Uncovering the Bible’s Buried Civilizations: The Canaanites

Investigating the people Israel encountered in the Promised Land
Abrahamic-era Canaanite entrance to Dan.
DinaKuzia/Creative Commons

The Canaanites are well known as the inhabitants of the Promised Land, whom the Israelites clashed with at the end of their Exodus. They were a people known for barbarism and paganism, a people God had condemned to judgment at the hand of the Israelites. Yet there are many not-so-well-known details, in the biblical account, about the Canaanites. And there is much that archaeology has to say about them, directly paralleling the biblical account.

Writing about the Canaanites as one people would be akin to writing about Latin America as one nation. The Canaanites actually made up a number of smaller kingdoms and tribes, separately described in the Bible, and collectively referred to as the Canaanites. This article will cover Canaanite history in general and a description of the each Canaanite tribe.

Canaan was the grandson of Noah, born around the mid-third millennium B.C. As discussed in the previous article on the Egyptians, Canaan’s father, Ham, was the forefather of the darker-skinned races. Canaan was cursed for a sexually depraved encounter with his drunk and unconscious grandfather, Noah. That curse, which befell Canaan and his descendants, was one of slavery (Genesis 9:18-27). And Canaan’s history is certainly one of oppression—in contrast to the general power and ancient renown of his brothers, especially Mizraim (Egypt) and Cush (Ethiopia). The name “Canaan” comes from a root word meaning “humiliated” or “humbled”—something that evidently befell Canaan and his descendants.

From Canaan descended a slew of various tribes, listed in Genesis 10:15-18. Verse 19 confirms that these inhabited the land within the modern-day boundaries of Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Archaeology shows that the name Canaan (pronounced Cna’an in Hebrew) was almost exclusively used during the 16th to 12th centuries B.C. The name virtually disappears after this period. This fits with the biblical account. The Israelites arrived in Canaan by 1406 B.C. Canaan had already been well established by that point. The Israelites began immediately conquering the land, but many Canaanites were allowed to remain living alongside the Israelites—it appears that this Canaanite presence continued largely for the next few centuries, before they were finally driven out, corresponding to the period in which we all but lose sight of the term “Canaan.”

Canaanite History

The earliest evidenced non-biblical reference to the name Canaan dates to around 1800 B.C., in a letter addressed to the King of Mari. (There is another disputed reference to Canaan dating several centuries earlier.) The Mari letter identifies a troubled town within which “thieves and Canaanites” are living. Around 1500 B.C., the land of Canaan is notably mentioned again, on the Statue of Idrimi. Idrimi, a king who reigned in modern-day Aleppo, was forced to flee to Canaan after being (probably) deposed. He then consolidated support and asserted himself as king of Alalakh (in modern-day Turkey).

Statue of Idrimi
British Museum

Genesis 15 gives us some interesting information about the Canaanites. This passage occurs around the 19th century B.C. Abraham (then known as Abram) receives a vision that his descendants would be afflicted 400 years in a foreign land, before returning to the Promised Land where he then lived—a land that God guaranteed to his descendants (verse 18). Interestingly, God specifically mentions delaying the return of the Israelites, to conquer the land—why? “For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (verse 16). The Amorites were themselves one of the Canaanite tribes. Here, God postponed the punishment of invasion, because the Amorite people were not yet as utterly glutted with sin as their neighboring Canaanite states.

Another important point about Genesis 15: The collective term “Canaanites” is also used alongside other descendants of Canaan, such as the Amorites and Girgashites. While they were all collectively the descendants of Canaan, the term “Canaanites” used in this chapter probably refers to a more centralized group of the descendants of Canaan, living within the Promised Land.

