The Old Testament is full of names used to describe various ethnic groups of the Promised Land and the lands they occupy. Some of these names are well-attested from other archaeological and historical sources; others are obscure and remain a mystery to this day.
Throughout the Pentateuch and historical books, the Promised Land is frequently referred to as Canaan, and its non-Israelite inhabitants as Canaanites. Other terms used fairly often for the land’s indigenous inhabitants, though less frequently than “Canaanite”, are “Amorite” and “Hittite”.
What, in historical terms, was a Canaanite, a Hittite, an Amorite? How did ancient sources outside the Bible use these labels, and what comparisons can we draw with the Bible? The answers may help us to understand the times and places in which the biblical authors wrote, as well as the idealogical framework they were working from.
Canaan in Ancient Sources
The ethnic label “Canaanite” first appears in a third-millennium-BCE text from Ebla, and various early references equate Canaan with the Phoenician coast and its hinterlands. In the late Bronze Age, around the year 1552 BCE, Egypt established military and political control of the Levant—a situation that would last for about five centuries. Under Egyptian administration, the region was divided into three provinces: Amurru (the far north), Upi (the region around Damascus), and Canaan (Phoenicia and southern Palestine). Later, in the first millennium, Egyptian sources tend to refer to southern Palestine and Philistia as Canaan.
In Hittite sources, Canaan (Kinahhi) refers to the northern Phoenician coast as distinct from southern Phoenicia, which includes Sidon and Tyre. (Green, 2003, pp. 220–221) In Greek sources, Canaan is sometimes an equivalent term for Phoenicia.
It has become well-established in archaeology that ancient Israel cannot be distinguished from the other tribes of Canaan. Israel, a polity that emerged in the hill country of Palestine during the late Bronze Age, existed in complete cultural, material, and linguistic continuity with the Canaanite societies that preceded it. The Merneptah Stele, which provides the earliest known reference to Israel, lists Israel as one of several peoples conquered by Pharaoh Merneptah during a campaign in Canaan. In historical terms, the Israelites were indigenous Canaanites, not external conquerors. The name “Israel” itself contains the name “El”, the high god of the Canaanite pantheon.
In short, “Canaan” in ancient texts is mainly a geographical and political term that refers to land, and not to any specific ethnic group or culture. (Noll, 2007, 62–64) It was mainly a label applied to the region of Phoenicia and Palestine by outsiders. As Danish scholar Niels Peter Lemche puts it, “The Canaanites of the ancient Near East did not know that they were themselves Canaanites. Only when they had so to speak ‘left’ their original home, only when they lived in some other part of the Mediterranean area, did they acknowledge that they had been Canaanites.” (p. 152)
Canaan and Canaanites in the Bible
The Canaanites are one of the seven nations in a formulaic list that is repeated numerous times by the Deuteronomistic writer:
When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you… then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. (Deut. 7:1–2)
Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites. (Josh. 3:10)
The Priestly writer of the Pentateuch understands Canaan to be essentially coterminous with the Promised Land—the homeland of Israel’s ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A rare exception to this view of Canaan can be found in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, often considered the oldest passage in the Hebrew Bible. It describes a battle between the northern tribes and the “kings of Canaan”, which seem to from the Galilee region. And in the lead-up in Judges 4, Jabin the “king of Canaan” is based in Hazor in northern Galilee. This seems to be an earlier, less ideological view of Canaan, written before the exodus and conquest narratives had been developed.
The conceptual relationship of Canaan with other nations and sub-groups is expressed by the Table of Nations in Genesis 10—probably composed fairly late—which describes the world as a great family tree, each of its peoples represented as an eponymous ancestor descended from Noah. Here, Canaan is Noah’s grandson through Ham. His sons include Sidon his firstborn (northernly-situated Sidon/Phoenicia), Heth (the Hittites), the Amorites, the Jebusites, and so on—all kingdoms located within the author’s conceptualization of Canaan.
(As I have written in previous articles, eponymous ancestors are a fictional storytelling device; no one—aside from some very conservative literalists—thinks a man named “Canaan” really founded the land of Canaan.)
Though the authors of the Pentateuch and historical books see the Israelites as rightful inhabitants of the whole of the land of Canaan, the term Canaanite is usually reserved for those people of the land who do not fit into the approved tribal and religious framework of the Israelites. Canaanites are the “other”, a faceless enemy to be dispatched without mercy at every opportunity. They are an ideological element that addresses the concerns of the exilic or post-exilic elite that wrote and canonized these texts (Lemche pp. 119–120).
In the other books of the Old Testament, the situation is somewhat different. No negative connotation seems to be associated with Canaan in Isaiah 19:18, for example:
On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to Yahweh of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.
In fact, the “language of Canaan” appears to be Hebrew in this context, and “Canaan” is simply the land of Palestine from an Egyptian perspective.
In Isaiah 23, “Canaan” appears to be used as a synonym for “Phoenicia” in an oracle against Tyre. While the connotation is negative, the term here is used for a territory that geographically does not match its use in the Pentateuch.
Ezekiel 16.3 seems to acknowledge Israel’s Canaanite origins (no mention of an exodus here), even if there is a polemical tinge:
Thus says the Lord Yahweh to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite.
In Zephaniah 2.5, Canaan seems to designate the coastal region of Philistia:
Woe to you inhabitants of the seacoast, you nation of the Cherethites (Cretans)! The word of Yahweh is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines; and I will destroy you till no inhabitant is left.
There are several passages in Ezekiel, Hosea, Zephaniah and elsewhere where the text is ambiguous as to whether “Canaanite” or “trader” is meant. The words are essentially identical in Hebrew, and this may reflect an Israelite understanding of Canaanites as merchants and traders, perhaps with the seafaring Phoenicians in mind. For example, kena‘ani in Proverbs 31.24 is usually translated “merchant” in English translations, but the Old Greek explicitly has it as “Canaanite”:
She makes linen garments and sells them;
she supplies the merchant with sashes. (MT)
She made linen garments and sold them,
and girdles for the Chananites. (LXX)
See also Job 41.6 (LXX 40.30):
Will traders bargain over it?
Will they divide it up among the merchants? (MT)
And do nations feed on it,
and do the Phoenician races divvy it up? (LXX)
In this latter instance, we have the Canaanites identified with the Phoenicians, as was typical among Greek-speakers in the Hellenistic period (Lemche p. 147).
Much more could be said, but broadly speaking, the biblical texts outside of the Pentateuch and historical books treat Canaanites in more diverse ways—as Philistines, Palestinians and Phoenicians, as merchants and traders—but not as the stereotyped enemy of the Israelites they become in the Deuteronomistic History.
Amurru, the Historical Amorites
The name “Amorite” ultimately comes from Old Akkadian Amurru, meaning “the West”. It was used by the ancient Assyrians as a general term for the Bronze-Age cultures of the desert and steppe-land in Syria. For the most part, it designated no specific nation or ethnic group, although a kingdom by that name did exist for a while around the 14th century BCE in central Syria.
After the fall of the kingdom of Amurru, the label came to be used by the Assyrians for any lands west of Assyria to the Mediterranean, with no particular southern limit. As Neo-Assyrian involvement in Palestine increased, all the kingdoms of Palestine came to called “Amurru”, including Israel as well as its neighbours—Phoenicia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, and the Philistine cities.
Amorites in the Bible
As noted earlier, the Amorites are one of the names included in an oft-repeated stereotyped list of peoples along with the Canaanites, Hittites, and so on.
Although many biblical passages seem to imply that the Amorites were a specific ethnic group, the way the term is actually used often reflects Neo-Assyrian usage from the 8th century onward—as a blanket term for the peoples living in Palestine and Transjordan. Furthermore, the Old Testament treats it as an archaic reference, as though it were an older term for the pre-Israelite occupants of the Promised Land. Van Seters suggests that using archaic terms like “Amorite” was necessary to make the text sound like something that would have come from the time of Moses, and therefore more authoritative (Van Seters 1972).
Sometimes, the Deuteronomistic History gets oddly specific with the location of the Amorites, but there is little agreement as to what that location is. In Deuteronomy 1.28, the Amorites are equated with the sons of the Anakim, a primeval race of “giants” who live in the Israelite hill country. Genesis 14 locates the Amorites further south, in the Judean Negeb. Numbers 21 appears to equate “the territory of the Amorites” with Ammon and Moab across the Jordan. Joshua 10, discussed in an earlier article here, depicts the kings of Jerusalem and four cities in the Shephelah as the “kings of the Amorites” who are defeated by Joshua in the process of conquering the Promised Land. As Van Seters, in his definitive paper on the topic, puts it:
To summarize we may say that “Amorite” in the Old Testament does not correspond to any political or ethnic entity known from the historical documents of the second millennium B.C. Instead the Old Testament writers probably learned of the term from Assyrian and Babylonian sources of the first millennium and construed it as an archaic term for the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine. Their use of the term is largely ideological and rhetorical and represents the primeval wicked nations whom God displaced in order to give Israel its land. (p. 78)
Hatti, the Historical Hittites
The original Hittites were an Indo-European people who settled in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) around 2,000 BCE and became one of the Near East’s greatest empires. They called themselves Hatti, and their capital was the central Anatolian city of Hattusa. Although they contended with Egypt for control of the Levant, Hittite rule never extended further south than some Syrian vassal states.
The Hittite Empire eventually collapsed amidst the droughts, migrations, and invasions that accompanied the tumultuous end of the Bronze Age, circa 1180 BCE. Its successors were several Neo-Hittite kingdoms that emerged in southern Anatolia and northern Syria. These became vassals of the Assyrian empire and were eventually assimilated completely.
The use of the term “Hittite” in Assyrian inscriptions changed over time. During the time of Shalmaneser III (9th century), it referred to the neo-Hittite states—Carchemish in particular. After his, however, the neo-Hittite states lost their independence and ethnic identity. By the time of Sargon (ca. 720 BCE), Hittite had become a synonym for Amorite and was used to indicate all of Syria-Palestine. (Van Seters, p. 66)
By the neo-Babylonian period (ca. 626 BCE), Hatti had replaced Amurru as the standard term for Palestine—including the kingdom of Judah. In fact, Judah is explicitly referred to as part of the Hittite region (“Hatti-land”) in the Babylonian Chronicles’ account of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest.
