The First Two Hebrews
I have written at other times about the introduction of the word "hebrew" to the narrative of the Bible. The word takes on an incredible meaning in the book of Exodus. It is the Hebrew people that are under the thumb of Egypt. And it is the Hebrew people who need deliverance through the power and intervention of God. Upon listening to the book of Genesis once again (this time in the NASB) I was once again struck by the power of this word "hebrew".
Sometimes we forget that the book of Genesis does not predate the events contained in the book of Exodus. We all know the events of Genesis predate the events of Exodus....that's a given. But the book of Genesis was almost certainly written after the exodus of the Israelites. I do hold that Genesis is composed of oral stories passed down to the Hebrew people. Moses through divine inspiration edited and compiled these stories into a book of intense meaning. Even if I'm wrong on that, it is worth looking explicitly at the canonical version and listening to it as the Hebrew people of the exodus would have heard it. And it is certainly worth noting who the main protagonists are for the Hebrew people and when they're introduced.
Much like the anticipation of a major character in a movie, book or play, the Hebrew people surely must have listened to their stories waiting for the introduction of their family name amongst the oral tradition. Not to be disappointed, the first person to be called a Hebrew was Abraham,
13 Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were allies with Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them, and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. 16 He brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people. - Genesis 14:13-16 (NASB)
It is worth noting the context of Abraham's introduction. He is the redeemer of his family members. He is their provider and deliverer. Lot had been taken into captivity along with his whole household. Consider then being a Hebrew in captivity (or recently freed) and hearing the passed down story of "father Abraham" the Hebrew the deliverer of his kin. What type of word does this speak to a people in captivity? What promises does the story contain? And more importantly for the church today, what does this speak to us who are also children of Abraham?
I believe the story speaks of great deliverance. A conquering line that would save peoples. Any of this remind us of Jesus? (As an even extra aside, what do we think of this story when we realize Lot's salvation ultimately leads to Gen 19:30-37? It doesn't seem God saved Lot for a glorious task.)
That is the first use of the word "hebrew" in Genesis. After Abraham there is an interesting absence of the word "hebrew." Who will be the next person in the story to be bestowed the title? It is not one of the remaining patriarchs. Instead this second person called a Hebrew is depicted in quite a different way then the conquering Abraham. The person is Joseph (Gen 39:14, 17; 40:15; 41:12) and for him the word Hebrew is used almost derogatorily. Apart from being a nationalistic term, the word literally means "one from beyond" and it speaks to the nature of the patriarchs throughout the book of Genesis. They remain outside the peoples and nations of the earth throughout the book of Genesis. And the story of Joseph goes against this. Joseph is brought in deeply and permanently among the foreign people against his will. It is in this context of enslavement that one hears again the word "hebrew." It must certainly be a fascinating context to hear when the hearer is also a captive.
We know the story. Joseph was a slave in Egypt. He serves faithful but is betrayed by a woman. He is made a prisoner and referred to as a Hebrew yet again. Again he is faithful and provides relief to Egyptians servants in a dungeon. Finally, he is lifted up to the height of the kingdom. And he is never spoken of as a Hebrew again. Now imagine hearing this story as a slave in Egypt! Or imagine hearing it as one just delivered from Egypt. The very history of your people, your grandfather Joseph, speaks to the salvation and deliverance that God has promised and delivered. How exciting the book of Genesis must have been for the people of the exodus.