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Cana, Canaanites

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(Canaan, Canaanites).

The Hebrew Kenaan, denoting a person, occurs:

In the days when the trading Phoenicians held a prominent place, especially among the Canaanites, this word (Kena'ani), and even Canaan (e.g. Isaiah 23:8), got the signification of "merchant, trader." As the name of the country it occurs under the forms Kinahhi, Kinahni, and Kinahna, as early as two centuries before Moses in the cuneiform letters of Syrian and Palestinian princes to Egyptian Pharaos, found at Tell el-Amarna; and earlier still in Egyptian inscriptions, in the form Ka-n-'-na. The Phoenician town of Laodicea calls itself on coins from the second century B.C. "a mother in Kena'an". In Grecian literature too, evidence remains that the Phoenicians called one of their ancestors, as well as their country, Chna, and even at the time of St. Augustine the Punic country people near Hippo called themselves Chanani, i.e. Canaanites. If the word be of Semitic origin, it should be derived from the root Kana, and mean originally, low, or, in a figurative sense, small, humble, despicable, subjected. Following this derivation in its original sense, "the land of Canaan" has been explained by various scholars as "the low land" — whether the name may have originally denoted only the flat seashore, or the mountainous country of Western Palestine as well, in opposition to the still higher mountains of the Lebanon and the Hermon. But Biblical tradition rather seems to derive the name of the country from that of the person. It takes the "land of Canaan" as "the border of the Canaanites" (A.V., Genesis 10:19) i.e. of the race of Canaan, Ham's son, and it does not seem advisable to put against this so uncertain a conjecture as the etymology given above. The less so, as the figurative meaning of the word as a synonym of slave or servant, fits in very well with the little we know of Noah's grandson.

Canaan, the son of Cham

In Genesis 9:18 and 9:22, Ham appears as the father of Canaan and in Noah's prediction (9:25-27) Canaan stands side by side with his "brothers" (in the larger sense of the Hebrew) Shem and Japheth:

"He said: Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
"And he said: Blessed be the Lord God of Shem, be Canaan his servant.
"May God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan be his servant."

The curse called down on Canaan is undoubtedly connected with the sin of his father, Ham (verse 22). But it is rather hard to indicate the precise nature of this connection. Had Canaan in some way a share in his father's sin, and is it for this reason that what was said in verse 18 is repeated in the story of the sin, viz.: that Ham was the father of Canaan? Or is the latter struck by Noah's prophetic curse for the sins of his posterity, who were to imitate Ham's wickedness? Certain it is, that this curse, as well as the blessing invoked upon Shem and Japheth, was especially fulfilled in their posterity. The descendants of Canaan were partly rooted out, partly subjected by the Israelites and all the Canaanite races, as such, disappeared from the scene of history. Others have tried to solve the problem by critical methods. It was supposed that Genesis 10:20-27 was derived from a source in which Canaan had taken the place of his father, Ham, and so was passed off as Noah's third son. It is as conceivable that in the original prophecy the name of Ham occurred, and that the Israelites, seeing the prophecy fulfilled, especially in the posterity of Canaan might have changed it to that of the son. But none of these critical conjectures has any solid foundation.

Quite uncertain, too, is the opinion which represents Canaan as the youngest of Ham's four sons. It is based on Genesis 10:6: "And the sons of Ham: Chus, and Mesram and Phuth, and Canaan". But this whole list of the descendants of Noah's sons is, at least in substance, ethnographical, and the order of succession geographical, hence an enumeration of tribes beginning with the most distant and ending in Palestine. In verses 16-20, therefore, there is question only of Canaanite tribes, and they occupy the Iast place because they dwell in or near, Palestine. Consequently it cannot be concluded from this that Canaan was the youngest son of Ham.

The land of Canaan

With a few exceptions the Biblical writers seem to indicate by this name at the least, the whole of Western or cis-Jordanic Palestine. It extends from the desert of Sin in the south to near Rohob and the entrance to Emath in the north (Numbers 13:3, 18; cf. 22). A more accurate demarcation of the land of Canaan is in Numbers 34:3-12, and Ezekiel 47:15-20. For though the name does not occur in Ezechiel, the identity of the boundary lines is drawn there is not to be doubted. In either text the western boundary is formed by the Mediterranean, and the greater part of the eastern by the Dead sea and the lower course of the Jordan.

