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The Torah writes (Bereshit 18:2)

[Abraham] saw three men standing near him

Rashi comments right after (on 18:4)

כַּסָּבוּר שֶׁהֵם עַרְבִיִּים

which can be translated "[Abraham] thought they were Aravim".

Does Rashi really mean they were Arabs? Did Arabs really exist already then?

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While I don't know whether Rashi meant this exactly, there were definitely Arabs at the time, i.e., there were nomadic tribes settled in Arabia that may be considered some of the ancestors of modern Arabs. Rabbi Philip Biberfeld in Universal Jewish History, vol. 1, pg. 92 calls them “pure Arabs”. These ancient Arabs were descendants of Yoktan, one of the sons of Ever. Rabbi Ahron Marcus in Barzilai, pg. 148-149 identified them with the Arabian tribe Kakhtan, a group of Southern Semites who travelled further south from Mesopotamia to Arabia. Furthermore, in his book Keset Hasofer (the last surviving bit of his commentary on Tanach), pg. 303, he explains that the modern Arabs are descendants of two distinct ethnic Arabian groups: The sons of Yoktan (the Kakhtan) and the sons of Yishmael.

Early Islamic historians also identified Yoktan/Kakhtan as the ancestor of the Southern Arabians, as did Rasag in his tafsir on Beresheet 10:26 (while Yishmael is the ancestor of the Northern Arabians). The names of the sons of Yoktan refer to areas in which they settled in and/or names of sub-tribes. Rasag even translated the places they settled in as referring to Mecca, Madinah and other cities in Arabia (see here and here as well).

On pg. 285 of Keset Hasofer, Rabbi Marcus identifies Chavilah (one of the descendants of Kush) as an area within Arabia; Savtakh (Savta, another descendant) as a city in Arabia mentioned by Strabo (and see here); and Sheva (a third descendant) as a tribe that settled in Arabia, in an area bordering on the Red Sea.

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The Bartenura 18:4 asks and answers this question.

His answer is that Avraham did not think they were literally Arabs, as there were no Arabs at the time.

Rather, Avraham thought that these 'men' acted in the same manner as Arabs later would, i.e. bowing to the dust of their feet.

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  • 1
    Isn’t this the plain text of Rashi? I’m asking what Rashi meant when he wrote Aravim
    – mbloch
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 4:37
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    @mbloch See Bartenura inside and my edits here. I think it's clear that Bartenura is indeed attempting to answer your question.
    – Joel K
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 8:38
  • @JoelK it is indeed clearer now. Thanks (and I saw it inside)
    – mbloch
    Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 8:39
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I don't think Rashi necessarily mean they were Arabs, especially as they are descendants of Ishmael who had no children at the time. Rashi translates the same word in Jeremiah 3:2 as "yoshev ohalim" (tent dwellers)

a tent dweller, who is always found outside in the deserts, and because of this, he is called ערבי since he dwells in the ערבה, the plain

Artscroll's Rashi translates as "wilderness dwellers".

As such these three people were more likely local desert people (or angels disguised as such.)

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