Biblical Nations - Canaanites


Key Scripture: Genesis 12:5

Figures: Rahab, Bera, Jabin, the Syrophoenician woman

This week we pick up our study of Biblical people groups with the last of the names given to the inhabitants of the Promised Land.  The name "Canaanites" is, and probably always was, something of a catch-all term for the rest of the various nations living throughout the region that were descended from Shem's son, Canaan.  Because the land that God promised Abram had already adopted the name of Canaan by the time he departed Ur, which took place approximately 420 years after the Great Flood, it is also likely that the children of Israel used that name to describe all the non-Hebrew inhabitants they encountered.  Among the people groups that the term may have included, in addition to the names we've already explored, are the Sidonians, Arkites, Arvadites, Sinites, Zemarites, and Hamathites.  These names represent groups that were either too small or remote to merit significant reference in the Biblical narrative, but serve to show that the Canaanites were not a single empire as much as a loose confederation of cities and their rulers.  They are well-known to historians and archaeologists, recognized to have lived for centuries where modern Israel and Jordan are located, at the crossroads of many powerful societies to their north, south, and east.

The Biblical record of Canaan began with Noah's grandson and was the intended destination of Abram's father, Terah, when he departed the city of Ur.  He was content to stop in the city of Haran, farther north along the Fertile Crescent, and therefore it wasn't until God revealed Himself to Abram that the patriarch eventually completed the trip.  Initially establishing a working relationship with the inhabitants of the land and even fighting on behalf of King Bera of Sodom, Abram continued living at various locations throughout the region for his remaining years, and insisted that his offspring not return to the land of his roots.  The Canaanites remained in the land even after his grandson, Jacob, relocated his family to Egypt, and seem to have continued acting in a sinful manner that was repulsive to God.  By the time Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, the religions and societies of the Canaanites were deemed too evil and dangerous to avoid the judgment of being driven out or destroyed entirely.

After the death of Moses, Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan River and into direct conflict with the cities of Canaan.  Few inhabitants were helpful to the invaders, with Rahab's actions to save two spies in Jericho a notable exception, but Israel was nevertheless successful in establishing a foothold in the region.  Their unwillingness to complete the conquest, however, resulted in a continued Canaanite presence that became problematic to the Hebrew people for generations.  In Judges, Scripture records that God allowed a Canaanite king named Jabin to take control for 20 years until Deborah and Barak led an army against him, resulting in a political and religious revival for the Israelites.  During the time of the three kings of a unified Israel - Saul, David, and Solomon - the remaining Canaanites were largely enslaved and forced to perform heavy labor.  Although they never again posed a militant threat, the presence of their religious practices continued to plague the Hebrew people and even after returning from the Babylonian exile there were many who married women of Canaanite descent who had remained in the land.

Mention of the Canaanites continued throughout the prophecies and writings of the Israeli people, with a focus on God's fulfilled promise to deliver their lands to His people.  The last of the Biblical references to the Canaanite people appears in the Gospels, where Jesus has a conversation with a Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman who pleaded with Him to act on behalf of her possessed daughter.  He ultimately grants her request and marvels at her faith, indicating that even the people groups who had previously been the object of God's wrath were now able to access His mercy and salvation.  Among the historical records that survive today that attest to not only the existence of the Canaanites but also to the conquest of the Promised Land are the Amarna Letters.  These clay tablets, over 300 in number, were discovered in the city of the same name that served as the royal residence for several years during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife, Nefertiti.  Among other things, these diplomatic messages include requests from various kings throughout the region for the pharaoh's help in stopping a people they called "Habiru" from conquering their various cities.  The letters end in 1335 BC, several decades after 1400 BC when Biblical historians believe the children of Israel would have entered the land.  Although the Canaanites do not survive as a distinct people group in modern times, they are genetically related to many Arab inhabitants who live throughout the southern Levant and Middle East.


  1. Very interesting about the letters to the Egyptian Pharoah and Nefertiti.


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