The Glossary of Terms

Canaan, Canaanites


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Canaan, Canaanites, the ancient name of a territory and its inhabitants that included parts of what is now Israel (with occupied territories) and Lebanon. The origin and etymology of the name ‘Canaan’ remain obscure. It is presumably a Semitic term, but the effort to link Canaan with the Akkadian word kinahhu, referring to the redness of a wool dye, is problematic. The word ‘Canaanite’ occurs already in third millennium b.c. texts from Ebla.

Sphere of Influence: In proper usage, the term ‘Canaan’ seems to have referred to a discrete region whose precise boundaries cannot at present be determined. At Ugarit on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Canaan was regarded as a region lying to the south. Late Bronze Age letters from the Amarna archives often refer to Canaan and sometimes give the impression of a discriminating use of the term. Rib-Addi, a king of Byblos, situated Byblos in Canaan. The affairs of Sidon and Hazor were reckoned Canaanite matters. At other times, however, Amarna letters use the word ‘Canaan’ broadly, and so a letter from Tyre implies that Ugarit was a Canaanite city, contradicting the native view at Ugarit itself. Uses of the word ‘Canaan’ in the Bible reflect both the precision and the looseness of the term. The Genesis ‘Table of Nations’ sets the boundaries of Canaan as follows: from Sidon to Gerar near Gaza, and eastward as far as Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim to Lasha (Gen. 10:19). The Bible elsewhere speaks of Canaan with a less precise referent in view.

The distinctiveness of the term ‘Canaan’ has been blurred in modern writings. ‘Canaanite’ now serves as an adjective for any aspect of the pre-Israelite, Semitic culture of the Holy Land. Thus the Canaanite languages include not only the dialects of Canaan proper, but by extension all members of a family of languages closely related to Phoenician and Hebrew, a family that is sometimes said to include Ugaritic. Since Canaanite culture blended with the culture of surrounding regions, Canaanite civilization is studied not only from the records and evidence of Canaan proper, but also from the (more abundant) evidence of the larger Syro-Palestinian world.

Society and Religion: Before the emergence of Israel (late thirteenth century b.c.), Canaan was organized politically into small principalities centered around the major towns of Palestine. The Amarna correspondence between Egyptian pharaohs and the kings of Canaanite states gives a vivid picture of petty strife and political intrigue in the land. Concerted action of Canaan’s rulers was rare, leaving the countryside vulnerable to Philistine invasion and permitting in the end the development of the ancient state of Israel. There are stories in the Bible about Canaanite alliances against Israel (Josh. 9:1-2; 10:1-5), but such incidents must have been exceptional. The extent of the problem of Canaanite fragmentation is suggested by the list of kings and kingdoms that fell to Joshua (Josh. 12:7-24): thirty-one rulers and principalities are accounted for in this small region.

Canaan’s major towns were located for the most part in agricultural regions, especially on the fertile plains of the countryside. The Canaanites enjoyed a reputation as traders and the Phoenicians and other coastal inhabitants as seafarers. The word ‘Canaanite’ itself came to mean ‘merchant’ (Zech. 14:21). Nevertheless, agriculture was a vital preoccupation of Canaan.

The religious festivals of Canaan were, insofar as they are known or inferred, devoted to the concerns of the farmer and the vintager. Israel probably inherited its cycle of harvest festivals from the Canaanite population of Palestine (Exod. 23:14-17). Canaanite religion seems to have placed emphasis on fertility in the natural world. Sexuality in the cult, a feature of Canaanite religion despised by Israel, may have been linked to the task of maintaining plant and animal fecundity. The gods of the Canaanites were in various ways involved in the life cycles of nature. The powerful storm god Baal was a giver of rain. His adversary, Mot, was a god of death and sterility. The ability of gods and goddesses to mate and their whereabouts in the cosmos were tied directly to the fate of human beings and their crops and animals. Palestinian agriculture relied on rain, and so the quality of autumn and winter rains was a central religious concern of the Canaanites.

Canaanite society was stratified. We are left with the impression of a small advantaged class surrounded by a larger population subjected to various controls and under the burden of a variety of taxes and other impositions. Samuel’s description of the ways of a king (1 Sam. 8:11-18) is generally taken as a good account of the pattern of Canaanite kingship, even though its inspiration was kingship in Israel.

Canaan and the Biblical Israelites: In the Bible, Canaan is the son of Ham and the grandson of Noah. He is first encountered in the story of Noah’s drunkenness (Gen. 9:18-27). Here Canaan’s father, Ham, incites the anger of Noah by ‘looking on the nakedness’ of inebriate Noah, and in retribution for this impropriety, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan. Canaan is to be a slave, a curse that may reflect the fate of some elements of the Canaanite population in Israel (Judg. 1:28). Since ‘to look on the nakedness’ of someone suggests a sexual offense, the story may express Israel’s disdain for the sexual morality of the Canaanite world.

Canaan next appears in the ‘Table of Nations’ (Gen. 10:6; 15-20) as brother of Put (Libya), Cush (Ethiopia), and Egypt. He is reckoned the father of Sidon, Heth, the Jebusites and a host of other peoples living in the land of Israel. This expresses in the form of genealogy the human geography of early Israel: the Canaanites were the recent inhabitants of much of the land that became Israel. This fact is expressed in more than one fashion in the ot. Canaan’s name together with the names of certain of his ‘sons’ can be combined in what has been called the ‘Deuteronomistic name formula’ (Deut. 7:1) to denote the native population of the land. The Yahwist calls the native inhabitants of the land simply the ‘Canaanites’ (Gen. 12:6), while the Elohist prefers the term ‘Amorites’ (Num. 21:13).

Israel was hostile to Canaan. It loathed much that was associated with Canaanite religion and regarded Canaanite life ways as abominable. Israel’s literature urges the eradication of Canaanite religion together with the Canaanite people (Deut. 20:16-18). Nevertheless, one can recognize that Israel owed much to the legacy of Canaan. Canaanite enclaves were incorporated into the population of Israel. Canaanite religious language and thought influenced the religion of Israel. These positive sides of the relationship between Israel and Canaan need to be appreciated alongside recognition of the clash between Canaanite and Israelite cultures.

Bibliography Gray, John. The Legacy of Canaan. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1957.

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