The Canaanites


Around the year 2000 BCE, a new people settled in the Land of Israel, arriving from the coastal plain of Lebanon and the valleys of northern Syria. They settled on the northern coastal plain and in the inner valleys leading down to the Jordan River. They brought with them a totally different material culture, settlement modes, architecture, pottery, burial customs, and technological skills.
For the first time in history, there are records, written documents and paintings, relating to these newcomers. The documents are all from the powerful kingdoms that developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Syria. In the Egyptian execration texts, for example, the magical curses and spells cast on real and potential enemies provide a valuable list of cities, regions, and governors’ names.
The texts, which were in use during the first two centuries of the second millennium, were inscribed on pottery bowls and figurines and then smashed. Suddenly we have names of rulers and places: “the Ruler of Jerusalem, Yaqar-Ammu, and all the retainers that are with him,” for example. A burial inscription of an Egyptian official mentions, for the first time in history, the ancient Egyptian name of the Land of Israel: “Retenu.” A wall painting at Beni Hassan in Upper Egypt, from 1890 BCE, provides a glimpse of what these people (or at least some of them) looked like. They had beards, wore long woven multicolored coats (indeed, Joseph of the Bible immediately comes to mind), had a particular hairstyle, and rode on asses – a practice that the Egyptians were not accustomed to.
In 1935, French archaeologist Andre Perrot, while excavating the palace of King Zimrilim, the king of Mari on the Euphrates in the eighteenth century BCE, discovered the royal archive comprised of 20,000 cuneiform tablets. Some 5,000 of them were letters written in Babylonian, allowing researchers to put together a working Babylonian vocabulary and revealing a whole line of personal names, customs, and events. In one of these documents, the word “Canaanite” appears for the first time, so the inhabitants of the Land of Israel at that time can now indeed be called Canaanites.
During the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries BCE, the world of the Canaanites flourished. Populations expanded and city-states headed by kings were established and featured markets, palaces, temples, and elaborate water systems. Trade caravans plied the routes of the ancient world, carrying metals, precious goods, skills, and news between the cities. The cities were surrounded with 20-30-foot-high steep earthen terraces on which the walls of the city were built. This made battering the wall with rams or tunneling underneath them a complex task to achieve. Some of the terraces, especially if the city was located on a hill, were covered with a glacis – a steep 30-degree ramp of compacted earth. The glacis and the terraces are what makes the ancient mounds where these old cities are buried, the tells of the ancient world, such a distinct feature in the landscape. The Canaanites were part of the Western Semitic group of peoples. They spoke a dialect similar to Akkadian and official correspondence was conducted in that language.
The creation of the Canaanite city-states corresponded with a period in which the established order in Egypt was crumbling. The Middle Kingdom of Egypt fell into decline while the eastern delta was overrun by foreign invaders called “Hyksos” (which means “foreign rulers”). The Hyksos were Canaanites, who established their capital in Avaris (Biblical Zo’an of Egypt and today Tel el-Dab’a), and founded the fifteenth Egyptian dynasty.
The Middle Bronze Age, as this period is called, raises the question of the historicity of the biblical narrative, especially in reference to the period of the patriarchs. The Bible is not a history book; it is a book of faith, of religion. Indeed, history as a discipline had yet to be invented. That said, the Bible does contain memories and echoes of events passed down from father to son for many generations. Many scholars have pointed out that the early Canaanite environment is echoed in the patriarchal narratives in the Bible. The Book of Genesis depicts a land that is dotted with large cities interspersed with pastoral areas inhabited by nomadic clans. The high position of Joseph, the man with the coat, in Egypt fits in nicely with the Hyksos conquest of the Nile Delta, a period of migrations of tribes from Canaan to Egypt and the creation of a new commonwealth in Egypt ruled by Semitic princes. Joseph could have been one of them.

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