The Cana’anite Factor: (Un) Defining Religious Identities in Palestine and Israel
This article may appear to concentrate on people in ancient history, but it is really about the present and the future. My contention is that current historical versions and images in the dominant discourses need to be adjusted if there is to be a prospect for a real (that is, cultural) peace. Because historical versions rely heavily on religious narratives and are inaccurate, images that accompany them are either controlled by inventions or are short-circuited by ideologies. As a result, current identifications contain contradictions and fallacies that prevent the emergence of a more coherent and a healthier kind of identity in each of the two conflicting societies.
There are two reasons for using information about Cana'an and the ancient Cana'anites. First, exploring Cana'anite culture reveals traces of real history and thus exposes many assumptions in the dominant monotheistic discourses. Second, as available facts show, this culture could provide prospects for commonality in the region.
Behind the conflict, there is a clash of competing claims to presence in the land by two groups of people. The Jewish claim is largely based on old religious connections and narratives derived from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). The Palestinian claim to the land is based on periods of continuous habitation and contact with the land. It includes the argument that all religious communities coexisted peacefully before the introduction of the counterclaim by a Zionist ideology imported by Europeans. Usually, the Palestinian presence is connected (by most Jews and even by many Palestinians) to the Muslim conquest in the 7th century that brought "Arabs" to Palestine. Disagreement between the two sides about ancient history is a central part of the present conflict and its current images.
Since "Canaan" (in Western usage) represents an idealized construct identical to "promised land," it is central to the biblical claim of Zionist settlement in Palestine - as it was a justifying strategy in colonizing paradigm used by settlers in places like America and South Africa. European "pilgrims" to North America during the 17th century used the construct "Canaan" in biblical imagery about "chosen people" and "New Israel" to justify their conquest and their eradication of the native population and, later, the enslavement of black people (for a discussion, see Prior).
However, though condemned as idolatrous and pagan, Cana'anite religion has been shown to underlie the origins of monotheism. Forgotten and devalued, the Cana'anite past is still visibly buried in both present Palestinian daily life and customs and the belief system known today as monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). It is important to bring this latent heritage into surface awareness, to correct perception of past and present, and to complement religious perspectives, to influence positively consciousness and identity construction among Israelis and Palestinians.

Why Are the Cana'anites Important?

The term "Cana'anite" is problematic: it is often misused, and the same people were called by other names ('Amorites, Jebusites, Phoenicians and others), depending on geographical location and/or period. It is difficult, however, to find another term that would capture related groups of people, a language, a culture, and a way of living. Regardless of how they may have thought of themselves, the Cana'anites were a recognizable cultural reality throughout the Mediterranean basin for several thousand years, more definitely from about 4500 years before the present (i.e. 2500 BCE-600 CE). Their initial concentration occurred in an area stretching inland from the eastern Mediterranean, from NW Arabia north across the Fertile Crescent (including Jordan and Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, or "Greater Syria").
About 4000 years ago, Cana'anites invented the alphabet, the origin of all Eastern or Western scripts. English letters, for example, come from Latin through Etruscan, which derives from Cana'anites. The Arabic language ha preserved most of the sound and word inventories of Cana'anite, just as Hebrew descends from Aramaic, a development from Cana'anite. The Cana'anites spread this alphabet and the city-state concept and migrated to many islands and coastlands of the Mediterranean from Greece to North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. For well over 2500 years, they radiated influence across the Mediterranean basin and maintained an advanced culture distinguished for its eclecticism and high artistry.
Even more significantly, the Cana'anites had a highly developed pantheon. This pantheon was more accurately outlined after the discovery of Ugarit in 1928 and the translation of the tablets that contained mythological stories and other literary works. The same pantheon was later reproduced in Greece, with name changes: El is Kronos, Ba'al is Zeus, and so on. More significantly, the Cana'anite pantheon contained elements that explain later monotheistic development. (On the origin of monotheism, see Smith's book and essays by Niehr and Ra'ad.)
The god El is head of the pantheon, father of gods and creator, represented as a wise old man with a grey beard; 'Asherah is his consort and mother of gods. The fertility god-son Ba'al dies and is resurrected. 'Ashtar[at] is the "virgin goddess" who, from El, immaculately conceives and delivers two gods, Sahar and Salem. As in other cases, "Salem" became the god of a city (Ur-Salem, that is Jerusalem). Some scholars are now convinced that Cana'anite religion is the direct ancestor of the later Israelite religion. "Yahweh," the Old Testament god, was one member of the Cana'anite pantheon who later had dominance in one geographical region, as happened elsewhere in Syro-Palestinian religions (as Psalm 82, accurately translated, shows). A more exact translation of biblical passages such as Exodus 6.3 tells us that El is the god of Abraham and Jacob, whom Moses was to start calling Yahweh. El is the one God of Melchisadek, the Jebusite king who blesses Abraham in the story.

