What is a Hebrew?

The Bible uses the term Hebrew in both the Old and New Testaments, so what is a Hebrew?

The first time we see this term used in scripture is in the Book of Genesis:

13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, for he dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner; and they were allies with Abram. (Genesis 14:13)

A Hebrew is a term that seems to be related to the descendants of Eber:

21 And children were born also to Shem, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder. 22 The sons of Shem were Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram. 23 The sons of Aram were Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. 24 Arphaxad begot Salah, and Salah begot Eber. 25 To Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided; and his brother’s name was Joktan. 26 Joktan begot Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, 28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29 Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab. All these were the sons of Joktan. 30 And their dwelling place was from Mesha as you go toward Sephar, the mountain of the east. 31 These were the sons of Shem, according to their families, according to their languages, in their lands, according to their nations. (Genesis 10:21-31)

In Genesis 11, we see that Abram (Abraham) was a descendant of Eber:

16 Eber lived thirty-four years, and begot Peleg.
18 Peleg lived thirty years, and begot Reu.
20 Reu lived thirty-two years, and begot Serug.
22 Serug lived thirty years, and begot Nahor.
24 Nahor lived twenty-nine years, and begot Terah.
26 Now Terah lived seventy years, and begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran. (Genesis 11:16,18,20,22)

So Abraham,was the great-great-great-great-grandson of Eber, an Eberite, called a Hebrew  in the Bible.

Some have concluded it also may have other ties and meanings based on what the root of the word seems to mean in the Hebrew language.

Here is what the Abarim Publications’ online Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament  shows:

The hugely important root עבר (‘abar) yields words that have to do with transition, usually in the sense of a traversing through (hence the ethnonym Hebrew, initially simply meaning nomad or passer-by; see Ezekiel 39:11). Another verb of transition is פסח (pasah), which has the connotation of skipping or passing over (hence the name Pesah or Passover). These two transitory verbs come together in Exodus 12:23, where YHWH passes through Egypt (עבר, ‘abar) but passes over Israel (פסח, pasah).

Our two verbs may express a mere motion, but also suggest that whatever passes or is passed is affected by this passing. The verb עבר (‘abar) almost exclusively describes a passing over of water or “fluidic” entities such as minds or peoples and the cultures they form. The Hebrew word for river, namely נהר (nahar), is closely related to the verb to shine or emit light; cultures commonly arose on the banks of great rivers and these rivers became as central to their culture’s operating and survival as did their wisdom traditions.

Our verb עבר (‘abar) may describe a passing over of a river (Genesis 31:21, Joshua 3:14), a political border or territory (Numbers 20:17, Judges 11:32, 1 Samuel 9:4) or a kind of terrain (Jeremiah 5:22). It may describe a river’s overflowing (Isaiah 23:10), or the flowing of thoughts (Psalm 73:7) or the passing of time (Amos 8:5). Water may overwhelm a drowning person (Isaiah 54:9) like wine overwhelms a drunk (Jeremiah 23:9), or a spirit of jealousy overwhelms a husband (Numbers 5:14). One may overstep an edict (Numbers 14:41, Joshua 7:15) or overlook someone’s faults (Proverbs 19:11, Micah 7:18).

Sometimes our verb is used in highly similar ways that mean precisely the opposite: Deuteronomy 17:2 speaks of ‘crossing over’ his covenant, which means transgressing it, whereas Deuteronomy 29:12 speaks of ‘crossing over’ into the covenant, which means engaging in it.

Causative forms of this verb may describe a causing to pass in the various contexts described above, but also a “passing to” or devoting to something (Deuteronomy 18:19, Jeremiah 32:35) or “passing from” or taking away something (2 Samuel 3:10, 1 Kings 15:12).

The first occurrence of this ubiquitous root עבר (‘abar) is in Genesis 8:1, where God caused a wind to pass over the earth, which made the waters subside, and which revealed the land for Noah’s family to people in imagery that is strongly reminiscent of the first three days of creation. Another highly significant occurrence of our root is in the enigmatic cadaver vision of Genesis 15:17, “. . . there appeared a smoking furnace and a flaming torch that passed between these parts”. This vision shows God making the covenant with mankind of which Christ is the fulfilment.

The name of the website you are on right now is also derived of this verb: Abarim, which is the name of the mountain from which Moses viewed the Promised Land (Numbers 27:12).

Other derivations of the verb עבר (‘abar) are:

  • The very common masculine noun עבר (‘eber), which denotes what or where you get when you do the verb: the “other side” (of a river or wadi you crossed; Genesis 50:10, Numbers 21:13, Judges 11:18), or the “region across” (from the land, rivers or sea you traversed or perhaps poetically reviewed; Deuteronomy 30:13, Joshua 22:11, Isaiah 18:1). Sometimes our word is used with the meaning of “side” when some motion “from side to side” is reviewed (1 Samuel 14:1, 1 Kings 5:4). Notably, in Exodus 32:15 we read how the Law was engraved on the tablets’ “two sides,” which has merited the ongoing discussion on whether the Law was written across the faces of the tablets (between both their sides, that is: without margins) or perhaps on both faces (front and back). Fundamentally important to the study of the origin of Yahwism is the Lord’s review of Abraham’s great journey: from “beyond the river” (עבר הנהר, eber ha’nahar; Joshua 24:2-3), which is commonly understood to denote the Euphrates, but which obviously also refers to the wisdom tradition of Babylon (the name Ur, where Abram originated, means light).
  • The feminine noun עברה (‘abara), meaning ford (2 Samuel 19:19). This noun is a rare synonym of מעבר (ma’abar; says BDB Theological Dictionary), see below.
  • The feminine noun עברה (‘ebra), which uses the root figuratively and means an overflowing of temper: wrath and rage. Sometimes this ‘ebra stems in man (Amos 1:11 – he maintained his fury forever) and sometimes in God (Psalm 78:49 – He sent on them the heat of his anger, fury and indignation and trouble).
  • The denominative verb עבר (‘abar) meaning to be arrogant or infuriate oneself (Proverbs 14:16, 20:2).
  • The masculine noun עבור (‘abur) meaning produce. It is used in Joshua 5:11-12 where the Israelites abandon their diet of manna and begin to eat the yield of Canaan.
  • Identical to the previous word is the frequently occurring preposition עבור (‘abur), meaning because of, for (Genesis 3:17, 8:21, 12:13, 12:16). This word is always preceded by the particle ב (be), meaning in or by. HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament explains the relationship with the root as a movement ‘from purpose (or cause) to accomplishment (or result).’
  • The masculine noun מעבר (ma’abar), meaning ford or passage, such as the passage through the river Jabbok (Genesis 32:23) or the passing of a striking staff (Isaiah 30:32).
  • Similar is the feminine מעברה (ma’bara), meaning passage, wadi.

Also note that the reversal of our root עבר (‘abar) forms the root רבע (rb’), which yields words that have to do with the cardinal number four, or rather, the demonstration of a level of contemplative reflection that supersedes the animal realm and requires language.

Notice also:

the name Hebrew may have originally denoted someone from “the other side [of the river],” which may have been a nickname for either someone from Mesopotamia, that is to say: someone now given to social nomadism, or someone who is clueless in the wisdom sense of the word (see Joshua 24:2-3). The plural form עברים (‘ibrim, the word for Hebrews) denotes general “passers-by” and probably not Hebrews in Ezekiel 39:11.

This common term ‘ibri, or so the theory goes, was then recruited by the Bible writers to denote a kind of theological nomadism, that of the Hebrews, or the “school” of thought which is typically not pinned down in one particular position, or even organized in a political sense, but which travels with the herd from one grazy pasture to the next, learning from other nations and cultures as it goes along. http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Hebrew.html#.W_BDEuJRcuW

The “name” Hebrew isn’t an abstract label but much rather an ordinary word used as an appellative, like a nickname or even a signature quality. It means Passed Over or Passer Over or Transition or One Who Transits or One From The Other [Dry] Side or even Flower Forth or Deducer or He Who Looks At Something From All Sides. https://www.christianityboard.com/threads/the-undiscovered-christ.26759/page-11#post-449221

Gills Commentary says:

And told Abram the Hebrew; that there had been a battle of four kings with five, that the latter were beaten, among whom were the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah; and that Lot, his kinsman, who dwelt in or near Sodom, was carried captive, with all his goods. Abram is called the Hebrew, either from his passing over or coming beyond the river Euphrates, from Chaldea into Canaan; with which the Septuagint version agrees, rendering it the “passer over”; and so Jarchi says he is called, because he came beyond the river: or rather from his having lived beyond it, as such as dwelt there were called; for it can hardly be thought that he should peculiarly have this name from that single action of his passing the river, which multitudes did besides him: but rather, why should he not be called Ibri, the word here used, from the place of his birth? For, according to the Talmudists (b), Ur of the Chaldees was called , “little Ibra”; though it is more generally thought he had this name from his being a descendant of Eber, and who was not only of his sons’ sons, and spoke the same language, but professed the same religion, and which was continued in his posterity, who to the latest ages were called Hebrews, and sometimes Eber, Numbers 24:24; and which is the opinion of many Jewish writers (c), and seems most probable:

In the Bible the name Hebrew obviously does not denote a particular religion or language or nationality, but rather the intrinsic human need to cut through all the legalizing and restricting, all the deceit and ballyhoo, and arrive at something timeless and natural; something as natural as we ourselves are: the natural laws upon which we were designed to operate, the same truth that famously sets us free (John 8:32), that existed before everything else (John 1:1) and in which everything holds together (Colossians 1:17); the same truth that purposes to hand over His kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power (1 Corinthians 15:24).

The name Hebrew occurs 11 times in the New Testament; Hebrews 3.

The idea that it is related to Passover is of interest.

Not only did the Israelites observe Passover, the New Testament shows that Jesus was the Passover lamb sacrificed for us (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Consider that, throughout history, true Christians have kept the Passover (see also the free online book: Should You Keep God’s Holy Days or Demonic Holidays?).

Consider also the following:

29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:29)

Thus, spiritually, Christians are descendants of the Hebrew Abraham.

Christians are those with the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:2) who was our Passover. In various senses, real Christians are Hebrews.

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