The patriarch Abraham, in early life known as Abram, is introduced to us in scripture in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. He was the son of a man named Terah, who was a descendant of Shem, the son of Noah. Abram’s place in the specified scripture amounts to a simple statement of his ancestry back to Noah, and is pretty straightforward. At that point, beginning in the twelfth chapter, Abram takes center stage.
Genesis 14 contains the story of the capture of Abram’s nephew Lot, along with a large number of the folks from Sodom, and Abram’s rescue of him. After the description of the brief Babylonian campaign that resulted in the capture of Lot along with the people from Sodom, a messenger came to Abram to tell him of the events. At that point, the word Hebrew is used for the very first time in scripture. It was “Abram the Hebrew” who received the news and began the rescue expedition. It was not one of the kings of the Canaanites who set out to rescue the hostages. For example, the coalition had not captured the king of Sodom. We would expect that king to raise the rescue expedition. Or, it might have been another one of the Canaanite kings who was not directly affected by the raiders who would attempt the rescue. But, it was not one of the Canaanite kings who went to rescue the captives from the Babylonians. It was the stranger among them. It was the well-to-do shepherd who organized the rescue effort – not a Canaanite king.
This stranger among them was not one of them. He was not a Canaanite. He was, by that time, well-known among them, but he was not one of them. Well, who was he? He was a man of a different ethnicity. That was apparently worthy of note to them. This man of another ethnicity, this descendant of the Semites, was the person who took the initiative to undertake the rescue of the captives, and at his own expense we might add. He would rescue them all for the sake of the one Semitic family among them. The Canaanites were not Semites. They were Hamites. What was that all about?
Well, eleven generations earlier, Noah had had three sons. The names of the three sons, in apparent birth order, were: Japheth, Shem and Ham. Shem is listed first in the Bible because he is the most important to the Bible story but was second born. Now, one time when Noah got himself really compromised, Ham (the youngest) made fun of him for it. Noah was so offended by the ridicule to which his youngest son put him that he decided a curse was in order. The curse might well have fallen on Ham himself, but he had been on the ark, which placed him in a very special category. So, instead, he cursed Ham’s youngest son whose name was Canaan. So the Canaanites (descendants of Canaan) were rightfully a branch of the Hamites – one of the four branches of Hamites. Another branch was the “Mizraimites”, whom we call Egyptians. The biblical Hebrew word for Egypt is Mizraim.
Anyway, Abram was not descended from Ham, he was descended from Shem. Shem was the son to whom the services of Canaan were assigned. Technically, Abram was a Shemite (Semite). But a descendant of Shem named Eber was still alive in Abram’s time. Even though Shem was still alive, Abram chose to call himself after the name of Shem’s descendant, Eber. Because Eber was three generations later than Shem, Eberite was a more specific designation than Semite. It appears to make sense that in defining oneself ethnically, the most recent ancestor would give you the most specific definition. For, example, Abram could have been called a Terahite after his father, Terah. But Terah had died. Of Abram’s living ancestors there were only four: Shem some nine generations earlier, and Eber, some six generations earlier, and the two between them. It was appropriate to give honor to the nearest living ancestor in taking on an ethnic appellation. It looks as if that is what happened.
So this descendant of Shem, through Eber, went and saved the Canaanites who were under a curse of servitude to Shem. And the kinsmen of the Canaanite captives did not do so. Admittedly, Abram seems to have mounted the rescue because of his Eberite kinsman, his nephew Lot. But he performed the necessary tasks for that and rescued a large group of the Canaanites as well.
You thought this was about Abram the Hebrew, not Abram the Eberite. Well, it is. It turns out that Eber is an Anglicization of a Hebrew name pronounced Ever (some may call it Eber). When you speak of someone who is a descendant of Eber, you add an “i” and get eberi. Change the inflection a little bit, and you call that person an ivri. When you translate ivri into English, it comes out “Hebrew.” That is all there is to this. It also turns out that the name of the Hebrew language, in Hebrew, is ivrit – the language of an ivri.
Interestingly, there is a book in the New Testament that was written to Christians of Hebrew origin. We call it the Letter to the Hebrews. In one place (Phil. 3:5) Paul called himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews” to emphasize his kinship with Abraham.
To see more of this man, Abraham the Hebrew, see the new book, “Birth of The Holy Nation,” due out in spring 2015.