ḪABIRU (or better: Ḫapiru ), an element of society in the Fertile Crescent during the greater part of the second millennium b.c.e. They are mentioned in more than 250 texts. From their earliest appearance in documents of the 18th century b.c.e., the Ḫabiru constitute a class of dependents, displaced people who originated from both urban and tribal sedentary populations, not from nomadic groups. In the early Assyrian and Babylonian period (18th–17th centuries) they appear in Cappadocia and in the kingdoms of Larsa, Babylon, Mari and the surrounding areas as bands of warriors attached to, and maintained by, the local rulers. Fifteenth-century documents of Alalakh (northern Syria) list the members of the Ḫabiru military units belonging to the adjacent towns. Nuzi documents of the same periods mention Ḫabiru units and individuals as receiving protection from the state. However, what is unique in these Nuzi documents is the number of contracts entered into between individual Ḫabiru men and women and wealthy citizens in which the relationship partakes of the character of both slavery and adoption. Hittite documents of the 14th and 13th centuries b.c.e. list the gods of the Ḫabiru among others who are signatories to international alliances. Hittite cult documents place the Ḫabiru (Ḫapiri) at the head of a list of subject and enslaved peoples or classes. Akkadian documents from Ugarit mention "the Ḫabiru [= sa. gaz] of the Sun [= king of Heth]" and in Ugaritic alphabetic script Ḫlb ʿprm i.e., the Ḫabiru quarter of the city of Ḫalbu (not identical with the great city of Ḥalab). From the 15th to the 12th centuries the ʿpr.w appear in Egyptian documents as captives from Palestine-Syria, and as slaves of the state.
Along with their appearance as dependents and protégés in lands of stable government, independent groups of Ḫabiru appear in times of disintegrating rule and lack of central control. In the Mari period of clashes between nations and cities, the Ḫabiru appear as robber bands, which attacked and plundered settlements, either on their own or together with residents of nearby settlements. Similarly in Palestine-Syria during the *el-Amarna period (15th–14th centuries b.c.e.), the confusion that resulted from the clashes between the local princes and the Egyptian governors provided an opportune time for the bands of Ḫabiru to run wild. On their own, together with local people, or as mercenaries helping either the city princes or the Egyptians they contributed greatly to the general confusion that was characteristic of the period.
The Ḫabiru were of varied origin. In Mari, a band of auxiliary soldiers was called Iamutbalian Ḫabiru ("i̯amutbalāju Ḫa-bi-ru"), the former being the name of a western Semitic tribe and of the territory west of Baghdad. Documents from Mari and Alalakh cite cities as the origin of most of the Ḫabiru listed. Some of the Ḫabiru in Nuzi came from Akkad, Assyria, etc. A significant element among the Ḫabiru of the El-Amarna period was mutineers against the local kinglets. Their names also testify to a varied ethnic makeup: an early Babylonian list includes Akkadian and Western Semitic names; in Alalakh the names are principally non-Semitic (which corresponds with the surroundings); and in Nuzi there is a mixture of Akkadian and non-Semitic names. The ease with which they absorbed everyone who wished "to be a Ḫabiru" (in the language of the documents) indicates that they were not distinguished by ethnic unity.
All those called Ḫabiru shared a common inferior status. Almost all were fugitives from their original societies, and, as strangers without rights, they made themselves dependent on lords. For a few it is specifically noted that they were fugitives from authority or from personal calamities, or ordinary scoundrels (cf. similar bands in Israel during the biblical period: Judg. 9:4, 26ff.; 11:3; and especially David's band, i Sam. 22:2). The circumstances in which the Ḫabiru emerged are unclear. There are vague indications of a western-Semitic origin: their name; a settlement of Amorite (= mar.tu; see *Amorites) soldiers of the early Babylonian period, named Ḫa-bi-ri (ki); the fact that the documents about them begin to appear at the height of Amorite migration to Mesopotamia. It is possible that Amorite unfortunates, stripped of land and possessions, formed the original core to which a rabble of paupers, refugees, and criminals was attracted in the course of time, without consideration of ethnic origin.
