Peoples in Early Israel

By Richard S. Hess
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary
November 2010

The question of the Canaanites and their existence in early Israel has been a long-standing conundrum for those wishing to interpret the accounts of Joshua and Judges (and even the Pentateuch) and for those concerned with the authenticity of their traditions.  Attempts have been made to dispute the names of people such as the Canaanites as existing in this period.  Indeed, N. P. Lemche (The Canaanites and Their Land [Sheffield Academic, 1991]) argued that the “Canaan” of Joshua and Judges was an ideological construct and that it was unrelated to the “Canaan” of Egyptian sources, which was a vague, undefined area.  He based this on a single reference in the El Amarna letter (EA) 151, lines 49-63, where he argued that Canaan must include Danuna, a region in modern southern Turkey that includes Adana.  Here the pharaoh asked the king of Tyre what news he heard in Canaan.  That the reply included information about Danuna and Ugarit led Lemche to conclude that these must be understood as part of this vague area of Canaan, that lay outside of any of the boundaries defined by the Bible (where Canaan extended no farther north than just beyond Byblos and no farther northeast than the upper bend in the Euphrates).  The alternative suggestion was made that EA 151 could be translated in a manner consistent with the other Amarna, Egyptian, and biblical evidence so that the pharaoh was asking the king of Tyre what news he heard while he (the king) was living in Tyre.  This conformed with the other Egyptian and biblical appearances of Canaan.    

However, those supporting the biblical view of Canaan as a thorough ideological construct did not tolerate an alternative view.  The rather surprising remarks by T. L. Thompson (“A Neo-Albrightean School in History and Biblical Scholarship?” JBL 114 [1995] 692 n. 26) whose suggestions that I was making an “attack” on Lemche, declaring him “wrong” and presenting no evidence to the contrary, can all be evaluated by reading my review ( Themelios 18.2 [January 1993] 24), which contains my position as summarized here.  At the time, JBL’s editor refused to publish responses to such comments made by Thompson and others (JBL 114 [1995] 586 n.).  Nevertheless, further study in the syntax of EA 151 demonstrated that this interpretation was legitimate and that it fit with existing Egyptian and biblical sources regarding a specific interpretation of a land known as Canaan and a people known as Canaanites, who were not considered native to Ugarit, Alalakh, or any regions beyond the northern borders of Canaan that lay in the region of Byblos.  See A. F. Rainey, “Who Is a Canaanite? A Review of the Textual Evidence,”  BASOR 304 (1996) 1-15;  R. Hess, “Occurrences of ‘Canaan’ in Late Bronze Age Archives of the West Semitic World,” IOS 18 (1998) 365-71; idem, “Canaan and Canaanites at Alalakh,” UF 31 (1999) 225-36.      

It is of interest that the recent Israelite history of M. Liverani (Israel’s History and the History of Israel [Equinox, 2005] 274-75) confirms that “Canaan” is the one name of this land that could preserve “some memory” of the earlier event.  When it comes to Hittites, however, this reference must be a vestige of the Neo-Hittite states as preserved in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian texts.  For Liverani, the sixth-century writers of Joshua, Judges, and various parts of the Pentateuch used this meaning.  If the Egyptian New Kingdom usage of “Canaan” corresponds to that of these biblical texts, perhaps it would be reasonable to consider the Egyptian use of “Hittite.”  In fact, a careful examination of the use of this term in Amarna texts (e.g., EA 75.36; 126.51, 59; 129.76; etc.) and elsewhere (e.g., Ramesses II’s Poem of the Battle of Qadesh lines 41-55) confirms the use of “Hittite land” to include the region of northern Syria and areas such as those near Ugarit and Byblos.      

Related biblical groups include, among others, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, and the Hivites.  While the Perizzites could be “village dwellers,” the fact that a similarly named Pirizzi comes from the N. Syrian kingdom of Mitanni in the Amarna letters invites comparison with the other ethnic groups (rather than a social group) in the lists of inhabitants of Canaan.  Liverani’s dismissal that we “know nothing” about the Hivites and Girgashites is only true if one assumes that these names must date from the sixth century B.C.  Nothing indeed is known of them from that time.  However, the same consonants as those for Girgashite appear as a proper name at thirteenth-century Ugarit, and the biblical relation of Hivites and Horites (cf. Genesis 36:2 and 20) connects this group with the like-named Hurrians from northern Syria, a group commonly attested in the Late Bronze Age and later, but not at all after the tenth century.  Numerous personal names of inhabitants of the Jordan Valley and hill country of Palestine in the Late Bronze Age, as attested by the Amarna letters and other texts from the region, witness to the presence of Hurrians and other northerners in the region, just as the material culture manifests this same northern influence.  The facts attest that the early Israel of the Merneptah stele and of the biblical traditions encountered numerous peoples from the north in their early existence in Palestine and that their records preserve a remarkable memory of the names of these groups, a memory that resembles some peoples known only from this period and not from later times.         

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