The word Hebrew is likely derived from the name Eber, great-great-great-great-grandfather of the patriarch Abraham. However, its usage in scripture seems to carry a more specific meaning. Below are all the instances of its use in the Old Testament.
Genesis 14:13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram.
Beginning with this text, we see that Abram is identified as “the Hebrew.” Then we are told the location of his then-current camp, as a guest of a man who lived in the land. It has been suggested that the usage of the word indicates “wanderer,” “vagabond,” “nomad” or maybe just “homeless” or “foreigner.”
Genesis 39:14 she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice.
The reference here is to Joseph, a captive slave in Egypt. He is being accused of rape, or at least attempted rape. It’s easy to imagine a connotation of distrust of a foreigner of suspicious origins and even more suspicious morals.
Genesis 39:17 and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me.
The same rape accusation along with a description of bad character and motives.
Genesis 40:15 For I was indeed stolen out of the land of the Hebrews, and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the pit.”
Now Joseph is in prison, and this reference has a new element: self-identification. “The land of the Hebrews” is, at least, a foreign place. But Joseph’s reference is unlike that of the Egyptians; here he claims innocence.
Genesis 41:12 A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, c he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream.
The chief butler describes Joseph as a young Hebrew. In this case his character is not brought into question.
Genesis 43:32 They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is m an abomination to the Egyptians.
Joseph’s brothers visiting Egypt. Notice that table fellowship with these foreigners of questionable character is “an abomination” to the Egyptians.
Exodus 1:15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,
Exodus 1:16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”
In Exodus 1 the Egyptians see the Hebrews as a threat, because they are increasing in number.
Exodus 1:19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
How often are people of a different ethnicity ascribed with unusual attributes? In this case the midwives are lying (and the Bible says it is because they feared God) in order to preserve the lives of these infants. But the Egyptians fall for the lie.
Exodus 2:6 When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.”
Even the babies looked different, or maybe there was an identifiable difference in how baby Moses was dressed or wrapped.
Exodus 2:7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
Again it would be beneath the dignity of an Egyptian princess, however compassionate, to actually see to the daily needs of a Hebrew child.
Exodus 2:11 One day, z when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their a burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people.
Moses, now a grown man, sees his people being mistreated by the Egyptians.
Exodus 2:13 When c he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?”
Then sees two slaves, who look and sound like him, fighting. Already oppressed, they are now mistreating each other as well, and he is distressed.
Wait forty more years….
Next we see Moses in his interactions with Pharaoh. For the first time, God is identified as the God of the Hebrews. If this means he is the God of the homeless, outcast, wanderers, with no place of their own, it would be surprising that such a people have a God at all, since gods were usually associated with nations; but as it is, it seems more than appropriate that their worship would have to take place in “the wilderness,” somewhere that is not claimed as territory by any nation.
Exodus 3:18 And x they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel y shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has z met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’
Exodus 5:3 Then they said, “The w God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.”
Exodus 7:16 And you shall say to him, ‘The b Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, “Let my people go, c that they may serve me in the wilderness.” But so far, you have not obeyed.
Exodus 9:1 Then the Lord said to Moses, p “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says qthe Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may serve me.’
Exodus 9:13 Then the Lord said to Moses, z “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.
Exodus 10:3 So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to u humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.
The next two references are a bit different. They are God’s instructions about how to treat their fellow outcasts. If we are right, the designation Hebrew still means someone who has no special standing or status. This is God’s instruction about how to treat people with no privileged status to rely on.
Exodus 21:2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.
Deuteronomy 15:12 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.
The idea here is that servitude is never to become a permanent status (though the statute makes an exception in the case of a voluntary agreement). If this way of reading it is right, these instructions are in keeping with other things God tells his people about how to treat foreigners:
When an alien resides with you in the land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33)
After entering the promised land, we find the people of Israel are confronted by their near neighbors, the Philistines, who had not much use for these newcomers to a land they considered their own:
1 Samuel 4:6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp,
1 Samuel 4:9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews c as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
But under king Saul, they began to take on this as a self-identifier:
1 Samuel 13:3 Jonathan defeated m the garrison of the Philistines that was n at Geba, and the Philistines heard of it. And Saul o blew the trumpet throughout all the land, saying, “Let the Hebrews hear.”
1 Samuel 13:7 and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
1 Samuel 13:19 and some Hebrews crossed the fords of the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.
But to the Philistines, the name remained anything but a compliment:
1 Samuel 14:11 So both of them showed themselves to the garrison of the Philistines. And the Philistines said, “Look, Hebrews are coming r out of the holes where they have hidden themselves.”
1 Samuel 14:21 Now the Hebrews who had been with the Philistines before that time and who had gone up with them into the camp, w even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan.
1 Samuel 29:3 the commanders of the Philistines said, “What are these Hebrews doing here?” And Achish said to the commanders of the Philistines, “Is this not David, the servant of Saul, king of Israel, who has been with me j now for days and years, and since he deserted to me k I have found no fault in him to this day.”
That’s about it. Many years later, Jeremiah remembers the instruction of God recorded in Exodus and Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 34:9 that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, male and female, sso that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother.
Jeremiah 34:14 ‘At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; r you must set him free from your service.’ But v your fathers did not listen to me or incline their ears to me.
And finally, after Israel loses its homeland and driven into exile, another prophet identifies himself as a wanderer, whose God is not tied to one land or people:
Jonah 1:9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear othe Lord, the God of heaven, pwho made the sea and the dry land.”