Archaeology has not been kind to the Primary History (i.e., the history of the Hebrew people as set forth in the books of Genesis through 2 Kings). Other than partially confirming some ancillary assertions such as Jerusalem's destruction during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, archaeologists have found no evidence of major events and eras such as the Hebrew's exodus from Egypt, the Hebrew's conquest of Palestine, and the United Monarchy. Indeed, archaeologists have arguably disproved even the possibility of a United Monarchy.
Given the archaeology, many biblical scholars, historians and archaeologists among them, searched for new theories to explain how Hebrews came to occupy and rule over Palestine from the time of Joshua's invasion of Palestine (which never happened). I consider such theories, which are often accompanied by a re-imagining of Biblical stories, to be a form of fan fiction.
One of the more robust theories, at least for a time, was the revolution hypothesis, which theorized that the Hebrews were, in fact, Canaanites who had rebelled against the established order. This theory relied heavily upon the discovery of several references to Habiru or Apiru in ancient documents. Biblical scholars asserted that Habiru/Apiru was a reference to the Hebrews, and everything fell into place from there. The only problem was that the term habiru/apiru was not a reference to a people or an ethnicity, but a reference to a class of people: refugees or fugitives. Please see Niels Peter Lemche's discussion of the habiru, below:
Lemche, N. P. (1992). Ḫabiru, Ḫapiru. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 3, pp. 6–10). New York: Doubleday.
ḪABIRU, ḪAPIRU. Often considered to be the Akkadian equivalent of Heb ʿibrı̂. See HEBREW.
A. The Identity of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru
Ever since this Akkadian expression was first recognized in A.D. 1888, viz., in the Amarna Letters written by Abdi-Ḫepa of Jerusalem around 1375 B.C. (EA 286–90; Greenberg 1955: 47–49) scholars have discussed the significance of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru for the origin of the Israelites. In this discussion the etymology of the word has played a significant part since it was soon recognized that a West Semitic word must lie behind the Akkadian expression. In Akkadian cuneiform writing the consonant ḫ represents at least three different West Semitic gutturals (notably ḥ, ḫ, and ʿ), and it was therefore proposed that the ḫabiru mentioned in Abdi-Ḫepa’s letters were Israelite tribesmen who were then forcing their way into Palestine in the course of the Israelite conquest. The fact that these ḫabiru/ḫapiru (or ʿabiru/ʿapiru) were only mentioned by the king of Jerusalem was, however, considered a serious obstacle to this identification, because—according to the OT—Jerusalem was not attacked by the Israelites until the early days of King David, ca. 1000 B.C.
Only when the German orientalist Hugo Winckler succeeded in A.D. 1895 in identifying the ḫabiru/ḫapiru of Abdi-ḫepa’s letters with the SA.GAZ people, who figure far more frequently in the Amarna Letters, did scholars in general incline to accept the identification of the ḫabiru with the Hebrews (Loretz 1984: 60). This seemingly obvious identification was soon challenged by other discoveries which showed that the ḫabiru/ḫapiru were present in sources from all over the Ancient Near East in the 2d millennium B.C. Especially when they appeared in the Hittite archives from Boghazköy (Ḫattušaš) it became doubtful whether they could in fact be identical with the early Israelites. Evidently the expression covered an ethnic entity which could not be equated with the forefathers of the Israelites in a simple way. The confirmation that it was necessary to disassociate the problem of the ḫabiru from the early history of the Israelites first became apparent in Egyptian sources and later in Ugaritic documents, which made it clear that the second consonant should most properly be read p instead of b; the same also proved that the first consonant actually was an ʿ (in Eg ʿpr.w, in Ug ʿpr). Doubt also arose as to the ethnic content of the expression, especially because of the German Egyptologist Wilhelm Spiegelberg (1907: 618–20), who believed that the term designated a social group of some sort. According to Spiegelberg the term was most properly applied to nomads who lived on the fringe of the Syrian desert (including the Proto-Israelites).
