An ancient name for the region occupied today by Lebanon and Israel (Map 1). The origin of the term “Canaan” is obscure. It was used at Nuzi in Upper Mesopotamia as a term for red or purple dye, a product for which the coastal Canaanites were famous. Although it has been suggested that the geographical name Canaan was derived from the name of the dye, it is more likely that the Nuzi dyes were named for their Canaanite manufacturers. Similarly, the rare meaning “merchants” for “Canaanites” in biblical Hebrew (Zech. 14.21; Prov. 31.24) is probably a secondary development, based on the mercantile reputation of the coastal Canaanites, rather than a clue to the origin of the word.

“Canaan” was in use as a geographical designation as early as the third millennium BCE. In the latter half of the second millennium it referred to a province of the Egyptian empire in western Asia. The province of Canaan was bordered on the north by the land of Amurru, which lay in southern Syria west of the middle Orontes, and on the east by the province of Upe, which included the region of Damascus and northern Transjordan. The Israelites seem to have adopted this older usage of the name when they took control of the land. The frontiers of Canaan described in Numbers 34.1–12 correspond closely to those of the Egyptian province; the eastern and western boundaries are formed by the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan rift respectively, the southern boundary extends from the southern end of the Dead Sea west to the Wadi of Egypt near Gaza, and the northern boundary traverses the Pass of Hamath on the upper Orontes north of the Lebanon.

The biblical writers sometimes use “Canaanites” as a general designation for all indigenous inhabitants of ancient Palestine without ethnic or political distinction (Exod. 13.11; Judg. 1). Elsewhere the same peoples are collectively called “Amorites” (Gen. 15.16; Amos 2.9, 10). This general usage of “Canaanites” was most important as a term marking ethnic boundaries, distinguishing the Israelites from the indigenous peoples with whom intermarriage was to be avoided (Gen. 24.3; 28.1). The ethnic position in which the Israelites placed the Canaanites is expressed genealogically in Genesis 10.6, 15–18, in which Canaan is said to have been a son of Noah's second son Ham, a brother of Cush (Ethiopia), Egypt, and Put (Libya?), and the father of the Sidonians (the Phoenicians), the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, and the other pre‐Israelite inhabitants of Canaan.

Elsewhere in the Bible, the Promised Land is thought of as having been ethnically diverse, and the Canaanites are presented as one of several peoples who lived there before the arrival of Israel (Gen. 15.18–21; Exod. 3.8, 17). According to Deuteronomy 7.1, the Canaanites were one of seven nations driven out before the Israelites. In still other passages the pre‐Israelite population is said to have had regional ethnic divisions, of which the Canaanites were the coastal component (Num. 13.29; Deut. 1,7; Josh. 5.1). In this last usage the term “Canaanites” corresponds exactly to “Phoenicians.”

See also Conquest of Canaan; Ugaritic


P. Kyle McCarter, Jr.