What is a Hebrew?

Question

I hear someone mention in a Bible talk about becoming a Hebrew. What is that? I thought Hebrew was a language.

Answer

The term Hebrew is first introduced to us in the life of Abraham (then called Abram) in Genesis 14:

Genesis 14:13 - And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew; for he dwelt in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner: and these were confederate with Abram.

Some have assumed that the name traces from Eber the great grandson of Shem. I would suggest that the name comes from elsewhere.

As seen in Genesis 14, the word is first introduced to us in the life of Abraham. Abraham had in Genesis 12:1-4 left Haran under the express direction of Almighty God and crossed over the Euphrates River into the land of Canaan, and because of his faithful obedience to God, God gave him several promises. I believe that it is from this that the name comes.

The term is from the Hebrew root word abar, which means literally "to cross over". It does not give a specific direction or location.

It is notable that the very first person to use the name after the time of Abraham is his faithful great grandson Joseph. When he is presented to Pharaoh he uses the name (Genesis 40:15) in relation to the land he was from in association to the promises Almighty God had made to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:18-21; 17:1-8; 22:15-18). He had obviously used the name before since Potiphar's wife had turned the name around on him and used it in a derogatory manner (Genesis 39:14, 17). He appears to have used this name whenever he was referring to himself, for we see that even later others refer to him as such (Genesis 41:12 in this case Pharaoh's butler). In fact, by the time the brothers of Joseph had arrived in Egypt, the Egyptians had determined they wanted nothing to do with these Hebrews and made it a forbidden thing to eat with them (Genesis 43:32).

Note the contrast of Joseph and his brothers. While Joseph proudly declares his association with the Abrahamic promises, his brothers declare that they are from the land of Canaan (Genesis 42:7, 13, 32; 44:8).

By the time of the Exodus, the descendants of the 12 sons were now known as Hebrews (Exodus 1:15, 16, 19; 2:6, 7, 11, 13; 3:18; 5:3; 7:16; 9:1, 13; 10:3) , and this is no doubt because of the affliction they suffered in Egypt which drove them to look back to the promises to Abraham the first Hebrew.

Through the rest of the Old Testament the term is used infrequently, mostly by the enemies of the descendants of Abraham (1 Samuel 4:6, 9; 13:19; 14:11; 29:3), but some like Jonah declared their association to God's promises in true faith that He would fulfill what He has declared.

We too can be associated with Abraham the Hebrew, and the promises to him by "crossing over" by baptism into Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-29) after we understand the Gospel message (Acts 8:12).

Written by Matthew Smith