The Canaanites and Their Land: The Tradition of the Canaanites (JSOT Supplement 110)

Written by Niels Peter Lemche Reviewed By Richard S. Hess

Lemche proposes to explore the reasons for the antipathy toward the Canaanites found in the OT. His presuppositions include: (1) pre-exilic Israelites were culturally and ethnically indistinguishable from surrounding peoples; (2) the Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic History were post-exilic creations; and (3) these texts preserve no recoverable history and their contents must be interpreted in the light of post-exilic Israel. Therefore, he argues that negative impressions of Canaanites as unscrupulous traders in the post-exilic period were written into the accounts of early Israel.

Lemche argues that, unlike the biblical account, extra-biblical texts describe second-millennium-bc Canaan in vague terms and that, for some, the land itself could include areas as far north as Danuna in Cilicia. This interpretation rests upon a single text in an Amarna letter from Abimilki, ruler of Tyre, to the pharaoh (EA 151 lines 49–63). In the text, Abimilki quotes the pharaoh as asking what he hears ‘from Canaan’. As Lemche notes, scholars have followed A.F. Rainey in interpreting this text as a request of the leader of Tyre, who comes from Canaan, to provide information. This is a plausible interpretation of the preposition followed by a place name (cf. a similar usage by Abimilki in 149 line 4), but Lemche understands the text as asking Abimilki what news he hears about Canaan. Lemche provides no parallel examples to support this ‘exegesis’.

This is important because the biblical descriptions of Canaan’s borders in Genesis 10:19, Numbers 34:3–6, Joshua 13–19 and Ezekiel 47–48 reflect, in the opinion of many scholars, a definition of the land of Canaan originally used when it was part of Egypt’s New Kingdom empire (cf. studies by Y. Aharoni and Z. Kallai). Clearly defined borders of regions such as the land of Canaan were a concern, as attested by second-millennium treaties and contracts from Hattusas, Ugarit and Emar. Thus, Lemche’s attempt to sever Pentateuchal and Deuteronomistic descriptions of second-millennium-bc Canaan from the contemporary, extra-biblical textual evidence is not proven.

Since Lemche does not regard the Pentateuch as preserving any valid and recoverable pre-exilic historical traditions, it follows that its descriptions regarding Canaan must originate in the first millennium. This extends even to the lists of nations who composed pre-Israelite Canaan (pp. 83–90, 99–100). Lemche discredits any historical value to these lists because: (1) they do not consistently list the same names; (2) Ezra 9:1 includes Transjordanian nations and Egypt; (3) Hittites and Amorites never settled in Palestine to any large extent; and (4) names such as Hivites and Jebusites are unattested outside the Bible.

It should be pointed out that (1) is irrelevant since such consistency is not required where a list of some is intended to designate the whole. (2) is explicitly not a list of Canaan’s inhabitants but of Israel’s neighbours. (3) is wrong in the case of the Hittites who, as a term for northerners, have been increasingly identified as occupying the hill country, both in the personal names of the Amarna correspondence and in the material culture. As for the Amorites, they may have been identical to the Canaanites, so that the one term could be used to gloss or to replace the other term. Alternatively, the term may reflect specific regions, as Lemche notes regarding the Amurru kingdom in the 14th century. If this is the case, then the traditional distinction in these passages between Amorites in the hill country and Canaanites on the coastal plains may be preserved. (4) would have been true of the Hittites a little more than a century ago. Given the scarcity of evidence which exists, it is more surprising that so many names in these lists are attested outside the Bible. The lack of external attestation of names in a list where other names are attested is not normally an argument for finding that list lacking in historical worth.

The problematic nature of the arguments which characterize the book result in a final concluding chapter whose statements cannot be supported by the evidence. Leaving aside biblical references, the most precise information about second-millennium-bc Canaan does not come from Mesopotamia (p. 154), but from Egyptian Papyrus Anastasi I. Without clear evidence that ideology and literary form have distorted historical statements in the biblical text, arguments that the OT’s portrayal of Canaanites has no historical value (p. 155) cannot be sustained. Contrary to Lemche, the ancient and modern distinction is not between scholarly histories and historical novels (pp. 158–160), as though the one is ideologically free and the other is biased beyond hope of finding historical worth. The real difference is between good history and bad history, whatever form it takes, whenever it is written, and whatever its purpose.


Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver