Habiru (sometimes written as Hapiru, and more accurately as ʿApiru, meaning "dusty, dirty") is a term used in 2nd-millennium BCE texts throughout the Fertile Crescent for people variously described as rebels, outlaws, raiders, mercenaries, bowmen, servants, slaves, and laborers.
Hapiru, Habiru, and Apiru
The word Habiru, more properly 'Apiru, occurs in hundreds of 2nd millennium BCE documents covering a 600-year period from the 18th to the 12th centuries BCE and found at sites ranging from Egypt, Canaan and Syria, to Nuzi (near Kirkuk in northern Iraq) and Anatolia (Turkey), frequently used interchangeably with the Sumerian SA.GAZ, a phonetic equivalent to the Akkadian (Mesopotamian) word saggasu ("murderer, destroyer").
Not all Habiru were murderers and robbers: in the 18th century a north Syrian king named Irkabtum (c. 1740 BC) "made peace with [the warlord] Shemuba and his Habiru,"  while the 'Apiru, Idrimi of Alalakh was the son of a deposed king, and formed a band of 'Apiru to make himself king of Alalakh. What Idrimi shared with the other 'Apiru was membership of an inferior social class of outlaws, mercenaries, and slaves leading a marginal and sometimes lawless existence on the fringes of settled society. 'Apiru had no common ethnic affiliations and no common language, their personal names being most frequently West Semitic, but many East Semitic, Hurrian or Indo-European.
In the Amarna tablets from 14th century BCE, the petty kings of Canaan describe them sometimes as outlaws, sometimes as mercenaries, sometimes as day-labourers and servants. Usually they are socially marginal, but Rib-Hadda of Byblos calls Abdi-Ashirta of Amurru (modern Lebanon) and his son 'Apiru, with the implication that they have rebelled against their common overlord, the Pharaoh. In "The Conquest of Joppa" (modern Jaffa), an Egyptian work of historical fiction from around 1440 BCE, they appear as brigands, and General Djehuty asks at one point that his horses be taken inside the city lest they be stolen by a passing 'Apir.
Habiru and the biblical Hebrews
The biblical word "Hebrew", like Habiru, denotes a social category, not an ethnic group. Since the discovery of the 2nd millennium BCE inscriptions mentioning the Habiru, there have been many theories linking these to the Hebrews of the Bible, but modern scholars see the 'Apiru/Habiru as only one element in an early Israel composed of many different peoples, including nomadic Shasu, the biblical Midianites, Kenites, and Amalekites, displaced peasants and pastoralists.
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