Thursday, December 12, 2013

Abra(ha)m the Hebrew (Genesis 14:14)

Who was the first Hebrew mentioned in the Bible? Abraham

Genesis 14 is distinct for several reasons. The chapter presents characters and geography unexplored in the rest of the book. Further, the unit’s literary features do not conform to any of the primary sources scholars attribute to Genesis. This episode also marks the first time that the Bible depicts war.

In this conflict, Lot, the nephew of Abram (later Abraham), is captured (Genesis 14:12). This draws the patriarch into the hostility as Abram springs into action to rescue Lot (Genesis 14:13-16). This account provides a rare glimpse of Abraham the warrior. It is in this context that the narrator refers to him by the unique moniker “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13).

Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were allies with Abram. (Genesis 14:13 NASB)
The Hebrew term ‘ibrîy is transliterated in most English translations as the “Hebrew” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). The word appears six times in Genesis with every other occurrence coming within the Joseph narrative (Genesis 39:14, 17, 40:15, 41:12, 43:32). Though this is the first time that the term is used in the Bible, it is presented with no introduction.

Richard Elliott Friedman (b. 1946) introduces:

This is an unusual use of the word “Hebrew.” Elsewhere in biblical stories it is used to identify Israelites only when one is speaking among foreigners. It is not the standard term for the people, which is rather “Israelite” at first and “Jew” later. Perhaps it is used here because there are not yet any other Israelites around, and Abraham himself is the foreigner. (Freidman, Commentary on the Torah)
Only here is Abram given this epithet. The parallel passage in the Book of Jubilees (Jubilees 13:24) does not name Abram the Hebrew but neither does it give Aner, Eschol and Mamre their designations.

Claus Westermann (1909-2000) comments:

Abraham is introduced here as העברי. “The appendage, ‘the Hebrew,’ gives the impression that Abraham is named for the first time” (Heinrich Holzinger [1863-1944]; similarly John Skinner [1851-1925]); “the name of Abraham and the place where he lived are introduced anew” (Herman Gunkel [1862-1932]). When Abraham is described as a Hebrew (an anachronism in the patriarchal period), this may well be an addition by the compositor, giving his own viewpoint, who wants to introduce Abraham as a member of another people after the many names of peoples in the preceding passage, Genesis 14:1-11, just as Jonah describes himself as a Hebrew to the foreigners in Jonah 1:9 (Walther Zimmerli [1907-1983]; Moshe Greenberg [1928-2010], “Hab/Piru and Hebrews,” The World History of the Jewish People, II [1970] 197; Manfred Weippert [b. 1937], The Settlement of the Israelite Tribes in Palestine...Study in Bible Theology 21, 2nd Series [1967: English 1974]). Abraham was living by the terebinth of Mamre, the Amorite; this is an indication that he, in contrast to Lot who had become a city dweller, was still closer to the nomadic life style. (Westermann, Genesis 12-36: A Continental Commentary, 199-200)
Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) questions:
The narrator unexpectedly refers to Abram here as the Hebrew, and this is the only time he is so designated. Why in this one instance is this particular title applied to him? Elsewhere he interacts with peoples living outside the land of Palestine (e.g., Genesis 12:10-20 and Genesis 20:1-18), and yet this designation is not used in those contexts. (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 404)
Some have seen the qualifier “the Hebrew” as evidence of an outside source being interjected into the narrative. Joyce G. Baldwin (1921-1995) speculates:
The title Abram the Hebrew suggests an independent account, for it was a designation used by others and not by Israelites, except as an accommodation to other people’s usage, as in Genesis 40:15 (though see also Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12). It seems to have had a derogatory tone about it, and to have meant something like ‘the migrant’, implying that he did not really belong. Nevertheless he has been settled there long enough to have won the confidence of his neighbours Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner. (Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12–50 (Bible Speaks Today), 46)
Meir Sternberg (b. 1944) expounds:
In scholarly ears, this first occurrence of “Hebrew” has long sounded outlandish, so much so as to betray a provenance outside the canon’s mainstream: a genesis either very later and nationalistic (Hebrew = Israelite) or very ancient and cosmopolitan-minded (Hebrew = Hab/piru)...The late dating (e.g., to an interfering postexilic writer or glossator) is widely surmised in an effort to explain why “Abram the Hebrew” eludes all the usual classifications. It falls out of the main clusters of Hebrewness: the Joseph tale, the Exodus ordeal, the slave law, the Philistine wars...Genuine or apparent, such breaches of canonical norm press for resolution, and late dating is not nearly enough to supply it. One variant of the theory, in fact, does not even make the attempt. Obviously, referring “Abram the Hebrew” to the common “national-religious self-designation of postexilic Judaism,” one which suits nobody better than the father of the nation (Oswald Loretz [b. 1928] 1984:179), amounts to ignoring those breaches by passing them off as observances. The patriarch’s grouping then merely follows the brand-new protocol of self-nomi-nation by the writer’s collective...The majority of late-dating geneticists plead the youth of the variant instead...Thereby, at least, the belated exception concerning Abra(ha)m gets marked off from the ancient Biblical rule of “Hebrew” usage: the alleged postexilic epigones would imitate this rule, but do so with more nationalist zest than literary insight and skill. The word must have reappeared “after the Exile, when it occurs once in the book of Jonah and in the late midrash of Genesis 14,” as a “deliberate archaism” (Roland de Vaux [1903-1971] 1978: 210, 216; also Claus Westermann [1909-2000] 1986:192-93, 199, 207). If the title here came latest in the genesis, then its coming out wrong (alone, prematurely, out of focus) in the received Genesis narrative should make sense...Checked against the set of questions posed by the narrative, however, this line of conjecture fails in turn: its explanatory weakness even reflects on its larger premises, methodological and classificatory. (Steinberg, Hebrews Between Cultures: Group Portraits and National Literature, 308-09)
The meaning of the term Hebrew in this setting is indeterminate. One Midrash contends it is used because Abram spoke the Hebrew language (Midrash HaGadol, Bereishit 14:13). The name has also been connected to Abram’s ancestor Eber (Genesis 10:21), the patriarch’s social standing and a group known as the Hapiru or Habiru.

Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) examines:

Reference to Abram as “the Hebrew” distinguishes him from the person Mamre “the Amorite.” [Genesis 14:13] This is the first place in the Old Testament where “Hebrew” (‘ibrî) occurs, although “Eber” (‘ēber) whose name may be the source for the term, appears prominently in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10:21, 25) and Abram’s genealogy (Genesis 11:16; I Chronicles 1:18-19). Alternatively, “Hebrew” may have been related to -b-r, “to cross over (from the other side),” from which Eber may hay been connected (cf. ‘ēber, “the other side,” Joshua 24:3). The ethnic designation “Hebrew” occurs sparingly in the Old Testament, usually spoken by non-Israelites, such as the Egyptians (e.g., Genesis 39:14, 17; Exodus 1:15-16, 19) and the Philistines (e.g., I Samuel 4:9, 13:3, 19), to distinguish members of the nation of Israel. Joseph identified himself with his homeland, “the land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15). Jonah identifies himself as a “Hebrew” primarily in terms of his religious affiliation (“and I worship Yahweh; Jonah 1:9); this is reminiscent of the appellative for Yahweh in Exodus who is frequently identified as “the God of the Hebrews” (Exodus 3:18, 7:16, 9:1, 13, 10:3). “Hebrew” as a language is equated with “Judahite,” the language of Jerusalem’s residents (II Kings 18:26; II Chronicles 32:18; Isaiah 36:11, 13). Paul, too, used “Hebrew” as an ethnic or language designation (Philippians 3:5). At times the term also had social implications, not solely ethnic usage (e.g., I Samuel 13:3, 6-7, 14:21, 29:3). (Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 (New American Commentary), 146)
Some interpreters have seen the term Hebrew as indicative of Abram’s position in society; he is from the other side, an outsider. Hebrew is nomenclature used in mixed company to set those given this moniker apart from other people groups. The context supports this reading as this encounter is one of the few times Abram is depicted outside the confines of his own family much less within the broader context of international affairs.

