Canaan (Joshua 12)

The land Canaan, which the Lord had promised to give Abraham (Genesis 17:8), was recognized as a geopolitical unit in Nuzi texts (fifteenth century B.C.), in the Amarna letters of Egypt (fourteenth century B.C.) and in other ancient Near Eastern sources. Canaanite culture and religion are reflected in the Late Bronze Age (sixteenth to twelfth centuries B.C.) literature of Ugarit (Byblos) in Syria. Worship of Baal as the god of war and of agricultural productivity is prominent in this literature.

The derivation of the name Canaan is uncertain. It may stem from the Semitic root denoting “to be low” (e.g. lowlands) or relate to a purple dye produced by mollusks native to the region. It also has been suggested that the word originally meant “merchants”, based on usage in some Mari and Egyptian texts, as well as in certain Biblical passages in which the word for “Canaanite” can also be rendered as “trader”.

The Canaanite language was a mixture of various related dialects, although it appears that there was a higher, literary style all Canaanites shared in common. Ancient Hebrew is essentially a variety of the related Canaanite dialects, while standard Biblical Hebrew is probably closely related to the literary Canaanite form.

The northern border of Canaan extended to Tyre and Sidon (Isaiah 23:11), veering inland (see especially Numbers 34:2-12). The eastern border was just east of the Sea of Galilee and along the Jordan River to the Dead Sea. The southern border passed from the Dead Sea through Kadesh Barnea in the northern Sinai Peninsula, and the Mediterranean Sea formed its western border.

Canaan thus occupied the middle ground between Egypt, Syria and Anatolia, and -Mesopotamia, and by way of its seacoast was open to western peoples. Their main ports were Tyre, Sidon and Byblos in modern Lebanon. Ships from these ports carried cedar wood, oil, wine and other goods to Egypt, Crete and Greece. They brought back linen from Egypt and fine pottery from Cyprus and Greece. Papyrus was carried from Egypt to Byblos; when the Greeks first saw papyrus scrolls, they called them biblia, “Byblos things”, giving us the word “Bible”. The area has a long history as a battleground among grear powers, as well as of a region in which diverse peoples lived side by side.

The Transjordan territories of Kings of Sihon and Og, through capture and resettled by Israelite tribes, were neither included in God’s original promise to Abraham nor considered a part of Canaan (although both the Moabites and the Ammonites were closely related to the Canaanites and spoke a Canaanite dialect).

The Israelites of the conquest encountered a mixture of people groups in Canaan, most of them listed in the “table of nations” as descendants of Canaan, son of Ham, son of Noah (Genesis 10:15-19). The Bible identifies more than 25 cities as Canaanite, including Gilgal, Hebron, Shiloh, Megiddo and Hazor. These “city-states”, each with its own king, were only loosely organized but readily formed alliances in times of military crisis.

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