What’s In A Name? An Examination Of The Usage Of The Term “Hebrew” In The Old Testament -- By: Matthew Akers

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 55:4 (Dec 2012)
Article: What’s In A Name? An Examination Of The Usage Of The Term “Hebrew” In The Old Testament
Author: Matthew Akers

What’s In A Name? An Examination Of The Usage Of The Term “Hebrew” In The Old Testament

Matthew Akers

Matthew Akers is assistant professor of OT, Hebrew, NT, Greek, and theology and dean of the Doctor of Ministry program at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, 2095 Appling Road, Cordova, TN 38016.

I. Introduction

As any student of the OT knows, the word “Hebrew” (עִבְרִי) pertains to Israel, God’s covenant people. Although one might expect “Hebrew” to be a commonly occurring term in Scripture, the writers of the OT used the word rather sparingly. F. F. Bruce noted that “Hebrew” “is used of the Israelites or their ancestors some thirty-four times in the Old Testament.”1 The bulk of the allusions to the Hebrews lie in the Pentateuch; all other citations appear only in the books of 1 Samuel, Jeremiah, and Jonah.

Several of the passages that make reference to “Hebrew” contain intriguing details that raise questions concerning the usage of the term in early OT times. This fact leads one to question whether “Hebrew” always possesses the same meaning, or if it meant different things to different people in different eras. The purpose of this paper is to examine this important, yet little considered subject.

II. The Pliability Of Ethnonyms

Languages constantly undergo change. This process of transformation typically progresses at a measured pace, but the sound shifts and alterations accumulate over the years and centuries. As a result of these unending modifications, languages such as German and English, which share a common ancestor, now are drastically different from one another. Similarly, Vulgar Latin spawned Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, and Catalan. An ancient example of this phenomenon is the development of Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Ugaritic, and Phoenician from the same linguistic predecessor.

Similarly, shifting political boundaries and the designations for people groups change over time. European explorers called the indigenous residents of the New World “Indians” because they mistakenly believed that they had discovered a new route to India. Today the descendents of the New World inhabitants who reside in North America are referred to as “Aboriginals,” “Native Americans” or

“Amerindians.”2 Since the term “American” is an anachronistic label, many indigenous residents of Canada prefer to refer to themselves collectively as the “First Nations.”

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