Child sacrifice! Fertility cults! Baal worship! The Canaanites have gained a poor reputation over the years and been accused of various dreadful beliefs and practices! They were an enemy who deserved to be driven out of their land so that the Israelites could have somewhere to settle. But do they deserve their bad name? Almost certainly not! There is no clear evidence that they practised child sacrifice. Their way of life depended in no small measure on the fertility of the land and the warding off of the threat of drought or flood, so they worshipped Baal who, they believed, had defeated Yam (Sea) and could overcome Mot (Death).

Who were they?

It is difficult to be precise about the identity of the Canaanite people or the extent of the land of Canaan. In the Hebrew Bible, the terms are sometimes used of those who lived in the area subsequently inhabited by Israelites and of the territory conquered by, or occupied by, the Israelites. Comments such as ‘At that time the Canaanites were in the land’ (Gen 12:6) imply that they were no longer there when those words were written. Other passages suggest that at one time Canaanites lived alongside Israelites (e.g., Judg 1:28-33). Canaanites are sometimes mentioned in what seem to be formulaic lists of earlier inhabitants (e.g., Josh 3:10).

A difficulty lies in the extent to which it is possible to distinguish the Canaanites from other groups such as the Amorites. In Josh 7:7-9 both the terms seem to be used to refer to the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land into which the Israelites were entering, rather than to distinct groups. It is not always easy to differentiate Canaanites from Phoenicians, and it is possible that the Phoenician culture is to be understood as a continuation of that of the Canaanites. Millard has described the Phoenicians as ‘latter-day Canaanites’ (Millard 1973: 36).

Sometimes references to the Canaanites, particularly in Joshua and Judges, seem to be ideological, “… intended to inform the contemporaries of the authors about how they were to deal with persons of non-Israelite origin” (Lemche 1991: 120).

Where did they live?

There are several biblical descriptions of the extent of the land of the Canaanites, all placing it in the general area of the southern Levant. Some indicate a quite extensive territory. The “Table of Nations” (Gen 10:15-19) suggests that its compiler understood Canaan to stretch from Gaza in the south, beyond Sidon in the north. But another description of the boundaries of Canaan (Num 34:2-12) places its northern limit at Lebo-Hamath (Lebweh), considerably further north.

What were they like?

Although some believe that the city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) lay outside the area which can appropriately be called “Canaan”, many regard the discoveries (particularly textual) made there as the best available window on Canaanite culture, beliefs and practices in the Late Bronze Age. These suggest a people with accomplished scribes and skilled artisans, advanced religious beliefs, and complex rituals.

Further reading

Curtis, A. H. W. “Canaanite Gods and Religion.” Pages 132-42 in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books. Edited by B. T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson. Downers Grove, IL; Leicester, England: IVP, 2005.
Lemche, Niels Peter. The Canaanites and Their Land. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 110. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
Millard, A. R. “The Canaanites.” Pages 29-52 in Peoples of Old Testament Times. Edited by D. J. Wiseman. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
Tsumura, D. “Canaan, Canaanites.” Pages 122-32 in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books. Edited by B. T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson. Downers Grove, IL; Leicester, England: IVP, 2005.
Wyatt, N. Religious Texts from Ugarit. 2nd ed. London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.