The Hebrews
by Brian Gottesman

    Scholars have long debated the exact scope of the term “Hebrew” (Ivri in West Semitic) as found in the Bible and other ancient writings. Some have postulated that the term comes from the ancient West Semitic verb “to cross over”, as Abraham and his family crossed over the Euphrates River on their way into Canaan. Others believe the term derives from Ever (Heber), a biblical figure from the book of Genesis and the ancestor of the biblical patriarchs. Recent discoveries in Egyptology suggest that the term may be connected to “Habiru” or “Apiru”, an Egyptian phrase used to describe nomadic tribes of landless, primarily Semitic marauders. These Habiru bands could sometimes be co-opted to serve the rulers of more settled peoples- many of the Amarna letters refer to Canaanite kings such as Labayu of Shechem hiring mercenaries from among them, and the Bible reports that the patriarch Abraham could field over 300 soldiers- a formidable size for a Bronze Age army- and forming alliances with the kings of Gerar, Hebron, the Segor, and even Egypt.
    What is readily observable is that from around 1400-1100 BCE, the Dark Ages of the eastern Mediterranean, the settled Canaanite city-states fell to groups of interrelated, less “civilized” tribes. The area now called Syria was conquered by the Aramaeans, Trans-Jordan fell to the Moabites, and Ammonites,  Amorite conquerors seized Bashan, Amurru and Heshbon, and much of what is now Israel was taken by Israelites (and unrelated Philistine invaders from the Aegean). Only in the coastal portions of Lebanon and northern Israel did independent Canaanite strongholds remain; we know these people as the Phoenicians.

The following list assumes that the genealogies given in Genesis reflect, if not historical accuracy, then at least some sense of the way the ancients believed their tribes were related to one another. By starting the genealogy with Ever, the loose term “Hebrew” can be extended to cover most of the marauding peoples who entered the Levant during the late Bronze Age.
  The Benei Terah Terah, according to the Bible, lived in southern Mesopotamia, but took his family and settled in Harran, in northern Syra/ southern Anatolia Benei Esau Benei Israel     Jacob, or Israel, was the eponymous ancestor of the Benei Israel, or Israelites. There are many different theories about the origins of the different tribes. The traditional Biblical narrative has twelve tribes descended from Jacob’s 12 sons leaving slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert for forty years and then invading Canaan from their base in Transjordan. Some archeologists postulated that they were in fact native Canaanite tribes; they pointed to an inscription describing how Pharaoh Merneptah defeated a nation called “Ysril” as evidence.
    Still others identify three separate tribal confederacies - one, led by Moses and comprising Simon, Judah, and Levi, having come out of Egypt in the manner described by the Bible and joining with foreign tribes found in the desert (the Kenites, the Calebites, and Kenizzites) another led by Joshua and the tribe of Ephraim, coming from the north, and a third, settled confederacy of Menasseh, Gad, and Reuben in Transjordan, who aided their kinsmen in invading Canaan but afterwards settled again in Bashan, Peraea and Heshbon.
    Another theory about the origins of the tribes of Israel has to do with the way they are presented in the Bible as sons of Jacob's various wives and concubines. Under this theory the tribes descended from Rachel and the tribes descended from Leah represent two different confederacies, ultimately joined together, while the tribes descended from the concubines (therefore from the less-prestigious sons of Jacob) Zilpah and Bilhah represent foreign elements brought into the Israelite confederacy.
    While it was fashionable in recent years to denigrate the story of the Exodus, recent archeological evidence supports the notion of an invasion of Canaan in the late Bronze Age, and the replacement of Canaanite culture with something different. A current theory that has gained wide acceptance is that invading tribes of Habiru intermingled with oppressed rural populations within Canaan who were rebelling against the Canaanite city-states to form the Israelite nation.
Tribes not mentioned in the Bible as being members of the 12-tribe Israelite confederacy, but which are believed by many historians to have been separate groups which joined the Israelites, only to be absorbed by larger tribes, include the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, and Calebites.