Who is a Hebrew?


Both the Old and the New Testament use the word “Hebrew” in several passages. However, the word has different meanings, depending on the context.

Technically, the first time the word “Hebrew” is used is in Genesis 14:13, where it is applied to Abram, in connection with the defeat of the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah in battle and the captivity of Lot. We read: “Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew…”

Commentaries give several explanations for the use of this word in this passage.

The Ryrie Study Bible says:

“Abraham was the first person to be referred as a Hebrew, an ethnic designation that his descendants derived from him. The word comes from the name of his ancestor, Eber (11:10-14). It also had a wider use as a general designation for nomadic people like Abraham, who would have been considered a migrant by the Canaanites, since he came from Ur and Haran.”

The Nelson Study Bible adds the following:

“Here is the first use of the word Hebrew in the Bible. It comes from the name Eber, first mentioned in the table of nations in ch. 10 [compare Genesis 10:21]. The word is related to a verb meaning ‘cross over’ or ‘pass through,’ perhaps reminding us that Abram ‘passed through’ or ‘crossed over’ from another place in order to obey the Lord’s command.”

Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, writes:

“This is an unusual use of the word ‘Hebrew.’ Elsewhere in biblical stories it is used to identify Israelites only when one is speaking among foreigners. It is not the standard term for the people, which is rather ‘Israelite’… Perhaps it is used here because there are not yet any other Israelites around, and Abraham himself is a foreigner.”

This explanation is not entirely correct. First, there were other Israelites around (for instance, Lot and his family); and second, there are incidents where the word “Hebrew” is applied to Israelites when one is NOT speaking among foreigners, even though the use is related (see below in regard to the term, “Hebrew slave”).

A very convincing and comprehensive explanation is given by Rienecker, Lexikon zur Bibel. The commentary points out that the word “Hebrew” is derived from Eber, a descendant of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. One of the descendants of Eber is Abram [Genesis 11:16-26]. It is then explained that the word “Hebrew” can also refer to one “who has passed over” and who ‘”came from beyond’ (the River Euphrates), which applies to Abraham (compare Joshua 24:2, 3).” It continues: “Later, Joseph and his brothers in Egypt are referred to as Hebrews (Genesis 39:14, 17; 41:12; 43:32), and Joseph calls his homeland the land of the Hebrews (Genesis 40:15). The word distinguished the sons of Jacob as belonging to a people which is different from the natives, but we cannot determine exactly how all-encompassing the term Hebrew was at that time.”

It is then pointed out that subsequently, the word is used exclusively for Israelites, and always in opposition to peoples of non-Israelite descent. This applies first to the Egyptians (Exodus 1:15, 16, 19; 2:6, 7,11, 13), and Moses emphasizes in front of Pharaoh that he is acting pursuant to the command of “the LORD God of the Hebrews” (Exodus 3:18; 5:3; [7:16; 9:1; 10:3]); then [the term “Hebrews” applies] at the time of [Samuel and] Saul and the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:6, 9; 14:11; 29:3; [13:7, 19; 14:21] and at the time of Jonah in comparison with the foreign sailors (Jonah 1:9)…”

Rienecker also points out that the word “Hebrew” is applied to Israelite servants or slaves (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12; Jeremiah 34:9, 14). We should note that in Jeremiah, “Hebrew slave” is described as “Jewish brother.” The commentary continues to state that the Hebrew slave is distinguished from non-Israelite slaves and that the life of a Hebrew slave must be viewed in light of the fact that all Israelites had been slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 15:15). Friedman adds that “Hebrew slave” had become “a fixed phrase through assonance: the two words ‘slave’ [ebed] and ‘Hebrew’ [ibri] begin with the same two letters” (since there are no vowels, but only consonants, in the Hebrew language).

In the New Testament, the distinction between Hebrews and non-Hebrews was also known, which caused problems in the early Church. We read in Acts 6:1: “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who had adopted Greek culture, or they were Greek “proselytes” who had converted to Judaism (compare our Q&A about the Day of Pentecost); and the “Hebrew” Jews—Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians—looked down on them and were not willing to treat them with the same respect. The apostles solved this problem by ordaining deacons to look after all the brethren in the congregation.

We also find that the apostle Paul uses the term “Hebrew” to identify his physical lineage, in defense against those who questioned his appointment as an apostle and minister of God. He says in 2 Corinthians 11:22: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I? Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.”

