'Hebrews' in 1 Samuel

HEBREWS | It is clear from the use of the term 'Hebrew' in 1 Samuel that the author does not see it as exactly interchangeable with 'Israelite.' In the main, this is an ethnic designator used by foreigners - the Philistines - to refer to the Israelites. The Philistines consider the Israelites to be Hebrews. However, there are others Hebrews who are not exactly identifiable as Israelites, and it is not clear that the Israelites think of themselves as Hebrews.

(ו) וַיִּשְׁמְע֤וּ פְלִשְׁתִּים֙ אֶת־ק֣וֹל הַתְּרוּעָ֔ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ מֶ֠ה ק֣וֹל הַתְּרוּעָ֧ה הַגְּדוֹלָ֛ה הַזֹּ֖את בְּמַחֲנֵ֣ה הָעִבְרִ֑ים וַיֵּ֣דְע֔וּ כִּ֚י אֲר֣וֹן ה' בָּ֖א אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃

(6) The Philistines heard the noise of the shouting and they wondered, “Why is there such a loud shouting in the camp of the Hebrews?” And when they learned that the Ark of the LORD had come to the camp,

(ט) הִֽתְחַזְּק֞וּ וִֽהְי֤וּ לַֽאֲנָשִׁים֙ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים פֶּ֚ן תַּעַבְד֣וּ לָֽעִבְרִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָבְד֖וּ לָכֶ֑ם וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם לַאֲנָשִׁ֖ים וְנִלְחַמְתֶּֽם׃

(9) Brace yourselves and be men, O Philistines! Or you will become slaves to the Hebrews as they were slaves to you. Be men and fight!”

ETHNOGENESIS | It is worth noting that this memory recalls the period before the establishment of the Hebrew kingdoms, and - as Israel Finkelstein suggests - 'Israel' may not have been the settled identity of the various ethnic groups in the hill country. 'Hebrew,' then, may refer to a class of people rather than a self-identified ethnic group. Israel may have been a Hebrew group, but not all Hebrews considered themselves part of an emerging Israelite ethnic identity.

(ג) וַיַּ֣ךְ יוֹנָתָ֗ן אֵ֣ת נְצִ֤יב פְּלִשְׁתִּים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּגֶ֔בַע וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֖וּ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֑ים וְשָׁאוּל֩ תָּקַ֨ע בַּשּׁוֹפָ֤ר בְּכׇל־הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יִשְׁמְע֖וּ הָעִבְרִֽים׃

(3) Jonathan struck down the Philistine prefect in Geba; and the Philistines heard about it. Saul had the ram’s horn sounded throughout the land, saying, “Let the Hebrews hear.”-d

(ז) וְעִבְרִ֗ים עָֽבְרוּ֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן אֶ֥רֶץ גָּ֖ד וְגִלְעָ֑ד וְשָׁאוּל֙ עוֹדֶ֣נּוּ בַגִּלְגָּ֔ל וְכׇל־הָעָ֖ם חָֽרְד֥וּ אַחֲרָֽיו׃

(7) Some Hebrews crossed the Jordan, [to] the territory of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and the rest of the people rallied to him in alarm.d

CONFLICT | Ethnic identities are largely a matter of self-ascription and can change. Conflict between groups has often proven to be a key motivator in the formation of ethnic identity and difference. 1 Samuel recalls a time probably in the second half of the eleventh century BCE when urban settlement was underway in the hill country. At this time the Palastu - the Philistines - had colonised and fortified the coastal plain. These 'Sea People,' an essentially foreign people in the Levant, put significant pressure on the Hebrew settlers and this may have stimulated the process of ethnogenesis. The demand of 'the people' for a king should be understood as part of this process.

(יט) וְחָרָשׁ֙ לֹ֣א יִמָּצֵ֔א בְּכֹ֖ל אֶ֣רֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־[אָמְר֣וּ] (אמר) פְלִשְׁתִּ֔ים פֶּ֚ן יַעֲשׂ֣וּ הָעִבְרִ֔ים חֶ֖רֶב א֥וֹ חֲנִֽית׃

(19) No smith was to be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines were afraid that the Hebrews would make swords or spears.

(יא) וַיִּגָּל֣וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם אֶל־מַצַּ֖ב פְּלִשְׁתִּ֑ים וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ פְלִשְׁתִּ֔ים הִנֵּ֤ה עִבְרִים֙ יֹֽצְאִ֔ים מִן־הַחֹרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הִתְחַבְּאוּ־שָֽׁם׃

(11) They both showed themselves to the Philistine outpost and the Philistines said, “Look, some Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have been hiding.”

SHIFTING ALLEGIANCES | Not all Hebrew understood themselves to be part of Israel, and the Israelites did not necessarily see all Hebrews to be part of the community of Israel. There may have been closer tribal, clan, cultic, and linguistic relations between the Hebrews and the Israelites than between the Hebrews and the Philistines, but this closeness may well have accentuated division. Not all Hebrews would have been content with Israel's growing power and influence over the hill country. Sometimes we get the impression Hebrews were a class of bandits and/or mercenaries.

(כא) וְהָעִבְרִ֗ים הָי֤וּ לַפְּלִשְׁתִּים֙ כְּאֶתְמ֣וֹל שִׁלְשׁ֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָל֥וּ עִמָּ֛ם בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה סָבִ֑יב וְגַם־הֵ֗מָּה לִֽהְיוֹת֙ עִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר עִם־שָׁא֖וּל וְיוֹנָתָֽן׃

(21) And the Hebrews who had previously sided with the Philistines, who had come up with them in the army [from] round about—they too joined the Israelites-b who were with Saul and Jonathan.

(ג) וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ שָׂרֵ֣י פְלִשְׁתִּ֔ים מָ֖ה הָעִבְרִ֣ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אָכִ֜ישׁ אֶל־שָׂרֵ֣י פְלִשְׁתִּ֗ים הֲלוֹא־זֶ֨ה דָוִ֜ד עֶ֣בֶד ׀ שָׁא֣וּל מֶלֶךְ־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר הָיָ֤ה אִתִּי֙ זֶ֤ה יָמִים֙ אוֹ־זֶ֣ה שָׁנִ֔ים וְלֹֽא־מָצָ֤אתִי בוֹ֙ מְא֔וּמָה מִיּ֥וֹם נׇפְל֖וֹ עַד־הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ {פ}

(3) The Philistine officers asked, “Who are those Hebrews?” “Why, that’s David, the servant of King Saul of Israel,” Achish answered the Philistine officers. “He has been with me for a year or more,-a and I have found no fault in him from the day he defected until now.”