Today the mainly social content of the expression is only occasionally disputed (e.g., by de Vaux 1968), but the interpretation of its social content has changed, most notably thanks to Benno Landsberger, who showed that the expression ḫabiru/ḫapiru should actually be translated “fugitives” or even “refugees” (in Bottéro 1954: 160–61). That such an understanding lies near at hand is confirmed by the Sumerian equivalent of ḫabiru/ḫapiru, SA.GAZ (variant spellings SAG.GAZ, or simply GAZ), as this Sumerogram is in fact merely a transcription of the Akk šaggašum, “murderer.” Moreover, SAG.GAZ is occasionally, in the Akkadian lexicographical lists translated as ḫabbatum “brigand.” Today most orientalists consider that the expression ḫabiru/ḫapiru encompassed fugitives who had left their own states either to live as refugees in other parts of the Near East or outlaws who subsisted as brigands out of reach of the authorities of the states (Bottéro 1980).
B. The Etymology of ḫabiru/ḫapiru
The etymology of the expression has never been fully explained; nor has the discussion about the correct spelling of the word ever ceased. The Semitic root on which the expression is based may be either ʿbr or ʿpr depending on the correct reading of the second consonant. If the term should actually be read ḫabiru then the most obvious etymological explanation must be that it is a derivation from the verbal root ʿbr meaning “to pass by,” “trespass” (e.g., a border, a river, or the like), a meaning which would suit the notion of the ḫabiru as fugitives/refugees excellently. If the correct rendering of the Akkadian cuneiform is ḫapiru, a derivation from the noun ʿpr meaning “dust” or “clay” would be likely; and ʿapiru might then have been a popular way of designating people of low social standing. Both Egyptian and Ugaritic evidence seems to favor a rendering of the cuneiform syllabic writing (ḫa-bi/pı́-ru) by ʿapiru. However, as several scholars have maintained, none of these sources is conclusive. The Egyptian writers in particular were inconsistent as to the rendering of the Semitic labials b and p, and also the Ugaritic writers seem to have been uncertain how to render the same labials (Weippert 1971: 76–79). The evidence in favor of the rendering ḫabiru proposed by Jean Bottéro (RLA 4/1:22) is perhaps more rewarding. Some of it dates from the Middle Babylonian period and includes a series of occurrences where the word is spelled ḫa-bir-a-a (ḫabirāyu, cf. Greenberg 1955: 78; cf., however, also Borger 1958: 126). Another part comes from the Hittite archives where the cuneiform sign bi always seems to represent a bi and never a pí (according to Bottéro RLA 4/1:22). Whether Bottéro’s conclusions are fully justifiable is, however, still under debate. Therefore, although the rendering of the cuneiform writing as ḫabiru seems most likely at the moment, we cannot exclude the reading ḫapiru.
C. The Sources for the ḫabiru/ḫapiru
The total number of occurrences of the word ḫabiru/ḫapiru in the Ancient Near East documents is today just above 250 (total listing until ca. A.D. 1970 in RLA 4/1:15–21, supplemented and corrected by Bottéro 1980: 211 [no. 2]; English translation of most passages in Greenberg 1955). Practically all examples belong to the 2d millennium B.C. although there are certain indications that the expression was not totally unknown before that date. The latest occurrences are from Egyptian sources (from the reign of Rameses IV, ca. 1166–1160 B.C.) although a few literary texts from the 1st millennium mention the ḫabiru/ḫapiru (Bottéro 1954: 136–43; Greenberg 1955: 54–55). As a social and political force the ḫabiru seem to have disappeared just before the end of the 2d millennium B.C. The geographic distribution of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru covers most of the Near East, from Anatolia in the N, Egypt in the S, and W Iran (Susa) to the E. The ḫabiru/ḫapiru were found all along the Fertile Crescent, from Palestine to Sumer.
