’t like the Habiru don’t like David either. One of the most influential Biblical scholars in recent decades is Israel Finkelstein, co-author along with Neil Asher Silberman of The Bible Unearthed, published in 2001, and David and Solomon, published in 2006. On page 44 of David and Solomon the authors expound on the meaning of the term, “Apiru,” as follows:
High on Finkelstein’s list of things in Tanach to debunk is the story of David and the rise of the kingdom of Judah. According to Tanach David established a large kingdom ruling over the greater part of the land of Israel, but according to Finkelstein and Silberman David was a petty “chieftain” ruling over a small part of the southern hill country. And in order to denigrate David still further, the authors can think of nothing better than to identify him with the “Apiru.” As they put it on page 46 of David and Solomon: “Put simply, the description of the rise of David in the first book of Samuel contains many distinctive parallels to the activity of a typical Apiru chieftain and his rebel gang.” Over and over the authors characterize David as a “bandit” at the head of a “gang” of “ruffians and freebooters.” Yet the passages in Tanach on which the authors rely to substantiate these characterizations could just as well be viewed as descriptions of the formation of a revolutionary army. Silberman and Finkelstein gives these passages a negative spin for the same reason that they see the Habiru as “problematic,” because they don’t like revolutionaries.
For example, there is the well known passage in Chapter 22 of the First Book of Samuel describing how David first formed his little band: “And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became captain over them; and there were with him about four hundred men.” Silberman and Finkelstein have a point, in that it was undoubtedly in just this manner that many Habiru bands were formed. But the issue is not whether David and his followers resembled the Habiru, which they undoubtedly did; the issue is whether both David and the Habiru in Canaan were mere “bandits” or rather revolutionaries intent on imposing a new social order, one of whose key features was the avoidance of the loss of land through debt. It seems clear to me that David was indeed a revolutionary, but one who differed from the Habiru in one essential respect, in that his revolution was founded on the institution of monarchy.
Not only did David get himself named king of Judah, but he founded a dynasty that ruled over the kingdom of Judah in uninterrupted succession for some 400 years. And even after that, the notion that “the” Messiah would be a direct descendant of David remained a significant feature of Jewish Messianic culture right on down to modern times. Just why did the figure of David come to loom so large as the ideal monarch in Jewish tradition? No doubt his personal qualities, as described in Tanach, played a role here, but there is only one obvious answer to the question of why David became such an important figure. It is the answer that is supplied by Tanach, namely that David defeated the Philistines, conquered Jerusalem and extended the authority of the Hebrews further than it had ever been extended before. He did so by forming the Hebrews into a unified military force under his command, whereas previously they had fought mainly as a confederation of independent tribes without any centralized command structure. It is evident that the Hebrews were not enthusiastic about the concept of monarchy, but they accepted David’s version of it because it worked and won them the battles they needed to win in order to implement their vision of the ideal social order.
Ancient Jewish culture, the culture that is reflected in the pages of Tanach, was a monarchical version of the revolutionary culture of the Habiru. It substituted the monarchy for the tribes, the priesthood for the Levites and the Temple in Jerusalem for all the local shrines, yet at the same time it remained far more egalitarian and humane than the culture of the kingdoms and empires which surrounded the land of Israel. And it was precisely because of the progressive features of Jewish culture that the Jewish people has been subjected to such savage persecution throughout our history. In particular, it is impossible to understand the genocidal assault on the Jewish people by the Romans and their Greek allies, which resulted in the death of over 2 million Jews during the era of the so-called “Jewish wars” of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, without reference to the fact that Jewish law frowned on the institution of slavery whereas the Roman empire was built on it. In later years, Christianity, Islam and Marxism, each in their own way, drew on the progressive current in Jewish life for their own inspiration, yet far from recognizing their debt to the Jewish people, they invented one anti-Semitic stereotype after another in order to distance themselves from the Jewish fate.
This dynamic has continued unto the present day in the form of the demonization of the state of Israel by the international left. When I first began to write and lecture on the subject of Jewish history, I thought I would find my most appreciative audience in the progressive community. I was, after all, demonstrating that the entire “Biblical” tradition, which still remained such a formidable competitor with the secular left, was in fact an outgrowth of a social revolution and not the result of some divine plan. But as it turned out, most progressives didn’t want to hear about this particular social revolution because it made the Jews look good and hence, by implication, made Israel look good. They much preferred to believe that the Jews of old worshipped a cruel patriarchal god named Yahweh and therefore deserved what they got at the hands of the tolerant, easy going pagans. This point was brought home to me with particular clarity by a book called When God Was A Woman, by a woman named Merlin Stone, which was serialized with great fanfare by the progressive radio station WBAI in New York during the 1980s. Drawing largely on studies published in Germany during the 1930s, Stone tried to show that the patriarchal cult of Yahweh was actually introduced into a matriarchal Middle East by Aryan invaders from the north, leading Stone to conclude, on page 127, that it was “ironic” that Hitler killed so many Jews, seeing as the Jews and the Nazis had so much in common.
As it so happens, Jewish descent has been reckoned in the maternal rather than the paternal line since about the middle of the 1st millenium BCE, but that is neither here nor there. The point is that you cannot effectively uphold democratic, secular and egalitarian values while at the same time demonizing the people who have done more than any other to promote those values. The reason why so many Jews have played such a prominent role in the progressive movements of modern times is because of the egalitarian values embedded in traditional Jewish culture, and the reason why those values are embedded there is because of the social revolution carried out by the Habiru. By the same token, it is because of the progressive character of Jewish tradition that the state of Israel is so much more democratic, secular and egalitarian than any of its Arab and Muslim neighbors. Demonizing the Jews and demonizing Israel can serve no other purpose than to strengthen the hand of the alliance of autocratic states currently aligned against us. And conversely, adopting a positive attitude towards the Jewish people, including the Jewish state, is the key to freeing the progressive movement from the state of pathetic irrelevance in which we now find it.
Robert Wolfe taught history on the college level off and on for 40 years in the United States. He is now retired and lives in Israel. His original field of specialization was European social history, but for the past 25 years or so he has done extensive research on the relationship between Jewish history and world history and written a number of books and articles on this subject.
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