A century prior to Merneptah, the Amarna letters referred to the people called ˁpr.w or ‘Apiru/Hapiru/Habiru, who have been identified with the Hyksos and Hebrews. The Amarna correspondence includes a missive (EA 286) to Abdi-Heba of the small highland village of Jerusalem (fl. c. 1330’s), a preIsraelite chieftain whose name indicates he was a follower of the Hurrian goddess Hebat. Abdu-Heba complained about these nomadic brigands sacking his village, with the result that all the territories of the pharaoh had been lost. He blamed the Hapiru leader and Egyptian vassal Labayu/Labaya for giving away the lands to the ruffian tribes.
In Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite, Mitanni and Ugaritic texts dating from around 1800 to 1100 BCE, the Hapiru are portrayed as “nomadic or semi nomadic, rebels, outlaws, raiders, mercenaries, and bowmen, servants, slaves, migrant laborers” and so on. Concerning the Hapiru, Redford remarks:
Whatever the reason, the ‘Apiru, as their name suggests (“dust makers,” i.e. people who vacate the premises with speed) display a gypsylike quality, and proved difficult for the state authorities to bring under effective control. Their heterogeneous nature is vividly illustrated by the census lists from Alalakh, wherein one ‘Apiru band includes an armed thief, two charioteers, two beggars and even a priest of Ishtar.496
The Hapiru are described essentially as “a loosely defined, inferior social class composed of shifting and shifty population elements without secure ties to settled communities.”497 Rowton traces the development of the ‘apiru class to nomadic tribes whose impoverished members needed to move into cities to survive, “very often entering military service.”498 Some of these nomads may have formed “into more or less predatory bands, which urban society [viewed] as little better than gangs of bandits.”
As other examples of this sort of societal fringe, Rowton discusses the terms “turk,” “kurd,” “kazak,” “mawali” and, probably, עברים or “ʿIḇrîm,” the Old Testament word for “Hebrews.”499 Another term used to describe West Semitic nomads is “Sutean” or “Sutȗ warriors,” referring to those who thrived in Syro-Palestine during the middle of the second millennium.500
The Hapiru are identified in Sumerian by the logogram SA.GAZ and in Akkadian sources as ḫabbātu, meaning “robber, bandit, raider.” The Hapiru included many individuals with Akkadian names, while others are West Semitic, indicating an Amoritish origin that spread eastward. In this regard, Rowton remarks:
...the term ‘apiru is of West Semitic origin, and it first appears in Mesopotamian urban society at a time when that society was being penetrated by Amorites. This suggests that it was brought in by the Amorites and that it originally denoted some aspect of tribal society...the economically and socially uprooted....501
Contributing to this multiethnic picture, documents from the ancient city of Nuzi in Mesopotamia describe the local Hapiru as “predominantly Hurrian, while approximately 2/3 of the Habiru names are Semitic; of these, all are East Semitic (Akkadian), none West Semitic.”502 While there evidently were proto-Hebrews among them, the word “Hapiru” thus seems to identify a multiethnic grouping engaged in a nomadic “gypsy” style of living, rather than a specific ethnos or people.
Adding to the mix, the king of the Mitanni, Idrimi of Aleppo (c. 1500–1450 BCE), fled the Amorite city of Emar in Syria503 to join with the Hapiru at “Ammija in the land of Canaan,” evidently located near Byblos. Perhaps at this point or earlier, Indian ideas were introduced to these Semites; in this regard, the word evidently “Syria:Surya” derives from the Vedic word “Surya,” meaning “sun,”504 demonstrating the Indic influence in the region.
