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SBL e-journal

Yigal Levin





Who Was Living in the Land When Abraham Arrived?



APA e-journal

Yigal Levin





Who Was Living in the Land When Abraham Arrived?






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“The Land that I will Show You”

Who Was Living in the Land When Abraham Arrived?


Who Was Living in the Land When Abraham Arrived?

Description of Asiatics (Canaanites) as they were portrayed in the Ancient Egyptian
“Book of Gates”, dated to the 13th Century BCE.

Part 1 

Canaan in the Bible

Abraham Goes to Canaan

At the very beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha we are told that God commanded Abram, the future Abraham,

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).

While this passage does not tell us to which country God intends Abram to go, we are soon told that,

Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:5).[1]

And so begins the long interaction of Abram and his descendants, the future People of Israel, with the Land of Canaan – the future Land of Israel.

Canaan in the Noah Account

Referring to the land as Canaan sounds straightforward enough; however, it turns out that the details of who lived in and owned the land before the Israelites are far more complicated. Let us track what we know about the Canaanites and the land of Israel by looking at the two earliest references to Canaan, both of which occur as part of the Noah account.

In the first appearance of the term (Gen. 9:22), Canaan is a person—the youngest son of Ham—not a nation. In that story, “Ham father of Canaan” shames the inebriated Noah, causing his son to be cursed, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (verse 25). The second of these is within “the Table of Nations” in chapter 10 – the all-encompassing “family-tree” of Noah’s descendants – the ancestors of all the nations of the world. Within that genealogy, Canaan is listed in special detail:

And the sons of Ham were Kush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan…[2] Canaan became the father of Sidon his firstborn, and Heth, and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha (Gen. 10:6, 15-19).

However, despite all of this demographic and geographic detail, there is no indication in the text of the special role that the Canaanites and their land are destined to play in the continuation of the narrative. That role only becomes clear in Parashat Lech Lecha.

Abraham Arrives in Canaan

Abram enters Canaan and encamps by “the Oak of Moreh” near Shechem (at this point we are reminded: “And the Canaanite was then in the land”), where God appears to him and pronounces, “To your offspring I will give this land.” However, neither Abram nor the reader is told to what “this land” refers exactly.

God articulates the promise to Abram once more in chapter 15, the strange story of “the covenant between the cuts” (ברית בין הבתרים). After setting up an array of cut-up animals, Abram falls asleep. In his sleep he has a vision of God, telling him of his (Abram’s) descendants’ slavery and release, and ending with,

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates; the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites” (Gen. 15: 18-21).

God’s promise of the land has now been defined within specific parameters – both geographic and ethnic. Nevertheless, these parameters are still far from clear. From an ethnic point of view, the land is said to have been inhabited by a group of “nations” that come under the general heading of “Canaanite”. Who are the Canaanites? In fact, these “nations” of Canaan are listed about twenty times in the Bible, with the lists often differing from each other.

For example, in the above-cited “Table of Nations”, which pictures all of humanity as being descended from Noah and his three sons, “Canaan” is the son of Ham, and the rest of the Canaanite “nations”, eleven in number, are descended from him. However, in the list given here, “the Canaanites” are simply one of a list of ten “nations” – and not even in first place! Not only that, but of the twelve there and the ten here, only five appear in both lists. In fact, if we compare all of the lists that are scattered throughout the Bible we find a total of fourteen names, which usually appear in groups of six or seven.[3] So who are these “Canaanites”?

In just a few chapters, we will read how Abraham sent his servant to Haran to find a wife for his son Isaac, so that Isaac will not end up marrying a Canaanite (Gen. 24:3). We will then read about Rebecca, who also insisted that her son Jacob be sent to Haran rather than marry “the daughters of Heth” (Gen. 27:46), which Isaac restates as “you shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan” (28:1). Again there seems to be some confusion. What is a “daughter of Heth”? Is this the same as a “daughter of Canaan”? Is a Hethite a kind of Canaanite, as implied in Gen. 10? Are they a separate nation as implied in Gen. 15? Are they synonyms? Why the change in terms?