Archaeology shows us that for a long time the Canaanites operated their city-states under the yoke of the Egyptian empire. This was the status quo, when the Israelites invaded. This Canaanite subservience to Egypt can be evidenced, as shown in the Bible, all the way back to the time of Joseph. Egypt and the surrounding lands were being ravaged by seven years of famine—yet under Joseph’s leadership, Egypt had prepared by consolidating supplies of excess food from the previous seven years. As such, surrounding tribes, in particular from the land of Canaan, made regular trips to Egypt to buy food. Genesis 47 indicates that once the money for food ran out, the Canaanites exchanged their livestock for food, and then also their land for food. The patriarch Jacob and his family, who were living in Canaan at the time, themselves took the opportunity to move into Egypt. Thus it would be easy to see how vast swathes of Canaanite territory could have quickly come under the control of the powerful Egyptian empire.

Once Jacob had died, his sons took his body, with a large entourage, back into the land of Canaan to be buried. The Canaanites dwelling in the land at the time marveled about the magnitude of the funeral and mourning among the Egyptians (Genesis 50:11-13).

Scarab of Yaqub-Har, from the Murch Collection.

Within the land of Canaan, a number of Egyptian scarabs have been uncovered bearing the name “Yaqub-har” or “Yacob-har” (Yacob is the Hebrew pronunciation of Jacob). Could this have been the same figure as Jacob? It is very possible. The “Yaqub-har” scarabs haven’t been conclusively dated, but could point to Jacob’s time or just after. The “har” part of the title is the Hebrew word for hill, mount, mountain—a word connected with Jacob several times in the Bible (e.g. Genesis 31:25, 54; Isaiah 2:3). The phrase would thus mean “Jacob’s Mount.” Considering Jacob’s connections to the land of Canaan, the scarabs certainly fit with the area. And they also show evidence of Egyptian power branching out into Canaan. This power continued throughout Israel’s slavery—though there were heavy conflicts during those years that occurred between the Canaanites and the Egyptians.

Israelites in Canaan Before the Exodus?

It seems many are under the impression that the Israelites suddenly showed up in Canaan, butchered the inhabitants in malevolent genocide, and abruptly claimed the land as rightfully theirs. This is a skewed version of events. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with their multitudes of families, workers and servants, already owned and operated vast swathes of land within Canaan. Part of that land within Canaan was already called “the land of the Hebrews” (Genesis 40:15). God promised that Abraham’s descendants would retain that land upon which he dwelt, and that they would come to possess all of the land of Canaan. That total ownership and ensuing conquest, however, mercifully wouldn’t come until all of the Canaanites had proven themselves worthy of destruction due to their debased lifestyles—as with the example of the Amorites, mentioned above.

Added to that, during the Israelite sojourn in Egypt—before the Exodus—there was an Israelite presence still established within Canaan! This is shown, in part, in 1 Chronicles 7.

Jacob’s son Ephraim had a number of boys who were slaughtered by the inhabitants of Gath. Gath was located in the southwest corner of the region of Canaan. Verse 21 shows that these Ephraimites were killed for attempting to steal cattle—perhaps wrongfully trying to take advantage of the riches of the Promised Land far too early and without just cause. Ephraim had surviving children, however—one of which was a daughter who established cities within Canaan (verse 24—this would have been well into the Israelite sojourn in Egypt). These cities were then included in the general tribal allotment for Ephraim, once the bulk of the Israelites arrived at the end of the Exodus (Joshua 16). So while part of Ephraim’s descendants continued to be strongly established in Canaan during the Israelite slavery in Egypt, the other part continued as slaves—their genealogy is found in 1 Chronicles 7:25-27, traced right up to Joshua son of Non, who would lead Israel after the death of Moses.

An interesting point is made by author Isabel Hill Elder regarding the harlot Rahab, whom the Israelite spies stayed with in the city of Jericho. Basing her findings on certain verses, she writes that Rahab was actually an Israelite, living and serving within some form of Egyptian “embassy” inside Jericho. Serving as an Egyptian representative would not be surprising, considering the mother of the tribe of Ephraim was a high-ranking Egyptian. See Elder’s book Far Above Rubies for a look at her points.

