Hebrew (Heb. Ibri עַברַי, plur. עַברַים or עַברַיַּים Ex 3:18; fem. עַברַיָּה, "Hebrewess," plur. עַכרַיּות Greek Ε᾿βραῖος), a designation of the people of Israel, used first of their progenitor Abraham (Ge 14:13; Sept. τῷ περάτῃ). This name is never in Scripture applied to the Israelites except when the speaker is a foreigner (Ge 39:14,17; Ge 41:12; Ex 1:16; Ex 2:6; 1Sa 4:6,9, etc.), or when Israelites speak of themselves to one of another nation (Ge 40:15; Ex 1:19; Jon 1:9, etc.), or when they are contrasted with other peoples (Ge 43:32; Ex 1:3,7,15; De 15:12; 1Sa 13:3,7). See Gesenius, Thes. Heb. s.v. (The only apparent exception is Jer 34:9; but here there is probably such an implied contrast between the Jews and other peoples as would bring the usage under the last case.) By the Greek and Latin writers this is the name by which the descendants of Jacob are designated when they are not called Jews (Pausan. 5. 5,2; 6:24, 6; Plut. Sympos. 4, 6, 1; Tacit. Hist. 5, 1); and Josephus, who affects classical peculiarities, constantly uses it. In the N.T. we find the same contrast between Hebrews and foreigners (Ac 6:1; Php 3:5): the Hebrew language is distinguished from all others (Lu 23:38; Joh 5; Joh 2; Joh 19:13; Ac 21:40; Ac 26:14; Re 9:11); while in 2Co 11:22 the word is used as only second to Israelite in the expression of national peculiarity. On these facts two opposing hypotheses have been raised; the one that Israelite or Jew was the name by which the nation designated itself (just as the Welsh call themselves Cymry, though in speaking of themselves to a Saxon they would probably use the name Welsh); the other is that "Hebrew" is a national name, merely indicative of the people as a people, while Israelite is a sacred or religious name appropriate to them as the chosen people of God. This latter opinion Gesenius dismisses as "without foundation" (Lexicon by Robinson, s.v.), but it has received the deliberate sanction of Ewald (Ausführl. Lehrb. der Heb. Spr. p. 18, 5th ed.).
Derivation of the Name. —
I. From Abram, Abraei, and by euphony Hebrcei (August., Ambrose). Displaying, as it does, the utmost ignorance of the language, this derivation was never extensively adopted, and was even retracted by Augustine (Retract. 16). The euphony alleged by Ambrose is quite imperceptible, and there is no parallel in the Lat. meridie =medidie.
II. According to the sacred writer, עברי, Hebrew, is a derivative from עבר, Eber, the ancestor of Abraham; at least the same persons who are called Hebrews are called בני עבר, sons of Eber (Ge 10:21); and עבר Eber (Nu 24:24); and this is tantamount to a derivation of the name Hebrew from Eber. In support of this, it may be urged that עברל is the proper form which a patronymic from עבר would assume; according to the analogy of מואבי, a Moabite דני, a Danite, כלבי, a Calebite, etc. (Hiller, Onomast. Sac. c. 14:p. 231 sq.). What adds much force to this argument is the evident antithesis in Ge 14:13, between אברם העברי and ממרא האמרי; the former of these is as evidently a patronymic as the latter. This view is supported by Josephus, Suidas, Bochart, Vatablus, Drusius,Vossius, Buxtorf, Hottinger, Leusden, Whiston, and Bauer. Theodoret (Quaest. in Genesis 61) urges against it that the Hebrews were not the only descendants of Eber, and, therefore, could not appropriate his name; and the objection has often been repeated. To meet it, recourse has been had to the suggestion, first adduced, we believe, by Ibni Ezra (Comment. ad Jon. 1, 9), that the descendants of Abraham retained the name Hebrew from Eber, because they alone of his descendants retained the faith which he held. This may be, but we are hardly entitled to assume it in order to account for the fact before us. It is better to throw the onus probandi on the objector, and to demand of him, in our ignorance of what determined the use of such patronymics in one line of descent and not in others, that he should show cause why it is inconceivable that Abraham might have a good and sufficient reason for wishing to perpetuate the memory of his descent from Eber, which did not apply to the other descendants of that patriarch. Why might not one race of the descendants of Eber call themselves by pre-eminence sons of Eber, just as one race of the descendants of Abraham called themselves by preeminence sons of Abraham. But Eber, it is objected, is a name of no note in the history; we know nothing of him to entitle him to be selected as the person after whom a people should call themselves. But is our ignorance to be the measure of the knowledge of Abraham and his descendants on such a point? Because we know nothing to distinguish Eber, does it follow that they knew nothing? Certain it is that he was of sufficient importance to reflect a glory on his father Shem, whose highest designation is "the father of all the children of Eber" (Ge 10:21); and certain it is that his name lingered for many generations in the region where he resided, for it was as "Eber" that the Mesopotamian prophet knew the descendants of Jacob, and spoke of them when they first made their appearance in warlike force on the borders of the promised land (Nu 24:24).
