The Canaanites

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: History

  • The Canaanites are the people who lived in the land of Canaan before the arrival of the Israelites.
  • Canaan comprises portions of the land now known as Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
  • The origin of the name is uncertain, but it comes from a term meaning “to be low, humble, subjugated.”
  • The Canaanites do not record their own history.
  • Stories about Canaanites date back 3800 years.
  • Most of the information comes from what others have written about them, including Bible texts.
  • Annals from Amarna, the capital city in Egypt, (ca 1300s BCE) have been a rich source of information about them.
  • Known as the “Amarna Letters,” the documents include correspondence between Pharaoh and various rulers in Canaan.
  • International diplomacy does exist in many forms.
  • Yet, most of these letters show the power exercised by Pharaoh over these areas.
  • Occasionally, Pharaoh’s armies plunder the land of Canaan.
  • The groups of people living in these areas do not unite into one kingdom.
  • Nonetheless, there are references to “kings of Canaan.”
  • Another major source of information is the 1929 discovery at Ras Shamra.
  • Discovered in the northern city of Ugarit, these documents are written in the Ugaritic and Akkadian languages.
  • Whereas the Amarna Letters discuss the political situation, this discovery sheds light on the religious and literary aspects of Canaanite cultures.
  • On the literary front, scholars have noticed many similarities with biblical passages, and not just in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Affinities include parallel thoughts, images, and idioms, leading scholars to believe they used a common source.
  • Additionally, scholars now believe many biblical psalms have their basis in Ugaritic poetry.
  • The psalmic qualities attributed to God are very similar to those attributed to El.
  • El is the head of their pantheon and is known as “the Father of Man.”
  • El is also the name used for God in many of the psalms.
  • The Canaanite El is oftentimes described as a bull – a symbol of virility, whereas the Israelites are cautioned against making any graven images of God.
  • In Canaanite thought, El’s consort is Asherah, a goddess of fertility.
  • Their children include Dagon, a grain god, whose son is Baal (Hadad/Thunderer).
  • Baal is the god of rain and storms.
  • Baal is defeated by Elijah at Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings 18:16-42).
  • Baal’s sister and wife is Astarte/Ashtoreth (some scholars say Asherah).
  • These gods can be quite unpredictable and ungodly, causing the prophets to repeatedly warn the Israelites against worshiping them.
  • Realistically, however, a lot of assimilation occurs.
  • It is possible that the Israelites appropriate some of the Canaanite names for God (like El Shaddai) in an effort to eliminate them.
  • Asherah is also known as the consort of Yahweh.
  • This concept is accepted by many Israelites until the third century BCE, despite constant condemnation by the prophets.
  • The Canaanites’ polytheistic beliefs are the biggest threat to the Israelites, yet their allure is understandable.
  • Basic to the Hebrew concept of God is the notion that God is connected to the land.
  • When people move to a new land, it stands to reason that they need to adopt the gods of that land, i.e. Baal.
  • The Israelites do change over time, but these ideas are inherently ingrained in their concept of what it means to worship God.
  • Indeed, texts found at Ras Shamra indicate that Yahweh is known as one of the sons of El.
  • There are differences between Yahweh and Baal. Yahweh is eternal; Baal dies every fall and reawakens each spring. When he dies, vegetation dies. When he awakens, vegetation springs forth.
  • There are also similarities between the Israelites and Canaanites’ worship practices.
  • Lament rituals abound. They also share the yearly practice of sending a “scapegoat” out into the wilderness to atone for the sins of the community.
  • However, there are also stark differences. Alcohol and sexual promiscuity play a big role among Baal worshipers.
  • Though accusations of child sacrifice are mostly unsubstantiated, this practice is particularly heinous in the eyes of the Israelites.
  • After the Exodus, many wars are fought between the Canaanites and the Israelites as the Israelites attempt to settle in the land.
  • According to biblical texts, this land has been promised to the Israelites by God.
  • Israel wins most of the battles and enslaves the Canaanites.
  • Though the Israelites are commissioned to eliminate the Canaanites, they are not completely successful in doing this.
  • Modern scholars find this whole notion to be highly problematic and much has been written on the topic.
  • Despite a lack of consensus, arguments include the idea that the Canaanites are punished for their many sins.
  • Others point to the cursing of Canaan described in Genesis 9:18-27.
  • Canaan is the son of Noah’s youngest son, Ham. Noah drinks too much wine and passes out. Ham sees his father’s nakedness, and when Noah finds out, he says, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”
  • The other two sons are blessed. These proclamations, then, become predictive of the destinies of the various tribes and nations.
  • No further explanation is given.
  • While the Canaanites are incorporated into Israelite cities, the Israelites also absorbed many of their practices.

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