Israel’s Entry Into Canaan

Of course, this part of the story is very familiar. Around 1406 B.C., the Israelites began entering the Promised Land, and conquering the Canaanite inhabitants. If you have been following this series for long, you will be familiar with the Amarna Letters and their likely connection with the Israelite conquests

Amarna letter fragment
Public Domain

The name Canaan is featured in these Amarna Letters. These letters (or rather, blockish clay tablets) date around the time of the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land. The Exodus took place c. 1446 B.C.; after wandering the wilderness for 40 years, it was around 1406 that the Israelites began to enter the land of Canaan. Years passed as they gradually conquered the land. Dating from this turning of the century, into the 1300s B.C., we find some very desperate correspondence from Canaanite rulers to the pharaoh of Egypt. These documents are called the Amarna Letters, because they were found stored within the Egyptian city of the same name. The letters describe a fierce group of “nomads” invading Canaan, by the name of Habiru (also called ‘Apiru or Hapiru). These Canaanite rulers, subservient to Egypt, were seeing their land gradually captured, and they were desperate for help. Below are a couple of excerpts.

From the ruler of Gezer to the pharaoh:

Let the king, my lord, be aware that my younger brother has rebelled against me and has … given over his two hands to the leader of the Hapiru. And since […]anna is at war with me, take care of your land. May my lord write to his representative about this matter.

From the ruler of Jerusalem to pharaoh:

While the king, my Lord, lives, I will say … “Why do you favor the Hapiru and are opposed to the rulers?” And thus I am accused before the king, my lord. Because it is said: “Lost are the territories of the king, my lord … All the territories of the king have rebelled” … I will say: “Lost are the territories of the king. Do you not hear to me? All the rulers are lost; the king, my lord, does not have a single ruler left.” May the king direct his attention to the archers, and may the king, my lord, send troops of archers, the king has no more lands. The Hapiru sack the territories of the king. If there are archers this year, all the territories of the king will remain; but if there are no archers, the territories of the king, my lord, will be lost!

The terms Habiru, Hapiru, ‘Apiru are very close to the term Hebrew. In fact, at this point in the Bible story, the term Hebrew is used far more than the term Israelite. These Habiru are also mentioned as being present around Canaanite lands as early as 1800 B.C.—that matches up with the Hebrew presence in the land before the sojourn in Egypt (Genesis 40:15). And now at the start of the 14th century B.C., as the pleas of the Canaanite kings fell on deaf Egyptian ears, so their territories were gradually overrun until a very different land appeared, as archaeology shows. And as the 13th century B.C. Egyptian Merneptah Stele states, this land was not a consolidated land of Canaanite tribes—but one now known by the new name, Israel.

Merneptah Stele in the Cairo Museum
webscribe/CC

There is still debate as to whether or not the term “Habiru” is connected to “Hebrew.” I am in favor of the connection. Yet besides the name, the vital point is that during the same period that the Bible describes, archaeology shows foreign peoples plundering Canaan and overtaking virtually the entire land. This fits well with the Israelite conquest of the land.

Contrary to God’s commands, the Israelites did not utterly wipe out the Canaanites. They allowed many to remain in the land, right up to at least the time of Solomon (several hundred years later). Judges 1 shows the territory that the Canaanites continued to hold after the Israelites arrived. As such, they became a thorn in the side for the Israelites. Gradually, however, many of these Canaanite tribes were conquered, and as archaeology confirms, the use of the term “Canaan” was all but phased out.

Canaanite Religion

Some wonder how a fair God could have wanted the Israelites to conquer and kill the Canaanite tribes in entirety. Some equate this with genocide. Actually, God did not initially want the Israelites to kill the Canaanites themselves—He planned to do this miraculously Himself, even using hornets to drive them out of the land (Exodus 23:23-28). However, because of Israel’s sins, and their choice of war and violence over reliance on God, God allowed them to enter Canaan through such means.

