Certain groups of people located in the Near East during the second millennium b.c. The Habiru first became known to historians with the publication of the Amarna letters at the end of the 19th century. Since that time the available sources of information on them—in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Egyptian— have increased to almost 200 documents. These sources span at least seven centuries and concern the geographical area along the Fertile Crescent from Lower Mesopotamia to Egypt. The earliest certain reference to the Habiru is from Anatolia in the 19th century b.c., the latest from Egypt in the middle of the 12th century b.c. The Habiru must therefore have existed during the second millennium b.c., and the documentation poses two major questions: who were they? And what was their relationship, if any, to the hebrews of the Bible?
The Identity of the Habiru. The Habiru are frequently referred to by a Sumerian expression SA.GAZ (with variants) that has been interpreted to mean murderer, tendon-cutter, head-smiter, and the like. The context in which it occurs makes its pejorative sense clear, and this sense also appears in an Akkadian lexical text that translates the Sumerian as ḫabbātu (robber).
Etymology. The etymology of Habiru is still uncertain; it is not universally agreed that the word is even of Semitic origin. Ugaritic and Egyptian occurrences, 'prm and 'pr.w respectively, resolve the ambiguity of the cuneiform writing with ḫ, whence the conventional Habiru, and show that the first consonant is the ‘ayin -sound, a voiced laryngeal. Earlier explanations of Habiru as "confederate" or "Hebronite" (cf. the biblical city hebron), based on a root ḥbr, are certainly wrong. The Ugaritic and Egyptian spellings also indicate p rather than b as the second consonant; likewise, the cuneiform writing with BI is ambiguous and can stand for pi as well as bi. The form 'apiru, however, is still capable of several interpretations: one provided for (A. Goetze, M. Greenberg; cf. Akkadian epēru, to provide for), dusty one, covered with dust (E. Dhorme, R. Borger, R. De Langhe, W. F. Albright according to his latest view; cf. Hebrew 'āpār, dust), one equipped, and member of a labor gang (Albright according to an earlier view; cf. Egyptian 'pr, to equip). Moreover, since Semitic b occasionally appears as p in Egyptian and Ugaritic, J. Lewy believes 'br is the original root and a Habiru is one who has crossed over, an immigrant.
A Socio-legal Term. Common to these proposals on etymology is the view that Habiru is an appellative without national or ethnic meaning. This view is supported by the wide geographical diffusion of the Habiru, the indications in their personal names of various ethnic origins, the morphology of the term, and the Sumerian equivalent. With the increasing evidence, the much more common opinion is that Habiru is a socio-legal term.
Characteristic of the Habiru is that they are almost always dependents, either on the state, city, or other individuals. In Egypt they perform forced labor for the crown, at Nuzu (Nuzi). In Mesopotamia both male and female Habiru offer their services to a master in exchange for their keep. Most commonly, however, the Habiru serve as soldiers, often organized in special contingents; it is in this role that we find them at Larsa in Babylonia, Mari on the Middle Euphrates, Alalakh in North Syria, and Boghazköy in Anatolia.
Their social status varies from place to place, but with the exception of that of a few individuals, it is an inferior one. In Egypt and at Nuzu they are virtually slaves, although in the latter place they seem to enjoy a higher position than the ordinary slave. At Alalakh, the individual Habiru may occupy a prominent rank, but the majority are inferior to the peasantry. Hittite Habiru are ranked between the freeborn and the slaves.
Very often the Habiru are foreigners. The Nuzu and Alalakh texts are explicit on this point, and it is implied in the Hittite texts, in which the Habiru are frequently placed in parallelism with the Lulaḫi, foreigners from the east. Since the Egyptian Habiru are usually, if not always, prisoners of war, they do not belong to the native population.
The ranks of the Habiru are increased by the presence of fugitives; some scholars, in fact, believe that this is the common characteristic of all Habiru. The Hittite king promises to extradite all subjects of ugarit who flee to the territory of the Habiru. King Idrimi of Alalakh escapes from his native land and finds refuge with the Habiru in Canaan. A Habiru mentioned at Mari is a fugitive from Eshnunna in the south, and an old Assyrian document perhaps attests a similar flight because of unpaid debts.
Freebooters. The Habiru could constitute a grave threat to the peace. The Mari letters speak of them as endangering a city and engaging in razzias in which men and sheep are carried off (cf. the pejorative SA.GAZ and the Akkadian translation as robber). In the Amarna Letters, to be a Habiru is synonymous with being a rebel against the Egyptian power in Palestine and Syria; it is the Habiru who are most frequently mentioned as supporters of the leaders of revolt, to whom they occasionally bind themselves by a solemn pact. At Alalakh a year is dated by the treaty of peace between the king and the Habiru; this suggests the importance that could be attached to coming to terms with them. They are not, however, to be thought of as marauding nomads, from whom they are at times explicitly distinguished; often too they are found in fixed settlements. The Habiru appear rather as bands of freebooters who, when political authority is strong, are organized as a kind of foreign legion, but who in times of political upheaval or weakness prey on villages or cities and support subversive elements in society. Of course, seminomads may have often joined their ranks.
