DISCLAIMER: this post explores the origins of the Jewish people and our connection to the ancient Canaanites from an archeological, linguistic, genetic, and secular historical perspective. If that will bother you to read, I ask you to please skip this post, rather than argue with me because the Tanakh says something different. Thank you.
WHO WERE THE CANAANITES?
The Canaanites were a loose group of semi-nomadic tribes that lived during the second millenium BCE; they were the original inhabitants of the Land of Israel. Though depicted as the enemies of the Israelites in the Torah, archeologists, linguists, Biblical historians, and geneticists today widely agree that the ancient Hebrews and Israelites were originally Canaanites themselves.
Why? For one thing, Hebrew is the only Canaanite language that exists to this day; in fact, ancient Hebrew is not only virtually indistinguishable from all other Canaanite languages, but even the Israelites themselves referred to Hebrew not as “Hebrew” but as the “language of Canaan.”
Second, there is no archeological evidence whatsoever of an Israelite invasion of Canaan. Rather, archaeologically speaking, it’s evident that Israelite culture evolved from earlier Canaanite culture. The Kingdom of Israel (1047-930 BCE) was the first unified nation state in the history of Canaan; in other words, the Israelites did not take over a previously existing state.
Third, even the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible, makes both vague and explicit references to the ancient Israelites’ Canaanite origins.
Fourth, modern genetic science confirms that today’s Jews have direct Canaanite ancestry.
So what’s the deal? And why are Canaanites depicted as the Israelites’ enemies in the Tanakh? Let’s delve into it in this post.
THE CANAANITE PANTHEON
The Canaanites had a complex pantheon of gods, which they divided into a four-tier hierarchy. The two most important gods were El and Asherah, El’s female consort.
The other Canaanite deities were Aglibol, Anat, Arsay, Arsu, Ashtar-Chemosh, Ashima, Atargatis, Attar, Azizos, Baalah, Ba’alat, Gebal, Ba’al Hadar, Ba’al Hermon, Ba’al Hamon, Baalshamin, Baal-zephon, Bel, Chemosh, Dagon, Eshmun, Gad, Horon, Ishara, Ishat, Kotharat, Kothar-wa-Khasis, Liluri, Lotan, Malakbel, Manuzi, Marqod, Melqart, Milcom, Misor, Moloch, Mot, Nikkal-wa-lb, Pidray, Qadeshtu, Resheph, Shadrafa, Shachar, Shamayim, Shapash, Sydyk, Tallai, Yam, Yarhibol, and Yarikh.
Do some of these sound familiar? If you speak Hebrew, you might recognize some of these words. Shamayim, for example, was the god of the heavens. Yam was the god of the sea. To this day, Shamayim means sky and yam means sea in Hebrew.
It’s worth noting that different Canaanite cultures worshipped different gods within the pantheon. Notably, the Kingdom of Israel — “Israel” meaning one who wrestles with God — was named after the god El. Semitic cultures in antiquity generally had a “national god.” That is, though they were polytheistic, each nation believed that their specific god was there to protect them. For this reason, it was common for nations to name themselves after their national god. For example, the neighboring Assyria was named after their own national god, Ashur.
To this day, the word “el” is the generic Hebrew word for “god.”
According to the Torah, the Twelve Tribes of Israel were named after Jacob’s sons. In reality, it’s unlikely that each of the tribes was descended from a single patriarch. Historians today point out that it was not uncommon during the time period for people to ascribe “human” characteristics to entire tribes and clans.
As one historian points out, “The stories of Jacob and his children, then, are not accounts of historical Bronze Age people. Rather, they tell us how much later Jews and Israelites understood themselves, their origins, and their relationship to the land, within the context of folktales that had evolved over time.
Some historians have theorized that the Hebrew tribes of Gad and Asher were actually named after the Canaanite deities Gad and Asherah.
BUT WAIT…WHAT ABOUT YHWH?
You might have noticed that YHWH, who we know today as the Hebrew God, is not in the original Canaanite pantheon. In fact, YHWH came from Israel’s southern neighbors…in the Sinai. This provides a plausible historical explanation for the story of Exodus as depicted in the Torah. If you’ll recall, Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai.
The Tanakh itself notes YHWH’s southern origins. Habakkuk 3:3 tells us that God “came from Teman” or that he “went out of Seir” and Judges 5:4-5 tells us that God “marched out of Edom.”
Early YHWH worshippers worshipped Him as the god of war and storms. He also seems to have been worshipped by a number of Canaanite cultures other than the Israelites. Though references to YHWH date back to the twelfth century BCE, He did was not described as the national god of Israel until the ninth century BCE.
Historians widely agree that the Torah was composed by three or four authors: the Elohists, the Yahwists, the Deuteronomists, and the Kohanim (priests). Some scholars today doubt that the Elohists wrote a cohesive document; instead, they argue that the Yahwists incorporated earlier Elohist narratives that already existed in the Land of Israel into their own Yahwist document.
In the Elohist documents, God is always referred to as “El” or “Elohim” (plural, meaning “gods”). As you will recall, El was one of the two most important gods in the polytheistic Canaanite pantheon. The Yahwist source, on the other hand, refers to God as YHWH. YHWH is described as an anthropomorphic figure, both physically and mentally.
THE CANAANITE-ISRAELITE RIVALRY
In 1040 BCE, a loose confederation of Hebrew tribes united to form the first centralized state in the Land of Israel, known as the Kingdom of Israel. Given that each of the tribes had their own identities and mythologies, the Israelites needed a unifying national narrative. Thus began the approximately 500+ year-long process of the writing and compilation of the Torah, based on earlier oral traditions and histories.
Tensions arose between the Canaanites who worshipped multiple gods and those who worshipped a single god. In the earliest written texts of the Torah, we see that the writers are determined to differentiate the Israelites from the Canaanites in both explicit and subtle ways. The Torah both recounts the enmity between the Israelites and Canaanites and the Canaanites are depicted negatively. Something more subtle happens in Bereshit (Genesis): in ancient times, entities such as the sun (Shemesh) and the moon (Yareach) were equal to the names of the gods. For this reason, we see that the writer has avoided using them entirely, lest anyone worship them instead of God: “And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.” To reiterate: neither the sun nor the moon are mentioned to describe light and darkness.
Interestingly, however, the Tanakh does not deny the Canaanite origins of the ancient Israelites; in fact, at times, at various points, it even acknowledges them. Ezekiel 16:3 tells us, “Thus said the sovereign God to Jerusalem: by origin and birth you are from the land of the Canaanites — your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.” The Amorites were a Canaanite people.
So what about the invasion story? There’s a theory: a few centuries before the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, Egypt occupied Canaan, and Canaan was ruled by Canaanite vassal kings of Egypt, who oppressed the local people so much that many fled to the hills and began forming their own separate identity. The conquest of Canaan, thus, as depicted in the Torah, was not so much a “conquest” but a rebellion of the disenfranchised Hebrew tribes against the rule of these Canaanite vassal kings.
COSMOLOGY, MYTHOLOGY, & PRACTICES
The Canaanites ascribed to a complex mythology and cosmology. Canaanite mythology is detailed in a series of ancient texts known as the Ba’al Cycle, which was written in Ugaritic, a Northwest Semitic language that became extinct in the twelfth century BCE.
We don’t know too much about Canaanite religious practices. We do know that they practiced animal sacrifice and that they use donkeys imported from Egypt for these sacrifices. While cultures around them practiced child sacrifice, there is no extra-Biblical evidence that proves the Canaanites did so themselves.
The Canaanites created figurines of their beings, which they placed on hilltops and shrines. Interestingly, the early Israelites also created figurines of YHWH; it appears that back then, there was no prohibition on physically depicting Him.
Children caring for parents was highly valued in ancient Canaanite religion. For instance, children were supposed to bury their parents. After death, Canaanites believed that the soul passed onto a land called “Mot.” The word in Hebrew for death, “mavet,” comes from the same linguistic root. Many Jewish and Samaritans festivals, such as Passover, have their roots in ancient Canaanite harvest festivals.
Canaanite religious practices were highly influenced by the cultures around them, including the Egyptians, of course, and the Mesopotamians (interestingly, Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch, is depicted as having come from Mesopotamia in the Tanakh). Additionally, Phoenician sailors carried Canaanite influences to elsewhere in the Mediterranean. In fact, much of Greek mythology is strongly influenced by Canaanite mythology.
ARE PALESTINIANS DESCENDED FROM THE CANAANITES?
In an effort to strengthen their historical claim over Palestine in light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some Palestinians now claim that they are actually Canaanites (and thus, that the Israelites colonized the land from them). The historical consensus is that this is nonsense.
Palestinians are an Arab ethnonational group; in other words, Palestinian is a nationality. Arab culture and religion, though part of the Semitic family, is not Canaanite in origin. The predominant religion in the Palestinian Territories, Islam, has no Canaanite origins either (unless you count what was taken from the Hebrew Tanakh), but rather, originated in the Arabian Peninsula.
Unlike the Jewish language (Hebrew), culture (e.g. Passover), and religion (e.g. the name “Israel” itself coming from the Canaanite pantheon), Palestinian language, culture, and religion does not come from the Canaanites.
A Palestinian identity independent from a greater Arab identity did not begin to emerge until the interwar period before the two world wars. In other words, it’s a post-colonial identity, formed some 1200 years after the Arab Empire colonized the Land of Israel, and nearly 3000 years after the Canaanites existed.
It’s true that many Palestinian families have Jewish or Samaritan ancestry. But genetic ancestry does not necessarily reflect culture; Palestinians with Jewish or Samaritan ancestry assimilated into Arab identity long ago. There are also no recorded Jewish mass conversions to Islam in the Land of Israel, and only one recorded Samaritan mass conversion to Islam.
To be clear: neither Palestinians nor Jews are Canaanites. Canaanites no longer exist. However, culturally and linguistically, as well as genetically, Jews clearly descend from the ancient Canaanite cultures. Palestinians do not, even though some Palestinians do have Jewish or Samaritan genetic ancestry.
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