According to biblical tradition, the Hebrews are peoples
descended from Shem, one of Noah's sons, through Eber, the eponymous
ancestor, and Abraham. Gen. 7:22 f., reports that the flood destroyed all
life except that in Noah's ark; consequently, the whole human family
descended from Noah and his sons: Japheth, Ham and Shem. As yet, not all of
the names of eponymous ancestors in the family lines can be identified,1 but some probabilities are listed in Chart 6.
From Shem, through Arpachshad and Shelah came Eber, the
eponymous ancestor of the Hebrews, and from his descendants through Peleg,
Reu, Sereg and Nahor came Terah, the father of Abram and his brothers Nahor
and Haran. It becomes clear that if "Hebrews" are descendants of
Eber, then others besides those of Abraham's line would be included (see
Read Gen. 12-25
With Abraham the story of the Hebrews begins, and it is clearly stated
that Hebrew origins lay outside Canaan. The summons to leave his ancestral
home and journey to Canaan is accompanied by a promise (Gen. 12:2) that
becomes a submotif in patriarchal accounts, re-appearing again and again
(cf. Gen. 13:14 f., 15:5 f., 18:10, 22:17, 26:24, 28:13 f., 32:12 f., 35:9
ff., 48:16), finally taking covenantal form (Gen. 17:14 ff.). The promise
has two parts: nationhood and divine blessing or protection. The precise
location of the nation-to-be is not specified but was, of course, known to
those hearing or reading the account. The promise of blessing signified the
unique and particularistic bond between Yahweh and his followers, so that
the enemies of Abraham or the nation were enemies of Yahweh, and those
befriending Abraham and/or the nation would be blessed. With this
assurance, Abraham journeyed to Canaan, Egypt, the Negeb, Hebron, Gezer,
Beer-sheba and back to Hebron where he and his wife Sarah died.
The descriptions of Abraham are not uniform: at times he
appears as a lonely migrant, at others as a chieftain, head of a large
family, or as a warrior. Factual details about the patriarch are difficult
to establish, for his real significance lies in what is often called
"inner history," through which those who looked to Abraham as a
forefather gained understanding of themselves as "people of the
promise" and attained, a sense of destiny and an appreciation of their
particular relationship to their deity. We have noted earlier that some
Abrahamic traditions coincide with information coming from Nuzi, which
would place Abraham in the Middle Bronze era.
We read that Abraham, in response to a divine summons,
left Mesopotamia and journeyed to Canaan with his wife, Sarah, and nephew,
Lot. It is clear that the people were meant to recognize themselves as a
community originating in a commission from God and in the unwavering,
unquestioning obedience of Abraham. The journey itself was more than a
pilgrimage, for it constituted the starting point of a continuing adventure
in nationhood. Nor are the travelers without vicissitudes, but throughout
famine, earthquake, fire and war, they are protected by Yahweh.
Gen. 14, in which Abraham is called a "Hebrew"
for the first time, records a battle between the patriarch and kings of
countries or areas as yet unidentified for certain and associates him with
the Canaanite king of Jerusalem. It is possible that reliable historical
data are preserved here.2 The account of the destruction of
Sodom and Gomorrah may also rest in some memory of a shift in the earth's
crust that destroyed the cities of the plain. Tradition associates Abraham
with Hebron, and if Jebel er-Rumeide is the site of this ancient city, it
is evident that a powerful city was located here in the Middle Bronze
Abraham's adventures in the Negeb, the problems of
grazing and watering rights, and the digging of a well at Beer-sheba4 echo genuine problems of the shepherd. The episode involving Sarah and King
Abimelech (a doublet of Gen. 12:10 ff.) introduces Sarah's relationship to
Abraham as both wife and sister, a relationship which in Hurrian society
provided the wife with privileged social standing. It may also be
interpreted as an historic link with the cultures of the upper Euphrates.5
The close relationship between the Hebrews and the
people of the desert and steppes is recognized in the story of Ishmael, the
nomadic first son of Abraham; but it is through Isaac, the second son about
whom so very little is recorded, that the Hebrews trace their own family
line. Both Isaac and his son Jacob maintain a separateness from the people
among whom they dwell, taking wives from among their own kin in Haran (Gen.
24; 28). The story of Jacob, who becomes Israel, and his twin brother Esau,
who becomes Edom, is colored with rivalry, trickery and bitter
misundertanding but also contains echoes of Hurrian custom. In Hurrian law,
birthright could be purchased, and some of the terminology associated with
Isaac's blessing of his sons reflects Hurrian patterns.6
The stories about Jacob also accord with Nuzi (Hurrian)
law for it is recorded that a man may labor for his wife.7 In
dealing with his uncle Laban, Jacob's trickery was matched by his uncle's
deceptive acts. There is no condemnation of chicanery but, rather, the
attitude that to best a man in a business contract revealed cleverness.
When Jacob's hopes to inherit his uncle's estate were dashed by the birth
of male heirs, he broke contract and fled, and it was only when a new
contract was made that relationships were healed. The account of Jacob's
night wrestling with an angelic visitor has probably come down to us
through various recensions, for it now contains two aetiological
explanations: one concerning the name "Jacob-Israel" and the
other giving the reason why the ischiatic sinew is not eaten by Hebrews.
Other traditions associate Jacob with Bethel and Shechem.
Joseph, the son of Jacob, was sold into slavery by
jealous brothers and rose to high office in Egypt. When his father and
brothers migrated to Egypt to escape famine, they were regally received and
encouraged to settle. Documents attesting to the custom of admitting
nomadic groups into the country in time of famine are known from Egypt, and
the Joseph stories reflect many accurate details about Egyptian life and
may be derived in part from Egyptian tales, as we shall see. The pharaoh
under whom Joseph rose to power is not identified.
It is quite possible, as A. Alt has argued, that the
patriarchs were founders of separate cults or clans in which distinctive
names for the deity were compounded with patriarchal names.8 Hence, the deity was known as "the Shield of Abraham" (Gen.
15:1), "the Fear of Isaac" (Gen. 31:42, 53), and "the Mighty
One of Jacob" (Gen. 49:24). Individual representations were later
fused and equated with Yahweh, and individual clan heroes were placed in an
historical sequence and made part of a single family line from Abraham to
Read Exod. 1-6
After what appears to be an extended period of time, the Hebrews
increased in numbers and became a mighty multitude, and a pharaoh who was
indifferent to the Joseph traditions inherited the throne and persecuted
the Hebrews, pressing them into virtual enslavement. Moses, a desert
refugee from Egyptian justice, became associated with the Kenite people. On
the slopes of Mount Sinai in a dramatic encounter with Yahweh, he was
commissioned to act as deliverer of the Hebrews. In the clash with Pharaoh,
the god-king's power was overshadowed by Yahweh through a series of
horrendous events in which the Nile was turned to blood and plagues
involving frogs, gnats, flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts and darkness
are ultimately climaxed by the death of all the first-born children of
Egypt (Read Exod. 7-11). This final act, associated in tradition
with the Passover festival, persuaded Pharaoh to release the Hebrews.
Shortly after the Hebrews departed, Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued
them. At the Sea of Reeds, Yahweh permitted the Hebrews to pass through the
waters unscathed but overwhelmed the Egyptians. The Hebrews pressed into
the wilderness to Mount Sinai where the law was given and there they
entered a covenant with Yahweh (Read Num. 14:39f.). After an
abortive attempt to seize Canaan by penetrating from the south, they moved
eastward and, after many setbacks, took up a position on the eastern side
of the Jordan, just north of the Salt Sea. Here Moses died, and under his
successor, Joshua, the attacks on Canaan were launched.
PROBLEMS WITH DATES AND
Efforts to date the patriarchal period have not been
particularly rewarding, for biblical chronology is complex. In the P
source, 215 years pass between the time of Abraham's journey to Canaan and
Jacob's migration to Egypt (see Gen. 12:4b, 21:5, 25:26, 47:9), and the
period spent in Egypt is given as 430 years (Exod. 12:40 f.), making a
total of 645 years before the Exodus. As we shall see, most scholars date
the Exodus near the middle of the thirteenth century, so that Abraham would
leave Mesopotamia at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Jacob's
journey to Egypt would occur about 1700 B.C. Unfortunately, date variations
occur in some manuscripts. In the LXX, Exod. 12:40 includes time spent in
both Egypt and Canaan in the 430-year period (some manuscripts read 435
years). According to this reckoning, Abraham's journey would fall in the
seventeenth century and Jacob's in the fifteenth century.
The early nineteenth century date for Abraham places his
departure from Mesopotamia at the time of the Elamite and Amorite invasion.
It harmonizes with the conclusions of Nelson Glueck, who found that between
the twenty-first and nineteenth centuries B.C. the Negeb was dotted with
hamlets where inhabitants, having learned how to hoard water, engaged in
agriculture and tended small flocks. Such settlements would provide
stopping places for Abraham and his retinue.9 The seventeenth
century date for Jacob's settlement in Egypt coincides with the Hyksos
invasion of Egypt, lending support to Josephus' hypothesis, for Hebrews may
have been part of this movement.
The second pattern of dating would place Abraham in the
time of Hammurabi of Babylon and would give strength to the argument that
the mention of King Amraphel of Shinar in Gen. 14:1 is a Hebraized
reference to Hammurabi. Abraham would, therefore, be in Canaan during the
Hyksos period, and Joseph would have risen to power in the Amarna age. The
close of the Amarna period brought to power leaders hostile to Akhenaton
and possibly also to those he had favored.
Whatever the correct date for Abraham may be, he
represents the beginning of the nation to the Hebrews. Yahweh's promise to
the patriarch and his successors is considered to be the guarantee of
national existence (Num. 32:11). There are no references to Abraham in the
writings of the eighth century prophets, for then stress was laid on the
Exodus as the starting point of the nation. In the seventh and sixth
centuries, and in the post-Exilic period, the Abrahamic tradition came to
the fore once again.
Efforts to determine the date and route of the Exodus
have been disappointing. Josephus placed the Exodus at the time of the
overthrow of the Hyksos by Ahmose in the sixteenth century, a date that is
far too early. Biblical evidence is limited. I Kings 6:1 reports that
Solomon began building the temple in the fourth year of his reign, 480
years after the Exodus. Solomon's rule is believed to have begun near the
middle of the tenth century, possibly about 960 B.c. Thus, the date of the
Exodus would be: 960 minus 4 (4th year of reign) plus 480, or 1436. In that
case, Thutmose III would be the pharaoh of the oppression, and his mother,
Hatshepsut, might be identified as the rescuer of the infant Moses. The
Hebrew invasion of Canaan, taking place forty years later or about 1400
B.C., might be identified with the coming of the 'apiru.10
Another theory is based on the reference to the building
of Pithom and Raamses in Exod. 1:11. It was noted earlier that both Seti I
and Rameses II worked at the rebuilding of these cities, and that Rameses
is the best candidate for the Pharaoh of the Exodus (1290-1224 B.C.). If
the Exodus took place between 1265 and 1255, the invasion of Canaan would
occur in Mernephtah's reign, and some encounter between Egyptians and
Hebrews would be the basis for his boast of annihilating Israel.
Attempts to chart the course followed by the fleeing
Hebrews is equally frustrating. No one knows for sure the location of Mount
Sinai, and the site chosen for the holy mountain determines, in part, the
route suggested. Attempts have been made to identify stopping places
mentioned in Num. 33:1-37,11 but the identifications can be no
more than conjectures, for biblical descriptions are vague without
The traditional site of Sinai, Jebel Musa, near the
southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, has been widely accepted since the
fourth and fifth centuries A.D., although there was some confusion over
which mountain in the cluster of peaks was Sinai. The traditional route to
Jebel Musa begins in Egypt, crosses the Sea of Reeds (identified either at
the tip of the Red Sea in the Gulf of Heroonpolis [Gulf of Suez] or as one
of the papyrus swamps above the gulf), and goes southward along the western
edge of the Sinai peninsula before turning inland to Jebel Musa. From
Sinai, the Hebrews would move to the north along the Gulf of Aqabah toward
Ezion Geber and Kadesti Barnea.
Sinai has also been identified as Jebel Helal, located
in the northern part of the peninsula. The route to this mountain goes from
Egypt across the marshy swamp area and follows the Way of Shur, one of the
major trade routes of the ancient world, to Jebel Helal and Kadesh Barnea.
Another route to this same mountain goes over the land strip of Lake
Sirbonis (which becomes the Sea of Reeds), northward along the Way of the
Philistines, the coastal route, then southward to Kadesh Barnea and Jebel
Some have insisted that the descriptions in Exod. 19:16
suggest volcanic disturbances and that Sinai must be sought among volcanic
mountains, probably those in the Midianite areas on the eastern side of the
Gulf of Aqabah. One choice among these mountains is El Khrob which
preserves the name Horeb. The Exodus route would then follow the Way of
Shur to Kadesh Barnea and Ezion Geber and down the coast to El Khrob. Sinai
has also been located in Edomite territory, for Judg. 5:4 and Deut. 33:2
locate the mountain in Seir. Jebel Faran on the west side of the Wadi
Arabah has been suggested as a possible choice, and mountains in the Petra
area have also been suggested. In this case the Hebrews would have traveled
along the Way of Shur, by way of Ezion Geber, into Edomite territory.13
Although, for the scholar, there are innumerable
problems associated with the Exodus tradition, this memorable event became
a central factor in the interpretation of the Hebrew faith. Here Yahweh had
demonstrated his loyal, redeeming love to the people whom he had chosen as
his own. In the darkest days of the Exilic period, the memory of the Exodus
event became a source of hope, for it was believed that Yahweh would
deliver his people from bondage in Babylon even as he had rescued them from
A somewhat different tradition of Hebrew beginnings is
reflected in Ezek. (16:3 ff.), where mixed ancestry Amorite, Hittite
and Canaanite is attributed to the Jerusalemites. But here we have a
unique situation, for Jerusalem was a Jebusite stronghold which did not
become a Hebrew city until the time of David (II Sam. 5). The firstfruits
liturgy (Deut. 26:5) traces Hebrew ancestry to the Aramaeans, but the
designation appears to be used in a broad rather than a specific sense.
Etymological analyses of the term "Hebrew" ( 'ibri) have given little help to the study of origins. The term has
been related to a root, meaning "to go over" or "to go
across"; hence, a "Hebrew" would be one who crossed over or
one who went from place to place, a nomad, a wanderer, a designation that
would fit some aspects of patriarchal behavior. A similar term, habiru,
is found in cuneiform documents from the twentieth to the eleventh
centuries, often used interchangeably with another word, SA.GAZ. At times
the Habiru appear to be settled in specific locations; at times they serve
in the army as mercenaries, or are bound to masters as servants. The El
Amarna tablets refer to invaders of Palestine as 'apiru, a word
bearing close relationship to the terms habiru and
"Hebrew."14 Extensive research has led many scholars
to the conclusion that the term "Hebrew" was first used as an
appellative to describe foreigners who crossed into settled areas and
referred not to a specific group but to a social caste. If the word
"Hebrew" parallels habiru or 'apiru, we know that
these people on occasion were employed, at times created settlements of
their own, and at other times attacked established communities. The
suggestion that the terms 'apiru, habiru and
"Hebrew" relate to those who have renounced a relationship to an
existing society, who have by a deliberate action withdrawn from some
organization or rejected some authority, and who have become through this
action freebooters, slaves, employees or mercenaries presents real
possibilities.15 In the Bible the word Hebrew becomes an ethnic
term used interchangeably with "Israelite."16
Perhaps the best that can be said is that the Hebrews of
the Bible appear to be one branch of the Northwest Semitic group, related
linguistically to Canaanites, Edomites and Moabites, who moved from a
semi-nomadic existence to settled life in the Bronze Age.
It is clear from biblical tradition that, at the
beginning of their history, the semi-nomadic Hebrews with flocks of sheep
and goats were at the point of moving into a settled way of life. The
patriarchs are chiefs of large families or clans living, for the most part,
in peace among their neighbors with whom they enter covenants. From family
and clan beginnings came tribes linked to one another by ancestral blood
ties. Bonds between clans or tribes were so strong that the group might be
described as having an existence of its own, a personality embodying the
corporate membership. This phenomenon of psychic unity, labeled
"corporate personality" by H. Wheeler Robinson,17 placed particular responsibilities upon each member of the group. Because
group life was a unity, injury to a single member was injury to all
demanding repayment by the next of kin, the go'el.18 Blood shed was tribal blood requiring redemption by the next of kin. Should
a man die without offspring, his next of kin had to bring the widow to
fruition, and the child born to her became the child of the dead man, the
one carrying his name (Ruth 4:4-10). As the father was at the head of the
family, so the tribal chief and elders led the larger group, seeking the
well-being, peace and psychic health of the members. The corporate nature
of the group afforded great protection, for wherever a member went, he was
backed by the strength of the tribe to which he belonged. Fear of reprisal
tended to be but was not always a restraining factor in violation
of social mores (Judg. 19-20). When the head of the household died, the
widow and orphan were cared for by the next of kin and ultimately by the
Tribal and family religion centered in holy places where
a local priesthood tended shrines, kept altar fires burning, and shared in
offerings (I Sam. 2:12-17). The father seems to have acted as ministrant on
behalf of the family (I Sam. 1). Offerings were made and a meal shared
through which the participants were bound more firmly together. There is no
evidence that the deity was believed to participate in the meal. Agreements
made at holy places were witnessed by the deity who guaranteed fulfillment
of terms (Gen. 31:51 ff.). The shrine of Ba'al-berith (Judg. 9:4) or El-berith
(Judg. 9:46), the "covenant god" at Shechem, may have been a holy
place where covenants were made in the presence of the god.
An important custom in Hebrew society was the practice
of hospitality. A guest was honored and entertained, even at considerable
expense to the host (Gen. 18:1-8, 24:28-32). Once under the host's roof, or
having shared food, the guest was guaranteed protection (Gen. 19, Judg.
19). Should a stranger settle in the community, he enjoyed most of the
rights and responsibilities.
From time to time new groups were grafted into the
family tree of Hebrew tribes, and the heritage of the larger group became
that of the adopted ones, as when the Calebites united with the tribe of
Judah (Josh. 14:6-15, 15:13). When confronted by common problems or
enemies, tribal federations were formed (see Judg. 4-5). On the other hand,
when a famine or food shortage occurred, one group might leave to seek new
territory (Gen. 13). Tribal activity in Canaan is portrayed as a
twelve-tribe federation19 often called an amphictyony, after
Greek tribal federations.20 However, clear distinctions between
Greek and Hebrew patterns must be recognized. Greek cities united in an
amphictyony centered about a shrine where peoples from the surrounding
cities worshiped and where decisions affecting the participating members
were made. The Hebrew amphictyony was centered in the Ark of Yahweh, a
moveable shrine. Some scholars have argued that a primitive amphictyonic
ritual was observed at the shrine at Sliechem,21 but the
hypothesis rests only upon probabilities. A six-tribe federation, which
preceded the twelve-tribe grouping, has also been postulated involving the
Leah tribes: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, udah, Zebulun and Issachar.22
CHART VII. Sometimes the tribes
are listed genealogically (Gen. 35:23; I Chron. 2:1-2) sometimes in cultic
formation (Num. 2-3; Deut. 27:12); and sometimes geographically (Num.
34:14-28; I Chron. 6:54 ff.; Ezek. 48:1 ff.). Usually twelve tribes are
mentioned, but the identification of the tribes varies: in one Dinah is
listed in place of Benjamin (Gen. 29-30), and in Chronicles both halves of
the tribe of Manasseh are counted (I Chron. 2-3; 6:54-80). Some lists
mention only ten tribes (Deut. 33:6 ff.; II Sam. 19:43); one gives eleven
tribes (I King 11:31); and in Gen. 46:48 ff. there are thirteen.
Sources: Old Testament Life and Literature is copyright © 1968,
1997 by Gerald A. Larue. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written
permission of Gerald A. Larue.
These files, and many more are available at the Secular Web: http://www.infidels.org/. For more
information, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. G. von Rad, Genesis, trans. by John H. Marks (Philadelphia:
Westrninster Press, 1961), pp. 142 f.
2. E. A. Speiser, Genesis, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, New York:
Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1964), pp. 105 ff.
3. Gerald A. Larue, "The American Expedition to Hebron, 1965," The
Journal of Bible and Religion, XXXIII (1965), 337 ff.
4. Possibly located at Tell Sheba, an unexcavated mound just east of the
5. Speiser, Genesis, pp. 91 ff.
6. Ibid., pp. 212 f.
7. Cf. G. Cornfeld (ed.), Adam to Daniel (New York: The Macmillan
Company, 1961), p. 85.
8. A. Alt, Kleine Schriften zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel (Munich: C. H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1953), I. See also J. Bright, op. cit., pp. 88 ff.
9. Nelson Gltieck, Rivers in the Desert, pp. 68 ff.
10. Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past, pp. 118 ff.
11. G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology, p. 64; C. Kraeling, Bible
Atlas, pp. 107 ff.
12 .Y. Aharoni, "Kadesh Bamea and Mount Sinai," God's
Wilderness (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962), p. 118.
13. For a detailed statement of conjectures on Sinai and the Exodus route,
cf. Kraeling, op. cit., chap. 6.
14. Cf. T. J. Meek, Hebrew Origins, chap. 1. For the suggestion that
the term 'apiru means "donkey driver, caravaneer" cf. Wm. F.
Albright, "Abram the Hebrew: A New Archaeological
Interpretation," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental
Research (henceforth BASOR), No. 163 (1961) 36-54.
15. E. F. Campbell, "The Amarna Letters and the Amarna Period," BA XXIII (1960), 15; G. E. Mendenhall, "The Hebrew Conquest of
Palestine," BA XXV (1962), 71 f.
16. For an extended discussion of the 'Apiru-Habiru-Hebrew problem, cf.
Mary F. Gray, "The Habiru-Hebrew Problem in the Light of Source
Material Available at Present," Hebrew Union College Annual,
XXIX (1958), pp. 135-202; Moshe Greenberg, The Hab/piru, American
Oriental Series, XXXIX (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1955).
17. H. Wheeler Robinson, "The Hebrew Conception of Corporate
Personality," Werden und Wesen des Alten Testaments, J. Hempel
(ed.), B.Z.A.W. LXVI, 1936, pp. 49ff. See also J. Pedersen, Israel: Its
Life and Culture (Copenhagen: Povl Branner, 1926), Vols. I-II; Aubrey
R. 18. Johnson, The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God,
2nd ed. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1961) ; and Aubrey R. 19. Johnson, The Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel, 2nd
ed. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1964).
20. Go'el comes from a root meaning "to recover" or
"buy back" or "redeem," and thus means
"redeemer," "restorer" and, in a sense,
"protector." 21. For a brief discussion, cf. Roland de Vaux, Ancient
Israel, Its Life and Institutions, John McHugh, trans. (New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1961), pp. 21 f.
22. The scheme develops out of the twelve sons of Jacob six from Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun; two from
Zilpah: Gad and Asher; two from Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin; and two from
Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali (cf. Gen. 29:16-30:24; 35:16-20). The final
grouping for division of the land includes: Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Ephraim,
Gad, Issachar, Judah, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon and ZebuIun. More
than twenty variant lists occur within the Bible.
23. Martin Noth, The History of Israel, pp. 87 ff.; John Bright, A
History of Israel, pp. 142 f.; Murray Newman, The People of the
Covenant (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), pp. 102 ff.
24. Cf. Noth, op. cit., pp. 92 f.; Newman, op. cit., pp. 108
25. Cf. Noth, op. cit., pp. 88 f.; Newman, op. cit., p. 102.