Will the real Canaanites please stand up!

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by Neil Godfrey

In yesterday’s post I quoted a brief outline of the variant meanings that have been assigned “Canaan” and “Canaanites” throughout supposedly biblical times. But there is much more to be said, or at least suggested. Niels Peter Lemche discusses these concepts in depth in The Canaanites and Their Land and here I lay out one of the many facets making up that book: — that Canaanites for the Bible’s authors really meant fellow Jews who stood apart as religious rivals.

After surveying in depth the historical references to whatever was truly Canaanite in the second and first millennia b.c.e. (and demonstrating how alien each historical reference is to anything about Canaan and the Canaanites in the Bible) Lemche addresses the treatment of the term in the various books of the Bible. In his concluding chapter he addresses conclusions that may be drawn — or rather postulates that may be aired — if we think of the historical books as being written in the late Persian or Hellenistic eras.

A preliminary comment should be made: ancient historians were not interested in the modern discipline or art of history writing — recounting the past for its own sake. History, or at least what was the ancient equivalent of historiography, was about creating narratives that met identity needs of their audiences. (It may not always be that different today, actually, at one level, but that’s another (hi)story.)

He dismisses, however, a 10th century b.c.e date for the composition of the historical books of the Bible for several reasons. Perhaps the most telling reason is that a major theme of the historical books simply does not make sense in the context of Davidic and Solomonic times. That major theme is the tension between Israel and its land: the recurrent theme of the historical books from the earliest chapters is the tenuousness of Israel’s relationship with the land. The history is from the beginning a tale of warning that Israel’s covenant can be broken and Israel can be removed from the land at any time. Such a concept is not at all plausible if, as we are told in the same narrative, Israel was a rising power and emerging as one of the great kingdoms and empires of the day.

The next period widely considered as a candidate for the composition of the Bible’s historical books is the middle of the first millennium b.c.e. — the period of the Babylonian exile.

Lemche sees problems, however, with dating these historical writings to the period of the exile.

  1. How are we to explain the composition of a history that seems to beg Israel to leave Egypt when the exiles were in Mesopotamia? (This question assumes, of course, that the historical works were written to encourage the Jews to return to their country.)
  2. Now parts of the Old Testament were certainly written in Mesopotamia during the Babylonian exile, and one such writing was Deutero-Isaiah, Isa. 40-55. (Lemche’s book was published 1991 — I don’t know if he still adheres to this view.) Deutero-Isaiah expresses his view of the population that remained behind in Palestine in terms very different from those we read in the historical books up to 2 Kings. Further, the same author has a quite universalistic outlook, imagining a new exodus from Babylonia instead of from Egypt. None of this compares with the strongly land-of-Israel-centric view of the world in the historical books. So the question is: if Deutero-Isaiah understood the Jews as living in Babylonia and that their homeland in Palestine was inhabited by Canaanites, why does he not mention those Canaanites by name?

That second question and situation needs a little clarification. It is not solely an argument from silence and it does raise doubts about an exilic dating. Deutero-Isaiah knows the original exodus was from Egypt. The next one, from Babylonia, is set against the Egyptian one as a comparison. This same idea is found in Hosea who lived 200 years before Deutero-Isaiah. (Hosea actually proposed that Israel return to Egypt or the wilderness in order to be purged of her false beliefs.)

What is significant here is that Hosea can speak about this early exodus from Egypt without betraying the slightest knowledge of any of the history of Israel we read about in the historical books of the Bible.

It is quite reasonable to suggest that Deutero-Isaiah knew of the exodus from Egypt through the writing of Hosea and was likewise without any knowledge of events in the later historical books.

It has sometimes been argued that Deutero-Isaiah is dependent on the historical tradition of the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History, which must thus predate this prophet. It could, however, equally well be maintained that Deutero-Isaiah created some of the preconditions for the appearance of the historical literature, and that for this reason he should be placed at the beginning of the process which led to the collection of historical memories in one more or less coherent corpus of narratives, while at the same time being in a position to elaborate in his own way on some of the themes which were already known from the tradition of Hosea. (pp. 163-164)

(It does not follow that if the historical books were written later than Deutero-Isaiah that everything in them most post-date that author. Later composers were free to select data from a range of sources and periods.)