The southern frontier coincides with that of the territory of Juda (Joshua 15:1-4), whilst Cadesbarne (Ain Kedis), 30°33' N. latitude, may be taken as the most southern point. From this of St. Jerome time (In Ezech, Migne, XXV, 476-478) the northern frontier was placed in Middle or even Northern Syria. From this passage of St. Jerome even a fons Daphnis (Daphne near Antioch) found its way into Vulgate (Numbers 34:11) instead of the town of Ain. But though some of the border towns are not yet known with absolute certainty, we may take for granted nowadays that this northern boundary-line of Canaan must be drawn to the south of the Lebanon and Hermon, at about 33°18' N. lat., and that it completely coincides with the northern frontier of the country conquered and inhabited by the Israelites, which, according to numerous quotations, stretched "from Dan to Bershabee" or "from the entering in of Emath unto the brook of Egypt." The northern part of the eastern boundary, however, seems to follow, not the upper course of the Jordan but the course of the Rukkad from Hasar-Enan (El-Hadr) to Ain (Ayun), so that here the whole of Western Jaulan still seems to be included in the land Canaan — not, however, the land of Galaad or the country in general beyond the Jordan to the south of the Jarmuk. All the places quoted above agree with this conception, and only twice does the name of the country Canaan occur in a more limited sense: first for the Phoenician coast (Isaiah 23:11), and secondly for the low land of the Philistines (Soph., ii, 5) — both in a time when only these regions along the coast were still inhabited by Canaanites. We have already seen how the name was honoured even later still in Phoenicia itself. In Egypt name of the country seems to be used especially for the sea-coast; at the same time the name Canaanites is also applied to the inhabitants of the mountainous country behind it. In the Tell el-Amarna letters the country of Kinahhi seems to include both the Phoenician coast and the mountains of Upper Galilee, and probably, farther to the north, the country of Amurri (Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon). cf. H. Clauss Zeitschrift des Deutschell Palastinavereins (1907), XXX, 17, 29, 30, 35, 36, 64, 67.

Genesis 10:15-18 enumerates as the descendants of Canaan a series of tribes, most of which, and originally perhaps all, were settled outside Palestine proper and up to Northern Syria: "And Canaan begot Sidon, his firstborn, the Hethite, and the Jebusite, and the Amorrhite, and the Gergesite, the Hevite and the Aracite: the Sinite, and the Aradian, the Samarite, and the Hamathite: and afterwards the families of the Canaanites were spread abroad." These latter are the tribes peopling Biblical Canaan or western Palestine: "And the limits of Canaan were from Sidon as one comes to Gerara even Gaza, until thou enter Sodom and Gomorrha, and Adama, and Seboim even to Lesa." If we may identify Lesa (A.V. Lasha) with Lesem (Joshua 19:47) or Lais (Judges 18:14, etc), the Dan of later days, the coast from Sidon to Gaza and Gerara is here indicated as the western boundary of Canaan, and the valley of the Jordan from the Pentapolis to Lais-Dan as the eastern boundary. But the "Codex Samaritanus" has in verse 19 quite another statement: "And the border of the Canaanite was from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, and [from the Euphrates] to the hindmost [or Western] Sea." Apparently by "the Canaanite" are here meant all the descendants of Canaan, mentioned in verses 15-18, of whom the Hethites, at least, lived close to the Euphrates. It is hard to decide which reading is the original one. Both show the descendants of Canaan settled in the Biblical "land of Canaan", i.e. the later "land of Israel". As a rule it is the pre-Israelite inhabitants of this "land of Canaan", taken collectively, who are indicated by this common name of Canaanites. Thus in the Pentateuch, especially in parts attributed to a Jahvistic source, as e.g. Genesis 12:6, 24:37, 38:2, 50:11. Elsewhere, however, chiefly in so-called Elohistic parts, the name of Amorrhites is used in the same general sense. And very often as many as six or seven or even eleven, different tribes or peoples are distinguished, one of which in particular bears the name of Canaanites. Thus e.g. Exodus 3:8: "The Canaanite, and Hethite, and Amorrhite and Pherezite, and Hevite, and Jebusite." Repeatedly (e.g. Joshua 3:10), the Gergesites, mentioned above (Genesis 10:16), are added; and in Genesis 15:19-21, we find "the Cineans and Cenezites, Cedmonites . . . the Raphaim also"; whilst in Numbers 14:25, the Amelectite; in A.V. Deuteronomy 2:23 and Joshua 13:3, the Avims; and in Joshua 11:21 (and elsewhere), the Enacims are named, leaving out other older, and probably trans-Jordanic, tribes like the Zuzim, the Emim, and the Chorreans (Genesis 14:5, 6).

