Bildarchiv Preussisher Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY

WHAT’S IN A NAME? The cuneiform archive well known as the Amarna Letters was discovered at the ancient Egyptian capital city of Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna). From this Late Bronze Age correspondence that includes letters between the pharaoh and his Canaanite vassals, we learn that Canaanite rulers repeatedly wrote to Pharaoh concerning the persistent threat of the habiru or ‘apiru. In letters such as this one, King Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem complained that “the habiru have taken the very cities of the king.”

Because of the surface similarity of the words habiru and “Hebrew,” many scholars assumed the habiru were closely related, if not identical to, the earliest Israelite tribes. Upon closer examination, however, all similarity disappears. It is linguistically impossible to equate habiru and ‘ivri (the Hebrew word for “Hebrew”) and, in any case, the word habiru was not used to describe a single ethnic group but rather an array of disenfranchised social groups that inhabited the fringes of Bronze Age Near Eastern society.