The names Habiru and Apiru are used in Akkadian cuneiform texts. The corresponding name in the consonant-only Egyptian script appears to be `PR.W`, conventionally pronounced Apiru (W being the Egyptian plural suffix). In Mesopotamian records they are also identified by the Sumerian logogram `SA.GAZ`, of unknown pronunciation. The name Habiru was also found in the Amarna letters, which again include many names of Canaanite peoples written in Akkadian. The Amarna letters written to Egyptian pharaohs in the 14th century BC) document a time of unrest in Canaan that goes back before the battle of Kadesh to the time of Thutmose I.
As more texts were uncovered throughout the Near East,however, it became clear that the Habiru were found mentioned in contexts ranging from unemployed agricultural workers and vagrants to mounted mercenary bowmen. The context differed depending upon where the references were found.
Though found throughout most of the Fertile Crescent--the arc of civilization "extending from the Tigris-Euphrates river basins over to the Mediterranean littoral and down through the Nile Valley during the Second Millennium, the principle area of historical interest is in their engagement with Egypt.
Carol Redmount who wrote 'Bitter Lives: Israel in and out of Egypt' in The Oxford History of the Biblical World concluded that the term "Habiru" had no common ethnic affiliations, that they spoke no common language, and that they normally led a marginal and sometimes lawless existence on the fringes of settled society. She defines the various Apiru/Habiru as "a loosely defined, inferior social class composed of shifting and shifty population elements without secure ties to settled communities" who are referred to "as outlaws, mercenaries, and slaves" in ancient texts.
In that vein, some modern scholars consider the Habiru to be more of a social designation than an ethnic or a tribal one. That does not, however, exclude the possibility that the Biblical Hebrews were descended from one specific group of Habiru and that with them it eventually became an ethnic name; such shifts in the meaning of names and designations are well-known elsewhere.
Abdi-Heba, the Egyptian vassal ruler of Jerusalem in the Amarna period (mid-1330s BC), wrote a series of letters to the Egyptian king in which he complained about the activities of the "Habiru." The Habiru were plundering the lands of the king.
Abdi-Heba wanted to know why the king was letting them behave in this way; why was he not sending archers to protect his, the king's properties? If he did not send military help the whole land would fall to the Habiru.
Those people are designated by a two-character cuneiform logogram of unknown pronunciation, which is conventionally transcribed as SA.GAZ. Although the logogram occurs in Sumerian literature, the two symbols have no separate meaning in Sumerian. Some scholars have proposed that the logogram was pronounced GUB.IRU in Sumerian.
One of those texts uses the Akkadian cuneiform word Hapiri instead of the logogram; another described them as "soldiers from the West". Their names are predominantly Akkadian; some are West Semitic, some unknown. Their origins, when recorded, are in local towns.
A letter to an Old Assyrian merchant resident in Ali?ar requests his aid in freeing or ransoming some Hapiri, formerly attached to the palace of Shalahshuwe (as yet unidentified), now prisoners of the local authorities.
The Tikunani Prism, dated from around 1550 BC, lists the names of 438 Habiru soldiers or servants of king Tunip-Tessup of Tikunani, a small city-state in central Mesopotamia. The majority of these names are typically Hurrian (Northeast Caucasian), the rest are Semitic, one is Kassite.
Another text from around 1500 BC describes the Hapiru as soldiers or laborers, organized into bands of various sizes commanded by SA.GAZ leaders: one band from Tapduwa has 15 soldiers, another from Sarkuhe has 29, and another from Alalakh has 1,436.
Those people are identified by the Sumerian logogram SA.GAZ in most of the letters, and by the Akkadian name Hapiru in a few from the area of Jerusalem. They appear to be active on a broad area including Syria (at Upe near Damascus), Phoenicia (Sumur, Batrun and Byblos), and to the south as far as Jerusalem . None of the kings of the region, with the possible exception of one Abdi-Ashirta, are called Habiru or SA.GAZ.