Of most of these tribes little or nothing is known. For Amorrhites see article under that title. The Hethites founded a mighty kingdom in Northern Syria, but it is uncertain whether their namesakes in the south of Palestine (Genesis 23:3, 26:34, etc.) had anything in common with them besides the name. About the Canaanites in a more limited sense we learn that they had their dwelling-place to the east and west of the mountains, i.e. along the coast of the Mediterranean and in the valley of the Jordan and the Araba to the south of the Dead Sea (Numbers 13:30, 14:25; Deuteronomy 1:7, 11:29 sq.; Joshua 5:1, 11:3, 13:3). So it is by this name that the Phoenicians are still called in Abd., 20; and the "Syrophenician" woman of Mark 7:26, is a Canaanite woman in Matth., xv, 22. It is not likely that all the various pre-Israelite tribes remained sharply distinguished from one another. "There are good reasons for believing that at a very early period the population of Palestine already presented a mixture of races, and that through intermarriage the dividing lines between these races became fainter in the course of time, until all sharp distinctions were obliterated. The problem of distinguishing between these various groups whom the Hebrews encountered upon setting in Palestine is at present incapable of solution." (Morris, Jastrow, Jr. Encyclop. Bibl., I, 642.) Still it does not seem too great a venture to distinguish (with Hughes Vincent, "Canaan", p. 455) two principal groups of tribes: the Amorrhites in the mountains and the Canaanites along the sea-coast and in the valley of the Jordan, and perhaps in the plain of Esdrelon (Joshua 17:12-18). On the other hand, when the Israelites under Josue penetrated into Canaan they found this mixed "Canaanite" or "Amorrhite" population, not bound together politically under one government but divided into more than thirty petty kingdoms (Joshua 12:7-14), a state of things which must have made the conquest considerably easier for them. This same system of cutting up the country into small parts obtained two or three centuries earlier, in the time of the Tell el-Amarna letters, which were for the greater part written by, or to a number of these city-kings — and apparently even earlier still in the days of Abraham (Genesis 14:2, 8, 18, 20:2). In this respect these letters contain a striking corroboration of the Biblical story. After the campaigns of Tothmes III in the sixteenth century B.C. all these small states acknowledged the supremacy of the Egyptian Pharaos and paid them tribute. After a time, however, this sovereignty must have gradually become more and more nominal, and in spite of the later campaigns of Seti I and Rames II against Hethites, it left no traces after the conquest by Josue.

The further particulars given by the Bible about the Canaanites are rather scanty. We read occasionally of their cities "great and walled up to the sky" (Deuteronomy 1:28; cf. Numbers 13:29); of their "chariots of iron" (Joshua 17:16): and repeatedly of their gods Baal and Moloch and their goddesses Astarte and Ashera; of their altars and their stone pillars (masseboth) and wooden posts (asherim), in connection with these altars, of their sacrifices of children and manifold forms of moral perversity; the abominations on account of which "the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants" (A.V. Leviticus 18:25), and which, in spite of the severe prohibition of the Law and the admonitions of the Prophets, found but too much imitation in Israel itself. Most of these particulars have of late received a splendid corroboration and explanation in archaeological discoveries, principally in consequence of the systematic excavations conducted in Palestine by W.H. Flinders Petrie and F.J. Bliss at Tell el-Hesy; by Bliss and M.R.A. Stewart Macalister at Tell Zakariya, Tell es-Safy, and Tell Jedeide; by Macalister at Teil Jezer; by E. Sellin at Thenac; by G. Schumacher at Tell el-Mutesallim — to all of which Sellin added in 1907 his labours at old Jericho.