John H. Walton (b. 1952), Victor H. Matthews (b. 1950) and Mark W. Chavalas (b. 1954) note:

Typically the designation “Hebrew” in early times was used only as a point of reference for foreigners. Besides the use here, it is used to identify Joseph in Egypt (e.g., Genesis 39:14-17), the Israelite slaves in reference to the Egyptian masters (Exodus 2:11), Jonah to the sailors (Jonah 1:9), the Israelites to the Philistines (I Samuel 4:6), and other such situations. (Walton, Matthews and Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 46)
The Septuagint infers social status from the designation. E.A. Speiser (1902-1965) informs:
The Septuagint translates this occurrence alone as “the one from across,” in what is apparently an attempt to give an etymological rendering based on the Hebrew verb ‘br “to pass, cross”; elsewhere, the gentilic “Hebrew” is regularly employed. The social bearing of this one passage is thus clearly recognized by the Greek translation. (Speiser, Genesis (The Anchor Bible), 102-03)
The Septuagint actually invents vocabulary to translate the title. Robert J.V. Hiebert (b. 1951) apprises:
The word περάτης... occurs in the Septuagint only in Genesis 14:13 and is based on the adverb πέρα. This is an isolate rendering of the Hebrew gentilic עברי created by the Genesis translator presumably to establish a semantic connection between words in both languages with etymological links to verbs meaning ‘traverse’ and cognate forms with the connotation ‘on the other side.’ John A.L. Lee [b. 1942] calls περάτης a nonce-formation, “unlikely to occur again.” (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], Joel N. Lohr [b. 1974] and David L. Petersen [b. 1943], “Textual Translation Issues in Greek Genesis”, The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception, and Interpretation, 415)
Susan Brayford (b. 1950) expounds:
Abram, our ‘Hebrew’ (העברי) hero per the Masoretic Text, enters the story when one of the escapees tells him what has occurred [Genesis 14:13]. This appellation, an anachronism during the patriarchal period, perhaps was inserted to give Abram an ethnic identity distinct from those with the many kings (Claus Westermann [1909-2000] following Walther Zimmerli [1907-1983] and others, 1985, 199). The Septuagint, however, gives Abram a completely different designation, i.e. περάτης, i.e., an ‘emigrant’ or wanderer. As Marguerite Harl [b. 1919] notes, the Septuagint understood the root עבר to mean ‘pass by or cross over’ and created the neologism and hapax legomenon περάτης, based on πέρα, which means ‘beyond, further.’ Thus the word περάτης would mean ‘one who has come from beyond,’ in this case probably from beyond the Euphrates (1994, 159; see also John William Wevers [1919-2010] 1993, 193). In fact, περάτης is an apt description for Abram; he did emigrate from Mesopotamia and then wandered around between Egypt and Canaan and various places within Canaan. Because the word העברי appears several times later in Genesis (e.g., Genesis 39:14, 17, 40:15, 41:12; 43:32) where the Septuagint transliterated it as Εβραιον (i.e., ‘Hebrew’), the translator was likely familiar with the ethnic designation. However, he chose not to refer to Abram as a ‘Hebrew,’ but as an emigrant. (Brayford, Genesis (Septuagint Commentary Series), 294)
José E. Ramírez Kidd (b. 1956) interprets:
The understanding of Abraham as migrant and wanderer played a very important role in the Alexandrian tradition...The Septuagint translates the Hebrew noun העברי with the neologism περάτη (wanderer, emigrant), used only here in the Septuagint. Philo [20 BCE-50 CE] and Origen [184-253] give the same etymological explanation for this term. According to Philo the name Hebrew means “Migrant”. Origen accepts fully Philo’s etymological explanation of this term, and in his XIX Homily to the book of Numbers he states that the word “Hebrews” means travellers (transeuntes)...In his book “On the Migration of Abraham” (“Περί ἀποικίας”), Philo states that the first stage of the spiritual life is conversion. He takes Abraham as model of this and describes his conversion as a triple migration...In this way, the life of Abraham turned into pilgrimage and became the model for future pilgrims who descended from him. (Kidd, Alterity and Identity in Israel: The “ger” in the Old Testament, 124)
Whether or not “the Hebrew” is intended to identify the patriarch as an outsider, it cannot be denied that Abram is “not from around here”.