In the 14th century, the Hapiru leader Labayu enlisted a group of men to attack the Levantine town of Megiddo, for which effort he rewarded his supporters with the village of Shechem ( שכם Shĕkem), which had not been occupied previously, during the Intermediate Bronze Age.505 This latter town is an important locale in the Bible, serving as the capital of the Northern Kingdom (1 Ki 12:25), where the altar allegedly was established by Abraham and dedicated to יהוה Yĕhovah/YHWH. Thus, it is at Shechem that the ethnicity of Israel swore allegiance to Yahweh, even though the book of Exodus contradictorily claimed Abraham did not know the god, who was introduced first to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
It is possible that this gang of Hapiru who joined Labayu were the predecessors of the northern Israelites in significant part, mixed with other Semites.506 Another group of these rough nomads was composed significantly of centralized Semites, as in the records by the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I (d. 1279 BCE) of Hapiru attacks from “Mt. Yarmuta.”507 As noted, there were also many Hapiru in the kingdom of Amurru, ancestral homeland of the Amorites, who eventually occupied pre-Israelite Jerusalem as Jebusites.
In the Amarna correspondence of the 14th century, the Hapiru had become such a nuisance to the Egyptians in the Levant that the authorities there had complained these wandering nomads would eventually take over the entire region. It would seem that indeed they did, as part of the Israelite confederation, following their god El, who thus prevails. How else do we explain the rise of the eventual Israelites? The answer may be that some of the Hapiru became the Israelites, a number of whom in turn developed into fervent Yahwists.
The position that the Hapiru/Habiru were specifically the Hebrews is based on both etymology and the acceptance of the biblical Israel foundation stories as “history.” In one sense, the OT tales are history, as they describe people rampaging throughout the Levant, resembling the uncivilized and crude Hapiru/Habiru, considered robbers and sackers of cities.
The term “Hebrew” ( ' עברי Ibriy), however, appears to derive from the town name of Eber or Heber508 and to be unrelated etymologically to ‘apiru. Yet, based on a study of these terms’ connotations, Near Eastern languages expert Rowton suggests that ‘apiru and 'ibri “denote essentially the same social element.”509 He distinguishes the former as representing an uprooted social outcast from either a tribal or urban society, whereas the latter connotes the same element but only from the Israelite tribal society.510 Interestingly, Philistine texts never use the term “Israelite” but only employ 'ibri to connote the Hebrews,511 indicating the former word was unknown or secondary to them.
Claiming there is “absolutely no relationship” between the Habiru and Hebrews, Rainey and others aver that the foundation of Israel stems from the Shasu instead. Although there are significant differences, both groups were composed of the nomadic bedu, the Egyptian term passed along as “bedouin,” also part of the Amorite empire.
Regarding the bedu, Redford remarks:
The bedu in the Delta roused mixed feelings among the Egyptians. Elders, traditional in their outlook, despised these wanderers and their goats; the bedu were viewed as dirty and unkempt in their carriage and indifferent to the civilized ways of living. But to the young they embodied the ideal of a life of freedom from authority…512
The term Hapiru was used by the Egyptians to describe bedu brigands in the northern hill country of Israel,513 while the Shasu of the southeastern region appear to be most influential in the southern sections of Israel, the area that came to be known as Judah/Judea.
Like many other pharaohs had done and would continue to do, in the 15th century BCE Amenhotep II engaged in military campaigns against Canaan, a land called “Retenu” in Egyptian. Lists of prisoners of war include 3,600 Hapiru and 15,200 Shasu. In order to protect the residents from these marauders, Seti I also battled both the Hapiru and Shasu in Syro-Palestine: “Seti I (c. 1290 BCE) is said to have conquered the Shasu, Arabian nomads living just south and east of the Dead Sea, from the fortress of Taru in ‘Ka-n'-na.’”514 This defeat too may have found its way into legend and myth about the hated enemy, Egypt. Seti’s son was Ramesses II, the ruler most often considered to have been the pharaoh of Exodus. As suggested previously, these facts may explain in significant part the retooling of Canaanite and Amorite cosmological battles to represent Egypt and its ruler(s) as the enemy.
Seti also refers to the Shasu “from the fortress of Sile as far as Pa-Canaan,” including “Upper Retenu.”515 Hence, it appears that “Shasu” here refers to an ethnicity also from northern Israel, rather than simply confined to the south, a confused identity resembling the Amorites.