Who Were the Canaanites?

The Canaanites of the Old Testament are shrouded in mystery

Jupiter and Bacchus Temple, Baalbek, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Lebanon. tunart Getty Images

The Canaanites play an important role in the story of the Israelites' conquest of their "Promised Land," especially in the Book of Joshua, but the ancient Jewish scriptures contain almost no substantive information about them. The Canaanites are the villains of the story because they are living on land promised to the Israelites by Yahweh.

But the identity of the ancient inhabitants of the land of Canaan is a matter of some dispute.

History of the Canaanites

The earliest definite reference to the Canaanites is a Sumerian text in Syria from the 18th century BCE which mentions Canaan.

Egyptian documents from the reign of Senusret II (1897–1878 BCE) reference kingdoms in the region organized as fortified city-states and led by warrior chiefs. This was the same time that the Greek city of Mycenae was fortified and organized in a similar manner.

Those documents don't mention Canaan specifically, but this is the right region. It's not until the Amarna Letters from the mid-14th century BCE that we have Egyptian references to Canaan.

The Hyksos who conquered the northern areas of Egypt may have come out of Canaan, though they may not have originated there. The Amorites later assumed control of Canaan and some believe that the Canaanites were themselves a southern branch of the Amorites, a Semitic group. 

Canaanite Land and Language

The land of Canaan itself was generally recognized as extending from Lebanon in the north to Gaza in the south, encompassing modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, and western Jordan. It included important trade routes and trading sites, making it valuable territory for all the surrounding great powers for the next millennia, including Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria.

The Canaanites were a Semitic people because they spoke Semitic languages. Not much is known beyond that, but linguistic connections tell us something about cultural and ethnic connections. What archaeologists have been able to discover of ancient scripts indicates not only that proto-Canaanite was an ancestor of later Phoenician, but that it was a likely middle step from Hieratic, a cursive script derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Canaanites and Israelites

The similarities between Phoenician and Hebrew are remarkable. This suggests that Phoenicians — and therefore the Canaanites as well — were likely not as separate from the Israelites as is commonly assumed. If the languages and scripts were that similar, they probably shared quite a bit in culture, art and perhaps even religion.

It is likely that the Phoenicians of the Iron Age (1200-333 BCE) came from the Canaanites of the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BCE). The name "Phoenician" probably comes from the Greek phoinix. The name "Canaan" may come from the Hurrian word, kinahhu. Both words describe the same purple-reddish color. This would mean that the Phoenician and Canaan's had at least one similar word in common, for the same people, but in different languages and at different points in time.

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Cline, Austin. "Who Were the Canaanites?" Learn Religions, Sep. 4, 2021, learnreligions.com/who-were-the-canaanites-248830. Cline, Austin. (2021, September 4). Who Were the Canaanites? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/who-were-the-canaanites-248830 Cline, Austin. "Who Were the Canaanites?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/who-were-the-canaanites-248830 (accessed June 8, 2023).