corner graphic   Hi,    
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

Ca´naanites, the descendants of Canaan, the son of Ham and grandson of Noah, inhabitants of the land of Canaan and the adjoining districts. A general account of the different nations included in the term is given in the present article, and a more detailed account of each will be found under their respective names.

The Israelites were delivered from Egypt by Moses, in order that they might take possession of the land which God had promised to their fathers. This country was then inhabited by the descendants of Canaan, who were divided into seven distinct nations, viz., the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. All these tribes are included in the most general acceptation of the term Canaanites; but the word, in its more restricted sense, as applied to one tribe, designated those 'who dwelt by the sea, and by the coasts of Jordan' (). Besides these 'seven nations,' there were several tribes of the Canaanites who lived beyond the borders of the Promised Land, northward. These were the Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites, and Hamathites (), with whom, of course, the Israelites had no concern. There were also other tribes of Canaanitish origin (or possibly other names given to some of those already mentioned), who were dispossessed by the Israelites. The chief of these were the Amalekites, the Anakites, and the Rephaim (or 'giants' as they are frequently called in our translation). These nations, and especially the six or seven so frequently mentioned by name, the Israelites were commanded to dispossess and utterly to destroy (; ; ). The destruction, however, was not to be accomplished at once. The promise on the part of God was that he would 'put out those nations by little and little,' and the command to the Israelites corresponded with it; the reason given being, 'lest the beasts of the field increase upon thee' (; ).

The destructive war commenced with an attack on the Israelites, by Arad, king of the Canaanites, which issued in the destruction of several cities in the extreme south of Palestine, to which the name of Hormah was given (). The Israelites, however, did not follow up this victory, which was simply the consequence of an unprovoked assault on them; but turning back, and compassing the land of Edom, they attempted to pass through the country on the other side of the Jordan, inhabited by a tribe of the Amorites. Their passage being refused, and an attack made on them by Sihon, king of the Amorites, they not only forced their way through his land, but destroyed its inhabitants, and proceeding onwards towards the adjoining kingdom of Bashan, they in like manner destroyed the inhabitants of that district, and slew Og, their king, who was the last of the Rephaim, or giants (). The tract of which they thus became possessed was subsequently allotted to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh.

After the death of Moses the Israelites crossed the Jordan, and, under the conduct of Joshua, took possession of the greater part of the Promised Land, and destroyed its inhabitants. Several cities, however, still held out, particularly Jebus, afterwards Jerusalem, which was not taken till the time of David (), and Sidon, which seems never to have yielded to the tribe of Asher, to whom it was allotted (). Scattered portions also of the Canaanitish nations escaped, and were frequently strong enough to harass, though not to dispossess, the Israelites. The inhabitants of Gibeon, a tribe of the Hivites, made peace by stratagem, and thus escaped the destruction of their fellow-countrymen. Individuals from among the Canaanites seem, in later times, to have united themselves, in some way, to the Israelites, and not only to have lived in peace, but to have been capable of holding places of honor and power; thus Uriah, one of David's captains, was a Hittite (). In the time of Solomon, when the kingdom had attained its highest glory and greatest power, all the remnants of these nations were made tributary, and bond-service was exacted from them (). The Girgashites seem to have been either wholly destroyed or absorbed in other tribes. We find no mention of them subsequent to the book of Joshua. The Anakites were completely destroyed by Joshua, except in three cities, Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod (); and the powerful nation of the Amalekites, many times defeated and continually harassing the Israelites, were at last totally destroyed by the tribe of Simeon (). Even after the return of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity, there were survivors of five of the Canaanitish nations, with whom alliances had been made by the Jews, contrary to the commands which had been given them. Some of the Canaanites, according to ancient tradition, left the land of Canaan on the approach of Joshua, and emigrated to the coast of Africa. Procopius relates that there were in Numidia, at Tigisis (Tingis), two columns on which were inscribed, in Phoenician characters, 'We are those who fled from the face of Joshua, the robber, the son of Naue.'

The manner in which the Israelites became possessed of the Promised Land has been so frequently brought as an objection to the inspired character of the Old Testament, and indeed is so far removed from the ordinary providential government of God, that it will be proper, in closing this account, to notice the difficulty which has been felt, and to advert to some of the hypotheses by which it is sought to be removed. Many have asserted, in order to alleviate the difficulty, that an allotment of the world was made by Noah to his three sons, and that by this allotment the Land of Promise fell to the share of Shem—that the descendants of Ham were therefore usurpers and interlopers, and that on this ground the Israelites, as the descendants of Shem, had the right to dispossess them. Others justify the war on the ground that the Canaanites were the first aggressors—a justification which applies only to the territory on the other side of the Jordan. Michaelis asserts that the Israelites had a right to the land of Canaan, as the common pasture land of their herdsmen, in consequence of the undisturbed possession and appropriation of it from the time of Abraham till the departure of Jacob into Egypt—that this claim had never been relinquished, and was well known to the Canaanites, and that therefore the Israelites only took possession of that which belonged to them. The same hypothesis is maintained by Jahn. Another ground of justification has been sought in the supposed identity of race of the Egyptian dynasty under which the Israelites were oppressed, with the tribes that overran Canaan—so that the destruction of the latter was merely an act of retributive justice for the injuries which their compatriots in Egypt had inflicted on the Israelites. To all these and similar attempts to justify, on the ground of legal right, the forcible occupation of the land by the Israelites, and the extermination (at least to a great extent) of the existing occupants, it is to be objected, that no such reason as any of these is hinted at in the sacred record. The right to carry on a war of extermination is there rested simply on the divine command to do so. That the Israelites were instruments in God's hand is a lesson not only continually impressed on their minds by the teaching of Moses, but enforced by their defeat whenever they relied on their own strength.

It may be said that this is only shifting the difficulty, and that just in proportion as we exculpate the Israelites from the charges of robbery and murder, in their making war without legal ground, we lower the character of the Being whose commands they obeyed, and throw doubt on those commands being really given by God. This has indeed been a favorite objection of infidels to the divine authority of the Old Testament. Such objectors would do well to consider whether God has not an absolute right to dispose of men as he sees fit, and whether an exterminating war, from which there was at least the opportunity of escape by flight, is at all more opposed to our notions of justice than a destroying flood, or earthquake, or pestilence. Again, whether the fact of making a chosen nation of His worshippers the instruments of punishing those whose wickedness was notoriously great, did not much more impressively vindicate His character as the only God, who 'will not give His glory to another, nor His praise to graven images,' than if the punishment had been brought about by natural causes. Such considerations as these must, we apprehend, silence those who complain of injustice done to the Canaanites. But then it is objected further, that such an arrangement is fraught with evil to those who are made the instruments of punishment, and, as an example, is peculiarly liable to be abused by all who have the power to persecute. As to the first of these objections, it must be remembered, that the conduct of the war was never put into the hands of the Israelites—that they were continually reminded that it was for the wickedness of those nations that they were driven out, and, above all, that they themselves would be exposed to similar punishment if they were seduced into idolatry—an evil to which they were especially prone. As to the example, it can apply to no case where there is not an equally clear expression of God's will.





Copyright Statement
Public Domain.

Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Canaanites'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, December 4th, 2020
the First Week of Advent
Search for…
Enter query in the box:
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

Prev Entry
Canaan Land of
Next Entry
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology