What is the difference between the Hebrews and the Israelites?

Although at some point in history, the term “Hebrew” and “Israelite” become interchangeable, they did not start out the same at all.

The first mentioning of Eber/Heber is in the “List of Nations” in Genesis 10.

Children were also born to Shem, the forefather of all the sons of Eber.

Genesis 10:21

Shem’s great-grandson Eber must have been an impressive fellow himself (or must have had great offspring) because his grandfather Shem is called ‘the forefather of all the Hebrews’.  It is in the days of the birth of Eber’s son Peleg that the languages of mankind are divided.  After these accounts in Genesis 10 and 11 there is not further direct reference to the man Eber/Heber at all.

When Moses wrote his account (± 1500 BCE) the Hebrews were living far and wide and were well known to neighboring nations under just that name: “Hebrews”. Evidence for this fact can be found in the account of Abram’s and Joseph’s life:

After that, a man who had escaped [from Sodom] came and told Abram the Hebrew. He was then dwelling among the big trees of Mamre the Amorite.

Genesis 14:13

[Joseph said]: I was, in fact, kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews.                        

Genesis 40:15

When Abram (± 1900 BCE) lives among other nationalities such as the Amorites, he is marked as different from them as “the Hebrew”. The first reference to the “land of the Hebrews” is when Joseph is in prison (± 1750 to 1737 BCE) in Egypt and tries to explain to his cellmates where he is from. They didn’t ask for details, but simply knew “the land of the Hebrews”.

Another hint at the fact that “Hebrews” meant much more in this early period than only the 12 sons of Israel can be glimpsed from the account of Joseph’s brothers, who are guests at his house:

They served [Joseph] by himself and [his brothers] by themselves, and the Egyptians with him ate by themselves, for the Egyptians could not eat a meal with the Hebrews, because that is a detestable thing to the Egyptians.

Genesis 43:32

How would the Egyptians even know that Hebrews are “detestable” people to dine with if they had only just met one (who became their highest court official under Pharaoh, no less) and only just now got to know some eleven more? No, they must have known “Hebrews” already in this period. 

There is archeological evidence for just that contact between Hebrews and Egyptians, namely in the wall painting in tomb 3 of Khnumhotep II, located in Beni Hassan, which is dated to roughly two generations before Joseph’s time in Egypt.

This description, taken from the University of Macquarie, reads:

The scene is clearly described as jjt ḥr jnt msdmt jn n.f ꜤꜢm 37 ‘arriving and bringing black eye-paint, which 37 Asiatics brought to him’. Two men of non-Egyptian origin, referred to as ꜤꜢmw ‘Asiatics’, bring animals and offerings to the tomb owner, preceded by two Egyptians announcing their arrival. The two Asiatics have yellow-painted skin, large-hooked noses, and greyish blue eyes and sport short, pointed beards with coiffed, mushroom hairstyles. They wear brightly colored and patterned clothing speckled in red, blue and white.

For those of you who would like to learn more about this tomb and some early history of the Hebrews in Egypt, I would suggest you sign up for my Egypt tour.

Although the Egyptians do not use the word “Hebrew” in this wall text, they do refer to peoples from the east as “Asiatics”. Whether the name Asiatics and Hebrews were interchangeable to the Egyptians or not, I dare not speculate. We do know however that people in the Middle East knew about the Hebrews from their usage of this name by the Assyrians and Babylonians (as Habiru/Hapiru) and the usage of the Egyptians of the name ‘Apiru

The very thorough Bible encyclopedia “The Insight on the Scriptures” says, among other things, the following of the Hebrews (emphasis mine): It would seem that the term ʽIv·riʹ (Hebrew) would apply to all such descendants who could lay rightful claim to Eber as their ancestor. Some scholars suggest that originally this may have been the case, but that, in course of time, the name came to be restricted to the Israelites as the most prominent of the Eberites, or Hebrews. This would not be without some parallel in the Bible record. Although there were many non-Israelite descendants of Abraham, including the Edomites, the Ishmaelites, and the descendants of Abraham through his wife Keturah, it is the Israelites who are distinctively called the “seed of Abraham.” (Ps 105:6; Isa 41:8; compare Mt 3:9; 2Co 11:22.)

We know from Bible accounts of earlier times that other groups of peoples knew and worshiped Jehovah. Think of people like Job, the prophet Balaam and the family of Laban in Haran (where Isaac and Jacob both found a wife). 

Apparently, the Israelites themselves were aware of the fact that most of the Hebrew nations had stopped following Jehovah. A nice example of this distinction can be seen in 1 Samuel around the year 1100 BCE:

Also, the Hebrews who had previously sided with the Philistines and who had come up with them into the camp were going over to Israel under Saul and Jonathan.                                                                                   

1 Samuel 14:21

I encourage everyone to read the whole article about the Hebrews in the “Insights on the Scriptures” book because when we have an accurate knowledge of these ancient times and peoples we can appreciate the details in the Bible account even more. 

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