Ancient View of Cana'an, Israel and Palestine

            August/September 2012    
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Canaanites, Israelites, Jews and Israelis

By Tala Bar

A Semantic View of History

I - Canaanites and Israelites

The Land of Canaan, forming a narrow strip between the Transjordan desert and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, has been for millennia influenced by these two climate-forming areas. It has long, dry summers with no rain at all, and its winters can fluctuate between heavy precipitations and severe drought. As Egypt has enjoyed a constant climate depending on the River Nile rather than water from heaven, Canaanite peoples had a custom of going down there whenever they suffer from lack of provisions, as the Biblical story of Jacob going to Egypt with his family describes.

There is no evidence that shows, though, that the Egyptian at any time took such temporary guests as slaves to build their cities or monuments. Owing to the lack of supporting outside evidence, the Biblical Exodus story has been questioned by many scholars in many ways; in their book, The Bible Unearthed, Israel Finkelstein and N.A. Silverman have presented the idea that it never happened at all.

While it is difficult to oppose thousand of years' tradition, it is possible to take it partially and agree that only part of what was to become the People of Israel had spent some of their history in Egypt - the Joseph tribes that settled in the central areas of the country, Ephraim, Menasha and Benjamin, as is shown by the strong traditional connection to Egypt and its culture; the stories of Northern tribes, on the other hand, show stronger connection with Canaanite tradition and may have always lived in the Land of Canaan (mainly the Galilee), while the tribe of Judas and its allies have always inhabited the southern part of the country, the Judean and Negev deserts.


The ancient Land of Canaan lies at a crossroad between three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa. In consequence, at different times of history and prehistory, and being small and not highly fortified, this land had been run over, conquered and settled by forces that arrived from these three continents from different human races - Semitic from Asia in the north and east, Hamitic from North Africa in the south, and Indo-European from the north and the Mediterranean islands.

The main core Canaanites, which included the Phoenicians in the north, were West Semitic tribes; Finkelstein's and Silverman's idea is that the Israelites who never left the Land of Canaan were an offshoot of the Canaanite peoples, who were semi-nomadic and mainly settled the central, hilly parts of the country; and that they went their own ideological way that ultimately led them to the belief in one god rather than believing in the many deities of the Canaanites. Many names of Israelite settlements mentioned in the Old Testament have been kept by following generations of settlers until this very day, as they now appear in their Arabic forms.

The finding of 14th cent. BC Canaanite scripts in the site of the ancient coastal city of Ugarit, now in Syria, shows a similarity between the Old Testament Israel and Canaan both in language and in their religious beliefs before Monotheism was taken over by the Israelites. The actual name Isra'el means "El rules" (rather than the preposterous, non-grammatical Biblical interpretation "rules over El) - El being the name of the Canaanite chief god. The mere word 'El is derived from the Hebrew/Semitic root, 'll, meaning "power"; the initial apostrophe denoting the Hebrew consonant א. El's consort was Atherath, or Ashera in Hebrew, who was worshipped everywhere in the Land of Canaan by the Israelites, according to the Old Testament: "They built temples and sign posts and Asheras (a tree-stamp goddess) on every high hill and under every green tree" (I Kings, 14, 23) - an expression which appears a few more times in the Bible. Ashera gave her name to one of the Israelite tribes, Asher, whose members settled on the border of Phoenicia.

Two other, very important Canaanite deities - son and daughter of the higher gods - are mentioned in the Old Testament as worshipped by the Israelites: Baal, who later superseded his father El as chief Canaanite god; his name appears in many Israelite place names like Baal Gad, for instance, while Gad was another Israelite tribe; and in important people's names like Yerubaal, who was Judge Gideon. Baal (meaning "master") began as a rain-storm god in charge of the fertility of the land, before turning into a main factor in the fight against older deities like Rahav, ruler of the Sea.

Baal's sister Anath, a fierce young goddess who appears as very powerful in the Ugaritic poems, her name forms a part of many names, (one of them is Anathot, the prophet Jeremiah's birth place), as well as in the name of Judge Shamgar's parent. The goddess Anath is involved in the fight for life and death between Baal and his twin brother Mot; Mot's name means "death", parallel to the Hebrew word "mawet", and it expresses the land's condition during the dry summer. It forms the opposite to the life which is brought to the semi-arid land by Baal's first rains in autumn.

II - Israelites and Jews

The Biblical story, whether historical, symbolic or a kind of reference, tells that at the time of Rehovam, son of King Solomon, the kingdom was split into two: the northern kingdom, called Israel, was composed of most of the Israelite tribes and stretched from the mountain of Galilee in the north, including the Valley of Jezreel and the hills of Samaria, bordered on the area belonging to the central tribe of Binyamin. Its capital city was the newly built Shomron (Samaria), the same name as the hills surrounding it.

The southern kingdom was called Judaea, in which the main tribe was that of Yehudah, or Judas, which is also the name of that land in Hebrew, with Jerusalem its capital. It included the Judean mountains, the Hebron area and the mostly desert area of the Negev. Significantly, according to the Bible, the kingdom of Israel kept worshipping the gods of Canaan, particularly Baal and Ashera; for that sin they were punished with destruction by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and the ten tribes inhabiting it were dispersed all over the Middle East - some say all over the world, as people claiming to belong to the "lost ten tribes of Israel" have been popping into being every now and then throughout history.

The kingdom of Judea was left on its own to continue the existence of the People of Israel. At that time, monotheistic type of worship was developing there, and the last book of Torah - Deuteronomy - was either found or written at that time, presenting the power of one god over all the others. Some scholars believe that such a unique god was the deity worshipped by the desert people, who named it by consonants only - YHWH. It may be noted that this name uses the root consonants appearing also in the name of the tribe worshipping it, written without vowels as YHWDH. However, this god was also given the chief Canaanite deity's appellation - El, a word which has come to mean not only the name of God but also a generic word for "god".


