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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means (1)

“Hebrew” / “Israelite”


I like etymology.

Once in a while I encounter a word I would have difficulty defining precisely if anyone asked me to. Sometimes I’ll look up such terms and add them to my own vocabulary if they seem likely to be useful. The process is almost always of some benefit, as you get to see how words originate and what happens to them over time. It’s a good feeling to be able to use words confidently and correctly.

But from a communication perspective, there is no value in being technically correct about what a word means when everyone around you thinks it means something else. And nobody should want to be willfully ignorant. Somewhere in between technical accuracy and oblivion is a sweet spot where we actually understand each other.

Hebrews, Israelites and Jews

A while back, I found myself explaining to a religious friend the meanings of some terms related to God’s people that I thought were obvious. They may be obvious to you too. But since I’ve been making a lot of references to the Old Testament in recent posts, and it occurs to me that certain terms used regularly here may be obscure to some, or that we may attach different meanings to them, let’s just make sure.

For the sake of clarity, and because this is a blog about the Bible, I’m going to try to consider these terms primarily with respect to their biblical uses. Some of these terms are used more broadly in popular culture, but that will not help us much in our understanding of either Testament.

1.  “Hebrew”

Origin.  The word’s origins are debated, but most sources agree it is an Anglicization of the French Ebreu and Latin Hebraeus, from the Greek Hebraios, and originally from the Aramaic ʻebrai. Literally, it is said to mean “one from the other side”, presumably the other side of the Euphrates River.

The first reference in scripture to the word is Genesis 14:13, where we read of “Abram the Hebrew”.

Non-ethnic designation.  Most of us would tend to read that like it’s a reference to ethnic background. But apparently “Hebrew” was not originally an ethnonym. It does not specify the geographic location from which Abraham’s people originated, nor does it suggest what tribe or group Abraham came from. It’s more like saying “Abraham the nomad” than “Abraham the Sumerian”. Perhaps at one point in history anyone from the “other side” was referred to as ʻebrai. Wikipedia suggests Phoenicians or other ancient groups may also have originally fallen into this category. When, for instance, the Egyptians used “Hebrew” in Exodus to refer to their slaves, it may well have been in a slightly derogatory sense roughly equivalent to “alien” or “foreigner”.

Even after nearly 400 years, living in Egypt did not turn Hebrews into Egyptians.

Morphing meaning.  It is worth noting that only three generations after Abram (later called Abraham) raised his tent there, Joseph, in Egypt, refers to Palestine as “the land of the Hebrews” even though it was at the time populated primarily by Canaanites, and his own family lived in tents rather than cities. It may seem odd to think of nomads acquiring a homeland, but apparently Joseph’s statement was understandable to the Egyptians. They did not confuse him with a Phoenician or a Sumerian from Ur. In Egypt at least, Abraham’s fame had already eclipsed that of other Hebrews.

So while it has a broader technical meaning, for practical purposes, calling someone “Hebrew” from Genesis onward pretty much labels them a descendant of Abraham. Wikipedia concedes the word “Hebrew” is now “mostly taken as synonymous with the Semitic Israelites”.

Meaning is contextual.  All words used over time tend to acquire different meanings to different groups. “Hebrew” is no exception to this, being a word that is thousands of years old in the original language. So understanding what any particular writer of scripture intends by using it requires attention to context.

New Testament usage.  When Paul uses it in the New Testament, calling himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews”, it is understood to be a mark of distinction among the Jewish people. In contrast to, say, Hellenic Jews, William Macdonald says of Paul that:
“He belonged to that segment of the nation that had held onto its original language, customs, and usages.”
So “Hebrew” is the broadest term used to refer to biblical Israel, and its meaning is more than a little elastic.

2.  “Israelite”

Origin.  Jacob was the grandson of Abraham. God unilaterally changed his name, as he occasionally does in scripture. He became Israel, and the inheritor of the promises God made to his grandfather.

In the Old Testament, the term “Israelite” is a mere accommodation to English and Greek usage. It does not actually occur there. Where we read “the Israelites” in many older translations, it is simply “Israel” in the original. The term “children of Israel” is the most common designation throughout the Pentateuch and Joshua. By the time we get to Judges, the nation is most often just “Israel”.

Context determines meaning.  Prior to the division of the kingdom after the reign of Solomon, being an Israelite meant being any direct descendant of the patriarch Jacob. After that time, “Israel” is frequently but not exclusively used to refer to the ten rebel tribes that comprised the Northern Kingdom (which is also referred to as “Ephraim” and “Joseph”, among other designations), while the Southern Kingdom is referred to as “Judah” (though in fact it was comprised of more than simply the descendants of Judah).

Jeremiah refers to “Israel and Judah”, clearly distinguishing between the two nations. But in case we get too comfortable with such clarity, Ezekiel talks about “Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him” as opposed to “Joseph … and all the house of Israel associated with him”, perhaps suggesting that God still sees one “Israel” despite the division between the two nations.

So, like the word “Hebrew”, understanding what “Israelite” means in the Bible is very much dependent on context.

New Testament usage.  In the New Testament, the word is only used a few times. Calling someone an “Israelite” seems, like the term “Hebrew of Hebrews”, to be a high compliment and a shout-out to a unique religious heritage full of privileges and responsibilities, not merely a reference to ethnicity.

The Lord Jesus called Nathanael “an Israelite indeed”. Peter’s Pentecostal address is to “devout Jews from every nation under heaven”. He starts with Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” but once he gets going, he switches to “Men of Israel” just before indicting them for murdering their Messiah. This can hardly be unintentional. Paul uses the same address to the Jews in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch.

Once this is observed, it is hard to ignore. The Romans refer to them as “Jews”. But Paul, in speaking to Romans, refers to his kinsmen like this:
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.”
Here it is evident that the word “Israelite” has acquired a religious sense, though the ethnic sense remains. The same writer (Paul) in another context brings back the ethnic aspect of the term:
“For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.”
but only, apparently, to make the particular point that God has not rejected his people. Elsewhere he makes a distinction between Hebrews and Israelites explicit:
“Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I.”
A Jew is an Israelite.  So then, though we haven’t got around to discussing the term, any ethnic Jew is also an Israelite, though not all Israelites are Jews. And all Israelites AND Jews, at least in New Testament times, accepted the designation “Hebrew”, though they were far from nomadic by then.

Both “Israelite” and “Hebrew”, perhaps because of a sense of history, tradition or religious heritage, became terms of honour in New Testament times when ascribed to Jews.

Language evolves. Fortunately the scripture is our fixed point of reference.

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