I found the word Hebrew appear in Genesis 40:15

New International Version
I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon.

I'm unable to understand the sentence of the verse above.... because to me it can mean :
A. Joseph is not a Hebrew but he live in the land of the Hebrews before
B. Joseph is a Hebrew and he is indirectly telling to whom he talking with that he is a Hebrew.

New Living Translation
For I was kidnapped from my homeland, the land of the Hebrews, and now I’m here in prison, but I did nothing to deserve it.

This verse is clearer to me, it's B. But still I'm lost as I can't find in the Bible how is the origin of Hebrews people and the Hebrew Land even after I go back to the story from Abraham.

Abraham is from Ur-Kasdim, and from this wiki it said it's in the land of Mesopotamia. And wiki also said that this is Abraham's native land. So my own conclusion : Abraham is not a Hebrew, and I think he is Sumerian.

Later on Abraham is in Canaan land, which I assume the natives there are Canaanites.
Next, I think Isaac was born in Canaan Land. Later, I think Jacob was also born in Canaan Land. After that I'm lost as it's not clear to me where the 12 children were born and their native. Maybe because I didn't read the story thoroughly.

A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew.

I found that Abraham is referred as a Hebrew in Genesis 14:13. But how did he get it ? I mean when I put the story-teller position is in around at the actual time of the event, then where is the land of the Hebrews at the time of Genesis 14:13 happen ? Who are the other Hebrews besides Abraham at that time ?

2 Answers 2


There is a short but definitive article published in the Journal of Evangelical Theological Society in 2012 What's in a Name? An Examination of the Usage of the term "Hebrew" in the Old Testament written by an OT Professor Dr. Matt Akers which describes the difference between "Hebrew" and "Israel" in the OT, and how both Hebrew and Israel "finally became a racial designation for God's covenant people."

After introducing the pliability of ethnonyms (II), Eber's relationship to the Hebrews (III), and the usage of HABIRU (cognate of Hebrew) in extant ancient literature (IV) the article analyzed Old Testament's usage of "Hebrew" to discern what the author wanted to distinguish from "Israel" (V).

Here's the conclusion (VI):

After analyzing the above evidence, several observations may be made. First, “Hebrew” and Habiru certainly are cognates. Both words, second, possess nearly identical shades of meaning. The terms were ethnic designations that over time began to denote immigrants, warriors, and servants. Third, one of the earliest references to the Habiru hails from Mesopotamia, the region from which God called Abram the Hebrew. The shared geography cannot be a coincidence.

For these reasons, the populace of the ancient Near East would have regarded Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph as Habiru because of their semi-nomadic sojourner lifestyle. It does not follow, however, that they would have considered the Habiru to be Israelites as the lineage of Eber establishes. Simply put, in the early OT era, “Hebrew” refers to any descendant of Eber, while “Israelite” pertains only to the branch of Eber’s family that Jacob sired. Only later in OT history did “Hebrew” finally become a racial designation for God’s covenant people.

Another journal article The Habiru and the Hebrews: From a Social Class to an Ethnic Group published in Volume 7 Issue 3 of the Jewish Bible Quarterly provides a similar conclusion. The article provides additional details on the archaeological discoveries relied on by the JETS article.

Concluding paragraph from the article (emphasis mine):

All the evidence from archaeological discoveries to date seems to point to the conclusion that, sociologically, the Hebrews were in fact Habiru, although not all Habiru were Hebrews. It could well be that the word עברי (Hebrew) was originally only a sociological designation, indicating status or class - in which case the words Hebrew and Habiru are synonymous. The fact that in the later Books of the Bible and in its usage in post-biblical times, the word Hebrew has been used as an ethnic designation simply means that the original meaning of the word has been changed. With the eventual disappearance of the Habiru, etymological explanations of the term "Hebrew" such as mentioned at the beginning of this article, were inevitable. In the absence of archaeological evidence until comparatively recent times, the Pentateuch itself was the oldest record extant from which an explanation could be sought. And so the term "Hebrew" ultimately became equivalent to the term "Jew" as in the Book of Jeremiah where the prophet proclaims:

that every man should let his man-servant, and every man his maidservant being a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman. go free; that none should make bondmen of them, even of a Jew his brother ... " (Jeremiah 34:9)

Nonetheless this cannot detract from the clear indications which exist that the origins of the Hebrews are as Habiru.

  • Thank you for the article, GratefulDisciple. Now I think I understand about this ---> At the time of the event Gen 14:13, people who know Abraham also know that Abraham is from Mesopotamia (an immigrant), not a Sumerian but what they call a "Habiru" during that time. So, I think a sentence like this : "Abraham, the first of the Hebrew patriarchs" is misleading. britannica.com/biography/Abraham. Because the correct one is Eber (or maybe Shem) is the first of the Hebrew partriarch. While Abraham, maybe can be said as the first of the Israel patriarchs. Please CMIIW.
    – karma
    Apr 26, 2020 at 2:35
  • @karma In "Abraham, the first of the Hebrew patriarchs", Britannica is using "Hebrew" in the later meaning (as a racial designation for God’s covenant people) because in OT's understanding God made the covenant with Abraham (1st) and renewed it with Isaac (2nd) and later with Jacob (3rd). Genesis author in the genealogies wanted to make sense of the origins of the nations around Israel, and thus traced Abraham's ancestors to Eber, a possible etymological source of "Hebrew". All other nations see Abraham as part of the Habiru people as a sociological label. Apr 26, 2020 at 2:58
  • Thank you for your more explanation, GratefulDisciple. I'd be glad if maybe you can give me information about "the land of the Hebrews" (Gen 40:15). Does it mean, it can be anywhere as long as there are a group of "Habiru" people stay/live there ? Something like (for example) if during at the time of Gen 40:15, a man say "the land of the Canaanites" doesn't necessarily mean that it is "Canaan Land" as it can be anywhere as long as there are a group of Canaanites people live there. Please CMIIW.
    – karma
    Apr 26, 2020 at 4:15
  • @karma Remember that Gen 40:15 is part of a story set in Egypt, so the author of Genesis used the moniker "land of the Hebrews" for whatever an Egyptian character might have understood "land of the Hebrews" at Joseph's historical period, which the first journal article has indicated as a derogatory socio-cultural identification (see also Gen 43:32). Don't confuse this with Joseph's own self-understanding of who he was. The omniscient Genesis reader, as would Joseph, would of course identified it with the area where Dothan was (Gen 37:17). Apr 27, 2020 at 3:31

Abraham is the patriarch of the Hebrew people. All the other Hebrew people are descended from him, or married into their group, or were attached to them as servants.

Abraham had 318 trained servants accompany him to rescue his brother Lot who was kidnapped in Genesis 14. This site (https://www.studylight.org/language-studies/difficult-sayings.html?article=509) claims that Abraham had a retinue of about 2,000 people, including his children and servants.

The only land that Abraham owned was what he purchased as a grave site for his wife. He was a nomad, but often stayed among the Canaanites.

  • you wrote "Abraham is the patriarch of the Hebrew people". I mean like this... The four kings carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions. Some people escaped from the four kings capture. One of them tell another : "report about this to Abram the Hebrew", then the next story is Gen 14:13. So, How did those who had escaped know that Abraham is a Hebrew ? and where is the land of the Hebrews at that time ?
    – karma
    Apr 26, 2020 at 2:18

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