Even before the tribes who are introduced to us as Canaanites in the Bible penetrated into Palestine (between 3000 and 2500 B.C.) there must have lived for many centuries an older population, dwelling there partly in caves, but also possessing their primitive "towns" surrounded by earthen walls. This period is characterized especially by stone instruments and very primitive earthenware. The Canaanite tribes who gradually took their place came from the north and were for a long time, if not under the supremacy, without a doubt under the manifold influence of Babylon. which Sellin added in 1907 his labours at old Jericho. In the fifteenth century B.C., when the country was already politically subject to Egypt, the kings of the Canaanite towns used in their correspondence, not only with the Pharaos but also between themselves, the Babylonian cuneiform characters, and — with the addition of a number of Canaanite words — the language of Babylon as well. Macalister (Pal. Expl. fund Quart. Stat. 1905, 323 sq.) and, quite lately, Sellin (Mitth.und Nach. des Deutschen Palastinavereins, 1907, 70) found some scanty evidence that the Old Hebrew or Phoenician characters were also known in those days. Civilization meanwhile, had made immense progress, as is evident from the rise of bronze and other metals — soon, too, of iron; from the building of dwelling-places, city stalls, towers, and strongholds; from the increasing number and value of objects of domestic and religious use; from the designs and fitting up of sanctuaries and burial caves; and from the richer variety of form, ornamentation, and painting in the products of the potter's art — though art does not appear to have enjoyed a continuous and even development.

When the Israelites (Numbers 13:29; Deuteronomy 1:28) speak in awe of "great cities", the hyperbole is nearly as great as in the expression "walled up to the sky", those explored have covered, at most, seven or eight hectares (about 19 acres), but the fortifications have been excellent. The walls of Jericho, built of burnt bricks, had a width of from three to twelve metres, i.e. from about 9 to 39 feet (Sellin. op. cit., p. 69). If the ancient inhabitants offered their sacrifices in dish-like cups cut in the surface of the rocky ground, the Canaanites had their open-air temples, or Bamoth (high places), with altar, sacrificial pit, and stone pillars from about seven to nine feet high. At Gazer eight pillars were found, still standing, the smallest of which (about 51/2 feet high) seems to the oldest, and is perhaps the real emblem of the deity. Of the asherim, or wooden posts, only the stone bases seem to be left. Two large grottos situated under the sanctuary must also have played a part in this worship. But the most disgusting traces of this idolatry are the skeletons of infants — mostly new-born babes — sacrificed to the deity, which at Gazer were found buried in jars beneath the floor of the sanctuary, and elsewhere, especially at Mageddo, in its immediate neighbourhood. Several times the remains of these human victims, among which have been adults, were found beneath or in the foundations of houses and other buildings; a striking illustrations of the words of Joshua 6:26: "Cursed be the man before the Lord that shall raise up and build the city of Jericho. In [or with] his firstborn may be lay the foundation thereof, and in [or with] the last of his children set up its gates." The naturalistic character of this religion becomes especially evident in the numerous Astarte plaques, or statuettes, of divergent types, and likewise in the often occurring phallic emblems. Among these latter some class part of the baetylic stone pillars, and find in a few bulls' heads representations of Baal or Moloch. Some representations of Babylonian deities also occur, and, still more frequently, images from Egyptian mythology. The Astarte plaques likewise show Egyptian inspiration. In short, the Canaanite civilization seems continually to have felt the influence of both these nations. In pottery, moreover, Aegean-Phoenician art produced marked results from the beginning of the fourteenth century B.C. On the other hand, the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan, judging from the explorations made, opened no new period in so far as archaeology is concerned, so that the "Canaanite" period (i.e. the various "Semitic" periods of Macalister, Palestine exploration Fund Quarterly Statements, 1907, p. 203) has been extended to about the ninth or eighth century B.C.

Indeed, the submission of the Canaanite was not made effectual nearby so soon as some chapters of the Book of Josue might lead us to expect. Particularly the places that have become best known to us through the excavations. Thenac, Mageddo, and Gazer, are among those that submitted to Israel only after a lapse of time (Joshua 17:11-13; Judges 1:27-29). Gazer even in the days of Solomon was still inhabited by Canaanites (1 Kings 9:16). And in the same context (verses 20-21) we learn that Solomon, through forced statute laborer, subjugated "unto this day", the whole of the Canaanite population of his realm. Thus Canaan had become once and for all the servant of Shem. Afterwards Phoenicia with its colonies was subjugated by the Romans, sons of Japheth, and soon vanished altogether from the roll of nations.

About this page

APA citation. Van Kasteren, J.P. (1908). Cana, Canaanites. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Van Kasteren, John Peter. "Cana, Canaanites." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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