The oldest sources which for practical reasons tell us anything about the status of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru come from Kaniš, the Assyrian trading station in Anatolia (19th century B.C.) and from the Sumerian area during the Neo-Sumerian epoch. Whereas doubt may be cast over the last mentioned examples (the Sumerogram SA.GAZ is always used, although the spelling may differ), the evidence from Anatolia at the beginning of the 2d millennium B.C. is more promising. The information we gain from this is, however, not totally in accordance with later sources, because the persons named ḫabiru/ḫapiru here may at the same time be called awı̄lu, that is “Sir,” “Mr.” The derogatory content of the expression is conspicuous because the persons called ḫabiru/ḫapiru are at that time in jail, although in possession of sufficient funds to pay for their own release. Finally, these persons were members of the staff of the palace. More important is, on the other hand, that so far it has not been possible to decide whether they were foreigners in this Old Assyrian society or belonged to the local population.
During the following era, the Old Babylonian period, the ḫabiru/ḫapiru are mentioned more often. There is some indication of these people being employed as mercenaries in the pay of the state administration, whereas in the archival reports from the royal palace of Mari we are confronted with the first known examples of ḫabiru/ḫapiru as outlaws or brigands. One document mentions that they had even conquered a city belonging to the kingdom of Mari and caused serious trouble there (Greenberg 1955: 18). The documents from Mari and elsewhere also show that the ḫabiru/ḫapiru were considered a highly mobile population element.
The evidence of the presence of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru becomes far more extensive in the LB Age, during the second half of the 2d millennium B.C. The centers of gravity of this documentation are Nuzi, in NE Mesopotamia (15th century B.C.); Alalakh (15th century B.C.) and Ugarit, two coastal states in N Syria; Ḫattušaš (Boghazköy) in Anatolia; and Palestine and Lebanon as documented by the Amarna Letters (beginning of the 14th century B.C.). Most evidence originates in official state archives; only at Nuzi are private references to the ḫabiru/ḫapiru frequent. At Nuzi the ḫabiru/ḫapiru are most often mentioned in private contracts according to which persons called ḫabiru/ḫapiru bind themselves to the service of Nuzi citizens. The documents in question show that the ḫabiru/ḫapiru were not themselves citizens of Nuzi but foreigners without any juridical rights at Nuzi. By binding themselves through these service contracts they obtained a sort of social security so long as they remained in the service of a citizen of Nuzi. The analogy between these contracts and the OT law of the Hebrew slave (Exod 21:2–11) seems obvious (see HEBREW).
In Alalakh the ḫabiru/ḫapiru are normally mentioned in administrative documents listing persons of foreign origin. These foreigners seem to have been kept apart from the ordinary population of this state, maybe as servants of the royal palace administration (Greenberg 1955: 19–22). One inscription from Alalakh, however, shows that the ḫabiru/ḫapiru also operated as bands of brigands or outlaws outside the control of the state. In the autobiography of King Idrimi we are told how the young Idrimi during his exile lived for seven years among ḫabiru/ḫapiru out of reach of the authorities from whom he had escaped (ANET, 557–58). The same distinction between ḫabiru/ḫapiru as foreigners in the service of the state and ḫabiru/ḫapiru as outlaws is apparent in the sources from Ugarit and Ḫattušaš. Most important is, however, a passage in a treaty between the king of Ugarit and his overlord, the Hittite king, according to which the two monarchs promise to extradite citizens who have deserted their own state to seek refuge in territories known as ḫabiru/ḫapiru land. Such entries in the political treaties become quite frequent in this period; the phenomenon testifies to a growing concern because of the increasing number of persons who chose to live as ḫabiru/ḫapiru (Liverani 1965; cf. also, for the connection between ḫabiru/ḫapiru and the fugitives in Akk munnabtu, Buccellati 1977).