We see that he uses the terms “Hebrew”, “Israelite” and “seed of Abraham” in the same context, showing his physical heritage (Compare also Romans 11:1).

Paul adds in Philippians 3:5 that he was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee…”

Here, he is explaining that he is a descendant of Benjamin, one of the twelve sons of Israel. We know that under Solomon’s son, the house of Judah separated from the house of Israel. The house of Israel consisted of ten tribes, which later became known as the LOST ten tribes, since they never returned to the Promised Land after their Assyrian captivity. The ten tribes of Israel consisted of the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim (son of Joseph) and Manasseh (son of Joseph). Note that Joseph—one of the sons of Israel—was divided up into two tribes—Ephraim and Manasseh. We see a similar “division” in Revelation 7:4-8, where Manasseh is mentioned as well as Joseph (referring to Ephraim). The house of Judah consisted of the tribes of Judah, Levi and Benjamin, and they returned to the Promised Land after their Babylonian captivity. Paul is making the point that he is not only an Israelite and a Hebrew, but also a descendant from the tribe of Benjamin; meaning that he belongs to the house of Judah. As the descendants of the house of Judah (Judah, Benjamin and Levi) were identified as “Jews,” Paul referred to himself as a Jew, compare Galatians 2:15.

Throughout the New Testament, distinctions are made between physical Jews and physical Greeks, but we need to understand that “Greeks” is representative for all non-Jewish and non-Israelite “nations” or “Gentiles.” A big controversy existed in the early New Testament Church as to whether or not “Greeks” could become members of the Church, and Peter had to receive God’s instruction in a vision to allow this, without requiring them first to become physically circumcised. The issue was settled during the ministerial conference in Acts 15, but even following this decision, some still wanted to compel the non-Jewish Christians to be circumcised and adopt the traditions of the Jews, as we can see, for example, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

At the same time, Paul emphasizes that there is neither Jew nor Greek or Gentile—neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (Romans 3:29-30; 9:24; 10:12; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 3:28), but that all converted Christians—regardless of their physical heritage—are spiritual children of Abraham and spiritual Jews and Israelites (Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 5:6; 6:16); which means that converted Christians are spiritual Hebrews as well, having become “foreigners” in this world who are waiting for a better world to come, when God will establish His government on this earth. Converted Christians have passed from death to life; they have passed through this world and have left it behind. There is no need for Christians to engage in any of the Jewish traditions or rituals which are not taught in the Bible; or which were superseded by the death of Jesus Christ. In fact, the Bible says that in God’s eyes, only those who are spiritual Israelites or Jews (or Hebrews) and who “are of the faith of Abraham” (Romans 4:16) are of the [spiritual] seed of the patriarch Abraham—the first to be named a “Hebrew” (Romans 9:6-9; compare Galatians 3:29).

In this context, it is important to read how Paul continues his statement in Philippians 3:7, after just having set forth his physical lineage as “a Hebrew of the Hebrews”: “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Jesus Christ.”

Paul emphasizes the fact that even though he was very much aware of his physical lineage and even though he had a strong desire to see the Jews—his “countrymen according to the flesh”—accept God’s Way of Life (Romans 9:1-5; 10:1), he never allowed this desire to prevent him from preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. He said that he became a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles so that he might gain some (compare 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

We need to also understand the purpose for his letter to the Hebrews, which was apparently written at the beginning or the middle of the sixties. The Jews had continued to bring animal sacrifices, and it appears that Jewish Christians might have participated in this practice. And so, Paul explained in his letter to the Hebrews that sacrifices were no longer necessary, since Christ’s death constitutes the ultimate Sacrifice; and that very soon, the temple would be destroyed (in 70 A.D.) so that animal sacrifices were no longer possible (compare Hebrews 9:9-10; 10:8-9, 11, 18). But he comforted them by saying that they should not worry about this, as the need for animal sacrifices ceased anyhow when Christ died.

Converted Christians are spiritual Israelites, Jews and Hebrews. They are, in God’s eyes, the true descendants from the spiritual seed of Abraham. They are to reflect in their lives the faith and obedience of Abraham (James 2:21-24), and they can do so, as Jesus Christ, their High Priest, lives in them through the Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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