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Cuneiform SA.KAS and KU6.KAŠ.RU
Cuneiform of Sumerian SA.GAZ and corresponding West Semitic ha-bi-ru

Habiru (more accurately 'Apiru, sometimes written as Hapiru)[1] was a term applied in 2nd millennium BCE Middle Eastern texts to nomadic or semi-nomadic individuals or groups living outside the boundaries of mainstream society, and variously described as rebels, outlaws, raiders, mercenaries, bowmen, servants, slaves, and laborers.[2][3][4][5] The discovery of the Amarna letters (diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian court and subordinate kings in Canaan), which frequently mention them, gave rise to the idea that they could be identified with the Biblical Hebrews, but as more texts were discovered from wider areas and times, it became clear that the term had no ethnic affiliations.[6]

The names Habiru and Apiru are used in Akkadian cuneiform texts. The corresponding name in the Egyptian script appears to be ʕpr.w, conventionally pronounced Apiru (the w representing the Egyptian plural suffix). In Mesopotamian records they are also identified by the Sumerian logogram SA.GAZ.

Hapiru, Habiru and Apiru[edit]

Idrimi of Alalakh, "King of the Habiru"

The word Habiru, more properly 'Apiru,[Notes 1] occurs in hundreds of 2nd millennium BCE documents covering a 600-year period from the 18th to the 12th centuries BCE and found at sites ranging from Egypt, Canaan and Syria, to Nuzi (near Kirkuk in northern Iraq) and Anatolia (Turkey), frequently used interchangeably with the Sumerian SA.GAZ, a phonetic equivalent to the Akkadian (Mesopotamian) word saggasu ("murderer, destroyer").[7][8]

Not all Habiru were murderers and robbers:[9] one 'Apiru, Idrimi of Alalakh, was the son of a deposed king, and formed a band of 'Apiru to make himself king of Alalakh.[10] What Idrimi shared with the other 'Apiru was membership of an inferior social class of outlaws, mercenaries, and slaves leading a marginal and sometimes lawless existence on the fringes of settled society.[11] 'Apiru had no common ethnic affiliations and no common language, their personal names being most frequently West Semitic, but many East Semitic, Hurrian or Indo-European.[11][12]

In the 18th century a north Syrian king named Irkabtum (c. 1740 BC) "made peace with [the warlord ] Shemuba and his Habiru."[13] In the Amarna tablets from 14th century BCE, the petty kings of Canaan describe them sometimes as outlaws, sometimes as mercenaries, sometimes as day-labourers and servants.[3] Usually they are socially marginal, but Rib-Hadda of Byblos calls Abdi-Ashirta of Amurru (modern Lebanon) and his son 'Apiru, with the implication that they have rebelled against their common overlord, the Pharaoh.[3] In "The Conquest of Joppa" (modern Jaffa), an Egyptian work of historical fiction from around 1440 BCE, they appear as brigands, and General Djehuty asks at one point that his horses be taken inside the city lest they be stolen by a passing 'Apir.[14]

Habiru and the biblical Hebrews[edit]

In the Amarna letters, the kings plead with the Pharaoh to send troops to resist the Habiru.[15] When these documents were first discovered the similarity between Habiru and Hebrew led some scholars to see in them confirmation of the biblical story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan as told in the Book of Joshua, but this identification is no longer considered correct.[3][16]

The biblical word "Hebrew", like Habiru, denotes a social category, not an ethnic group.[17] Since the discovery of the 2nd millennium BCE inscriptions mentioning the Habiru, there have been many theories linking these to the Hebrews of the Bible, but these are now recognised to have no foundation.[18]

The name "Hebrew" is most often applied to Israelites by non-Israelites or by Israelites when speaking to outsiders.[19]

Most modern scholars see the 'Apiru/Habiru as potentially one element in an early Israel composed of many different peoples, including nomadic Shasu, the biblical Midianites, Kenites and Amalakites, runaway slaves from Egypt, and displaced peasants and pastoralists.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cite error: The named reference Apiru was invoked but never defined (see the help page).



  1. ^ Rainey 2008, p. 51.
  2. ^ Coote 2000, p. 549.
  3. ^ a b c d McLaughlin 2012, p. 36.
  4. ^ Finkelstein & Silberman 2007, p. 44.
  5. ^ Noll 2001, p. 124.
  6. ^ Redmount 2001, p. 72.
  7. ^ Rainey 2008, p. 52.
  8. ^ Rainey 2005, p. 134-135.
  9. ^ Youngblood 2005, p. 134-135.
  10. ^ Naʼaman 2005, p. 112.
  11. ^ a b Redmount 2001, p. 98.
  12. ^ Coote 2000, p. 549-550.
  13. ^ Hamblin 2006, p. unpaginated.
  14. ^ Mannassa 2013, p. 5,75,107.
  15. ^ Na'aman 2005, p. 75.
  16. ^ Lemche 2010, p. 139.
  17. ^ Blenkinsopp 2009, p. 19.
  18. ^ Rainey 1995, p. 483.
  19. ^ Mckenzie 1995, p. 345.
  20. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 125.