Understanding the debauched practices of the Canaanite people, especially with regard to religion, helps us understand why God condemned them to death, just as with the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Leviticus 18 contains a long list of evil practices to avoid—and specifically states that these were practiced by the Canaanites (verse 24). These rampant practices included sexual acts between members of the same family, incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality and bestiality. Due to these egregious sins, God states that the “land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants” (verse 25). In fact, such were the glut of sins, that God stated one of the main reasons for Israel even entering into the Promised Land was the destruction of the wicked inhabitants—not because of Israel’s own righteousness (Deuteronomy 9:4-5).

It is hard to specifically pinpoint from archaeology which religious practices belonged directly to the Canaanites. There is much more evidence of specific religious observance when one looks at the broader realm around Canaan and further north into ancient Syria, especially within the northern port city of Ugarit. (Much of our knowledge about Canaanite-style religion comes from Ugarit. The northern Canaanites dwelt at least close by this city, anyway, whether or not they were the inhabitants of Ugarit itself.) So until more excavations and research is accomplished, we must use a broader brush to paint the religious practices of the time. Remember too that Canaan was heavily influenced by neighboring societies, particularly Egypt.

One of the chief Canaanite gods was Baal. He is often associated with his ritualistic mother-cum-mistress, Asherah. Temple prostitutes served as earthly “representatives” of the gods such as these, as Ray Vander Laan wrote in his article Fertility Cults of Canaan:

Pagans practiced “sympathetic magic,” that is, they believed they could influence the gods’ actions by performing the behavior they wished the gods to demonstrate. Believing the sexual union of Baal and Asherah produced fertility, their worshipers engaged in immoral sex to cause the gods to join together, ensuring good harvests. This practice became the basis for religious prostitution (1 Kings 14:23-24). The priest or a male member of the community represented Baal. The priestess or female members of the community represented Asherah.

Tel Rehov exhibition at the Land of Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. Rectangular altar designed in the form of a gate. A tree incised on the facade and flanked by two female figures is thought to represent Asherah. From the collection of the Israel museum. The ritual chalice on the left was found next to it.
Oren Rozn/Wikimedia Commons

Also evidenced by the Ugaritic texts was the cult of the dead. The dead were summoned, through religious acts, to attend a banquet. This was ostensibly a drunken orgy. This demonic event was meant to elicit the spiritual power and protection of the dead.

Beyond the ancient ritualistic texts, archaeology has uncovered a number of Canaanite idols and general religious vessels, figurines and general buildings. While these were variously removed and destroyed by the Israelites, in many cases they were also adopted by the Israelites. Archaeology shows such objects clearly in possession of and venerated by the Israelites, and the Bible records Israel continuing such practices as child sacrifice and religious prostitution. Just as God had warned, a failure to drive out the inhabitants of the land led to Israel’s fall into idolatry, before they too were all but conquered and driven out of the land (the kingdom of Israel c. 720 B.C.; the kingdom of Judah c. 586 B.C.). God’s punishment for sin does not discriminate between races—be they Canaanite or Israelite.

We have thus far covered the biblical and archaeological context for Canaan in general. Now, let’s look briefly at the separate, individual tribes.

CANAANITE TRIBES

As per Genesis 10:15-18, Canaan was the progenitor of 11 different tribes. Below is a brief description of each of these Canaanite tribes. Many of them feature in the Amarna letters, as well as in various other inscriptions.

Sidonians

This Canaanite tribe evidently occupied what today is the third-largest city of Lebanon—Sidon. This city, located far to the north, made up part of the early northern boundary of Canaan (Genesis 10:19). It was one of the chief Phoenician cities during the time of Solomon, a city known for skilled wood craftsmen, who helped supply cedar for the temple (the degree to which Phoenician society is contemporaneous with Canaanite is a matter of debate). Sidon is often associated with the nearby biblical city of Tyre. The Canaanite Sidonians remained in their land well after the Israelites had entered the Promised Land, and were a force of oppression against the Israelites (Judges 3:3; 10:12). King Solomon had Sidonian women in his harem (1 Kings 11). The Bible states that they chiefly worshiped the goddess Ashtoreth.