On the other hand, it is contended that the passage Ge 10:21 is not so much genealogical as ethnographical; and in this view it seems that the words are intended to contrast Shem with Ham and Japhet, and especially with the former. Now Babel is plainly fixed as the extreme east limit of the posterity of Ham (Genesis 10), from whose land Nimrod went out into Assyria (Genesis 11, margin of A. Vers.): in the next place, Egypt (Genesis 13) is mentioned as the western limit of the same great race; and these two extremes having been ascertained, the historian proceeds (ver. 15-19) to fill up his ethnographic sketch with the intermediate tribes of the Canaanites. In short, in Genesis 6-20 we have indications of three geographical points which distinguish the posterity of Ham, viz. Egypt, Palestine, and Babylon. At the last-mentioned city, at the river Euphrates, their proper occupancy, unaffected by the exceptional movement of Asshur, terminated, and at the same point that of the descendants of Shem began. Accordingly, the sharpest contrast that could be devised is obtained by generally classing these latter nations as those beyond the river Euphrates; and the words "father of all the children of Eber," i.e. father of the nations to the east of the Euphrates, find an intelligible place in the context.
It must also be confessed that in the genealogical scheme in Ge 11:10-26, it does not appear that the Jews thought of Eber as a source primary, or even secondary of the national descent. The genealogy neither starts from him, nor in its uniform sequence does it rest upon him with any emphasis. There is nothing to distinguish Eber above Arphaxad, Peleg, or Serug. Like them, he is but a link in the chain by which Shem is connected with Abraham. Indeed, the tendency of the Iraelitish retrospect is to stop at Jacob. It is with Jacob that their history as a nation begins: beyond Jacob they held their ancestry in common with the Edomites; beyond Isaac they were in danger of being confounded with the Ishmaelites. The predominant figure of the emphatically Hebrew Abraham might tempt them beyond those points of affinity with other races, so distasteful, so anti-national; but it is almost inconceivable that they would voluntarily originate and perpetuate an appellation of themselves which landed them on a platform of ancestry where they met the whole population of Arabia (Ge 10:25,30).
III. Hence others (as Jerome, Theodoret, Origen, Chrysostom, Arias Montanus, R. Bechai, Paul Burg., Munster, Grotius, Scaliger, Selden, Rosenmüller, Gesenius, and Eichhorn) prefer tracing עברי to the verb עָבִר, to pass over, or the noun עֵבֶר, the region or country beyond,. By those who favor the former etymology, "Hebrew" is regarded s equivalent to "the man who passed over;" by those who favor the latter, it is taken to mean "the man from the region beyond;" and under both suppositions it is held to be applied by the Canaanites to Abraham as having crossed the Euphrates, or come; from the region beyond the Euphrates to Canaan. Of' these etymologies the former is now generally abandoned; it is felt that the supposition that the crossing: of the Euphrates was such an unparalleled achievement as to fix on him who accomplished it a name that should descend to his posterity, and become a national appellation, is somewhat too violent to be maintained; and, besides, as the verb עבר signifies to pass from this side to that, not from that side to this, it would not be the term applied by the people of Canaan to designate the act of one who had come from the other side of the Euphrates to them. The other etymology has more in its favor. It is that sanctioned by the Greek translators (Sept. ὁ περάτης, Aq. περαϊvτης); it is in accordance with the usage of the phrase עֲבֶר הִנָּהָר, which was employed to designate the region beyond the Euphrates (Jos 24:2-3; 2Sa 10:16; 1Ch 19:16); and it is not improbable that Abraham, coming among the Canaanites from beyond the Euphrates, might be designated by them "the man from the region beyond," just as Europeans might call an American "a transatlantic." But, though Bleek very confidently pronounces this view "without doubt the right one" (Einleitung ins A. T. p. 72), it is open to serious, if not fatal objections.
