The first time the word “Hebrew” (Heb. Ibri’; Greek Hebraios) occurs in scripture, it is applied to Abram (Genesis 14:13). It is then employed as a designation for his descendants through Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 40:15) and also for their language (1 Kings 18:26). This term is most often used to distinguish the Israelite people from other nations (Exodus 1:19; 2:11; 1 Samuel 4:9; etc.), and also applies to the Jews of Palestine in contrast to Greek-speaking Jews (Acts 6:1).1
The origin of the name is uncertain. It may have been derived from one of Abraham’s ancestors, Eber (Genesis 11:16). Those who came to be known as the Hebrews descended from Shem, who is called “the father of all the children of Eber” (Genesis 10:21). Another possibility is that Ibri’ is linked to a similar noun meaning “the region or country beyond,” referring to Abraham’s former homeland beyond the Euphrates (Joshua 24:2-3). It has also been suggested that the word is derived from a verb meaning “passing through” and came to describe Abraham and his descendants as sojourners (cf. Hebrews 11:13).
The name “Israel” (Heb. Yisraêl’; Greek Israêl) means “Prince of God” and was first given to Jacob (Genesis 32:28; 35:10), then later used to designate Jacob’s descendants (Joshua 3:17). When the nation divided, the northern kingdom was called Israel in contrast to the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 15:9). After the Babylonian exile, the united kingdom again carried the name Israel (Ezra 6:16). The word “Jew” (Heb. Yehudi’; Greek Ioudaios) is a form of the name Judah and was first applied to those of the separate kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 16:6; 25:25 KJV). During the Babylonian captivity and onward the name was extended to all the Israelites (cf. Esther 2:5; 3:4; 5:13; Ezra 4:12; etc.).
While the ancient Jews adopted the Phoenician script in writing the Hebrew language, around the time of King David it developed into Paleo-Hebrew and was eventually replaced with the Aramaic script from which the modern Hebrew alphabet is derived. The Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Bible) was originally written in Hebrew, except the Aramaic sections of Ezra (4:8–6:18; 7:12-26) and Daniel (2:4b–7:28). Following the Babylonian exile, Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as the everyday vernacular of the Palestinian Jews.2
The earliest recorded words of God are in the Hebrew tongue. The LORD employed this language to communicate to Moses and the ancient prophets, who in turn used it to proclaim the divine message both orally and in written form. Jesus read and understood Hebrew (Luke 4:16-21); it was the sacred language of the synagogues where he regularly worshiped and taught (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; cf. Acts 15:21). In fact, the smallest stroke of the smallest letter of the Hebrew scriptures was important to him (Matthew 5:18).3
Not everyone has to master the Hebrew language to understand the Old Testament, but somebody does! Let us be thankful for the scholars, the tools, the translations, and the resources that enable us to gain insight into the word of God in every language through which it has been conveyed.
-- Kevin L. Moore
1 The designation “Hellenist” (Greek Hellênistês) is similar to the words Hellênos (“Greek person”) and Hellênikos (“Greek language”), and generally refers to a Jew who settled in another country and adopted the Greek language and culture (cf. Acts 6:1; 9:29). It is sometimes rendered “Grecian” (KJV).
2 See Aramaic.
3 After the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, Hebrew was only used for religious literature and ceremonies until it was revived in the mid-nineteenth century as a colloquial language. Today over seven million people, mostly in Israel, speak Hebrew.