Biblical Archaeology Review 34:6, November/December 2008

Shasu or Habiru: Who Were the Early Israelites?

By Anson F. Rainey

It is time to clarify for BAR readers the widely discussed relationship between the habiru, who are well documented in Egyptian and Near Eastern inscriptions, and the Hebrews of the Bible. There is absolutely no relationship!

The first appearance of the term habiru (also ‘apiru1) surfaced in the late 19th century in the cuneiform archive from Egypt known as the Amarna Letters. Seven of the letters in the archive are letters of Abdi-Heba, king of Canaanite Jerusalem, to his overlord, the pharaoh (king) of Egypt.2 “I fall at the feet of my lord, the king, seven times and seven times,” Abdi-Heba’s letters often begin. A frequent complaint is that “habiru have plundered all the lands of the king.” And again: “the habiru have taken the very cities of the king.” If Pharaoh does not send archers, “the land of the king will desert to the habiru.”

Abdi-Heba complains that the pharaoh is not sufficiently helpful to him: “I am treated like a habiru.”

It was not long before some scholars suggested a relationship between “habiru” and the similar-sounding “Hebrew.”

Join the BAS Library!

Already a library member? Log in here.

Institution user? Log in with your IP address.