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The word Canaan is not a Semitic name, although its appearance about 2300 B.C. in the Ebla texts attests to its antiquity. Because of the final “n,” it has been conjectured to be a Hurrian form. Quite probably the name was derived from a merchant designation; certainly Canaanite was ultimately equated in the biblical text with “trader” or “merchant” (Zechariah 14:21).
Isaiah 23:8 uses Canaanites as a common noun meaning “merchants” or traders as the aristocracy to Tyre in the prophet's day. Similar association may be found in passages such as
Zephaniah 1:11. Canaan's identity as merchants probably goes back to a time when Canaan was limited to the area of Phoenicia, the rather small and narrow country along the seacoast of Canaan. Phoenicia was particularly known for a special purple dye produced from crushed mollusks. This product was shipped throughout the Mediterranean world. The word Canaan may be related to the special colored dye. It should not be assumed, however, that the Canaanites were only merchants. Agriculture was also prominent in the land, making crucial for their well-being the Canaanite fertility deities who assured the autumn and winter rains and thereby the fertility of the land.
The biblical genealogical references are not particularly helpful in clarifying our understanding of Canaan. According to
Genesis 9:18 and
Genesis 10:6, Canaan was a son of Ham, one of the three sons of Noah.
Genesis 10:15-20 clarifies the implications of this Hamitic descent in the sons of Canaan: Sidon, Heth, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgasites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, and Zemarites, and the Hamathites. All of these peoples are characterized by being generally within the Egyptian sphere of influence.
Settlement within the land of Canaan is attested from Paleolithic times. Further, a Semitic presence in the area is evidenced at least by 3000 B.C. Some of the best examples of cities indicating Semitic influences are Jericho, Megiddo, Byblos, and Ugarit.
The best attested period in Canaanite history is the Bronze Age (ca. 3200-1200 B.C.). During the Old Kingdom (ca. 2600-2200 B.C.), Egypt's power extended as far northward as Ugarit. From recoveries at several sites including Byblos and Ugarit, it is clear that Egypt controlled the area during the period of the Twelfth Dynasty (1990-1790 B.C.). From this general time period come the Egyptian Execration Texts which list peoples and princes of the area who owe their allegiance to Egypt. Egyptian control over Canaan waned, being withdrawn about 1800.
Canaan had to contend with other aggressors besides Egypt. Approximately 2000 B.C., the Amorites invaded the area, having migrated via the Fertile Crescent from the southern Mesopotamian Valley. In addition, the Canaanites were beset by the Hyksos, who controlled Egypt from 1720 until 1570. Hurrians and Hittites also sought control of Canaan. The mingling of so many cultural influences still resulted in a rather unified culture. The remarkable archaeological recoveries at Ugarit serve as an excellent indicator for understanding the entire area of Canaan. Recent discoveries at the third millennium city of Ebla will add more knowledge when they are published and studied. Ebla had been destroyed earlier than even the earliest dating of the patriarchs.
When the Egyptians were able to expel the Hyksos in the sixteenth century, the Egyptians were able to extend their power over Canaan. Again, however, Egyptian power weakened. By 1400, a number of small, established nations in the area struggled with each other. From the fourteenth century the Amarna Letters are derived. These are approximately 350 letters written in cuneiform Akkadian. They represent correspondence between the Egyptian court at Tell el-Amarna and numerous Canaanite cities, including Jerusalem, Megiddo, and Shechem. These letters indicate the unrest characteristic of these Canaanite principalities socially and politically. This unrest set the stage for the settlement of the Israelites into Canaan beginning in the thirteenth century as the Israelites benefited from the absence of political cohesion within Canaan.
Prior to Israel's entrance into Canaan, the country seems to have been organized around major cities creating rather small principalities. There was apparently no attempt to organize centrally for defense, thus making possible the success the Israelites enjoyed in the thirteenth century and the parallel success of the Philistines in the twelfth century. The biblical evidence is scant for any type of concerted Canaanite aggression against the Israelites. Stories in the book of Joshua (Genesis 9:1-2;
Genesis 10:1-5) indicate that in emergency situations the independent city-state kings formed defense coalitions, but no one had power to unite all Canaan against Israel. In the Book of Judges only one Judge, namely Deborah (Judges 4-5), is depicted as having fought against the Canaanites. Rather than struggling with each other after the conquest, the Canaanites and Israelites gradually melded together, a phenomenon essentially completed by the end of David's rule.