Still threatened by the powerful nations of Mesopotamia, where the Assyrians had come from, some of the languages people used at the time is mentioned in the Old Testament in a story of an altercation between the Assyrians and King Hezekiah of Jerusalem. The Assyrian emissary speaks to the king's men in the language of the land; the king's men ask him, "Please, speak in Aramaic (which was the lingua franca of the time) because we can understand it, and don't speak Yehudit (the Judean language), which common people can understand" (II kings, 18, 26). It is the first time we hear the name of a certain language in the Old Testament, with its national reference.

It is obvious that the name of the language spoken by the people of Judaea was called Yehudit in Hebrew, which would be Judaic in English, from which the English word Jew is derived; it thus identifies the Israelites who inhabited Judaea as Jews, or Yehudim as they are called in Hebrew. On the other hand, the name of the language, Yehudit, has not been used by the Jews themselves, who call their ancient language Ivrit, i.e. Hebrew, after the appellation of their ancestor Abraham the Ivri. The name Yehodit, however, preserved in the medieval German language used by European Jews in the form of Yidish.


In 586 BC, the kingdom of Yehudah was also attacked from Mesopotamia - this time by the Babylonians who had superseded the Assyrians. The Babylonians destroyed the first temple of YWHW which had been built in Jerusalem by King Solomon, and exiled most of the dignitaries from the land. Some forty years later, Babylon fell to the Persians, and about 70 years after their exile, the Persian king allowed some of these people to return to their country and build a second temple. The two last books of the Old Testament (not to count the two concise general history volumes), Ezra and Nehemiah, tell that story. In the book of Ezra it is mentioned that "The chiefs of Yehudah and Binyamin and the priests rose to go" (Ezra, 1, 5); the name used for the people here is still Israelites (or the usual Biblical term, Children of Israel). They only settle a small area in what had been the kingdom of Judaea, while the part that used to be the Kingdom of Israel had been settled with foreigners by the Assyrians.

The book of Nehemiah, which begins by using the term Israelites in Chapter 1, changes it by Chapter 4 to Yehudim (Jews), thus strengthening the identification between these two terms.

III - Jews and Israelis

The second temple in Jerusalem was built, but the land still lay in the same precarious site as a crossroad. The Persians fell to the Greeks under Alexander the Great, who visited Jerusalem and allowed the Jews to live peacefully on their land. When he died, Greek rulers residing to its north decided to impose their own religion on the Jewish inhabitants. Foolishly, the Jews asked the growing Roman Empire to help them against the Greek rulers, finding themselves in time under a worse Roman rule.

A new Jewish kingdom was created, including not only the southern area of Judaea but also the ancient land of Israel including Samaria and Galilee in the north, with Jerusalem as its capital. Following a series of rebellions, the second temple was destroyed, the city of Jerusalem was erased to the ground and many Jews were exiled or taken as slaves to Rome. The Land of Yehudah ceased to exist, except a few poor people sparsely living around the country, mainly in the Galilee, and a center of learning that had been built in Yavneh in the south. All these people were called Jews now, beside the age old term that was used in Hebrew - the People of Israel.

In a Wikipedia article in Hebrew about this country, ( ) the rare expression the Land of Israel is mentioned as appearing in the Biblical book of I Samuel, 13, 19; because of its unique appearance in the Bible, no clear definition for the term can be determined. After the final destruction, the Greek historian Herodotus coined a name for this land as Palestine, in connection with the ancient Philistines, who had settled its southern coast and had vanished from history hundreds of years before the building of the Second Temple. This term has existed until now by non Jewish people, and has been used by the Arab inhabitants of this country to rename themselves as Palestinians.

The term Land of Israel has been taken up by exiled Jews all over the world, as a subject of their yearning to go back to it and return to their ancient life as independent people in their own country.


The 19th cent. AD was the year of National Spring in Europe, and European Jews began to think about returning to their ancient Land of Israel to create again their own Jewish state. Following a UN decision in 1947, such a state was created in 1948. Perhaps it was a genius, or just a result of 2000 years of yearning; whichever it was - this state was called Israel, and naturally, its inhabitants became Israelis. It must be noted that this appellation include not only its Jewish citizens but also all the others - Arabs - Muslims and Christians, Druze and any other who somehow becomes an Israeli citizens.

The term Israelites, of whom we (or some scholars) think as an offshoot of the Canaanite peoples of the Land of Canaan, referred in the Bible first to the Children of Israel, namely of Jacob who was thus called alternately in the Old Testament; then to the national collection of Israelite tribes; and lastly to those inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel.

The term Jews referred first to the Israelite inhabitants of the southern kingdom of Judaea; then to the whole Nation, the remaining of the Israelite nation after the Babylonian exile. Both terms show a connection between the name of a nation and the country it belongs to.

The term Israeli is first and foremost connected with the modern State of Israel, and refers to every citizen of this state. Not every Jew is also an Israeli, and not every Israeli is a Jew.

This is the story of the developing and changes connected with those appellations: Canaanites - from whom a group of people separated to create different sort of life values; Israelites - who saw themselves as having a separate origin; Jews - who were the inhabitants of the Land of Judaea and had become a separate nation; and Israelis - who are the citizens of the newly formed State of Israel, which was settled by the same Jewish people but perhaps creating a new entity with a new appellation.

The author is a writer and artist and who lives in Israel. She studied Hebrew and English languages and literature and holds a Master of Philosophy degree in literature from London University. Before retirement, she was a teacher of Hebrew and English languages and literature. A list of her published works in English can be found in this address:


from the August/September 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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