Shemot: Hebrews vs. Children of Israel

Both the book of Exodus and its first Torah portion are called Shemot (“Names”) after a key word in the first sentence.  But that sentence also includes the two names of Jacob and all his descendants:

Jacob and his Family Go to Egypt, by Jean Bondol, 14th century CE

And these are the names of the Children of Yisra-eil who came to Egypt with Ya-akov, each man and his household. (Exodus/Shemot 1:1)

shemot (שְׁמוֹת) = names.

Yisra-eil (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel (in English).  Yisra (ישׂר) is derived from either yisar (יִּשַׂר) = he strives, contends, struggles; or yasor (יָשֹׂר) = he rules, directs.  Eil (אֵל) = god, God.

(Jacob earned the name Yisra-eil after wrestling with a mysterious being.1  The possible meanings of Yisra-eil have spurred a lot of commentary.  Likely translations are “He struggles with God”, “God strives”, or “God rules”. Calling Jacob’s descendants the children of Israel, instead of the children of Jacob, focuses on their active and sometimes insecure relationship with their god.)

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = Jacob (in English); he grabs the heel (from the verb akav, (עָקַב) = came from behind, grabbed by the heel, supplanted, circumvented, held back).

(Jacob’s father, Isaac son of Abraham, named him Ya-akov when he was born, because he emerged holding the heel of his twin brother Esau.2)

The second sentence in Exodus lists the names of eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons.  Joseph is already a viceroy of Egypt when his extended family moves down.  He invited them to resettle in the Goshen area so he could guarantee they would have food during the seven-year famine.

Over the next few centuries or generations the descendants of Jacob multiply, and a new dynasty takes over Egypt.3

And a new king rose over Egypt who did not know [about] Joseph.  And he said to his people: “Hey! The people of the children of Yisra-eil are more numerous and more mighty than we are!  … What if a war happens, and they even join our enemies and wage war against us, or they go up out of the land?” (Exodus/Shemot 1:8-10)

Here the pharaoh is superficially respectful, referring to the children of Israel by their own name for themselves.  Perhaps at this point most Egyptians had nothing against their Israelite neighbors.

Having identified a potential problem, Pharaoh assigns the Israelites to corvée labor (forced and unpaid labor on a state project).  They must build storage cities in the eastern delta of the Nile, near the Goshen region where they live.  This move establishes their lower-class status, and puts them under close supervision so they cannot defend themselves against any future injustice.

Pharaoh and Midwives, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century CE

The pharaoh’s next move is to order the midwives to kill all the Israelites’ newborn sons.  At this point, Pharaoh calls the Israelite women “Hebrews”.

And he said: When you deliver the ivriyot, and you look at the pair of stones [the birthing seat], if it is a son, then you shall kill him.  But if it is a daughter, then she shall live. (Exodus 2:16)

ivriyot (עִבְרִיּוֹת) = Hebrew women; the feminine plural of ivri (עִבְרִי) = a Hebrew person.  (From the root verb avar, עבר = passed through, passed by, crossed over.  Ivri is an imperative form of this verb.)

The word ivri is etymologically related to the Egyptian word ‘apiru and the Mesopotamian word habiru (as well as the English word “Hebrew”).  Several thousand years ago, the countries surrounding Canaan used the term to mean any Semitic immigrants on the fringes of society.  Surviving ancient texts refer to Hebrews as nomadic herders, temporary laborers, mercenaries, or outlaws.  They are not permanent residents.

Yet when the book of Exodus opens, the children of Israel have been living in Egypt for somewhere between two generations and 350 years.Although they belong to a distinct ethnic group, they have a long-established place in Egyptian society.

Nevertheless, the pharaoh switches from calling them “children of Israel” to calling them “Hebrews”.  This change in language signals that they are aliens who do not really belong in Egypt.  Given the usual meaning of the Egyptian word ‘apiru, the pharaoh also implies that the Israelites are low-class migrant workers and potential outlaws.  His racial slur probably makes the idea of killing the newborn males more palatable to ordinary Egyptians.

Yet the midwives do not carry out the pharaoh’s hate crime; they come up with an excuse for letting the baby boys live.  Although the pharaoh does not punish them, he remains determined to eliminate the “Hebrews” by attrition, letting the old ones work until they die without a new generation to replace them.  His next move is to incite the whole native Egyptian population to commit a form of genocide.

Pharaoh gave orders to all his people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw away into the Great River; but every daughter, you shall let live.” (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

Why does the pharaoh want to kill only the newborn boys, and not the girls?  In the ancient world of the Torah, men carry the identity of a tribe or nation; women become members of their husbands’ tribes when they marry.  If the only young Israelites were female, they would merely become wives, prostitutes, or servants to native Egyptians.

I would add that adolescent boys and young men are always seen as the most dangerous members of an out-group.

The children of Israel are already subject to corvée labor with no fixed endpoint—in practice, a kind of slavery.  Now they are also helpless against any Egyptians who decide to drown their male children.

Moses from the River, detail from Dura Europos, 244 CE

Only a hero and some miracles can reverse the situation.  The miracles will come from God; the hero is born among the Israelites in Egypt.  His mother hides him for three months before putting him inside a waterproof papyrus box and floating it among the reeds on the bank of the Nile.  When the pharaoh’s daughter finds the  box and sees a baby boy inside, she says:

This is one of the children of the ivrim!”  (Exodus 2:6)

ivrim (עִבְרִים) = Hebrews; the male or all-purpose plural of ivri.

Thus the infant whom she adopts and names Moses begins life identified as an ivri, a nomad, immigrant, outsider.  Eighty years later, Moses leads the ivrim out of Egypt and toward Canaan, the land where ivrim originally came from, the land where they can live as children of Yisra-eil.

Once the Israelites leave Egypt, the Torah rarely calls them ivrim.  References to “Hebrew” people appear only in rules regarding Israelites who have sold themselves as slaves, and in conversations with non-Israelites.

The Israelite occupation of Canaan was not permanent.  The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., and it took 2,534 years before the land became an independent nation of Israel again, rather than a province of a larger country.  During much of that time Jews in Palestine and in the diaspora were treated like ivrim, unsavory migrants.


No group of people is permanent.  Identifying some residents of a country as natives, and others as migrants, outsiders, ivrim, is only a way for demagogues to stir up enough fear and hatred to get what they want.

None of us are natives, if you look back far enough in history.  None of us have an exclusive claim to a patch of land.  All of us are temporary residents—in our countries, and on this earth.  We are all ivrim.

Our challenge is to recognize that everything is temporary, and dedicate our short lives to becoming true children of yisra-el by wrestling with God and changing the fate of the earth.

  1. Genesis 32:25-29.
  2. Genesis 25:26.
  3. Neither the Torah nor the classic commentary are consistent about how much time passed between the immigration to Egypt of Jacob and family, and the imposition of corvée labor by the first pharaoh alarmed by the strength and numbers of his descendants.  According to Exodus 12:14, the Israelites were in Egypt a total of 430 years, making the time between their arrival and their initial enslavement no more than 340 years.  In Genesis 15:13-14 God says the Israelites will be in Egypt for 400 years, bringing that time down to no more than 310 years, which  Genesis 15:16 considers four generations.  Yet according to Exodus 6:16-20, Moses’ grandfather Kehat came down with Jacob, so there were only two generations.

One thought on “Shemot: Hebrews vs. Children of Israel

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