Descendants of Hittites and Amorites?

During the covenant of the parts referred to above, God tells Abraham that although his descendants will inherit the land, this will have to wait four generations because (Gen. 15:16): “The sin of the Amorite is not yet complete.” This verse uses “Amorite” as a general term for the inhabitants of the land,[4] just as Rebecca used the term “Hethite” as a general term and Isaac used “Canaanite.” Similarly, in Gen. 23 the inhabitants of Hebron, from whom Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah, are called “sons of Heth,” (the specific owner of the cave is “Ephron the Hittite,”) whereas in Josh. 10 the kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, and the other cities in southern Canaan that Joshua defeats are collectively called “the kings of the Amorites.” This is also the title used of Sihon and Og, the two Transjordanian kings defeated by Moses. In fact, the most-frequently mentioned name after “Canaanite” is “Amorite”, almost as if this were the “default” identity of any Canaanite who was not known to be something else (such as a “Jebusite” or a “Hittite.”)

If this weren’t confusing enough, when the prophet Ezekiel describes the origins of Jerusalem, he uses all three terms:

Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. (Ezek. 16:3).

What does Ezekiel mean by this claim? Does he have a specific historical situation in mind, or was he simply comparing the sinful inhabitants of the Jerusalem he knew to their “sinful” long ago predecessors? Would he have considered Melchizedek “king of Shalem, priest of the Highest God”,[5] who appears in our parashah, to have been one of those sinful Amorites?

As we mentioned above, in Gen. 12:6 we are told that “the Canaanite was then in the land.” However, in 13:7, still in our parashah, we are informed that “the Canaanite and the Perizzite were then living in the land”. Ibn-Ezra pointed out that the Perizzites are listed in chapter 15 but not in chapter 10, and surmised that “Perizzite” must be another name for one of the groups that are listed in chapter 10. To this evidence we could add many more references to the peoples of Canaan, each giving us a slightly different picture of who exactly did inhabit the land.[6]

The picture we get, then, is rather confused. The land was inhabited by the “Canaanites,” who were comprised of several different groups, one of which was “the Canaanites.” “Amorites”, “Hittites” and many others are also mentioned, but there does not seem to be much consistency in the use of the various groups. It is precisely at this juncture that we, as scholars who wish to understand the “real-life” context of the Torah, can look to external evidence to fill in the missing pieces. 

Part 2

The Ancient Near Eastern Perspective


When, in the 19th century, western scholars managed to decipher the ancient languages of the Middle East and began to read the writings of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria and other nations, a whole new world came to light. Much of what they discovered seemed to remind them of what they had read in the Bible, but a lot was very different. For example, it turned out that “Canaan” was indeed a name used for what would later become (more or less) the Land of Israel, but only within a rather limited context, during the 16th to 12th centuries BCE, at a time in which the land was part of the Egyptian Empire.

Different scholars have developed different theories about the origin and original meaning of the name “Canaan”. Some claimed that it originally referred to a group, or “class”, of merchants, perhaps specializing in the blue and purple dye that was exported from Canaan.[7]Others think that the name is derived from the root כ-נ-ע, having a basic meaning of “low” or “small”, and referring either to the people (as in “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers”), or perhaps referring to the land itself, as “the low country” (as in Europe’s “Low Countries” = “Netherland”), or even as “the land of the setting sun”, as seen from Syria or from Mesopotamia.

In any case, as in the Bible, “Canaan” was indeed one of the names used for the land; the inhabitants, perhaps “by default”, were “Canaanites.” It is possible that the reason that this is the name used most commonly in the Bible is because it was the “official” name used by the Egyptians, who ruled the country just prior to the Israelites’ first appearance in the land. This might also be an explanation for the listing of Canaan as Egypt’s “little brother” among the sons of Ham in Gen. 10.