Most important, however, are the testimonies as to the activities of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru in the Amarna Letters, although the evaluation of the content of the expression ḫabiru/ḫapiru is subject to discussion. Generally two different hypotheses as to the content of the expression in the Amarna Letters prevail. The first (and more popular) maintains that their situation was not much different from their situation elsewhere in the Ancient Near East. The second argues that the mentioning of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru in the Amarna Letters does not normally indicate a sociological phenomenon, but that it is just as often used in an exclusively pejorative sense to denote opponents of the official community, that is, the Egyptian suzerainty (thus Mendenhall 1973: 122–35; Liverani 1979). In favor of the first option is the fact that the occurrence of the term ḫabiru/ḫapiru is unevenly distributed over the Palestinian/Lebanese area. It is seemingly concentrated in areas in or close to the mountains, the most obvious ḫabiru/ḫapiru territory (cf. below), whereas the number of sources mentioning the ḫabiru/ḫapiru becomes more restricted in other places. This distribution indicates that the expression was not just a derogatory term in the Amarna age but reflected a real social problem of the Palestinian and Lebanese societies. In favor of the second option is the fact that persons styled ḫabiru/ḫapiru in the Amarna Letters are in general neither foreigners nor fugitives, but heads of states or citizens of states. When a king of one of the Palestinian petty states calls his neighbor king a ḫabiru/ḫapiru, it is certainly not because this other king has left his country to become a ḫabiru/ḫapiru but because he is considered by his fellow king to be a public enemy. When we hear that the citizens of a certain city have joined the ḫabiru/ḫapiru and given their city over to them, this does not necessarily mean that they themselves have become ḫabiru or that they have in a physical sense left their city at the mercy of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru. It simply means that the rulers or the citizens of the neighboring city-states look upon them as enemies. That we cannot exclude the second possibility is proven by an Amarna Letter in which even the Egyptian governor residing at Hazor is accused of making alliances with the ḫabiru/ḫapiru. On the other hand, although this second hypothesis about the content of the expression in the Amarna Letters certainly limits the amount of actual references to the activities of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru people properly speaking, the derogatory use may be considered indirect evidence of the importance of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru phenomenon as such. If there had not been a considerable element of these people, the derogatory use of the expression itself would have been meaningless.
Perhaps the Amarna Letters cannot be taken to prove that gangs of ḫabiru/ḫapiru as well as ḫabiru/ḫapiru fugitives roamed Palestine proper. Their presence is, however, proved by an Egyptian inscription from the end of the 14th century B.C., which mentions an Egyptian campaign against some ḫabiru/ḫapiru living in the mountainous area around Beth-shan in Palestine (translation ANET, 255; cf. Albright 1952). In the Egyptian sources the ḫabiru/ḫapiru from Syria/Palestine are, however, mentioned as early as during the reign of Amenophis II (ca. 1440 B.C.), when they appear alongside the ḫurri people (i.e., the settled population of Asia) and the šasu nomads in a list counting the prisoners of a Palestinian campaign led by this pharaoh (ANET, 247). According to Egyptian documents mentioning the presence of ḫabiru/ḫapiru in Egypt proper, they seem to have been employed by the Egyptians as an unskilled labor force, used among other things for work on public building projects.
D. Factors Behind the ḫabiru/ḫapiru Movement
Although it is impossible to present a detailed history of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru, it should, nevertheless, be possible to delineate some of the conditions which contributed to the development of the phenomenon during the 2d millennium and to indicate some general reasons both for the seemingly increasing importance of the phenomenon especially in the Late Bronze Age and for its disappearance at the beginning of the Iron Age.
The etymology of the word is West Semitic and points toward an origin among the West Semitic- or Amorite-speaking population of the Ancient Near East, although the phenomenon as such was in no way confined to the areas inhabited by this population. Nor would it be correct to think that the ḫabiru/ḫapiru were generally of W Semitic origin. To the contrary, the available evidence shows that a variety of ethnic groups could be listed under this heading in any society of that time, as was the case at Alalakh, where the ḫabiru/ḫapiru groups encompassed foreigners bearing W Semitic as well as Ḫurrian names. Accordingly, the expression must already at an early date have been separated from any specific ethnic background and become a purely social designation. Since the ḫabiru/ḫapiru whose names are preserved in the source material are always considered foreigners in the societies where they lived and where they were excluded from normal civil rights, they were obviously intruders who had arrived from some other parts of the region. Though their presence was noted, their status in the society was invariably low; they were almost slaves, as at Nuzi, or else they were employed by the state as unskilled laborers or ordinary mercenaries. Finally, their affinity to groups of outlaws outside the control of the political centers of that period is evident from the fact that they shared their name or designation with the brigands. Therefore both the ḫabiru/ḫapiru living in state societies and ḫabiru/ḫapiru living on their own as outlaws must be seen as representatives of one and the same general social phenomenon, that is, they were refugees or fugitives who had left their own country to find a way of survival in other parts of the Near East.
