Question: "Who are the Hebrews?"
Answer: The Hebrews are peoples descended from Abraham. The origin of the word Hebrew is thought to come from the proper name “Eber,” listed in Genesis 10:24 as the great-grandson of Shem and an ancestor of Abraham. Another etymology traces the original root word back to the phrase “from the other side”—in that case, Hebrew would be a word designating an “immigrant,” which Abraham certainly was (Genesis 12:1, 4–5).
From Shem, through Arpachshad and Shelah, came Eber, the eponymous ancestor of the Hebrews; and Eber’s descendant, through Peleg, Reu, Sereg, and Nahor, was Terah, the father of Abram and his brothers Nahor and Haran. It becomes clear that, if “Hebrews” are “descendants of Eber,” then others besides those of Abraham’s line could possibly be included (see Genesis 11:10–26).
Today, a “Hebrew” is usually thought of as any member of a group of ancient people who traced their lineage from Abraham though Isaac and Jacob. And that is how the Bible uses the term. In fact, Abraham is the first person called a “Hebrew” in the Bible (Genesis 14:13). After 400 years in Egypt, the Hebrews were recognizable as a distinct people group (Exodus 1:19). The Philistines in Canaan used the term “Hebrews” (1 Samuel 29:3); Jonah identified himself as “a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9); and, hundreds of years later, Paul was still using the same identification (Philippians 3:5).
Abraham’s grandson Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel” (Genesis 35:10), so Jacob and his descendants could be called the first “Israelites.” Jacob’s fourth son was named “Judah,” and his descendants were called “Judahites” or “Judeans.” Later, the name “Judean” was shortened to “Jew.”
Technically, Jews are Israelite Hebrews from the region of Judea—they come from Abraham (a Hebrew) and Jacob (an Israelite), through Judah (a Jew); thus, strictly speaking, all Israelite Hebrews are not Jews. After Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms: in the Northern Kingdom were the “non-Jewish” Hebrew Israelites (descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through ten of his sons); and in the Southern Kingdom were the “Jewish” Hebrew Israelites (descendants of Jacob’s other two sons who lived in Judea). This represents a very narrow definition of terms, however. In common usage, Jews, Israelites, and Hebrews are all words referring to God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.