Monday, January 7, 2013

Hebrew, Israelite or Jew?


Merneptah Stele
Alice C. Linsley


A reader of Just Genesis recently asked this question:

"Is there a clear-cut chronology when the inhabitants of Canaan/Palestine stopped being called Israelites, when they stopped being called Hebrews and started to be called Jews?"

It is not possible to put exact dates on when each of these terms was first introduced. However, anthropological study of the subject suggests that the oldest of these terms is Hebrew (Habiru) and the most recent is Jew. The term"Israelite" appears on the Merneptah Stele, dated to c. 1219 B.C. This stele set up by Pharaoh Merneptah is the earliest extrabiblical record of a people group called Israel. The stele was discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1896 at Thebes, and is now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The word Hebrew is the English equivalent of Ha-biru/Ha-piru/O-piru, an ancient caste of priests. The word appears in ancient Egyptian and Akkadian texts. The Habiru were already widely dispersed in the 14th-13th centuries B.C. Their spread was driven by their unique marriage and ascendancy pattern by which sons were sent away to established their own territories.

Abraham's ancestors were Habiru. The Habiru served at the Sun temples across the vast ancient Afro-Asiatic world. Some of the Habiru were Horites. The Horite priests were devotees of Horus, the son of Ra. The oldest site of Horus worship is Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) in Sudan (4000-3000 B.C.). Votive instruments at Nekhen were ten times larger than the mace heads and bowls found elsewhere, suggesting that this was a very prestigious shrine.  

The Horite priests built east-facing fire altars in the shape of a falcon. In Vedic tradition these are called uttaravedi. The falcon was the totem of Horus. These altars were erected in Pakistan and India from before 2000 B.C.  The Shulba Sutras state that "he who desires heaven is to construct a fire-altar in the form of a falcon." Such altars have been discovered athe Harappan shrine cities of Kalibangan and Lothal. The Dravidian word Har-appa means "Hor is father."





The ethnonym "Israelite" comes after the time of Abraham's grandson Jacob/Yacob, and probably dates to a time no earlier than Joseph and his association with the Horite shrine at Heliopolis.

Yacob came to be identified as Yisra'el. The word Yisra'el appears to be etymologically related to the word yashur, meaning “will look to,” and El refers to God. The dating must be between 1850 and 1200 B.C, as suggested by the Phoenician or early Semitic Y which represents the ruler of a territory or the head of a clan. He controlled the water ways and wells within his territory. The Y symbolized the crook/hook of the ruler, the tent peg of the ruler's dwelling, and the boat hook. In his book Egypt and the Mountains of the Moon, Frederick Wicker refers to the Y as a boat hook, as used in East Africa and Egypt, and notes that it is a symbol of royalty. Clearly, this letter represents a cluster of related ideas including:

the ruler himself
the ruler's authority
the ruler's territory
the ruler's clan or tribe
the ruler's resources, such as his flocks and water sources
the strangers/travelers who came under the ruler's protection

Travelers and caravans moved from settlement to settlement, or from water source to water source. That is to say that they went from Y to Y. Ancient water laws were generous to those who wa-ndered. Wells were neutral ground, but were fought over, as in the story of Moses driving away the intruders at the well of the ruler-priest (Exodus 2:16-19) It was common for the river, oasis or well to have a shrine at which a priest presided. Moses' father-in-law was "priest of Midian." 
Words in various languages reflect this ancient world connection between a ruler-controlled body of water and travelers. Consider these examples: wa-ter, wa-gon, va-gabond, va-grant, va-gar meaning "to wander" (Spanish), wa-kdar meaning "ruler" (Pashto), and ya-raki meaning "power" (Persian).

The great chiefs of the Biblical world were designated by the initial Y. This is more evident in the Semitic than in English. Consider the following:

Yishmael - Ishmael (Abraham's son by Hagar)
Yitzak - Issac (Abraham's son by Sarah)
Yaqtan - Joktan (Abraham's firstborn son by Keturah)
Yishbak - Yishbak (another son by Keturah; name means "sent-away")
Yacob - Jacob
Yisra'el - Israel
Yeshua - Joshua/Jesus
With the renaming of Jacob the scope of the Biblical narrative is narrowed to only the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons. This represents an unsuccessful attempt to excise Abraham's Arab offspring and their descendants from the Biblical picture. We note also that there is no mention of the offspring of Abraham's daughters who would have married within the Habiru clans.


The term Jew refers to the wealthy class who were taken as captives from Judah to Babylon. It can be applied only to people from Judah after 580- 530 B.C, long after the time of Abraham and Jacob who lived during the time of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt.

Middle Kingdom

2160-2000 BC
11th Dynasty              Nahor, Terah and Abraham

2000-1788 BC
12th Dynasty              Jacob, Esau, Joseph


Related reading: The Urheimat of the Canaanite YThe Genesis "Begats" Speak of Archaic Rulers; Astronomy of the Vedic Altars; Thamudic Scripts; Chronology of the Genesis Rulers; The Kushite Marriage Pattern Drove Kushite Expansion; Sent-Away Sons



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