1. There is no instance of עבר by itself denoting the region beyond the Euphrates, or any other river; the phrase invariably used is עבר הנהר. Rosenmüller following Hyde (Histor. Relig. Vet. Pers. p. 51), seeks to supply this desiderated instance by taking עבר as epexegetically of אשור in Nu 24:24 — " affligant Assyriam et totam transfluvialem regionem." But the learned writer has in his zeal overlooked the second ענו, which quite precludes his exegesis. Knobel avoids this error by simply taking אשור =Assyria, and עבר =Mesopotamia; but in this case it is the proper name עבר, Eber, and not the preposition עבר, trans, which is in question.
2. If עברי was the proper designation of those who lived on the other side of the Euphrates, we should find that name applied to such as continued to dwell there, not to a race descended from one who had left that region never to return.
3. Though Abraham, as having been originally a transfluvian, might be so called by the Canaanites, it is improbable that they should have extended this name to his posterity, to whom it in no sense applied. No one would think of continuing the term "transatlantic" to persons born in. Britain on the ground that a remote ancestor had come from across the Atlantic to settle in that country! As to the sanction which this etymology derives from the Sept., no great weight can be attached to that when we remember how often these translators have erred in this way; and also that they have given ι3παιοᾷχ as the rendering of בני עבר in Nu 24:24; "Plus vice simplici hallucinati sunt interpretes Graeci eorum ut nobis standum cadendumve non sit autoritate" (Carpzov, Crit. Sac. V. T. p. 171). We may add that the authority of the Sept. and Aquila on such a point is urged with a bad grace by those who treat with contempt the etymologies of the Hebrew text as resting on mere Jewish tradition; if a Jewish tradition of the time of Moses is subject to suspicion, afortiori is one of the age of Ptolemy Lagi and of Alexandrian origin. Ewald pronounces this derivation "quite uncertain." 4. This derivation is open to the strong objection that Hebrew nouns ending in י are either patronymics or gentilic nouns (Buxtorf, Leusden). This is a technical objection which-though fatal to the περάτης, or appellative derivation as traced back to the verb-does not apply to the same as referred to the noun עבר. The analogy of Galli, Angli, Hispani, derived from Gallia, Anglia, Hispania (Leusden), is a complete blunder in ethnography; and, at any rate, it would confirm rather than destroy the derivation from the noun.
IV. Parkhurst, whose works occasionally present suggestions worth consideration, has advanced the opinion that עברי is a derivation from the verb עבר in the sense of passing through or from place to place (compare Ge 18:5; Ex 32:27; Eze 35:7; 2Ch 30:10, etc.); so that its meaning would be a sojourner or passer through, as distinct from a settler in the land. This undoubtedly exactly describes the condition of Abraham and his immediate descendants, and might very naturally be assumed by them as a designation; for, as the apostle says, "they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Heb 11:13). In this case the statement in Ge 10:21; Nu 24:24, must be understood as referring to the posterity of Eber generally, and not to the Hebrews specially or exclusively. The most serious objection to Parkhurst's suggestion arises from the form of the word עברי. A word from עבר, to convey the meaning of transitor, or one passing through, we should expect to find in the form עוֹבֵי or עֹבֵר.
On the whole. the derivation of Ibri (Hebrew) from Eber seems to have most in its favor and least against it. (See on this side Augustine, De Civit. Dei, 6, 11; Buxtorf, Diss. 3, 27; Bochart, Phaleg, 2, 14; Hottinger, Thes.
Phil. p. 4; Leusden, Phil. Heb. Diss. 21; Morinus, De Ling. Primcev. p. 64; Pfeiffer, Diff. Script. Locc., Opp. p. 49; Carpzov, Crit. Sac. p. 165; Hezel, Gesch. d. Hebr. Spr. sec. 4; Ewald, Asfiihrl. Lehrbuch der Heb. Gram. p. 19, 5th edit.; Geschichte des V. Israel, 1, 334; Havernick, Introd. to the O.T. p. 125; Baumgarten, Theol. Comment. sum Pent. ad loc. On the other side, see Theodoret, Quaest. in Genesis 16; Chrysostom, Hom. 35 in Genesis; Selden, De Diis Syris, p. 13; Walton, Proleg. p. 15 sq., in Dathes edit. p. 68; Gussetius, Comment. Ling. Heb. Diss. Proem. p, 7; Michaelis, Spicileg. Geogr. Heb. Ext. 2, 66; Gesenius, Gesoh. der Heb. Spr. p. 11; Grammar, sec. 2.) SEE JEW.