In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Canaanites

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Introductory Works
  • Language and Writing
  • Canaan and Egypt
  • Canaan and the Emergence of Israel

Biblical Studies Canaanites
Ann E. Killebrew
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0216


The Canaanites are best known from the biblical accounts that portray them as a hostile, pre-Israelite indigenous population residing in the “promised land” who were conquered by the tribes of Israel under the leadership of Joshua following their Exodus from Egypt. Earlier references to the “Canaanites” and “Canaan” first appear in 2nd millennium BCE Near Eastern and Egyptian texts, a time span defined archaeologically as the Middle Bronze, Late Bronze, and Iron I Ages (c. 2000–1000 BCE). These written sources provide place names and details relating to geographical borders of a region referred to as Canaan, which can best be described as a political-territorial term that encompasses much of the Levant, or the modern countries of Syria (mainly southwestern Syria), Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip). All contemporary 2nd millennium BCE references to Canaanites and their land originate outside of the boundaries of Canaan, as defined by these texts. Thus there is no written evidence regarding how the Middle and Late Bronze Age populaces of the Levant referred to themselves or to their region, raising questions with respect to the applicability of the general term “Canaanite” to 2nd millennium BCE Levantine peoples that comprised numerous different groups. Though who is a Canaanite remains ambiguous, most recent scholarship understands Canaanites not as an ethnic designation but employs it to refer to the 2nd millennium BCE inhabitants of diverse identities residing in a region that contemporary Akkadian, Egyptian, and Ugaritic texts and later Phoenician/Punic and Hebrew accounts refer to as Canaan. These populations were organized into territorially based, politically independent city-states each with its own associated hinterland; they shared a West Semitic language, often termed “Canaanite” in modern scholarship, and a similar material culture. A large body of literature regards the Israelites, contra the biblical account, as emerging out of Canaan. Later ancient writers and many scholars today consider the northern coastal Canaanites to be the precursors or ancestors of the 1st millennium Phoenicians.

General Overviews

General treatments, noteworthy encyclopedia entries and collected essays dealing with various aspects of the Canaanites are included in this category. With the exception of Lemche 1991 and Tubb 2006, most of the general overviews were published a half-century ago and today are somewhat dated. However, due to the paucity of monographs devoted to this topic, two older treatments, Gray 1964 and Kenyon 1966, are included here. Na’aman 2005 comprises a selection of this noted historian’s most important scholarly contributions to the topic. The most comprehensive, yet concise, encyclopedia entry is Hackett 1997, which is a recommended starting point for a summary of research on the Canaanites. Schoville 1994 is an accessible summary of the Canaanites with a focus on their significance in biblical studies. Killebrew 2005 is a detailed summary of Late Bronze Age material culture in Canaan at the dawn of the emergence of Israel.

  • Gray, John. The Canaanites. Ancient Peoples and Places. London: Thames and Hudson, 1964.

    Survey of textual and archaeological evidence for 2nd millennium inhabitants of the Levant aimed at a general audience. A useful general introduction that includes chapters on daily life, society, religion, and art but is now largely out of date.

  • Hackett, Jo Ann. “Canaanites.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Vol. 1. Edited by Eric M. Meyers, 409–414. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Excellent summary and concise overview of the primary sources, both textual and archaeological, relating to the Canaanites.

  • Kenyon, Kathleen. Amorites and Canaanites. The Schweich Lectures on Biblical Archaeology. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

    Based on a series of influential lectures delivered in 1963, Kenyon explores the identity of the biblical Amorites and Canaanites. She concludes that they are related to the Amurru of Syria. Although later archaeological discoveries challenge some of Kenyon’s interpretations and conclusions, this book represents the state of research in the mid-20th century.

  • Killebrew, Ann E. Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Canaanites, Egyptians, Philistines, and Early Israel, 1300–1100 BCE. Society of Biblical Literature Archaeology and Biblical Studies 9. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.

    A reader-friendly and detailed account, suitable for the specialist and informed general audience, of the archaeology of the southern Levant during the 13th and 12th centuries BCE. Chapter 3 is devoted to a study of the Canaanites, a summary of the relevant primary sources, and an analysis of their material culture.

  • Lemche, Niels Peter. The Canaanites and Their Land: The Tradition of the Canaanites. JSOTSup 110. Sheffield, UK: JSOT, 1991.

    A leading biblical scholar who effectively challenges the notion of an ethnic group or “people” that can be defined as Canaanites. Lemche’s volume, reprinted in 1999, is an excellent compilation and analysis of the relevant primary written sources and critique of the biblical texts. Suitable for advanced students and as a reference work.

  • Na’aman, Nadav. Canaan in the Second Millennium B.C.E. Collected Essays. Vol. 2. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005.

    A collection of twenty-three previously published essays on 2nd millennium BCE Canaan by the noted historian Na’aman. They include specialized studies, geared toward a scholarly audience, of the Egyptians in Canaan, the Amarna Letters, the Canaanite city-states, and the neighbors of Canaan such as the Hurrians and the city of Alalakh.

  • Schoville, Kenneth N. “Canaanites and Amorites.” In Peoples of the Old Testament World. Edited by Alfred J. Hoerth, Gerald L. Mattingly, and Edwin M. Yamauchi, 157–182. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994.

    A fine review of the evidence regarding Canaanites and Amorites, with a focus on the biblical evidence and significance for a general audience. A paperback edition appeared in 1998.

  • Tubb, Jonathan N. Canaanites. Peoples of the Past 2. Rev. ed. London: British Museum, 2006.

    An updated version of the author’s 1998 publication of the same name. This popular book promotes the view of long-term cultural continuity in the southern Levant and broadens the definition of Canaanites to include indigenous populations of southern Syria and ancient Palestine spanning the Neolithic period through the Iron Age, a view not accepted by most scholars.

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