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No love is lost between the Hebrews and Canaanites in the Bible. The narrative roots of their antagonism appear early in Genesis, in which we read about the chosen Israelites and shameful Canaanites descending from different sons of Noah. A few books later, in Joshua, we’re told that the Hebrews, after fleeing Egypt and wandering in the wilderness for forty years, slaughter the Canaanites before then occupying the Promised Land, on orders from Above.

Yet as we’ll see below, current scholarship in archaeology, philology, and history reveals a substantially different account.

While relatively modest numbers of West Semitic migrants may well have traveled between the Nile delta region and Canaan during the centuries associated with the biblical Exodus, regiments of Hebrews did not swoop in under Joshua’s command and take or destroy city after city in the space of a generation. Rather, the evidence converges on a more gradual and less violent process. 

The earliest Israelite or proto-Israelite communities were small, agrarian, unfortified settlements that proliferated in the central hill country during the economic and demographic tumult of the Bronze Age Collapse and eventual dissolution of New Kingdom Egypt’s hegemony over Canaan towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE.[i] And the weight of the anthropological evidence is that the founders and inhabitants of these highland enclaves were not implacable armed invaders whose forebears had spent centuries laboring for Pharoah west of the Sinai. Rather, these settlers were largely (though perhaps not exclusively) indigenous peoples from other parts of Canaan or nearby.

Map of New Kingdom Egypt, ca. 1450 BCE
Andrei nacu at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Map of New Kingdom Egypt, ca. 1450 BCE
Andrei nacu at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Canaanite Curse

Let’s review the relationship between Canaanites and Israelites according to the biblical story.

Things go right off the rails for Canaan not long after the Flood. Genesis 9 depicts a scene in which Noah is drunk, passed out, and naked in his tent. His youngest son, Ham, sees the old man, and goes out to tell his brothers, Shem and Japheth. These two then cover Noah up while averting their gaze. Noah is so furious with Ham that he places a curse on Ham’s son, Canaan, declaring that Team Canaan will be enslaved by Teams Shem and Japheth (both of whom Noah blesses).

In Genesis 10 and 11, we read in no uncertain terms that Abram/Abraham (grandfather of Jacob/Israel) is a descendant of blessed Shem, and not of accursed Canaan. Preserving this kinship distinction appears to be a priority for the patriarchs. Even though Abram/Abraham has traveled from the northern Mesopotamian town of Haran to settle in the land of Canaan, he will not tolerate a Canaanite wife for his son Isaac, and orders his servant to fetch a suitable woman from back home, according to Genesis 24. And in Genesis 28, we read that Isaac is similarly opposed to Canaanite wives for his sons, Esau and Jacob/Israel. We’re told that Esau does marry Canaanite women. Notably, Jacob/Israel does not.

Fast forward a few centuries. During the sojourn to the Promised Land, characters such as Yahweh and Moses characterize the Canaanites as vile, wanton idolaters fit only to be destroyed en masse, lest their evil ways pollute the incoming Hebrews (Leviticus 18, 20; Deuteronomy 12, 18, 20). And indeed, this planned eradication unfolds more-or-less resoundingly and swiftly in the book of Joshua (although not so much in Judges, which portrays a lengthier, more piecemeal, and arguably more realistic process). City after city falls to Joshua’s forces.

So to sum up, the first several books of the Bible are clear that the Israelites are of a different lineage than the Canaanites, who are detestable, depraved, accursed squatters to be utterly expunged from the land promised to Jacob/Israel and his descendants. 

Canaanite Continuities

The modern consensus of most experts in the archaeology, languages, and literature of the ancient Levant reveals a substantially different picture. The preponderance of the evidence points to a process not of familial/tribal segregation followed by wholesale, bloody conquest, but of demographic evolution and differentiation, of continuity with change—not only in material culture (such as pottery), but also in language, and religious beliefs and practices.[ii]

What is plain is the Canaanite origins of Israel. By the time much of the Bible was written, Israel had its own identity—in fact, it saw itself as distinct from the Canaanites who were even categorized as opponents—but its Canaanite heritage was still very much in evidence . . . . [T]he Canaanite origins of Israelite language, ethnic identity, and religion remain clearly evident in the literary and archaeological remains of ancient Israel and Judah.[iii]

Gezer Calendar, ca. 1000 BCE, Phoenician script and likely Hebrew text
Istanbul Archaeology Museums, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Scholars of ancient Semitic languages tell us archaic Hebrew began as a dialect that branched out from the Northwest Semitic Canaanite tongue.[iv] This gradual separation probably commenced around the latter half of the 2nd millennium BCE, although Hebrew and some of its Canaanite siblings, such as Ammonite, Moabite, and Phoenician, may have remained mutually intelligible into the 1st millennium. (In fact, the shared linguistic pedigree allowed the Hebrews and other Northwest Semitic ethnolinguistic groups to readily adopt the Phoenician alphabet for their own writings.[v]) Notably, Semitic philologists see no evidence of the sort of abrupt linguistic domination, displacement, or disruption that external conquerors generally precipitate—nothing like the spread of Greek across the Ancient Near East due to Alexander the Great’s expansionism in the 4th century BCE, the triumph of Old English over Common Brittonic in early medieval England, or the profound changes wrought in English as a result of the Norman French invasion in 1066 CE, for example.

