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.

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105 COMMENTS

  1. I have been taught in South Africa that "Hebrew " came from the name "Eber" . Descendents of Eber. 7 generations before Abram. Is that wrong?
    • I don’t either at this time. These mini lessons will have to suffice until I can.
      I often,at the end,have more questions that will have to wait.
    • Mary Roark, like you I can't afford the courses, but like you I enjoy reading the emails and checking out the website. Very interesting and illuminating ?
  2. I had been taught in seminary, that Hebrew comes from a word, apiru (sp?) that means "wanderer." As in, the people who left Egypt and others who joined them on the way, wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until they reached the Jordan River.
    • Dear Karen, I can talk about the etymology of Hebrew and I do not recognize this word, so it may come from another language. But a hunch tells me this is "a bubbah mayseh" as we would say in Yiddish, a made-up tale. Sorry but that sounds more like a sermonic explanation rather than root etymology. Since you have a seminary background, you can probably pick up a good dictionary, or better 2 or 3 and see for yourself. :)
    • They were in the wilderness for 40 years, but they didn’t ‘wander’ for 40 years. They only moved, like, 13 times, otherwise they were encamped.

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    • There is no question that both the Akkadian and the Egyptian languages have words a-pi-ru or a-bi-ru that meant, as you say, wanderer or nomad. This story accurately tells what Judaism believes. So, if you asked this same question to an academic, you might get the a-pi-ru answer. I believe that the Jewish people should be allowed to tell their story their way.
    • Both Ugaritic and Akkadian attest "apiru" as well as "abiru" as meaning stranger or foreigner. It is not uncommon for semitic languages to change b and p (cf. Aramaic parzel for Hebrew barzel, meaning iron).

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  3. I came to Israel for a tour, my guide who was an Arab told me Israel means GOD PLANTS. What’s the truth about it? Thanks
    • Israel means something like Wrestling with God, exercising authority with God, or something very similar. Israel is God's planting, God's Vineyard.

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    • The meaning of Israel as a name is spelled out in the Torah - "He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” (Gen 32:28) Two roots "struggle" and God" = "One who struggles with God".
    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Stories of Jewish Church I: Acts 1-5 or Biblical Hebrew I: First Steps. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
    • Yisrael (Israel) is struggle/wrestling with God, and the name God gave to Jacob after his wrestling with and angel. Yizra'el (Jezreel) is God will sow. Yizra'el is the name of the plain/valley in northern Israel, and was also the name of Omri/Ahab and the latter kings of Israel (Northern kingdom) winter palace. That is where Izabel (Jezebel) was defenestrated during Jehu's rebellion (after Ahab's death).
    • Cont. Surprising that the Arab guide would not know this. The a' (ayin) is a guttural, which is not pronounced by the majority of Israelis, and those that do, it is pretty weak. In Arabic it is very strong (and in North Africa takes on a guttural R sound). So even if he was not proficient in Hebrew, just the sound or the spelling in Arabic should have made it apparent.
  4. Is it true that one is a Jew, Hebrew, Israelite only of one's mother is a Jew, Hebrew or Israelite? Where is this justification to be found and when?
    • That is a long answer, Winston, and I cannot do that here. Israel's law and official Orthodox Jewish Halacha do indeed determine the Jewish status based on the mother. Please research this phrase "matrilineal decent Judaism" in any search engine and you will see the justifications for such practice.

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    • Scripture must be spiritually discerned. The spiritual meaning is that we must be born again (of the will of "I AM"/"I will be what I will be". The Spirit of Truth/Holy Spirit is the mother in the sense that we must be born of the Spirit of Truth. This is the spiritual meaning of why one's Hebrew status is based on the mother (Spirit of Truth)

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  5. PEOPLE COMPLAIN ABOUT FEELING POWERLESS/FRUSTRATION AND HAVING A LACK OF AGENCY I.E. HAVING NO POWER TO CHANGE THINGS. ONE SOLUTION IS TO STRUGGLE, TO RUN THAT RACE, TO FINISH THAT RACE, TO OVERCOME OBSTACLES. AS THE POET WRITES "NOR WILL MY SWORD SLEEP IN MY HAND UNTIL I HAVE BUILT Jerusalem" IN THIS GREEN PASTURED LAND.
  6. Mornings everyone I'm greatly blessed by the information shared on this platform. Would love to enroll fulltime for all courses since I've read a book by Dr. George Lamsa on the gospels it's been so enlightening. As for the words "Hebrew" and "Israelites" it really just sums up for me.
    Man (Adam)his Salvation (Gods plan)and his Creator.....as His plan has always started with ONE MAN....
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