Outlaws. Since men do not leave their native lands and enter an alien society as dependents, or hover on the fringes of their own society as outlaws and rebels, unless they are forced to, the Habiru must have been men under duress. In the political, social, and economic context of the second millennium the principal sources of their hardship are obvious. The hand of the crown lay heavy on the populace, especially in vassal territories, where the inhabitants not only had to pay tribute to the suzerain, but had to lodge and feed his troops and officials as well; it is not by chance that the principal source of information on the Habiru is the Amarna Letters, written by Egyptian vassals. The oppressive demands of kings in general are well described in 1 Sm 8.11–17, and the accuracy of this passage has been completely confirmed by the administrative texts from the palace archives of Ugarit. A large part of the Syro-Palestinian population were serfs whose lives must often have been a struggle for survival. Because of the precarious nature of the ancient agrarian economy, unpaid debts could accumulate, and the insolvent debtor was subject to personal seizure by his creditor. It should be recalled that legal reforms and general cancellation of debts were constantly necessary in Mesopotamia to redress social and economic imbalances that arose with dangerous regularity.
The motives, therefore, were many for abandoning one's society, and he who did so thereby rejected its political authority and, consequently, forfeited his legal rights. In fact, to judge from the Amarna Letters, in which a whole city may become Habiru, it is not flight that constitutes the essence of a Habiru, although this was usually involved, but it is the refusal to accept any longer the legal power controlling one's society. Ordinarily, only individuals or small groups became Habiru, and in their situation they would naturally tend to band together with others in the same position. They might remain close to home in the less inhabited areas or move on into foreign lands. As the Nuzu texts show, the individual might attach himself to a private master, and these service contracts seem inspired primarily by a concern for protection under a master. This was one way of securing legal rights. Other ways were military service for the state—both parties, king and Habiru, bound themselves by oath according to Hittite sources—or a pact in which the Habiru acquired some legally recognized status. At times, therefore, the Habiru seem to trade one yoke for another, but there is not sufficient information to be able to say whether their new status did not still represent a considerable improvement on their old one; besides, it was not easy to be an outlaw, and for the individual it was virtually impossible.
Unquestionably the term Habiru had particular nuances in different regions and periods that cannot be grasped, and probably many of its social and legal implications still escape modern scholars. But with the present evidence "outlaw" seems the best definition of a Habiru.
Reference, however, should be made to Albright's latest view, which unfortunately he has only stated, without elaboration or documentation. He maintains that a Habiru was primarily a donkey driver or caravaneer, whence his name "the dusty one." It was only when he could not make a living at his trade that he entered someone's service, bore arms, banded with others to become a robber, and so forth. While it would be incautious simply to reject this solution of the Habiru problem without first seeing the evidence on which it is based, what immediately strikes one is the anomaly that the sources consistently present of the Habiru as, so to speak, unemployed. Unless this anomaly can somehow be explained away, it is doubtful whether Albright will enlist many followers.
The Habiru and the Hebrews. Until the discovery of the Habiru in the Amarna Letters, two explanations were commonly given to the term Hebrew: (1) "the one from the other side" (of the Euphrates), and (2) a descendant of Eber or Heber (Gn 10.21–25; 11.14–26). The Amarna Letters seemed to offer a third possibility, and the invading Israelites of the Conquest were identified by some with the Palestinian Habiru—some even claimed to find the person of joshua, son of nun, in the Amarna Letters—or in some way connected with them. Many objections were raised, and the discovery of the Habiru from Mesopotamia to Egypt necessarily modified earlier and simpler theories. The relationship of Habiru and Hebrew remains a moot question of ancient Near Eastern history.
Reasons for Identification. Favoring the equation of Habiru with Hebrew are a number of considerations. First, Hebrew was almost certainly not originally an ethnic designation. None of the Israelites' neighbors ever refer to them as Hebrews. Their language is never called Hebrew until the late postexilic period (cf. Is 19.18; 2 Kgs 18.26; Neh 13.24; Prologue of Sir). When Moses defends a Hebrew, the author finds it necessary to add "among his brethren" (Ex 2.11); a Hebrew, therefore, was not necessarily an Israelite. In 1 Sm 14.21, and perhaps in 1 Sm 13.3, 7; 14.11, the Hebrews are distinguished from the Israelites. The range, too, of usage is too narrow for the term to be an ethnic designation; it is largely confined to the Israelites in Egypt (time of Joseph: Gn 39.14, 17; 41.12; see also 40.15; 43.32; the age of Moses: Ex 1.15–16, 19; 2.6–7, 11, 13, 21; 3.18; 5.3; 9.1, 19; 10.3).