Along similar lines, the early henotheistic or monolatrous form of Israelite religion was, in many respects, “essentially the Northwest Semitic religion shared by Canaanites and others in the region.”[vi] The Bible itself retains vestiges of the polytheistic Divine Council common to cultures of the Ancient Near East[vii] in Deuteronomy 32, Psalm 82, and elsewhere. Relatedly, the God of Abraham is sometimes called “El,” the name of the chief deity in the older Canaanite pantheon,[viii] and scholars of the period are in general agreement that a number of Israelites practiced a folk religion involving both Yahweh and Asherah (El’s Canaanite queen/consort goddess) prior to the ascendancy of monotheistic Yahwism.[ix] Israel’s very name contains the theophoric “-el” suffix referring to El, rather than the “-ya” or “-yahu” that denotes Yahweh. Even the shared specialized vocabulary of cultic rituals, roles, and sacrifices reflects a level of continuity between Canaanite and Israelite religious practices.[x]

And so on. In short, the “religion of the Canaanites . . . constituted the background from which Israelite religion largely emerged.”[xi]

El, the Canaanite Creator Deity, ca. 1400-1200 BCE
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

As for the traditional Conquest narrative, on the whole, it does not fare well in the light of modern fieldwork and analysis. Archaeologist William Dever (a careful and caustic academic moderate after my own heart) not long ago surveyed the material alignments and misalignments between the biblical account and the archaeological record at Ai, Arad, Dibon, Hazor, Heshbon, Jericho, and other key sites in his magnum opus about what the Bible gets right and what it gets wrong, Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah.[xii]

The Pentateuch and book of Joshua may well reflect some cultural memories of the real disentanglement of the Egyptians and Hebrews or proto-Hebrews in the late 2nd millennium, but they are beset with several specific assertions of fact that are either unsupported or actually contraindicated by the archaeological evidence:

There may have been some regional conflicts between the local population and the new settlers who are by now well documented. But in the light of the overwhelming archaeological evidence, there was no large-scale warfare on the thirteenth- and twelfth-century horizon, except that initiated by the Philistines along the coast . . . . The inevitable conclusion is that the book of Joshua is nearly all fictitious, of little or no value to the historian. It is largely a legend celebrating the supposed exploits of a local folk hero.[xiii]

Where the book of Joshua describes conquest, Dever (sharing the view of most mainstream experts) sees continuity in key respects:

[T]here is little that we can salvage from Joshua’s stories of the rapid, wholesale destruction of Canaanite cities and the annihilation of the local population. It simply did not happen; the archaeological evidence is indisputable. It is conceivable that there was a military chieftain and folk hero named Joshua, who won a few skirmishes here and there. But there simply was no Israelite conquest of most of Canaan . . . . Most of those who came to call themselves Israelites, and were so designated by the contemporary Egyptians, were or had been indigenous Canaanites. There was no wholesale conquest, no need for it.[xiv]

Canaanite Consensus

With a few exceptions among researchers committed in some way to scriptural inerrancy, there is “now a universal consensus among not only archaeologists but also biblical scholars that a new ethnic group called ‘Israelites’ came from among the indigenous peoples of the region (even Transjordan is part of Canaan),”[xv] although certain details naturally remain in dispute. The settlers who established the small highland communities that proliferated in late 2nd-millennium Canaan…

…are neither invaders bent on conquest nor predominantly land-hungry pastoral nomads. They are mostly indigenous peoples who are displaced, both geographically and ideologically. They find a redoubt in areas previously underpopulated, well suited to an agrarian economy and lifestyle. In time, these people will evolve into the full-fledged states of Israel and Judah known from the Hebrew Bible . . . .[xvi]

In other words, the Israelite/Judahite nation “essentially evolved out of Canaan through a gradual process of internal differentiation.”[xvii]

Despite the traditional biblical narrative, it would seem that Canaan begat Israel.

[About the author: Lex Lata holds Associates Degrees in Drinking and Knowing Things from Casterly Rock Community College. He lives with Lady and Lad Lata in a weird old house near Minnesota’s 9,997th lake.]


[i] Lester L. Grabbe, The Dawn of Israel: A History of Canaan in the Second Millennium BCE (2022), 213-234.

[ii] William G. Dever, Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah (2017), 215-216; William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (2003), 195-200; Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel (2nd ed., 2002), 19.

[iii] Grabbe, The Dawn of Israel, 281.

[iv] Gary Rendsburg, “Ancient Hebrew Phonology,” in Phonologies of Asia and Africa: (including the Caucasus), vol. 1 (ed. Alan S. Kaye, 1995), 85; Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites, 200.

[v] John F. Healy, “The Early Alphabet,” in Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet (ed. J.T. Hooker, 1990), 222-229.

[vi] Grabbe, The Dawn of Israel, 232; Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know it? (2017), 127; Smith, The Early History of God, 28-31.

[vii] Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (1973), 186-190; Smith, The Early History of God, 32-42.

[viii] Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith, Stories from Ancient Canaan (2012), 13-18; Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 13-60; Smith, The Early History of God, 32-42.

[ix] Francesca Stravrakopoulou, God: An Anatomy (2022), 149-152.

[x] Smith, The Early History of God, 22-23, 160-181.

[xi] Smith, The Early History of God, 13.

[xii] Dever, Beyond the Texts, 121-191.

[xiii] Dever, Beyond the Texts, 185-186.

[xiv] Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites, 227-228.

[xv] Dever, Beyond the Texts, 222.

[xvi] Dever, Beyond the Texts, 231.

[xvii] Konrad Schmid and Jens Schröter, The Making of the Bible: From the First Fragments to Sacred Scripture (2021), 76.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...