In the seventh year [598-597], the month of Kislev, the king of Akkad mustered his troops, marched to the Hatti-land, and encamped against the city of Judah [Jerusalem] and on the second day of the month of Adar [Mar 16, 597] he seized the city and captured the king. He appointed there a king of his own choice Zedekiah, received its heavy tribute and sent (them) to Babylon.
Hittites in the Bible
As previously noted, the Pentateuch and historical books present the Hittites as one of the seven stereotyped nations of the Promised Land, to be eradicated by the Israelites. Apart from this list, all references to Hittites in the Pentateuch are found in verses attributed to the Priestly author (Van Seters, p. 78), who probably revised and augmented earlier versions of the text. The term is basically synonymous with “Caananite”, and the Table of Nations makes Heth (the Hittite “founder”) a prominent son of Canaan.
Joshua 1:4 also explicitly equates the land of the Hittites with the idealized limits of the Promised Land:
From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory.
A brief reference in Judges 1.26 identifies the land of the Hittites as the hill country around the city of Luz.
A few uses of the term correspond more closely with the historical neo-Hittite kingdoms. 1 Kings 10.29 and and 2 Kings 7.6 refer to the “kings of the Hittites” in a context that puts them near, but distinct from the kings of Aram (the region around Damascus, Syria).
It is unclear exactly what is meant when the books of Samuel name two of David’s men, Ahimelech and Uriah, as “Hittites”, though they have Semitic names. Van Seters suggests that the author merely wishes to portray them as non-Israelite (p. 80; also Lemche p. 86). An alternate hypothesis given by Edward Lipiński, which I haven’t seen adopted elsewhere, is that “Uriah the Hittite” is a misinterpretation of the Hurrian title “Lord” followed by the Hurrian name “Hutiya”, whom he takes to be a Hurrian prince who ruled Jerusalem before David (Lipiński p. 127, n. 183).
In summary, while Kings understands the Hittites to be a group of northern kingdoms, the Pentateuch and Joshua use it as a label for all the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine. This closely resembles the term’s use in neo-Babylonian texts from the time of Sargon onward, and if the biblical authors are attempting to give the appearance of antiquity by using it this way, they are writing later still.
An Apologetics Footnote
There is an odd defense of the Bible’s historical accuracy that crops up now and again regarding the Hittites. One online example can be found in this article by Kyle Butt at Apologetics Press. The argument typically goes that the Bible used to be “scorned” by scholars and historians for its numerous references to the unknown Hittites. The archaeological discovery of the Hittite empire and its capital Hattusa in Turkey in 1906 is considered, then, to be a triumphant vindication of the Biblical record that has rendered the Bible’s critics “shamefaced and silent”.
This strikes me as a rather facile argument. Firstly, I am unable to locate these pre-1906 claims that the Hittites never existed. (I welcome such references if they exist.) Secondly, as we have seen, the Bronze-Age Hittite Empire was a completely different entity from the “Hittites” portrayed in the Bible. Thirdly, the basic argument is a non sequitur. The inability to correlate an obscure tribe or kingdom with archaeological finds would not necessarily mean it had never existed; conversely, corroboration of some element from a biblical story does not prove the story itself is historically true. There is also a ridiculous level of cherry-picking occurring here: there is no shortage of reasons why Old Testament scholars do not regard the Bible as a wholly accurate account of history—one need go no further than any standard commentary to see that. And that is not to mention all the biblical nations we still find no historical evidence for (e.g. the Jebusites).
This Hittite apologetic argument is of no use to anyone trying to understand the Bible and understand history; it’s purely aimed at the naive Christian who has heard rumours about inaccuracies in the Bible and wants vague reassurances that the experts have cleared everything up in the Bible’s favour. Furthermore, it tends to lower itself to ad hominem attacks against “secular” historians who are portrayed as being hostile to religion. This is a serious mischaracterization that does nothing to advance genuine scholarship in history, archaeology, and the Bible.
Alberto R. Green, The Storm-God in the Ancient Near East, Eisenbrauns, 2003.
Alberto R. Green, “The Chronology of the Last Days of Judah: Two Apparent Discrepancies”, Journal of Biblical Literature, 101/1 (Mar. 1982), pp. 57-73.
K. L. Noll, “Canaanite Religion”, Religion Compass 1/1, 2007, 62–64.
John van Seters, ‘The Terms “Amorite” and “Hittite” in the Old Testament’, Vetus Testamentum, 22/1 (Jan., 1972), pp. 64-81.
Niels Peter Lemche, The Canaanites and Their Land: The Tradition of the Canaanites (JSOT Supplement 110), Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
Edward Lipiński, On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age: Historical and Topographical Perspectives (OLA 156), 2006.
Anson F. Rainey, “Who Is a Canaanite?”, BASOR 304, 1996.