The Land of Canaan in Patriarchal Times – Part 1

The Name “Canaan” in Hieroglyphs
Merneptah Stele (13th Century BCE)

The book of Genesis says that after Abraham left the land of his ancestors and came to the place God promised to him as an inheritance, “the Canaanites were in the land” (Genesis 12:6 NIV). When Abraham came to Canaan, the Canaanites were a settled people with a highly advanced society. In the Old Testament, the word “Canaan” was used to designate the land west of the Jordan River, and the word “Canaanites” was the general name given to the non-Israelite inhabitants of the land. In addition, the word Canaan appears in several passages in the Bible and is translated in different ways: “traffickers” (Isaiah 23:8 KJV; “traders” NIV); “the merchant city” (Isaiah 23:11 KJV); “merchant” (Hosea 12:7 KJV, NIV), and “merchant people” (Zephaniah 1:11 KJV; “merchants” NIV). The identification of the Canaanites as well as the meaning of the word “Canaan” has been a source of debate among scholars.


The meaning of the word “Canaan” is not clear. Some scholars believe that Canaan means “lowland,” a meaning derived from an Aramaic word meaning “to be low.” The appearance of the word kinahhu (“red purple”) in the Nuzi tablets led scholars to equate the word Canaan with the purple dye made by the Phoenicians and to translate Canaan as “purple.”

William F. Albright suggested that the word Canaan originally meant “a merchant” and secondarily “purple merchant.” The Greeks adopted the name “Canaan” for this area and called it Phoenicia, a name that has its origin in a Greek word which also means “purple.” Thus, the land of Canaan was known as “the land of purple.”


According to the genealogies in Genesis, Canaan was the fourth son of Ham and the grandson of Noah (Genesis 9:18). Canaan then became the eponymous ancestor of eleven sons, who eventually became known as the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, the original name of Palestine: “Canaan became the father of Sidon his firstborn, and Heth and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites” (Genesis 10:15-18 NRSV).

Sidon represents the Phoenicians; Heth was one of the Hittites who lived in the hill country during patriarchal times. The Jebusites lived in Jerusalem; the Amorites were one of the pre-Israelites inhabitants of Canaan. The word “Amorites” is used to designate the people who lived in the hill country in contrast with the Canaanites, the people who lived in cities.

The Hivites probably were the Horites of the Bible (Genesis 14:6). All of the other sons of Canaan named in Genesis appear either in Old Testament lists mentioning the original inhabitants of the land (Exodus 3:8; Deuteronomy 7:1; Joshua 3:10; 24:11) or in extant texts of the period.

Since the number of the Canaanite nations fluctuates between six (Exodus 3:8, 17; Deuteronomy 20:17; Joshua 9:1) and seven (Deuteronomy 7:1; Joshua 3:10; 24:11), it is quite possible that the word “Canaanites” in the Old Testament designates a social group rather than an ethnic group. As Eugene H. Merrill said: “Inasmuch as the number seven is commonly used to speak of totality, it is possible that the people listed here [Deuteronomy 7:1] represent all the inhabitants of the land no matter their nationality or ethnic identity.”

The genealogy of the sons of Canaan in Genesis seems to indicate that these groups were subdivisions of the Canaanites according to geographical order. The relationship between the Canaanites and the Amorites is unusual. The Amorites were one of the most important Semitic groups at the beginning of the second millennium B.C.

The Old Testament practically uses the terms “Canaanites” and “Amorites” as synonymous (see Genesis 15:15-16; Joshua 24:15, 18). According to John Bright, the Amorites arrived in Palestine around 2300 B.C. Their conquest of the land and their amalgamation with the existing population of the land gave rise to the Canaanite culture that appeared in Palestine in the Middle Bronze Age.


According to the biblical evidence, Canaan was the land west of the Jordan, in the areas known as Syria-Palestine. The Canaanites lived in the territory that extended “from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha” (Genesis 10:19).

According to Numbers 34:2-12, the land of Canaan, in its full extent (v. 2, RSV), was from the Brook of Egypt (Wadi El Arish) to the entrance of Hamath (34:5, 8). Possibly that the word “Canaan” was first applied to the area known as Phoenicia. This is reflected in Isaiah 23:11, where the New International Version uses “Phoenicia” to translate the word “Canaan.” With the passing of time, the word was used to designate the whole territory west of the Jordan, including the Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre (modern-day Lebanon) and southwest Syria. As a matter of fact, Sidon, the ancient Phoenician city, was named after Sidon, the first son of Canaan.

Canaanite Language

The language of the Canaanites belongs to a family of language known as Semitic languages. In the area of Mesopotamia, the ancient peoples of Babylonia and Assyria spoke Akkadian. In the areas of Syria and Israel, the original inhabitants spoke Aramaic and Canaanite.

One of the languages of the Canaanites was called Ugaritic. This dialect appears in the text found at Tell Ras Shamra, the site of the ancient city of Ugarit. The Israelites of the patriarchal times spoke “the language of Canaan” (Isaiah 19:18). The language of the Bible, Hebrew, was a dialect of Canaanite, a language similar to the language spoken by the Phoenicians, the Moabites, and the Edomites.

Canaanite Culture

The Canaanites were originally organized into city states. Each city was an independent monarchy headed by a king (see Joshua 10:3). Canaanite society has been compared with feudalism. The king was the head of Canaanite society. He owned large properties, was the head of the military, and the person responsible for the economic and religious life of the nation. Canaanite economy was basically agricultural but the Phoenicians were involved in trade and commerce. For this reason, the name “Canaan” became in later times, a synonym for merchant (Job 41:6; Proverbs 31:24).

The Canaanites lived in walled cities. They possessed horses trained for war, chariots of iron, many items of silver and gold, and much cattle. However, agriculture was the backbone of Canaanite economy. The agricultural year began in late autumn as the farmers anticipated the heavy rain (the “autumn rains” of the Old Testament, Joel 2:23) that fell at the end of October and in the beginning of November.

Barley and wheat were the two main cereal crops cultivated. The vineyard would be cultivated after the heavy rains. The Gezer Calendar, a limestone plaque from Gezer from about the time of Solomon (10th century B.C.) gives the agricultural calendar for the twelve months of the year in Palestine.

Canaanite cities at the time of the patriarchs were generally located on easily defended rock-spur or some prominent elevation in the plains, always near a reliable source of water. There the Canaanites built permanent houses and dug and lined pits for storage for the grain they harvested.

For the defense of their cities they built walls of bricks or stones. In some cities a moat was dug to provide additional protection against an enemy assault. Water supply was vital for the survival of a city. Thus, the well-being of a city depended on the protection of the source of water during times of war. If a spring of water was outside the city, the city wall would be extended to include the spring or the water from the spring might be brought inside the walls by means of a tunnel.

NEXT: The Land of Canaan in Patriarchal Times – Part 2

NOTE: For other articles on archaeology, archaeological discoveries, and how they relate to the Bible, read my post Can Archaeology Prove the Bible?

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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