Interpreter's Religion Modern understanding of Canaanite religion derived from the discovery of Ugarit, or modern Ras Shamra, where archaeological excavations began in 1929. Primarily through French auspices, the ancient site has been excavated, with work continuing each season from 1929 until 1939, when excavation was stopped by World War II. Digging was begun anew following the war and continues into the present.
The most significant finds have been the cuneiform tablets discovered in the royal library and/or temple in Ugarit. These tablets date from 1400 B.C., near the final fall of Ugarit in 1200 B.C. Their portrayal of the deities and religious perspectives represent Canaanite thought between 2000 and 1500 B.C. The language of the tablets was rapidly deciphered by an international team of scholars. The language has proven to be a type of proto-Hebrew, and the record is an excellent accounting of Canaanite religion and deity understanding. Prior to this discovery, awareness of Canaanite religion was sketchy, with most of the information dependent on the Bible.
The Pantheon A pantheon of deities was worshiped at Ugarit. On the one hand, each deity had a clear duty assignment, while on the other hand considerable fluidity flowed in deity perception. The role(s) of any given deity might be assumed by another.
El was acknowledged as the titular head of the pantheon. As king of the gods, he was both the creator god and a fertility god. He had earlier been more strongly associated with fertility than was true in the fourteenth century, although he was still depicted in the form of a bull. El lived at some distance from Ugarit upon a mountain (Mt. Saphon) located to the north. In practice it was Baal, however, who dominated the worship of the people.
El was joined by Athirat, apparently his wife, who is represented in the Old Testament as Asherah, with both feminine (Asheroth) and masculine (Asherim) plurals. Athirat was acknowledged as the mother of the deities, having given birth to some seventy gods and goddesses. Thus, she was predominately a fertility goddess and designated “creatress of the gods.”
Baal was the chief god in the popular worship of the people. Baal means “master” or “lord” and could refer to any one of the numerous Baalim (Baals) who had authority in various locations. The Ugaritic Baal, however, referred to the ultimate Baal!
Whereas El was located at some distance from the people, Baal was easily accessible. Baal statues have been recovered. These depict Baal wearing a conical hat with horns that conveys the strength and fertility associated with bull imagery. In his right hand Baal holds a club that represents his military strength as well as thunder. In his left hand he grasps a stylized lightening bolt which symbolizes his role as a storm god. He is sometimes portrayed as seated on a throne, indicating his authority as king of gods. All of these symbolic elements point to Baal's role as a storm and fertility god, a deity essential to the well-being of the people.
Baal was joined in his task by Anat, represented in the Bible as Anath. She was portrayed as both sister and consort of Baal. In her role she was both goddess of love, the perpetual virgin, and the goddess of warfare, whose exploits in Baal's behalf were sometimes remarkably cruel.
As Baal gradually supplanted El, many of the prerogatives earlier associated with El were naturally transferred to Baal. The biblical text derives from the period when this symbolic struggle between the deities had in essence been accomplished. Thus in the Bible Baal is often depicted with Asherah (i.e., Athirat) rather than Anath (i.e., Anat), as in
Judges 3:7 (NIV).
Two additional gods fulfilled important roles in the popular mythology. Mot was the god of death and sterility. (In the Hebrew language the word for death is also mot.) Mot was associated with death, whether that refers to the seasonal cycle of vegetation, the sabbatical understanding of a seventh year of agricultural rest, or in some fashion to the individual's death. Mot was clearly understood as a power capable of rendering impotent Baal's regenerative powers.
Yam was called both “Prince River” and “Judge River.” (Again, the Hebrew word for sea is Yam.) In the Ugaritic texts Yam was the chaotic god of the sea, capable of turning cosmos into chaos. The people of Ugarit, like their Mesopotamian counterparts (and unlike the Egyptians), apparently recognized both their dependency upon as well as the dangers associated with water. Cultically, the fear of chaos overcoming cosmos was represented in Baal's struggle with Yam.
This sampling of some of the more important members of the pantheon indicates that the Ugaritic schema, and thus that of the Canaanites in general, offered abundant options for worship. The mode of worship was tied especially to procreative sympathetic magic. The sexual union of god and goddess assured the fertility of mankind, the animals, and the larger world of nature. Crucial for this mode of worship was the worshiper's possibility to assist the process via sympathetic magic. In the temple a male priest or devotee fulfilled the god role, and the female priestess or devotee fulfilled the goddess role. These two individuals became for the moment as god and goddess. In sympathetic magic, humans ordain when and how the god and goddess act. This mode of human arrogance undergirded the tower of Babel story in
Genesis 11:1. Practically all ancient worship structures operated from such a fertility-sympathetic magic orientation. The Israelites encountered this thought pattern when they entered Canaan. It took many centuries (note King Josiah's removal from the Jerusalem Temple about 621 B.C. of the vessels made for Baal and Asherah as well as the houses of the male cult prostitutes—2 Kings 23:1) for Israel in daily practice of popular religion to resist Canaanite practices. The teachings of inspired leaders and the actual practice of religion often stood in stark contrast.