Given their national history, Abram’s progeny could likely identify with being perceived as wandering outsiders. So should Abraham’s spiritual descendants (Romans 4:16).

Miguel A. De La Torre (b. 1958) generalizes:

In a real sense, all who place their trust in Abram’s God are Hebrews, grafted onto the vine. To trust and follow God is to pass over into a new life of walking, by faith, in God’s way. Such ontological Hebrews are wanderers in this life, passing over and through a world where injustice reigns. They become the salt that reminds an unbelieving world, structured where the few exploit the many, of God’s liberation and salvation from disenfranchisement, dispossession, and displacement. (De La Torre, Genesis: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), 159)
Others have seen a connection to a group known as the Habiru or Hapiru. Sara R. Mandell (b. 1938) prefaces:
Various 2nd-millennium ancient Near Eastern texts refer to people classified as habîru/‘apîru, a term that some think denotes “Hebrews.” The habîru may be social outcasts, fugitives, refugees, or mercenary groups, but it is unlikely that they formed an ethnicity. Ancient Near Eastern references suggest that the habîru in Canaan, mentioned in the Amarna Letters, were not the Israelites. A relationship between the term habîru in the Nuzi servant contracts and the Hebrew slave of Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12 is unlikely in part because the Nuzi archives are from a different time than the biblical narrative. In the Nuzi texts habîru denotes a “foreign servant” who sold himself into slavery; in Deuteronomy 15:12 the Hebrew servant is called the “brother” of those being addressed. (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008],”Hebrew, Hebrews”, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 567)
Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1952) characterizes:
The Habiru appear in Near Eastern texts from the 20th to the 11th centuries B.C. They were a settled people rather than a nomadic or desert population, and comprised heterogeneous racial elements. They had great mobility, and consequently they were regarded as outsiders wherever they settled. They were often fugitives, uprooted and propertyless. In times of disorganization they played a large part as auxiliary soldiers in petty wars between rulers and towns. With the establishment of a relatively stable society at the end of the 2nd millennium B.C., they sank into insignificance and eventually disappeared. On account of their militaristic exploits, commentators have raised the question whether it is accidental that in the one place where Abram engages in military activity he is styled as a “Hebrew” (Habiru?)...More and more scholars are rejecting an equation of “Hebrew” and “Habiru” on both historical and philological grounds. (Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 404)
E.A. Speiser (1902-1965) researches:
The question of possible connection between Hebrew ‘ibrî “Hebrew” and Cuneiform Hab/piru and its cognates or counterparts has been fully discussed in two recent monographs, one by Jean Bottéro [1914-2007], ed., Le problème des Habiru, and the other by Moshe Greenberg [1928-2010], The Hab/piru. The evidence remains ambiguous; and within the Bible itself, the matter is complicated by the legal phrase “Hebrew slave” (Exodus 21:2; cf. Deuteronomy 15:12). At any rate, the present instance accords more closely than any other with Cuneiform data on the Western Habiru; note especially the date formula in Alalakh Tablets 58 (eighteenth/seventeenth centuries), 28ff., which mentions a treaty with Habiru warriors; and the State of Idrimi (fifteenth century Alalakh), line 27, which tells how the royal fugitive found asylum among Habiru warriors. (Speiser, Genesis (The Anchor Bible), 103)
The militaristic nature of the Genesis account has been a major point of connection to the group. Henri Cazelles (1912-2009) connects:
This episode presents a warrior Abraham, with a rather different character from that in the other Genesis episodes...We have here what is really a typical hapiru of the Amarna type. (D.J. Wiseman [1918-2010], Peoples of Old Testament Times, 22)
Mary P. Gray supports:
[The patriarch] appears to travel a great deal with flocks and herds, living in a tent as a nomad. But it must be emphasized that Abraham is denoted as עבי [ibri] just that moment when he takes decisive military action...when his actions most closely resemble those of the Hâbirū. (Gray, “The Habiru-Hebrew Problem in Light of the Source Material Available at Present,” Hebrew Union College Annual 29, 1958: 176)
Others have seen the descriptor “the Hebrew” as connecting Abram to his ancestry. Bruce K. Waltke (b. 1930) deduces:
It is an ethnic term, connected with Eber, the last ancestor in the line of Shem before the earth is divided (Genesis 10:21-25)...based on the following: (1) The form (‘ibrî) consists of ‘ēber + a gentilic î, like Israeli or Israelite from Israel; (2) this form is appropriate with the proper name Eber, not with ‘apiru; (3) the term always occurs in opposition to other ethnic groups, especially the Egyptians and Philistines; (4) though landless, the other characteristics of Abraham do not fit the ‘apiru. The Bible ascribes the term only to Abraham and his descendants to show that they are the legitimate descendants of Shem through Eber. (Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 231)
Though theories on its etymological basis vary, the epithet “the Hebrew” certainly indicates Abram’s status as other (Genesis 14:13). The term fits the lyrics of Metallica: “Rover, wanderer, nomad, vagabond. Call me what you will.”

