Ten Things to Know About the Canaanites

Ten Things to Know About the Canaanites

There is something deep down within the very soul of man that reaches out for Canaan. Men cannot be satisfied with Egypt. They tried to adjust to it for a while. Many men have vested interests in Egypt, and they are slow to leave. Egypt makes it profitable to them, some people profit by Egypt. The vast majority, the masses of people never profit by Egypt, and they are never content with it. And eventually they rise up and begin to cry out for Canaan’s land. – Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Birth of a New Nation.”

MLK used Canaan as a metaphor for freedom. He alludes, as you may know, to the story in the biblical book of Exodus, where Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt into Canaan, the promised land. A hundred years ago, most people in America would have heard the term “Canaan” at one time or another. Since then, as knowledge of the Bible has diminished, many today couldn’t tell you what Canaan or a Canaanite is. But the Canaanites represent a significant part of ancient Near Eastern history, so I thought I would tell you ten interesting facts about them.

1. The earliest reference to Canaanites is from the 18th century BCE. In a text from Mari (A.3552), a general refers to a standoff he had with “raiders and Canaanites” in the vicinity of Qatanum. Most of our references after that come from Egyptian records.

2. The Canaanites never built a major civilization. The land of Canaan consisted of many individual city-states, often dominated politically and economically by other powers. The only times the area was ever united politically was during the late Bronze Age, when it was conquered by the Egyptians (though part of it was controlled by the Hittites in the north), and in the Iron Age, when it was gradually conquered and controlled by the kingdom of Israel. It never became the center of great political power.

3. The origin of the name “Canaan” is obscure, but it probably comes from a verbal root meaning “to bow down.” The earlier view, that the word came from the name for a blue-colored cloth is not generally accepted anymore. The Greeks called the northern Canaanites “Phoenicians,” and the Greek translation of the Bible occasionally translates “Canaan” as “Phoenicia.”

Canaan 14th century BCE

4. “Canaanite” is a geographical, not an ethnic or linguistic, term. We refer to anyone generally who lived in the land of Canaan in ancient times (specifically in the Bronze and early Iron Age) as a Canaanite. Although Canaanites spoke various dialects of the same language family, we do not differentiate them from other peoples primarily by their speech patterns. Nor do we consider them a single ethnicity, because various ethnicities existed in the land. Anyone who resided in Canaan was a Canaanite, though the Philistines and Israelites are usually excluded, because of their apparent late arrival there. Canaan, of course, was situated along the eastern sea board of the Mediterranean. The northern border was around Damascus, the eastern border was the Jordan River, and the southern border ran from the southern edge of the Dead Sea through Kadesh-barnea to the shore. Some think “Canaanite” best defines a social entity, though this separates the terms “Canaan” and “Canaanite” somewhat.

5. They were Semites. Scholars use the word “Semite” to refer to speakers of Semitic languages. The Canaanite languages come from the northwest branch of the Semitic language family. They spoke dialects closely related to Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite.

“Asiatics” as depicted in the Egyptian text “The Book of Gates” (13th century BCE). The Egyptians often called Canaanites “Asiatics.”

6. The Canaanites were diverse. We should not consider them as a monolithic or homogeneous society. They consisted of a collection of societies, who shared many common traits, such as language, religion, and social structure, but with many distinct characteristics as well.

7. Phoenicians are Canaanites. The Greeks used the term “Phoenician” to describe the inhabitants of the cities in the region of the northern Levantine coast (what is today called Lebanon). While southern Canaanites had long ago been conquered, during the first millennium BCE, they survived and flourished in the cities of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and others nearby. The Phoenicians were expert shipbuilders and sailors, and through commerce spread Canaanite products into other areas around the Mediterranean Sea.

Egyptian relief (c. 1400 BCE) showing Canaanites defeated in battle

8. They invented the alphabet. The most significant contribution that Canaanites made to world culture is the invention of the alphabet, probably adapted partly from the Egyptian writing system. They had both a linear version and a cuneiform version. It included only consonants and was written from right to left, but the simple system was easier to learn than full-blown cuneiform, and it grew in popularity and was adopted and adapted by many other societies, including the Greeks, who added vowels to it. Theirs influenced the Latin alphabet, which in turn gave rise to ours.

9. Our main sources of information on Canaanite religion are the Ugaritic Tablets, the Bible, and Philo of Byblos. Of all the ancient treatments of Canaanite religion, the Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos (early second century CE) is the fullest. Apparently it was based on the writings of an earlier Phoenician historian named Sakun-yaton (Sanchuniathon). We don’t have Philo’s full text anymore, but many passages of it are cited in Eusebius’ Praeparatio evangalica. The Hebrew Bible is another major source, as it frequently speaks of the Canaanites, though almost always in a negative way. Tablets found at the ancient site of Ugarit (14th-12th centuries BCE), on the northern fringes of Canaan, include many mythological texts, which can shed some light on Canaanite beliefs. They were polytheistic and practiced animal sacrifice. We learn that among the chief Canaanite deities were ‘El , the Creator of the world and father of gods and humans (whom Philo equates with Kronos), Hadad (usually called Baal [“Lord”]), and Asherah, the Lady of the Sea, mother of the gods, and fertility goddess. Melqart is the god of the famous Phoenician city of Tyre. Various Bronze Age temple ruins have been discovered, which have common features: outer courtyard, vestibule, a main chamber, and an inner chamber with a platform or niche for the god.

10. Carthage was founded by Canaanites. Of the many outposts that Phoenician traders founded in the early days of their exploration, the best known is that called Carthage, located in North Africa, near Sicily. Established around 800 BCE by the legendary woman Elishat (Elissa, Dido) of Tyre, it soon grew to be a large city and dominated economically and politically the western Mediterranean. The people of Carthage mixed with the north Africans population, so the Greek referred to them as Libyphoenicians. They spoke a Canaanite dialect we call Punic. They flourished for many centuries until they were brought to their knees by the Romans in the 3rd century BCE.


One thought on “Ten Things to Know About the Canaanites

  1. Veddy intedesting, Dave.

    I love the fact that you love this history.
    I need to brush up on mine and yours is in short passages, which are easy to read.

    Aunt Nat

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