Hittites

The Hittites, or children of Heth, actually had good relations with Abraham. He was recognized by them to be a “mighty prince” (Genesis 23), and had bought land from them, including a grave-site within which Sarah and later Jacob were buried. Esau, against the wishes of his parents, married at least three Hittite women. David’s wife, Bathsheba, was married to Uriah the Hittite (however, there is some debate as to whether he really was a Hittite or an Israelite living within conquered Hittite territory). As with the Sidonians, Solomon also had Hittite women in his harem. Archaeology shows that an expansive Hittite empire was situated in Turkey—there is room for speculation as to how connected the southern Canaanite Hittites were to this empire, and if they really were all of the same forefather, Heth.

Jebusites

The Jebusite Canaanites dwelt in the area of Jerusalem, centered around a powerful fortress fed by the Gihon Spring. Their city, named Jebus, had originally been called “Salem” (probably even back then also called “Jerusalem,” according to the 19th-century Execration Texts), and had been founded around the time of King Melchizedek, during the same 19th century B.C. (Genesis 14; Judges 19:10). This fortress would have governed outlying Jebusite villages. It is likely the Canaanites came to acquire this city after the reign of Melchizedek. By the time of their conquests of the Promised Land, the Jebusites were governed by a man named Abdi-Heba. In the Amarna Letters, this man cries out to Egypt that only his land remains free of ravaging invaders. This fits with the biblical account—Jerusalem was one of the later cities to fall to the Israelites; certainly, it must have seemed to Abdi-Heba that his land alone remained! The Bible does not describe a conquest of Jerusalem during the time of Joshua’s leadership, but indicates Jerusalem must have been conquered sometime after (Judges 1:1, 8).

During excavations in Jerusalem in 2010, archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar and her team discovered an Akkadian tablet fragment, dating concurrently with the Amarna Letters. This tablet is believed to have been written by a royal scribe, and would have made up a copy of this kind of correspondence between the Jebusites and the pharaoh.

“Jerusalem One” Akkadian tablet discovered on the Ophel excavations
Eilat Mazar

Even after this conquering of Jerusalem by the Israelites, the Jebusites continued to inhabit the city to the time of David, living within Benjamite territory. David’s commander Joab conquered the city, after receiving taunts from the Jebusite inhabitants about its impregnability, and from then on Jebus, or Jerusalem, became the capital of Israel.

Amorites

There is a possible link between the Amorites and the ancient kingdom of Mari. Also known through archaeology is the Amurru Kingdom, which was an Amorite kingdom that governed over parts of modern-day Syria and Lebanon. Abraham dwelt in the land of the Amorites, and was told by God that punishment on the Canaanites would be delayed until the “iniquity of the Amorites” was fulfilled. The land of the Amorites was taken early by the Israelites—Amorite King Sihon had refused to allow the Israelites passage through his land (before they crossed the Jordan River), and his nation was subsequently conquered. The giant Amorite King Og was also killed, along with his army, early on in the conquests for the Promised Land. This King Og is actually referenced in an inscription dated to around 500 B.C.—noted as “the mighty Og.”

A certain Amorite (and Hivite, see below) population tricked Joshua into making a peace deal with them, disguising the fact that they were from a nearby city within Promised Land territory. Once Joshua discovered the treachery, he made servants of the inhabitants, especially putting them in service to the tabernacle and later the temple (Joshua 9). This group may well have made up the Levitical servants later known as “Nethinims.”

Girgashites

The Girgashites are only briefly mentioned in the Bible, without any specific detail. According to the writings of Rashi (a prolific Medieval rabbi), this is because these descendants of Canaan had left the land before the Israelites arrived.