Unlike his peers, Abram is a man without a nation. He has a God but not a country. His allegiances are not political nor derived solely from self interest. This certainly makes him an outsider.

Why is Abram referred to as “the Hebrew” in this instance and only in this instance (Genesis 14:13)? What does this label add to the story? Does this term reflect how others perceive Abram; if so what does it indicate? What do you associate with the word “Hebrew”? How would you want to be identified to someone from a different nation? With what do you self identify more, God or country? If our spiritual ancestor Abraham lived on the fringes of society, what does this say about how we ought treat those living in the margins?

Even as a Hebrew, presumably an outsider by definition, Abram is connected to the world and not exempted from civic duty. J. Gerald Janzen (b. 1932) inspects:

When Abram “the Hebrew” is told what has happened (Genesis 14:13), he gathers his men to rescue Lot by force (Genesis 14:14-15). This seems a natural thing for anyone to do (like the common sense that led him to pass off Sarai as his sister in Egypt [Genesis 12:10-16]). Is it the right thing for Abram as recipient of the divine promise and in time the new name of human blessing? How does the narrative invite us to view his action? A number of clues may guide us. First, the narrative describes him as “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). In the Bible the term “Hebrew” is used to distinguish this people from other people sociologically. It does not draw attention to their inner identity or character as the people of Yahweh. So in Genesis 14:13 the narrative presents Abram to us, not as a bearer of divine promise, but simply as leader of one social group among many. Second, as such a leader he is presented as standing in a defensive alliance with a number of local Amorites, an alliance much like the alliance of the smaller states in Genesis 14:1-2. (Janzen, Genesis 12-50: Abraham and All the Families of the Earth (International Theological Commentary), 31-32)
John Goldingday (b. 1942) concludes:
Nobody in the world of power politics knew about Abraham and how significant he was. Yet this did not mean he had contracted out of the world. When a world crisis came to impinge on Lot, Abraham the Hebrew could not say it was not his business. (Goldingay, Genesis For Everyone, Part 1, 158)
Abram is blessed in order to bless others (Genesis 12:2). In order to fulfill this calling, he must interact with the world.

In what ways, if any, does the description “the Hebrew” speak to the efficacy of Abram’s actions? When should believers become involved in world affairs?

“You must get involved to have an impact. No one is impressed with the won-lost record of the referee.” - Napoleon Hill (1883-1970)