Ugaritic and Egyptian writings indicate that the root of the word Ḫabiru is ʿapiru (noun form). The existence of the ʿayin in the cuneiform, in the sign Ḫa, points to a western-Semitic origin, since ordinarily the initial ʿayin becomes an ʾalef in Akkadian which is not the present case. These writings also establish the pronunciation of the second syllable – bi in cuneiform must in this case represent pi, which makes it highly unlikely that the word is to be derived from ʿbr.
In many sources the ideogram sa.gaz is interchangeable with the term "Ḫabiru." This ideogram is translated in late lexicographical lists by the word ḫa-ba-tu, meaning "robber," but also migratory workers, who in El-Amarna letter no. 318:11–12 are kept apart from the Ḫabiru. (The later lexical identifications are not conclusive evidence.) It is probable that in many places the ideogram was pronounced Ḫabiru, but there is no definite proof for this. Some read the ideogram as ša-gašu based on the variants sa.ga.az, sag.gaz, meaning "murderer" (as in Akkadian) or "restless, foul" (as in Aramaic and Arabic). In any event, it is clear that both sa.gaz and Ḫabiru had a negative connotation, to the extent that at times (and many such instances appear in the El-Amarna letters) the terms were used as synonyms for mutineers and paupers.
Habiru and the Hebrews
The problem of the connection between the Ḫabiru and the Hebrews has been discussed for almost 150 years. The earlier stages of the problem are summarized by M. Greenberg (in bibl., 4–12, esp., 91–96; see R. de Vaux, W.F. Albright, M.P. Gray, J. Weingreen, J. Bottéro and E.F. Campbell in bibl.; see also *el-Amarna). For more recent discussion, see Additional Bibliography.
One cannot simply equate Ḫabiru with the "Hebrews" because it is clear that the Ḫabiru are always a social element, while "Hebrew" is at least sometimes equivalent to the ethnicon "Israel" (Gen. 40:15; 43:32; Ex. 1:18; 2:11; 3:18; 5:3) if not always (i Sam. 14:21; Na'aman 1986). Abraham was called ʿivri (Gen. 14:13) because he is a descendant of Eber (Gen. 10:25). Yet as a leader of an armed band able to form local alliances he fits certain social structural identifications with the Ḫabiru; other parts of the Israelites also could fulfill, for a short time, this traditional identification based on this structure (cf. Campbell, in bibl., 14). It is possible that a reminiscence of the negative connotation of Ḫabiru survives in the designation eved ivri (Ex. 21:2) or in the ʿivrim mentioned in connection with Saul in i Samuel 13–14 (although they may not be Israelites at all; see above).
J. Bottéro Le problème des Ḫabiru… (1954); K.M. Kenyon, The Bible and Recent Archaeology (1978); R. de Vaux, The Early History of Israel (French, 1971; English, 1978); M. Greenberg, The Ḫab/piru (1955); idem, in: Tarbiz, 24 (1955), 369–79; m.p. Gray, in: huca, 29 (1958), 180–2; W.F. Albright, in: basor, 163 (1961), 53–54: E.F. Campbell, ba, 23 (1960), 10, 13–16; J. Weingreen, in: Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Papers, 1 (1967), 63–66 (Eng. section); P. Artzi, in: jnes, 27 (1968), 166–7; R. de Vaux, ibid., 221–8 (incl. bibl.). add. bibliography: N. Na'aman, in: jnes, 45 (1986), 271–88 (extensive bibliography); idem, in: jnes, 47 (1988), 192–94; jaos, 120 (2000), 62–74; W. Moran, in: D. Golomb (ed.), Working with No Data… Studies… Lambdin (1987), 209–12; A. Rainey, in: jaos, 107 (1987), 539–41; N. Lemche, in: abd, 3:6–10 (with bibliography); idem, ibid., 95; R. Biggs, in: jnes, 58 (1999), 294–95.