The pages of the Bible mention ancient Hebrews – a people through whom God revealed Himself to the entire world. Today people study the Hebrew language. The Bible also refers to Israel and Israelites. So what is the difference between Hebrews and Israelites? There is a passage in the Bible that illustrates this very effectively.
“…the men of Israel saw that they were in a strait…people hid themselves in caves, in thickets, in cliffs… some of the Hebrews crossed the Jordan into the land of Gad and Gilead. But as for Saul, he was still in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling. (1 Sam 13:6-7 NASB)
This chapter in the first book of Samuel describes the beginning of King Saul’s reign and his military campaigns to defeat Israel’s enemies. Saul’s soldiers were afraid of the sizable Philistine armies confronting them. Verse 6 calls them Israelites – lit. men of Israel – יִשְׂרָאֵל (yisrael), but verse 7 refers to these same people as “Hebrews” – עִבְרִים (ivrim). The terms “Israelites” and “Hebrews” both refer to the same people, but their meaning is not synonymous.
The בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (benei yisrael) “sons of Israel” literally means people who “struggle and assert influence”. יִשְׂרָאֵל (yisrael) comes from the Hebrew words שָׂרָה (sarah) “to fight”, and אֵל (el) “God”. This name “Israelite” implies that they are descendants of Jacob.
The meaning of “Hebrews” עִבְרִים (ivrim) can be seen in how Saul’s soldiers (who feared their enemies) behaved – וְעִבְרִים עָבְרוּ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּן (veivrim avru et hayarden) “and Hebrews crossed the Jordan”. In fact, the words “Hebrews” and “crossed” both come from the same Hebrew root: עָבַר (avar) “to cross over”, “to go beyond”. The word for “ford” or “water crossing” is עֲבָרָה (avarah). Also, עֵבֶר (ever) refers to the “other side” or the “land beyond the river”. It is also a name of one of Shem’s great-grandsons. The Modern Hebrew noun עָבָר (avar) means “the past” – as in something which has already occurred. So literally, Hebrews are “people who crossed to the other side”; people who already “went beyond”.
In Torah, Abram is called a “Hebrew” – עִבְרִי (ivri) perhaps because he crossed over from Haran to Canaan. In Egypt, Jacob, his sons, and their descendants were also called Hebrews because they came “from beyond” (i.e. from Canaan – Gen 43:32). But they were also Israelites, “destined to struggle” and obtain freedom against all odds (Ex 3:18). In reality, both names (Hebrews and Israelites) are descriptions of both this people’s origins and their destiny. How Hebrews/Israelites fits with Jews/Judeans is another story.