So let’s continue with a date later than the exile (and Deutero-Isaiah) for the composition of the historical books of the Bible.

Later than the exile — what did Canaan mean?

Canaan is used in a clear-cut stereotypical way in the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomic History. That suggests that the authors had a very clear notion of what the term meant and whom it represented and where they were to be found. Significantly, in these parts of the Bible the Canaanites are allowed to function only within the framework of the historical reconstruction and can never depart from their allotted role. We are thus entitled to suspect that the term had nothing to do with historical realities in the pre-Israelite settlement of the land.

On the contrary, the Canaanites may be considered a kind of ideological prototype of an ethnic phenomenon which was very much a reality in the period when the historical narratives were reduced to writing, and, furthermore, it is obvious that the Canaanites represented a phenomenon which was considered to be extraneous and hostile to the Israelites. (p. 165)

So when we meet the Canaanites in the historical books we find they are hated, rejected utterly, especially their religious views, we must accept that this was the view of the authors of those historical books and that they were expressing ethnic, political and religious realities and fears of their own time.

So the question must be:

What problems existed when the historical literature was composed which could have provoked such a rejection of the Canaanites as presented by this literature?

Deutero-Isaiah, recall, has never heard of (or at least never mentions) the Canaanites. Further, he has no hatred of foreigners at all (except, excusably, for his Babylonian captors.)

If the historical books were composed later, are we not to suspect that the hatred of the Canaanites was something that arose from conditions that existed after Deutero-Isaiah and at the later time of the authors of the historical books?

One suggestion posited by Lemche is that the Canaanites of the OT literature

were actually that part of the Palestinian population in the post-exilic period who were considered opponents of the official Jewry. 

Was ‘Canaanite’ a synonym for those Jews who were forbidden to enter the established religious institutions and with whom other Jews were not permitted to marry? Do the books of Ezra and Nehemiah shed light on the reality of this situation? (Nor can we be dogmatic that even these books were written as early as the Persian period.)

Another suggestion stems from reflection upon the central organizing importance of the exodus from Egypt for the historical books. What was at the back of the authors’ minds here? We know the historical accounts of the Exodus in the Pentateuch were not created by the Pentateuchal author, since we have seen references to the “exodus tradition” as early as the writings of Hosea. (And most scholars are certain that the Priestly source of the Pentateuch, and the Pentateuch itself, are post-exilic works.) Lemche suggests that the emphasis on the Egyptian exodus in the historical writings

may have had as its background the presence of a Jewish diaspora in Egypt for whom the historical narratives about the escape from Egypt may have been composed.

Lemche elaborates:

There is actually no reason to present a paraphrase of the Old Testament narrative of the Exodus and to maintain that the conditions of the life of the Israelites in Egypt as described by the book of Exodus, or the Joseph novella, may reflect the actual conditions of life of the members of the Jewish diaspora in the post-exilic period. It is far more likely that the main theme of the Exodus narrative may have a kind of typological significance. In this way the historical narratives may contain a ‘programme’ which was not intended for the exilic Jewish community of Babylonia (because the history books were not yet in existence in the 6th century BCE), but rather that the programme of these narratives was directly aimed at the Jews of Egypt, the intention being to persuade these Jews to return to their own country. Just like Deutero-Isaiah, who tried to persuade his fellow countrymen to return to Jerusalem (and we now know that his endeavours were only partly successful, because the majority of the Jews evidently decided to stay in Babylonia even after 538 BCE), the authors of the historical literature tried to persuade other Jews to leave Egypt and return to reconquer their old country from the hands of the Canaanites. In this case there is no reason to ask why the Exodus had to take place from Egypt and not Babylon; this now seems self-evident. (p. 167, my emphasis)

The suggestion above is that the authors of the historical writings were in Egypt (or if in Jerusalem at least religiously sympathetic to Egyptian diaspora brethren) and begging them to come “rescue Palestine” from the “Canaanites”.

Further, the later we date the historical narratives (in the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic History) — even into the 5th or 4th centuries bce, the more clues we find to enable us to interpret them.

This leads Lemche into a discussion of dating and place of origin of the historical books.

