Canaan

Definition

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 29 July 2010

Canaan was the name of a large and prosperous country (at times independent, at others a tributary to Egypt) which corresponds roughly to present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel and was also known as Phoenicia. The origin of the name `Canaan’ for the land comes from various ancient texts (among them the Hebrew Bible) and there is no scholarly consensus on precisely where the name originated nor what it was intended to convey about the land. According to the Bible the land was named after a man called Canaan, the grandson of Noah (Genesis 10). Other theories cite `Canaan’ as derived from the Hurrian language for `purple’ and, as the Greeks knew the Canaanites as `Phoenicians’ (Greek for `purple’ as the Phoenicians worked, primarily at the city of Tyre, in purple dye and so were called by the Greeks `purple people’) this explanation is the most probable but, by no means, provable.

The indigenous people of the land of Canaan worshiped many gods but, chief among them, the goddess Astarte and her consort Baal (considered vegetative/fertility deities who then took on more impressive attributes earlier ascribed to Sumerian gods such as Enlil). Women could and did serve as Priestesses, could own land, enter into contracts and initiate divorce. By the second millenium BCE Byblos was the great exporter of cedar from Mount Lebannon and of papyrus (the name of the Bible comes from the Greek word Byblos for `Book, a reference to the city which supplied the surrounding nations, especially Egypt, with the papyrus to write on) and Tyre was a great industrial centre producing highly sought after purple garments made from the purple dye of Murex shells and the city of Sidon, also engaged in similar trade, was a great centre of learning. The Canaanites (Phoenicians) developed the first alphabetic writing system, mathematics, were reknowned in the ancient world for their skill in ship building and navigating the seas and have also been cited as the early source or inspiration for the mythology of the Greek gods. The Canaanites sailed across the sea as far away as Spain and as far north as modern-day Cornwall, England, and their cities grew, owing to their prosperous trade, into places of splendour and wealth.

According to the biblical narrative in the Book of Exodus, the patriarch Moses lead his people, the Israelites, out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and toward the `promised land’ of Canaan where their god had promised them they would live in peace in a “land flowing with milk and honey.” The Book of Joshua, following the Exodus narrative, tells of the campaigns of the Israelite General Joshua in the land of Canaan subduing the populace with the help, and by command of, his god (most famously destroying the city of Jericho, which was the oldest city in the region with the greatest cultural legacy). Scholars date the invasion of the Israelites to about 1250 BCE and archaeological excavations in the region have confirmed some kind of disturbance in the region between 1250 and 1200 BCE which resulted in the destruction of Canaanite towns and cities. These ruins, however, do not always match the descriptions given in the Book of Joshua.

Even so, the destruction of the cities and the absence of further development of the culture, indicate that some catastophic event, or series of events, impacted the people of Canaan significantly. The time period in which General Joshua allegedly conquered the land of Canaan corresponds with a period of general upheaval in the ancient world from the destruction of Troy by the Achaeans to the fall of the Hittite Empire, the ruin of the great city of Ugarit and the beginning of the harrassment of coastal towns by the mysterious Sea Peoples. Whatever the cause, by 1100 BCE Canaan was no more than a narrow territory north of the Kingdom of Israel located by the sea in present day Lebanon.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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