Second, there are many striking correspondences between the Hebrews and the Habiru. Joseph and the people in Egypt are foreigners, and the latter are engaged in forced labor on crown property. Yahweh is the God of Hebrews (Ex 3.18; 5.3; 9.1, 19; 10.3—cf. the gods of the Habiru in Hittite texts), and reference is made to the land of the Hebrews (Gn 40.15), which recalls the territory of the Habiru. In 1 Sm 29.3 the Philistines speak of David and his band as Hebrews. David is a fugitive from his King Saul, and his followers are composed of debtors and malcontents (1 Sm 22.2) and other fugitives (1 Sm 22.20–23). They live in the desert and raid the flocks of others (1 Sm ch. 25). David puts himself and his men at the service of the king of Gath (1 Sm ch. 27). In 1 Sm 14.21 it is said that the Hebrews desert the Philistines and join the Israelites in a shift of loyalties characteristic of the Amarna Habiru. The Hebrews are also men in revolt (1 Sm 4.6, 9). Abraham the Hebrew is a foreigner, capable of surprise attack at the head of his band of followers (Gn ch. 14), and he gains rights through covenant (Gn 14.13; 21.22–24). A Hebrew slave is one who accepts limited service under a master (Ex 21.2–6), and the law on this subject has a number of similarities with the service contracts of the Nuzu Habiru.
Third, like the term Habiru, which disappears in the first millennium b.c., Hebrew is virtually confined to traditions of the second millennium b.c.; it reappears after the Exile as an archaizing ethnolinguistic term.
Objections against Identification. There are objections against equating the two terms. The first is linguistic: 'apiru and 'ibrī (the Hebrew form of "Hebrew") are too dissimilar to be related. However, for 'apir -'ibr we have the parallel dialectal variants malik-milk (king), and for the change of p to b we have other examples of the shift of surd to sonant under the influence of sonorous r. Popular etymology may also have contributed to this development; 'ipru may have been connected with being a foreigner and therefore with 'ibru, "the other side." A few possible occurrences of Habiru in Akkadian texts of the late second millennium b.c. may show the same development: 'apir to 'abir; if so, they also provide the only cases of Habiru with a gentilic ending comparable to the Hebrew ending -ī.
This leads to the second objection: beside the ending -ī, in Gn 10.21–25 (cf. 11.14–26) there is further evidence that Hebrew is an ethnic designation, for Eber (Heber, in Hebrew 'ēber ) and the b enê 'ēber cannot be dissociated from the Hebrews. However, even in Gn ch. 10–11 an awareness is reflected that originally all Hebrews were not Israelites and descendants of Abraham, for Eber (10.25) fathered two sons whose progeny extended far beyond the Israelite line; moreover, it was Sem who was the ancestor of "all the sons of Heber." This cutting across tribal divisions fits the Habiru perfectly. Perhaps too, as seems to have happened in Mesopotamia, in the late second millennium b.c. the Habiru became associated especially with a few interrelated ethnic groups; this would foster a new meaning for the old term now falling into desuetude.
Without therefore denying the value of these objections, the mass of evidence certainly supports the view that ultimately Habiru and Hebrew originally designated the same social class.
Bibliography: j. bottÉro, Le Problème des Ḫabiru (Paris 1954). m. greenberg, The Ḫab/piru (American Oriental Ser. 37; New Haven 1955). m. p. gray, "The Ḫâbiru-Hebrew Problem in the Light of the Source Material Available at Present," Hebrew Union College Annual 29 (1958) 135–202. j. lewy, "Origin and Significance of Biblical Term Hebrew, " ibid. 28 (1957) 1–13. m.g. kline, "The Ḫa-bi-ru—Kin or Foe of Israel?" Westminster Theological Journal 19 (1956) 1–24, 170–184; 20 (1957) 46–70. g. e. mendenhall, "The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine," The Biblical Archaeologist 25 (1962) 66–87. w. f. albright, "Abram the Hebrew: A New Archaeological Interpretation," The Bulletinn of the American Schools of Oriental Research 163 (1961) 36–54. h. otten, "Zwei althethitische Belege zu den Ḫapiru (SA.GAZ)," Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 52 (1957) 216–223.
[w. l. moran]
"Habiru (Habiri)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/habiru-habiri
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