Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Canaanite Culture

Posted by foryourfaith on September 9, 2011


The “Promised Land” was, as the Israelites had hoped, reasonably blessed with natural resources. But their new home offered spiritual as well as material temptations. Yahweh warned: “. . . if you go astray, serve other gods . . . Yahweh’s anger will be kindled against you, he will shut the heavens, there will be no more rain, the soil will not yield its produce and, in the fine country given you by Yahweh, you will quickly perish” (Deuteronomy 11:17). Indeed, if the Israelites had not struggled so hard to preserve their identity, they might well have been overwhelmed by Canaan – as much by its seductive culture as by its powerful chariotry.


“The heavens rained oil, the valleys flowed with honey.” The imagery in these Ugaritic verses is inescapably the same as that used by Moses in describing Canaan: “a country flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).

The most exciting of all the finds from Ugarit are the many texts with similar parallels to the Old Testament language. An early discovery was that the Ugarit’s scribes had simplified the cuneiform script for writing on clay an alphabet of 30 letters, practically identical to the Hebrew. Many of the texts written in this script reveal striking parallels with Biblical style, vocabulary and grammar. The way in which Baal is characterized as a god who rules the storm, rain, snow and lightning, and defeats the old “dragon” of the sea, is markedly similar to the poetic descriptions of Yahweh in the Psalms.


Occupying the hill country of central Palestine would not have posed insurmountable problems for the Israelites, since much of it seems to have lain empty. However, Galilee, the Jezreel valley and the coastlands were highly urbanized and well guarded by a vigorous Canaanite population.

The accounts in Joshua and Judges paint a picture of numerous independent city-states. Ruled by the “kings,” such states were based on a fortified capital – cities such as Hazor, Ai, and Jericho – dominating a satellite region of villages and farmland. The population was racially mixed, including Semites, Hurrians, Indo-Europeans and others of indeterminate origin such as the Philistines. Despite this apparent disunity there are enough common factors to describe, in general terms, a Canaanite civilization.

The Israelites were impressed by Canaanite culture, particularly by its wealth and technology. The Bible records with some wonder such things as the king of Hazor’s iron chariots (Judges 4:3) and the splendid scale armor of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:5). Apart from the metal work, the Canaanites excelled at ivory carving and textile manufacture – the name Canaanite may even come from the word for the purple dye (kinahhu), famous in coastal regions.

Though their economy was largely based on agriculture, the Canaanites also profited from their manufactured goods and their excellent position at the crossroads of the trade routes between Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean. In Egypt, Canaan was well known for its produce (notably oil, wine, grain, timber, and cattle), luxury goods (inlaid chariots and ornate silver and gold vessels), and skilled musicians.

Canaanite gods mirrored Canaanite society. While Yahweh was a desert god, whose shrine was a tent carried about by nomadic followers, the Canaanite gods had established temples which were an important focal point of city life. As varied as its devotees, Canaanite religion had room for foreign gods, including Egyptian deities such as Ptah and Amun. Most popular, however, were Canaan’s native gods and goddesses, the baalim and ashtaroth, so detested in the Bible.

Canaan’s pantheon of deities personified, broadly speaking, natural forces. This was anathema to the official cult of Yahweh, but attractive to some of his more wayward followers. For it is unlikely that all the ancient Israelites worshipped the male god of the Old Testament – there is some evidence that he was often worshipped in company with a female deity. Otherwise he was worshipped alongside Baal and the other gods as people saw fit. Indeed, the major theme of the Old Testament after the conquest is the constant struggle to preserve the integrity of monotheistic Yahwism within a people who were constantly backsliding into the abominations of Canaan.


The Excavation of Ugarit

Modern knowledge of Canaanite civilization was revolutionized by the discovery of the ancient city of Ugarit in 1929. Before then, archaeologists were largely dependent for information on scraps of data preserved by classical authors and the Old Testament’s polemical diatribes against the “sinful” Canaanites. With the excavation of Ugarit’s massive libraries, the ancient Canaanites were at last able to speak for themselves.

The rich strata of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) have also provided an almost complete picture of the development of a Canaanite town over some 6,000 years. Ugarit, on the north Syrian coast, began as a small fishing and farming community during the seventh millennium BC. Over the centuries it developed into a substantial urban settlement which, despite several major catastrophes (probably due to earthquake), was always rebuilt. In the fourteenth century BC, Ugarit reached its “golden age.” Its dynasty of kings ruled as respected merchant princes, dealing with the great kings of the Hittites, Egypt, and Babylonia. Cyprus was an established trading partner, linking Ugarit with the Mycenaean world of the Aegean. The city was finally destroyed by an earthquake in about 1200 BC.


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