THE word for Hebrew in the Hebrew language of the Bible is ‘Ibri. Scholars have differed about its specific meaning, but the most common view is that the word is related to the Hebrew preposition ‘ibr meaning ‘across’ and that it was modified to describe Abraham, the founder of the tribe of Israel, and his descendants because of their migration from Ur in Mesopotamia across the river Euphrates to the land of Palestine-Jordan.
The expression ‘Hebrew’ is used in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) as a name for the Israelites to differentiate between them and Egyptians and Philistines. Therefore, as the word Khabiru, which occurs frequently in Amarna letters, has been shown by many scholars to be similar to the word for ‘Hebrew’ (‘Ibri), there has been an attempt to identify the people referred to in these letters with the Israelites. A number of factors have served to confuse the issue, however:
• Many Amarna letters sent from the Palestinian city States to Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun indicate that they had encountered a great deal of trouble in their territories as a result of people sometimes called Khabiru and sometimes referred to as Sa-Gaz. (There is considerable evidence to support the belief that both peoples were associated);
• It is clear from the letters that these people were composed of small groups, acting simultaneously in different parts of Palestine, north as well as south, and not a united group under one leadership;
• At the time these letters were sent to Amenhotep III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC, the Israelites were still in Egypt, according to most scholars, whether we believe in an Exodus during the reign of Ramses I or Ramses II;
• There are references to ′Peru (the way Egyptian texts represent the word ‘Hebrew’) being in Egypt from the time of Amenhotep III during the second half of the fifteenth century BC, right through the Amarna period and as late as the time of Ramses IV, a little before the middle of the twelfth century BC, long after the Exodus, whichever date we accept for it;
• From Egyptian sources we find the word ‘Peru used to indicate labourers working for the State at heavy manual labour in connection with building operations of the kings, especially the quarrying and transportation of stone;
• The Babylonian texts, known as the Nuzu Texts, use the word Khabiru to indicate a class of slaves and, as with the Egyptian word ‘Peru, the word appears to indicate a social class of hard labourers rather than an ethnic group;
• The Bible does not refer to the Israelites as ‘Hebrews’ after the Exodus and during the entry into Canaan with Joshua.
The conclusion is obvious. The word ‘Hebrew’ was used to designate a particular social class – either disorganized groups of wandering slaves or labourers in the Palestine city States, who were quite distinct from the Hebrews in Egypt, or the Israelites in Egypt, who were known as Hebrews while they were engaged in harsh labour. However, this term was no longer applied to them once they had been freed by Moses and were looked upon as a nation. Thus, as the term ‘Hebrew’ denoted a social class rather than a people, not all Hebrews can be regarded as Israelites although the Israelites were classed as Hebrews while they laboured at building the treasure cities of Pithom and Raamses.
The implication of the King of Jerusalem’s letter (see Chapter 19) is that the two Egyptian officials murdered by the Hebrews at Zarw may have been among the supervisors of their work, and it is possible that these very incidents – or something similar – could have been responsible for bringing to a head the anti-Akhenaten movement in the army that eventually caused his downfall and flight to Sinai.