Canaanite Mythology The seven tablets upon which the Ugaritic mythological material was found is often mutilated, frequently making difficult an assured rendering of the material. In addition, on most of the tablets both the beginning and the end has been destroyed or at least badly mutilated, making difficult the determination of the proper sequence of events. The following is a possible rendering.
The mythology apparently centered around three primary exploits of Baal. Through these events he established himself as the god of supreme power within the pantheon, built the palace or temple which he merited by virtue of his victory over Yam, and in the third scenario struggled with, succumbed to, and ultimately escaped from the clutches of Mot.
The first incident was evidently necessitated by Baal's being a rather late entry into the Ugaritic pantheon. Nonetheless, the story clarifies how and why Baal became the supreme god rather than El.
El is portrayed as having been unashamedly afraid of Yam, this chaotic god of the sea. In fact, El was so frightened that he hid beneath his throne, fearful himself to encounter Yam but encouraging anyone to come forward who would confront this agent of chaos. Eventually, following some negotiations having to do with his role if successful against Yam, Baal stepped forward and proceeded to engage Yam. Baal was successful, bringing Yam under control by dividing him and thus making helpful an otherwise destructive, chaotic force. By this act Baal demonstrated himself worthy of exaltation.
The second mythological sequence emphasized that Baal was now worthy of his own palace or temple. Given the cyclic view of reality and the recurring danger posed by Yam, it is understandable that Baal did not want any windows in his palace. After all, the threat of chaotic flooding would surely occur again, for such recurrence is characteristic of mythological thought. Eventually Baal was convinced otherwise. Anat secured El's permission to build the palace, and the master craftsmen erected the structure. Baal opened the completed palace to all the pantheon for a type of sacred meal. During the meal, Baal opened one of the windows and bellowed out the window, surely understood as an indication of thunder's origin, given Baal's association as god of the storm.
All should be well, but Baal had one more enemy to confront, Mot. According to the mythology, the two met in battle. Baal was defeated, being consigned thereby to the nether world. When Baal was separated from Anat, sterility reigned on earth. The wadis dried up, and Anat anxiously searched for Baal. While she could not find Baal, one day she chanced upon Mot. She had with her a blade with which she cut Mot into many pieces, which pieces she then sifted, with the remains being scattered across the ground, probably an allusion to some type of grain festival. Regardless, this action by Anat enabled Baal to escape from his confinement. Rapidly thereafter, fertility returned! Thus the full cycle has been traversed, whether the intent be the annual cycle experienced in the world of nature, the seven-year sabbatical cycle, or perhaps the human birth-to-death cycle. What is transparent is the cyclic nature of the highly sensual, sympathetic magic worship. The Israelites were forced to contend with this mythology upon their entrance to Canaan. They faced a worship structure which had proved itself successful in the vie w of the Canaanites. Apparently, the Israelites had to offer in exchange a non-agrarian wilderness God who had no record of success in agriculture!
Old Testament Relationships The Israelites settling into Canaan were not impervious to their surroundings. In the Ancient Near East people assumed that as a people migrated from one area to another they would take over the gods and religion of the new area in which they settled. At the least, they would incorporate the new religion into their own old religious structure. After all, these gods and goddesses had demonstrated their capability in meeting the inhabitants' needs. For the Israelites the most natural thing would have been to embrace Baalism, although perhaps not to the exclusion of Yahwism. Multiple worship was the norm rather than the exception in antiquity.
Strong argument can be made that a type of Yahwism—Baalism synthesis gradually established itself, particularly in the Northern Kingdom. During the period of Joshua and the Judges, a cultural struggle was waged which had to do more with the conflict between wilderness (Israelite) and agrarian (Canaanite) cultural motifs than between Yahweh and Baal. As earlier indicated, in the Book of Judges only one Judge, Deborah, is depicted as fighting directly against the Canaanites. Another judge could be called Jerabaal (Judges 6:32), having a father with an altar to Baal (Judges 6:25). Without leadership Israel worshiped Baal-berith (“Baal of the covenant”) mixing Baalism with the covenant of Yahweh (Judges 8:33).
