Around 4000 years ago, the Canaanites settled the land that now borders the Mediterranean Sea on the west and Israel, Lebanon, and Syria on the east. The Canaanites built cities and dominated this Near East region in the time of the Egyptian pharaohs and the first Greek cities. Hieroglyphics and cuneiform inscriptions gathered in this region reveal the former presence of Canaan as it is described in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Who Are the Canaanites?
The Canaanites did not leave documented records of their lives. They used papyrus that dissolved over time instead of the more durable clay used for writing by other cultures. Therefore, much of the Canaanites’ history is reconstructed through the interpretations of Old Testament scholars and the discoveries of scientists at archeological excavations in this area.
According to the Bible, the Canaanites descended from Noah’s grandson Canaan. Canaan was cursed through Noah after Canaan's father Ham saw Noah drunk and naked in his tent after Noah’s brood and animals returned to dry land from the ark (Genesis 9:18-24). The curse that Canaan would become a “slave” to his brothers extended to Canaan’s offspring (Genesis 9:25-27).
Abiding by God’s promise that He would protect them from destruction and let them be victorious in battle, Israelites fought with Canaanites to take over vast areas of territory in the Hebrews’ Promised Land (Joshua 12-21). So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there (Joshua 21:43).
The Promise of Canaan
In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God promised His chosen people, the Israelites, that they would take Canaan as their home at the end of an exodus from Egypt:
“I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you.” (Exodus 23:27-31)
God first promised Abraham he would inherit Canaan and then carried out his promise through Abraham’s lineage of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph in a roundabout fashion full of drama. Several hundred years after Joseph, Moses and his siblings reclaimed the promise of God as they led the Israelites to Canaan. Judge Joshua made the actual entry into the Promised Land with God’s chosen people.
Abraham was the first to be called by God and moved to Canaan with His instruction and blessing. Genesis 15:18-21 says, "On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites." God’s promise included more than a land grant. The Hebrews became God’s chosen people. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God (Genesis 17:8).
Abraham and his wife journeyed to Canaan to claim God’s promise. Later his grandson Jacob and 70 of the growing brood of God’s people—who became the twelve tribes of Israel—moved back to Egypt to avoid a famine in Canaan and be protected by Jacob’s powerful son Joseph. Three hundred years after the time of Joseph, Moses led a large population of the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt and back to Canaan, the original “homeland” promised to Abraham (Exodus 1:1-10).
At the end of the book of Exodus, Moses passed away, and Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordon Riven into Canaan. The Israelites’ occupied Canaan is estimated to be 1405 B.C.E. (before the common era).
The Israelites’ conquest of the land God promised them was drawn out and complicated, as described in the history books of the Old Testament. Taking Canaan required outing tribes already settled in Canaan, including the Philistines, a warlike people descended from Noah’s son Ham (Genesis 9:18-19; Genesis 10:6,15-19). The Philistines became Israel’s nemesis: seven significant battles between the Israelites and the Philistines are recorded in the Old Testament books of Judges, I Samuel, II Kings, and II Chronicles.
To this day, the region of what was called Canaan in Biblical times is full of conflict between tribes of people claiming the territory as theirs.
15 Things to Know about the Canaanites in the Bible
1. Moses sent twelve “spies” or scouts to survey the Canaan territory ahead of the Hebrew people’s settling the land. The Twelve Spies returned after forty days with reports of giant people and city strongholds that terrified the Israelites: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are very powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large . . . We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are” (Numbers, 13:27-28, 31; Joshua 15:13).
2. The Israelites balked at entering Canaan after hearing the spies’ reports, and God decreed that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years as a result of their unwillingness to act further on His promises to them (Numbers 14:26-35).
3. Moses never crossed the Jordon River into Canaan. He died before the Israelites regrouped under Joshua (Joshua 1:1-5).
4. The Jordon River parted for the Hebrew entry into Canaan (Joshua 3:14-17).
5. The first war victory entering Canaan, the Promised Land, was at the city of Jericho, where its walls tumbled down at the sound of Israeli horns (Joshua 6), giving the Hebrews hope of conquering all of Canaan with God’s blessing.
6. In the Battle of Aphek, the Philistines killed approximately 34,000 Israeli soldiers (I Samuel 4).
7. The Philistine army also captured Israel’s Ark of the Covenant in the Battle of Aphek, but Philistines later returned the Ark of the Covenant to the Israelites, because the Ark of the Covenant—which everyone believed made the Hebrew people victorious in Canaan—brought disaster to the Philistines (I Samuel 5).
8. Jeremiah prophesied that God was very angry with and punished His Hebrew people when they joined Canaanites in worshipping false gods. “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: You saw the great disaster I brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Today they lie deserted and in ruins because of the evil they have done. They provoked me to anger by burning incense and by worshipping other gods that neither they nor you nor your fathers ever knew” (Jeremiah 44:2-3).
9. Having an enemy in the Philistines did unite Israel under its first kings. As is written in 1 Samuel 14:52, All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service.
10. David, a boy who became the king of Israel after Saul, defeated the giant Goliath in the larger context of the Israeli-Philistine conflict (I Samuel 17).
11. The Hebrew people’s struggles in Canaan continued in the Battle of Mount Gilboa, in which King Saul fell on his sword and died after the Philistine army killed his three sons (I Samuel 31:1-6).
12. Around 734 B.C.E., soldiers from the ancient superpower of Assyria captured and carried off into exile the two northern tribes of Israel and a remnant of the ten southern tribes.
13. After Assyria lessened in power, Babylonians deported people from the two northern tribes of Israel and Judah and kept them in exile from about 597 B.C.E. until the Persian king Cyrus reigned in 538 B.C.E.
14. During the Babylonian exile, many Hebrew women—wives of Jacob’s sons and grandsons who formed the twelve tribes of Israel—were barren. King David prophesied that Hebrew women would bear many children in the future.
15. As the Israelites’ civilization spread across Canaan, Old Testament scholars believe ancient Hebrews and the earliest Canaanites combined their cultures and DNA. A group of scientists who published their findings in The American Journal of Human Genetics (AJHG), found that the DNA of five individuals buried in the Canaanite city of Sidon in Lebanon around 1700 B.C.E. is very similar to the DNA of 99 individuals living in Lebanon in 2017.
The warrior spirit of Old Testament history still exists in the people of this region. And struggles over land occupancy in the ancient, Bible territory of Canaan continue to this day.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Claudio Ventrella
Betty Dunn hopes her writing leads you to holding hands with God. A former high school English teacher, editor, and nonprofit agency writer, she now works on writing projects from her home in West Michigan, where she enjoys woods, water, pets and family. Check out her blog at Betty by Elizabeth Dunning and her website, www.elizabethdunning-wix.com.
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These verses serve as a source of renewal for the mind and restoration for the heart by reinforcing the notion that, while human weakness is inevitable, God's strength is always available to uplift, guide, and empower us.
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