The reasons for this wave of fugitives, which, according to the available sources, seems to have increased in force during the Middle Bronze Age and especially the Late Bronze Age, may have varied, and it may be futile to attempt any easy explanation. However, such a factor as debt—resulting in regular debt slavery—may have induced many impoverished peasants of the ancient states to find a living out of reach of the authorities who were going to enslave them as debtors. The actual extent of such conditions which led to the enslavement of presumably a considerable part of (especially) the rural populace may only be surmised. On the other hand, the practice, common in the Old Babylonian period, of issuing at regular intervals royal grants which annulled debt as well as debt slavery and which released mortgages on landed property (see esp. Kraus 1958; Finkelstein 1961), demonstrates that the problem was very real. Such measures, however, may not have continued beyond the period of the Amorite dynasty in Babylonia proper; and edicts of that kind may not have been issued in other places, at least not to the same extent as in Mesopotamia proper (Lemche 1979). The burden of debt may have increased because of the growing centralization of the state administration, especially in the Late Bronze Age, when the so-called “palatinate” type of states developed into a despotic system with ever-diminishing rights of the ordinary population (on this system Liverani 1974 and 1975). It may be an indication of the juridical organization of this type of state that no law codices have survived from those regions of W Asia where, seemingly, the ḫabiru/ḫapiru movement grew to unprecedented dimensions in the Late Bronze Age, because all juridical power was vested in the centralized state authorities symbolized by the person of the king residing in his palace.
Two additional factors contributed to the development of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru movement. First of all, the region was subdivided into numerous petty states which evidently facilitated the possibility of escaping the authorities in one’s own state. Second, and more important for the refugees who decided to live as outlaws, was the extent of territories especially suitable for the life of such brigands, that is, territories which could in no way be controlled by the tiny forces of the petty states of the area. Such territories were normally to be found in the mountains or in the steppes between the desert and the cultivated areas (on this see Rowton 1965: 375–87 and 1967; cf. also Rowton 1976). The extent of the movement and the problems which it caused transpire from a series of international treaties trying to regulate the traffic of the refugees by impeding their freedom in states other than their own. The reciprocity of the extradition of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru between states testifies to a deeply felt concern because of the movement of the refugees. The acme of these endeavours on the part of the communities is the paragraphs included in the great international treaty between Egypt and Ḫatti at the beginning of the 13th century B.C. (ANET, 199–203; cf. Liverani 1965).
Irrespective of whether this sketch of the development of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru movement is true or not, the movement lost its impetus after the breakdown of the palatinate system at the end of the Late Bronze Age; and although the problem of refugees and fugitives has always been endemic to the Near East, the ḫabiru/ḫapiru disappeared. One may only guess at the specific reasons, but the possibility exists that the ideological foundation of the new states which arose during the Iron Age, not least in West Asia, promoted a better understanding of social responsibility among the leading class, since many of the states were founded on the basis of former tribal societies. It may be that the egalitarian ideology of these tribal societies lived on, although it cannot be assumed that debt slavery disappeared in the Iron Age. To the contrary, debt slavery was very much in evidence; but it was perhaps softened by an ideology which proclaimed brotherhood among all members of the new states (on the egalitarianism of the Iron Age using Israel as an example see Gottwald 1979; cf., however, also Lemche 1985: 202–44, including criticisms of Gottwald for not distinguishing between ideology and real life).
In conclusion it must be maintained that after 1000 B.C. no reference to the activities of the ḫabiru/ḫapiru is known. References to ḫabiru in later sources are literary reflections of the past.