The early monarchical period demonstrates the same type of syncretistic behavior. Saul assuredly did not struggle to eliminate Baalism, and he even named a son Eshbaal (“man of Baal,”
1 Chronicles 8:33). Jonathan had a son, Merib-baal (1 Chronicles 8:34). In like manner David named a son Beeliada (“Baal knows,”
1 Chronicles 14:7). Solomon was even more of a syncretist. Solomon's crowning glory, the Temple, was designed and built by Canaanite architects. In such an atmosphere lines of demarcation were loosely drawn. Solomon's politically-motivated marriages brought many other gods and their worship into Jerusalem (2 Kings 11:1-8).
Following Solomon's death and the disruption of the United Monarchy, the identity crisis continued in both north and south, but not as much in the south as in the north. Judah was the base for worship of Yahweh and the site of the Jerusalem Temple. In addition, Judah was geographically isolated from the northern Canaanite area where Baalism was more regularly practiced.
In Israel, however, the initial king, Jeroboam I (922-901 B.C.), erected rival shrines to the Jerusalem Temple at Dan and Bethel. These shrines, in the shape of bulls, are viewed by most scholars as being associated in some fashion with Baalism (recall that both El and Baal could be represented in the form of a bull). Regardless, the adherence to Jeroboam's shrines was for the biblical writers the mark of apostasy for Israel's kings. During the Omrid Dynasty, Ahab (869-850 B.C.) married Jezebel, a princess from Tyre, as a sign of the diplomatic relationship between Israel and Tyre. Jezebel brought the clearest infusion of Baalism into Israel. Amidst the building of a Baal temple in the capital city of Samaria and the persecution of Yahweh's prophets, the prophet Elijah emerged on the scene. In a classical story of cultural confrontation, Elijah encouraged a contest atop Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18-19). On the one hand, the contest was an attempt to determine which deity could give the life-giving rain. On the other hand, it had a much greater significance. It clarified that a person must worship either Yahweh or Baal. It was not possible to worship both, for Yahweh demanded exclusive allegiance.
The struggle Elijah initiated with this either-Yahweh-or-Baal imperative, King Jehu (842-815) carried forward politically. Religiously, in the Northern Kingdom, Hosea gave voice to the anti-Baalistic message.
In the South, two kings led the anti-Baalistic struggle. Hezekiah (715-687 B.C.) is remembered as a reforming king (2 Chronicles 29-31), Josiah (640-609 B.C.) was the reformer par excellence. Josiah initiated the Deuteronomic Reformation in 621, a primary focus of which was anti-Baalism.
Judah also had its vocal prophetic spokesmen against Baalism. Isaiah about 740-700 addressed the issue. Jeremiah from 615 B.C. onwards issued the strongest denunciation of Baalism. Our first clear literary evidence for monotheism derives from
Isaiah 45:6, but the impetus for the emergence of a pure monotheistic posture developed its roots in the anti-Baalistic thrust of the ninth-century prophet, Elijah.
The Baalistic Canaanites influenced Israel in many ways: Temple construction, sacrificial rituals, the high places, a rejection of any sexual motif as a worship instrument (Deuteronomy 23:17-18), and a lessening of the purely mythical with a concomitant emphasis upon the historical happening (as with Yahweh's splitting of the sea (Yam Suph) rather than a struggle with a mythological Yam—Exodus 14-15).
It is too easy for the biblical interpreter to focus on the numerous ways that Israel found the Canaanite religion to be offensive. In some cases, such as the use of sex in worship, the level of antipathy witnessed in the Old Testament may not always have characterized Israel's actual practice, as prophetic denouncements like Hosea's show. The marked hostility (Deuteronomy 20:16-18) which clamored for the wholesale destruction of the Canaanites came from inspired religious leaders who did not represent the majority of Israel's population. A priest could call a prophet to leave the king's place of worship (Amos 7:12-13). The prophet could command people not to go to traditional worship places (Amos 5:5).
In summary the Israelites did not settle into a cultural vacuum upon entering Canaan. They encountered a people with a proud history and a thriving religion. Historically speaking, that encounter could potentially have led to the elimination of Yahwism. It did not. Rather, a long historical process led to the eventual elimination of baalism and other elements of Canaanite religion. Israel's battle with Canaanite religion gave new dimensions and depth to Israel's faith. The biblical record affirms that Yahweh, the Lord of history, has used the reality of historical encounter as a means to bring biblical religion to its mature development as revealed in the full canon of Scripture. See Amorites; Anath; Asherah; Baal; El; Elijah; Israel; Phoenicia; Ugarit.
Frank E. Eakin, Jr.