Sources also discuss one Labayu, who had been an Egyptian vassal, and set up for himself. Attacking Megiddo, he assembled a group of Hapiru who consisted of both dispossessed local people and invaders. Having won Megiddo for himself, he gave his supporters Shechem for their own. (Harrelson, van der Steen)
In his account of the conquest of Joppa, General Toth of pharaoh Thutmose III of Egypt (around 1440 BC) asks at some point that his horses be taken inside the city, lest they be stolen by a passing Apir.
On two stelae at Memphis and Karnak, Thutmose III's son Amenhotep II boasts of having made 89,600 prisoners in his campaign in Canaan (around 1420 BC), including "127 princes and 179 nobles(?) of Retenu, 3600 Apiru, 15,200 Shasu, 36,600 Hurrians," etc.
A list of goods bequeathed to several temples by Pharaoh Ramesses III (around 1160 BC) includes many serfs, Egyptian and foreign: 86,486 to Thebes (2607 foreigners), 12,364 to Heliopolis (2093 foreign), and 3079 to Memphis (205 foreign). The foreign serfs are described as "maryanu (soldiers), apiru, and people already settled in the temple estate".
The laborers that Ramesses IV sent to the quarry of Wadi Hammamat in his third year included 5,000 soldiers, 2,000 men attached to the temples of Pharaoh as well as 800 Apiru. This is the last known reference to the Apiru in Egyptian documents.
Two oaths from the reigns of Suppiluliuma (probably Suppiluliuma I, reigned ca. 1358 BC ? 1323 BC) and Mursilis II (around 1300 BC) invoke, among a long list of deities, "...the Lulahhi gods (and) the Hapiri gods, Ereskigal, the gods and goddesses of the Hatti land, the gods and goddesses of Amurru land, ...".
Another mention occurs in a treaty between kings Duppi-Teshub of Amurru and Tudhaliya of Carchemish, arbitrated by Mursili II. The Hittite monarch recalls how he had restored king Abiradda to the throne of Jaruwatta, a town in the land of Barga, which had been captured by the Hurrians and given to "the grandfather of Tette, the SA.GAZ".
Another text record the existence of a Habiru settlement somewhere near a Hittite temple; one from Tahurpa names two female SA.GAZ singers.
The Hapiru recognized him as the "son of their overlord" and "gathered around him;" they are said to include "natives of Halab, of the country of Mukish, of the country Nihi and also warriors from the country Amae." After living among them for seven years, he led his Habiru warriors in a successful attack by sea on the city-state of Alalakh, where he became king.
Several detailed lists of SA.GAZ troops have been found on the same site, enumerating eighty in all. Their names are predominantly Hurrian; seven are perhaps Semitic. They come from a variety of settlements scattered around the region. One had been a thief, another a slave, two others, priests; most became infantry, a handful were charioteers, one a messenger.
Like the SA.GAZ soldiers of the earlier Mesopotamian city-states, they received payment, or perhaps rations, in the form of sheep. A general enumeration of SA.GAZ soldiers within the city counts 1436 in all.
At Nuzi in Mesopotamia, documents from the household of an official named Tehiptilla record a number of Habiru voluntarily entering long-term service in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter. Public records from the same city tally handouts of food and clothing to Habiru, the former to groups, the latter to individuals. One is given feed for a horse, perhaps indicating a military role. Another document allocates Habiru laborers to various individuals.
The local population was predominantly Hurrian, while approximately 2/3 of the Habiru names are Semitic; of these, all are East Semitic (Akkadian), none West Semitic.
Being found in lists of four Aleppos that are otherwise the same, these are certainly the same location, but it is unclear whether they are separate settlements or quarters of one city.
There have also been theories relating the Habiru to the Biblical personages of Eber and Abraham. While some scholars agree that the genealogies traced from Abraham are based on cultural beliefs and are without historical foundation, there are some who feel that perhaps Eber represents an etymological link to the Habiru.