Canaan and Canaanites—Genesis 10:31

The name Canaan generally refers to the coastal land along the Mediterranean Sea, stretching from Lebanon to the Egyptian border. The Bible lists of its boundaries changed somewhat with time (Deut. 1:7; 11:24; Josh. 1:4). Extrabiblical documents also ascribe varying boundaries to the land of Canaan. The Mediterranean Sea served as the western border, and the eastern was Transjordan, the Bashan, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea farther south. Such boundaries agree with the Old Testament descriptions of Canaan in Numbers 34:1-12 and Israel’s future inheritance outlined in Ezekiel 47:13-20; 48:1-7, 23-29. The table of nations in Genesis 10:19 presents a more restricted Canaan, one extending from Sidon in the north to Gaza in the south and to the area of Sodom and Gomorrah in the east.

The earliest known occurrence of Canaan appears in a letter from Mari in which a man complains about “thieves and Canaanites” infesting his hometown. A booty list of Amenophis II (1425–1397 BC) reports that he had deported Canaanites. The fourteenth-century Amarna Texts mention Canaan several times. The “Israel stela” of Pharaoh Merneptah mentions Canaan as one of the lands he had conquered.

The term “Canaanites” seems to be more of a general reference to the “inhabitants” of the land rather than to a specific ethnic group (cf. Exod. 15:15). Apparently, a diverse range of peoples occupied the region. Biblical lists of the various peoples living in the region include such groups as the Hittites, Amorites, Girgashites, and Hivites, as well as the populations of specific towns (Gen. 15:19-21; Num. 13:29; Josh. 5:1; 11:3; cf. Gen. 10:15-19). They also indicate that the Canaanites primarily lived along the coastal plain and in the Jezreel and Jordan valleys (Num. 13:29; Deut. 1:7; Josh. 5:1; 13:3; 17:15-18; Judg. 1:1-36). The Canaanites and the related Amorites had established themselves in Syria-Palestine by 2000 BC and had divided the region into several city-states. The oldest towns in the region have Canaanite names, such as Megiddo, Beth Shan, Jericho, and Bethyerah.

Because the Levant was a land bridge between the major civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, several major international trade routes ran through it. Its people were so active in trade to the point that Scripture often uses “Canaanites” as an expression for merchants (Isa. 23:8; Zech. 14:21; cf. Zeph. 1:11). One people group of Canaan, the Phoenicians, established extensive trade networks and trading posts all around the Mediterranean. Most people, though, worked as subsistence farmers. Society was basically feudal with people holding the land as a grant from the king of the local city-state who ruled clusters of the larger towns and their affiliated villages and suburbs (see the lists in Josh. 13-19). Egypt controlled the region until the arrival of the Sea Peoples. One of them, the Philistines, would come to dominate along the coastal plain.

Despite the ethnic diversity of the land, the Canaanites still shared many similarities in language, customs, and religious practices. Surviving ancient texts indicate that the Canaanite language belonged to the northwest family of Semitic languages. Like other peoples of the ancient Near East, Canaanites were polytheistic. Individual families worshipped ancestral household gods and goddesses while acknowledging the existence of other deities. Canaanite religion had an extensive pantheon of deities, headed by El. Other gods and goddesses included Baal, Asherah (Astarte), Anat, Molech, Zedeq, as well as many others.

The god Baal held a unique position in Canaanite religious thought. People regarded the seasonal cycle and its regular return of agricultural fertility as the working of Baal. He was the god of rain and storms. Unlike Egypt and regions along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where farmers could irrigate their fields, people in Palestine had to depend upon the uncertain rainy season to water their crops. Thus, they worry about the land’s fertility. As Israel settled the land, they too had to deal with the same concerns. As a result, Canaanite religious practices, especially those seeking to ensure the fertility of the land and its crops and herds, became especially enticing to the Israelites. The Bible continually has to address the Israelite fascination with Canaanite fertility deities and rituals. The prophets had to remind Israel that the God of heaven and earth was the true source of the land’s fertility and prosperity. The Canaanite worshippers of Baal might claim that he was “rider of the clouds,” bringing the needed rainfall, but Yahweh of Israel was the actual “rider of the clouds” (Ps. 68:4; cf. Ps. 104:3).

Through the centuries, Canaanites intermarried with the Israelites, Sea Peoples, and other additional ethnic groups that later settled in the region and thus would have been absorbed into the larger population of Palestine. However, recent studies of DNA extracted from bones uncovered in ancient Canaanite burials suggest that their descendants still have a strong presence in the area of modern Lebanon.