Such a late date could possibly provide an explanation for the fact that the writers decided to make use of the two terms ‘the land of Canaan’ and ‘the Canaanite’ as second names for Palestine and the non-Jewish population of the country. These expressions may have been chosen because they made sense from an Egyptian point of view, while at the same time in the eyes of the Jews of Egypt it was unimportant whether these terms concurred with actual conditions in Palestine. The rejection of Canaanite culture in its totality could thus be understood to be the expression of religious and political disagreements which may have existed between the Jews living in the Egyptian diaspora and the Jews of Jerusalem, or it could be taken as evidence that Egyptian Jewry understood itself to be the centre of the Jewish community. (pp. 167-68, my emphasis)

But we have no additional evidence of religious disagreements between Egyptian Jews and their Palestinian brethren.

So other possibilities must also be considered, and that brings us to Mesopotamia.

Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia is seen as only the starting point of the migrations of Israel’s ancestors to Palestine.

In favour of Mesopotamia [as a place of origin of the historical books] speaks the fact that, according to the ancestral narratives, Mesopotamia was still the right place for a law-abiding Jew to look for a wife. (p. 168)

It could thus be that in the eyes of the Jews of Palestine their relatives in Mesopotamia were still religiously on the straight and narrow, whereas the diaspora in Egypt were “ordered” to return home.

In either scenario, it is not hard to make proposals for the identity of the Canaanites.

[T]hey were likely to have constituted that part of the Palestinian population which was thought to be the enemies of the Jews of Jerusalem. Additional material from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which testifies to the growing antagonism between Jerusalem and Samaria in the Persian era may also be called in to support this. (p. 168)

The above are of course more postulates than theories.

Here [Lemche has] only indicated in which direction one may look for an answer to the problem of the emergence of the historical literature, should a post-exilic date be preferred.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Will the real Canaanites please stand up!”

  1. Judging from its sentiments the novel about Joseph and his brothers would seem to be told by someone whose loyalties were to the regions of Ephraim and Benjamin rather than Judah. The story teller who gathered together many stories to construct the primary story in the digressive style of Herodotus seems less concerned with the political slant of each of these parts than using them to enrich his story and give it an appearance of continuous history, or at least did not manage to hammer them all into shape for an obvious agenda.

  2. Indeed in 407 B.C. the Yaweh (amonst other gods?) worshippers of Elephantine wrote to Sanballat Persian governor of Samaria (and Nehemiah’s enemy in the bible story) as well as to Jerusalem for help in rebuilding their temple. The bene-Israel of Egypt and Samaria did not seem to accept the Deuteronomistic antithesis between the saved remnant and the people of the land. It is a puzzle how the storis told by disparate communities were preseved in the overall Jerusalem centred story.

  3. Sorry Robert. Those who sometimes regarded themselves as the children of Israel. and worshipped Yahweh sometimes alongside other gods and godesses,were not necessary Jews. Jews means people from Judaea or a chosen part of them.
    I suppose that in Persian times many different stories about the past were told by the people of Judah, Benjamin, Shechem, and by those who shared some traditions with them but lived in Egypt or Mesopotamia. The stories reflected different agendas.
    Some of these stories were collected together in Hellenistic times, to make a pseudo history of mankind and of the children of Israel.The agenda amonst other things privileged the Jerusalem temple and those who claimed to be returning exiles from Babylonia as against the people of the land (denounced as Canaanites, Samaritans, and so on, or as worshippers of Baal and Asherah).The puzzle is that he used contradicting stories from these other traditions to construct his providential history.
    I don’t know if all this is right – but you can get plausible dates for when many of these stories were told by looking at the details such as place names, and by the probable existence of literacy at different times.
    I hope this clarifies what I meant by that last sentence Robert.

  4. The only actual historical instance of Jews returning from exile in Egypt concerns the military community at Elephantine. When Persian rule over Egypt ended, this community returned to Yehud. I believe they were kicked out, having been associated with the Persians.

    Aside from the Babylonian communities that chose to stay there, the only other exile community that I can think of that residents of Yehud/Judea would have wanted to entice back were the Temple priests under Onias who went to Egypt in the Hasmonean period and founded the temple at Leontopolis.

    1. You were ahead of me with this comment. It overlaps with my post I have just put up on the origin of the Jews — comparing the historical evidence with the biblical narrative. Hope to do another post along the lines you are pointing to here.

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