Once we recognize that “Canaan” is a general name for the land and its inhabitants during what archaeologists call “the Middle and Late Bronze Age” (c. 2000-1200 BCE)—the period prior to the appearance of the Israelites [8] and the possible setting for the account of the patriarchs and matriarchs—we can then use the information gathered by archaeologists and textual scholars to broaden our knowledge of these people. We now know quite a lot about the Canaanites’ language, religion, political culture, material culture, economy and additional aspects of their lives, all of which can serve to fill out the sparse information provided by the biblical text.


A more common name in ancient documents was “Amurru.” Scholars immediately interpreted this name as the equivalent of the biblical אמורי (“Amorite” in English translations of the Bible) – one of the “nations” of Canaan. “Amurru”, which literally means “west,” was a term commonly used by the peoples of Mesopotamia to define the entire area west of the Euphrates River all the way to the borders of Egypt (cf. Gen. 15:18).[9] This can be somewhat confusing, since in many biblical passages, Gen. 15:21 for example, the Amorites are just one group within the Canaanites, while in the Mesopotamian documents “Amurru” is a large area, of which Canaan was just a small part.

Assuming that there is, at least, an etymological connection between “Amurru” and אמורי, it would seem that, to some of the biblical writers, “Canaan” was the term for the land that became “the Land of Israel” while “the Amorites” was a term for the main group that inhabited the land before the conquest. Compare this to the way Americans used to speak of the pre-1991 Soviet Union: they were aware of the fact that the Soviet Union included many different ethnic groups, but still often referred to its inhabitants as “Russians”, who were the dominant group.

Hethites and Hittites

Another ancient culture that was rediscovered by 19th century scholars was that of Ḫatti, based in what is now central Turkey. This was the name of a kingdom that was founded around the 18th century BCE and eventually grew to become an empire that dominated what is now Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq. This empire fell near the end of the 13thcentury, but small successor-kingdoms continued to exist in northern Syria for another few centuries.

As in the case of “Amurru”, early scholars immediately identified Ḫatti with the biblical “Hittites” (החתי or בני חת in Hebrew) – so much so, that to this day many people use the “biblical” form “Hittites” when referring to Ḫatti. The problem is, of course, that the kingdom of Ḫatti was based in central Turkey and did not include or control the land of Canaan even at the height of its power. So why would the “Ḫatti/Hittites” be included in the various lists of the “nations of Canaan”? Why would Genesis call the people of Hebron “sons of Heth”? This is more than just an anachronism, since neither Hebron nor any other part of Canaan was ever within the territory ruled by the kingdom of Ḫatti.

Some scholars have suggested that a small group of Ḫatti-people migrated to Canaan at some point and retained at least their ethnonym, if not other elements of their identity, but there is no proof of this. So actually, we know as much about the biblical Hittites as we do about the Girgashites, the Jebusites or the Kadmonites (i.e. very little). None of these is mentioned in any extra-biblical texts that have come down to us, and archaeologists have not found any way to distinguish a Perizzite from an Arkite.

We can make some educated guesses. The name “Perizzite” may be related to the Hebrew word for “unwalled town” (ערי פרזות). “Kadmonite” may be the same as בני קדם, “sons of the east.” Nevertheless, in the end all we know about most of the “nations of Canaan” is what the Bible tells us – which is not a lot!


The Torah is not a history book. It is not an ethnological guide. It is not a catalogue of ancient tribes. It is a book with a religious message. Its purpose is to instruct us about the nature of the relationship between the people of Israel, Abram’s descendants, and the God that chose them as God’s people. However, the Torah was written using the historical memories and images that were familiar to the people who were its audience. We, far removed from that time, are in the position of being able to recover some of those memories, using the knowledge of the ancient world that has been rediscovered over the past few generations. Our use of that knowledge is one way in which we can develop a better understanding the Torah and its messages within the context that they were originally written.


October 8, 2013


Last Updated

April 18, 2021


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Dr. Yigal Levin teaches the history of the biblical period at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. He received his Ph.D. in Bible from Bar Ilan University. Specializing in historical geography and in biblical genealogies, Levin was co-editor of War and Peace in Jewish Tradition from Biblical Times to the Present and is presently working on a commentary on Chronicles