Thursday, May 12, 2011

Israel: What's in a Name, Revisited (Part 1)

Yesterday, on the way to the airport, a roommate of mine asked, "Where do you think the name, 'Israel' originates?"  My roommate already knew the answer--that biblically the name "Israel" originates from within the story of Jacob's struggle with God in Gen 30:22-30; and that linguistically the name Israel derives from the combination of two Hebrew words.

The root of his question, I believe, stemmed from a desire to explore how the very name by which both we and ancient Israel knew the people of the Hebrew Bible instructs our and ancient Israel's interpretation of those people and their narratives within the Hebrew Bible.  The discussion between my roommate and I unfortunately ended abruptly upon our arrival to the airport.  Though our discussion may have ended my thoughts on the matter haven't, and I have decided that over the next two days I am going to continue our discussion on this blog.  Over the course of the next two days, we will explore the origin of the two names of Israel as presented in the Hebrew Bible.  In today's discussion, we will address the first mention of Abraham as a "Hebrew" in Genesis, and tomorrow, we will discuss Jacob's struggle with God and subsequent renaming as Israel.

In Gen 14:13, we read of a people known as "Hebrew" for the first time:

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.
The biblical authors of Genesis here refer to Abraham (while he was still known as Abram) as a "Hebrew."  What we translate as "Hebrew" in English appears in Hebrew as ivri (עִבְרִי), which derives from the Hebrew verb meaning, "to cross over."  (Note that we arrive at the English word "Hebrew" from a transliteration of the Greek and Latin words Ἑβραῖος and Hebraeus, respectively.  The origin of the Greek and Latin designation of Israel as "Hebrew" is unknown.)  In more conservative circles, I have heard that the naming of the peoples of Israel as ivrim (plural of ivri) originates from the narrative of the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus.  Although this hypotheses plays wonderfully into the Exodus narrative, this hypotheses fails to explain why Abraham is already known as an ivri in Genesis.

Ideas abound but answers are few:  Others could have referred to Abraham as ivri for he came from a foreign land (thus he would have "crossed over" to get to ancient Palestine); surrounding cultures during the Iron Age (from the supposed monarchial period of Israel) may have perceived ancient Israel through the Exodus narrative that Israel told and the surrounding cultures therefore knew Israel as ivrim; and lastly, Israel may have adopted this name upon return from the Babylonian Exile which would have involved a crossing of the Euphrates River (what better way to embody the story of the Exodus than to live it?).

Each of the above hypotheses places the writing of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) in a different time:  the first hypothesis places the writing of the Pentateuch in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1500-2000 BCE; prior to Israel's monarchial period), the second hypotheses places the writing of the Pentateuch in the latter part of the Iron Age (1000-540 BCE, prior to the Babylonian Exile), and the final hypothesis places the writing of the Pentateuch during the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (550-330 BCE, following the Babylonian Exile and just prior to the conquest of Alexander the Great).  For the purposes of our discussion, I believe it is reasonable to posit that an early oral tradition of Abraham and the other Patriarchs as ivrim during the Iron Age became a form of self-identity for the people of Israel following the return from the Babylonian Exile.

For this hypotheses to be true, then, the Pentateuch, though likely existing in written fragments prior, did not exist as the fully edited written corpus as we have it today until following Israel's return from the Babylonian Exile.  To explore this idea further would be to step outside the intentions of this post.  I will redress this topic in the future through a further exploration of the text and an exploration of Bronze Age and Iron Age archaeological remains.  For now, however, it should suffice to say that the name ivri defined a people who crossed into the land of Canaan, whether that crossing took place in the figure of Abraham in Genesis, the figure of Moses in the Exodus, or in the return of Israel from the Babylonian Exile.  The literary idea and subsequent embodiment of "crossing over"--a movement from an "outsider" to an "insider"--exists as a strong narrative throughout the Hebrew Bible.  We will begin again with this narrative tomorrow as we explore Jacob's struggle with God and Jacob's subsequent transition into Israel.