What Does The Word Hebrew Mean? (Ibriy)

by | Feb 22, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

We typically use the term Hebrew to refer to the ancient Israelites’ language. This holy language group was a branch of the ancient Canaanite ethnicity. Modern descendants consider it the official language of Israel. But when we review the meaning of this term, we realize that it’s not what most Christians believe. So, what does Hebrew mean?

The term Hebrew translates to Ibriy in the Hebrew language. Its root letters directly translate to crossing over or passing through. Today’s Israelites mention the term when talking about crossing the road, moving houses, or getting across a river. But in the Bible, this term primarily refers to individuals or communities who crossed waterways. 

Scripture Derivation of the Term Hebrew

The Bible depicts a strong association between Hebrews and crossing rivers in numerous instances. Abraham is considered the first person to earn the name Ibriy, or the person who has traversed. The name refers to his hailing from the other side of the River Euphrates. Abraham traveled with his family from a region bordering the river and traversed into Haran. God later recalled him over the river again to the area now famous as Israel.

Joshua captures several historical events and clues to how Jacob’s descendants became the people who had traversed.

Your ancestors first lived on the other side of the Euphrates. They worshiped deities other than the one true God. So I brought your father Abraham from the land beyond the river to Canaan and multiplied his descendants.

Next, I saved you out of Egypt. Chariots and horse riders were in pursuit, but I helped you across the Red Sea. I guided you to the Amorites’ land on other side of the Jordan River. They engaged you in battle, but I gave you victory.

Worship Lord wholeheartedly and faithfully. Throw off the deities your ancestors worshiped on the other side of the river and in Egypt. If can’t commit yourself to Him, choose now between serving the gods worshiped by your forefathers across the River or the Amorites’ gods on your current land. As for my household, we’ll serve the Lord.

(Joshua 24:3-15)

The scripture mentions several instances of watery crossing, from Abraham’s migration beyond the Euphrates to Exodus’ dramatic Red Sea traverse. The Ibriy community has had its fair share of crossing!

We can see why Egyptians might have referred to them as “those from beyond” and why Abraham is deemed the ultimate Hebrew. The fact that Hebrews encountered two miraculous crossings emphasizes the significance of crossings to this community.    

We notice in the Old Testament that Hebrew doesn’t refer to the language aspect, but the people. The term also isn’t used as frequently, appearing in just 50 verses. This frequency is less compared to “Israelites.” The latter appears in 1,401 verses.

Interestingly, foreigners use the word Hebrew most of the time to refer to the Israelites. Here are some instances:

“She called her household servants. ‘Look,’ she said to them, ‘This Hebrew has been brought to us to make sport of us! He came in here to sleep with me, but I screamed.’” (Genesis 39:14)

“When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live”. (Exodus 1:16)

“Jonathan attacked the Philistine outpost at Geba, and the Philistines heard about it. Then Saul had the trumpet blown throughout the land and said, ‘Let the Hebrews hear!’” (1 Samuel 13:3)

An Even Deeper Meaning: Hebrews Can Transcend the World

The word Ibriy could have an even deeper significance. The Torah mentions that God took Abraham “outside” and told him to look upon the heavens and count the stars. He then promised him that he’d have “many descendants.”

Going outside in this case isn’t in the physical sense. It’s about a position beyond the “normal” setting. Abraham’s experience at this exact moment portrays the gift of transcendence. This is the power to exit the natural cause-and-effect system governing the world.

Transcendence is a remarkable gift to the spiritual descendants of Abraham. The rules of astrology and science generally settle on one conclusion. But this isn’t the end because we can always turn to God and request another. A good example of this is Abraham who could not bear children. His wife’s womb was even considered dead! (Romans 4:19).l But the gift of transcendence came with a promise to reverse the situation. Today, Abraham is widely known as the “Father of the Hebrews” mostly because he was also the first person in the Bible called a Hebrew (Genesis 14:13). 

The Inherited Blessing of Spiritual Hebrews

God gifted us, the descendants of Abraham, the ability to transcend beyond the laws of nature. We can lead our lives on a completely different plane. Our spiritual ancestors stepped on a place that wasn’t a natural human habitat as they crossed the Red Sea during Exodus. God’s power helped them cross a step at a time through the heart of the massive sea to the other side. Imagine the surreal experience of marching between towering walls of water with fish gliding by. The Israelites traversed this section without a drop of mud on their feet.

The contrary happened moments later as the pursuers drowned along the path God’s people had just followed. This otherworldly experience was integral in the conversion into the Hebrew nation. It fulfilled God’s promise to Abraham as he gazed at the stars from outside. Abraham’s spiritual descendants are unique because they stand alone. We only need to connect to who we really are to traverse unchallengeable rules of nature.


The original meaning of the word Hebrew doesn’t infer the people of Israel. Its original definition has a spiritual significance referring to someone who has traversed. The current Christian context of being a Hebrew requires a transformative departure from sinful paths on the other side of the river. This spiritual crossing resonates with God’s promise to the ultimate Hebrew, Abraham. It is only when we make this profound crossing that we can live up to the promises of our faith.



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About: Ronie

Ronnie Amaya has been actively involved in ministry since his high school and university days where he served as a Christian union leader. After graduation, he worked as an itinerary minister preaching in Schools, Universities, Street Evangelizations, and Churches. In 2018, he led a team in planting a new church in Nairobi, Kenya where he is currently serving as the lead pastor.
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Ronnie Amaya has been actively involved in ministry since his high school and university days where he served as a Christian union leader. After graduation, he worked as an itinerary minister preaching in Schools, Universities, Street Evangelizations, and Churches. In 2018, he led a team in planting a new church in Nairobi, Kenya where he is currently serving as the lead pastor.

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