Hivites

Esau, in his tradition of rejecting the advice of Abraham and Isaac, was married to a Hivite, alongside his other Hittite wives. And the incident with Jacob’s daughter Dinah centered around the Hivites (Genesis 34). Dinah had engaged in sexual relations with a Hivite prince, who had taken her in and desired to marry her. To grant his wish for marriage, Dinah’s brothers required that all the Hivite men of this prince’s city be circumcised. While the Hivite men recovered from their “operation,” Simeon and Levi went and slew all the males of the city. The other brothers followed suit in pillaging the city in retribution for what had happened to their sister. This destructive act, however, infuriated Jacob, who cursed Simeon and Levi (Genesis 49:7).

The Hivites that were still in the land after the Exodus partook in the treacherous peace deal with Israel, alongside their Amorite counterparts (as mentioned above).

Arkites

This tribe is only mentioned twice in the Bible, in genealogical reference. The Arkites inhabited the modern-day city of Arqa, in northern Lebanon.

Sinites

The Sinites are also only mentioned twice in the Bible, in genealogical context. They were probably from northern Lebanon, having dwelt in a region bearing names such as Sini andSinum.

Arvadites

The Arvadites are only briefly mentioned in the Bible—twice in genealogical records (Genesis 10:18; 1 Chronicles 1:16) and twice in Ezekiel 27 alongside the original Canaanite territory of Sidon. Arvad was even further north of Sidon, located in modern-day Syria. Even today, it is a town known by the same name Arwad (the Hebrew “v” and “w/o” is interchangeable). Being so far north, the Arvadites were not really a factor for the Israelites. Instead, the Arvadites were caught up in other clashes, like fighting against the Egyptians in the Battle of Kadesh (1275 B.C.), or succumbing to Assyrian rule around the time of King Saul.

Zemarites

The Zemarites are also mentioned only twice in the Bible, in the genealogical records. The Zemarites dwelt near the city of Arvad, in modern-day Syria. The city of Zemar (also called Sumur) originally was governed from Byblos (itself an Egyptian proxy); however, the Zemarites broke away and joined the burgeoning kingdom of the Amorites (see above).

Hamathites

These were another far-northern people, who dwelt in the city of Hamath. This city is mentioned a number of times in the Bible. The city of Hamath was located in modern-day Syria—and Numbers 13:21 tells us that the 12 spies who searched out the Promised Land came up as far as Hamath in their reconnaissance mission. Numbers 34:8 shows that the Israelite territory was intended to reach as far as the entrance to Hamath. Yet by at the end of Joshua’s life, that section of territory was still unconquered (Joshua 13:5). By the time of the judges, the land up to Hamath remained as a thorn in the side of the Israelites (Judges 3:1-4). During the reign of King David, however, good relations were enjoyed with the king of Hamath, who sent many gifts to the Israelite king (2 Samuel 8:9-11). These Hamathite vessels were dedicated to God, probably for use in the temple.

Ancient Hamath is evidenced by a number of archaeological inscriptions.

Final Points

This article has taken a broader look at the Canaanites and their tribes. If you would like to read more about city-specific Canaanite discoveries and biblical accounts, you can browse our list of articles in the “Bible’s Buried Cities” series, which runs through such Canaanite-to-Israelite cities as Hazor, Gezer, Lachish, Megiddo, and more.

Such, then, were the offspring of Canaan, son of Ham, son of Noah—a people cursed through a despicable act of their forefather; a people cursed through their own sexual experimentation, infanticide and generally demonic practices. Their identity has been lost today—however, there is certain evidence pointing to a western dispersion of the surviving Canaanites throughout the Mediterranean and into the pre-Columbian Americas. Considering the violent and depraved rites of cultures like the ancient Mesoamericans, a connection with the Canaanites of old would certainly fit. That, however, is a separate study.

Thus, as with other cultures, archaeology confirms the biblical account of the Canaanites—even down to the various separate tribes. And at the conclusion of it all, there are many lessons we can take from their history—chiefly, the high contagion of unchecked sin and its indiscriminate consequences.

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