Demographic Simplifications

Both history and DNA studies now indicate that the population of Palestine has remained more or less continuous since prehistoric times, despite changes in religion, movement of some population out or in, and various ethnic mixtures by reason of invasion or other events.
Yet, terms like "Israelite," "Hebrew," "Jew," "Arab," "Muslim" and Christian are formative models for the dominant views of identity in Israel and Palestine. Are present Israelis, in matters of identity, connected to the ancient Israelites, to Hebrews, or to Jews, or are they as yet an undefined entity? Are present Palestinians identifiable with Arabs or Muslims, with the Philistines or Cana'anites, or is their identity as yet undefined? Should Palestinian Christians date their presence to the conversion of Constantine?
All such terms should be approached with caution in discussing identity formation. They represent either constructed communities or stereotyped notions that make possible inaccurate simplifications of demographic and ethnic complexities, past and present.
Let us take, for example, Palestinian Christians. Some of them assume that, since Christianity came to Palestine as a dominant religion in the time of Constantine, they can say, "We have been here for 1700 years." In fact, historical records point to systematic efforts by Constantine to suppress paganism among the local population, which policy his mother Helena helped implement by fixing the presumed locations of biblical events by using pagan sites and having churches built on them (Hunt 1982: 102, 136).
Or take the two assumptions that present Jews are descendants of the "Hebrews" or "Israelites" or that "Arabs" in Palestine came along with the Muslim conquest. This sequencing is very convenient for certain political agendas. Even some Palestinians and Arabs fall into the trap of this thinking: "We have been here for more than 1300 years" (i.e., since the Muslim Conquest in 638). Conversely, consistent with this view, most Israeli Jews hang on to the mythic assumption that: "This is our ancient homeland since Abraham (or Jacob, or Joshua, or Bar Kohba)." And to maintain such a constructed historical claim active, ever-new logic attempts to link terms and to create connections to the past that are unsupported by history and that require increasingly more sophisticated arguments.
Monotheistic identifications fall into the traps of fallacious history, willingly, or by design, or due to ignorance. One strategy limits thinking and constructs claims based on chronological sequencing of the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Along with this sequencing is an assumption by each religion of being the carrier of the truth (or the innovative first or the inclusive last). Along with this sequencing is an assumption by each religion of being the carrier of the truth (or the innovative first or the inclusive last). All religious traditions include many values that promote spirituality and morality, but they also have their certain exclusivities and inconsistent practices.
Monotheistic assumptions confuse myths with realities, and so negate all historical, archaeological, linguistic, and (now with genetic studies) scientific facts. In addition, as indicted, the monotheistic traditions are rooted in previously "pagan" religion that was appropriated, modified, developed, and then denied. It should be a cause for humbling thought that no one holds anything called the truth. This humbling is not a reason to disbelieve in everything, but it is reason for an affirmation that there are human continuities, even with what is assumed to be "pagan." In fact, that we owe more to the "pagans" that we let out.

Confusion of Historical Links and Terms

Politicization of religion has always led to polarization and arbitrary terminology. It is in the interest of a dominant narrative to promote itself as historical fact, and to do so it has to oversimplify history and wield it to its purpose. To give the classic Zionist claim to Palestine ("Canaan") primary historical and religious legitimacy, it is necessary to connect Jews of today with followers of the Jewish faith who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago, and further to connect them to the "Israelites" about a thousand years earlier (David and Solomon, etc.), and the Hebrews even earlier (for more ancient biblical figures).
All these connections require varying degrees of argument and blind leaps of faith. They confuse religion with ethnicity and literary narratives with historical events. All are problematic even if one were to assume that the Bible is an accurate reflection of history. However, most scholars today understand that the Bible is not history.
In this politicized atmosphere, the images are formed and made consistent with particular claims. The inherited stereotypes of "Arabs," "Jews" and "Muslims" are magnified and expanded. The Palestinians are labelled as "Arabs," "Ishmaelites," or "Muslims" in this narrative's terminology, so as to give them a shorter historical presence and to diminish their connections to the land as farmers and constant inhabitants. Images and rationalizations are very adaptable and shift in association as seems most serviceable.
If the identification and bias is approached differently, the Palestinians become the biblically-hated Philistines.4 (Political use of "Philistine" to attack the peace process with the Palestinians is exemplified in Bennett and similar writing.) From a biblical perspective, the Phoenicians are considered mere pagan traders and made distinct from other Cana'anites in Palestine; "Phoenicians" are seen as outsiders to the special community of ancient Israel in the biblical literary construct. Further, in this concocted view, the "Arabs" are disqualified from connecting to more ancient cultures in the region - cultures that they obviously inherit by reasons of continued presence, development and descent.

Contradictions between Palestinian and Muslim Identification

Sometimes, religious beliefs overshadow people's own ancient history and shorten its heritage. I was reminded of this irony during an autumn visit to a friend in a Palestinian village west of Ramallah. September is a month of agricultural plenty: grapes, figs, and other fruits and vegetables. We sit on the roof that overlooks the distant Mediterranean to the west (but near the village to the east there is an Israeli colony). We are sipping tea, eating grapes and figs, when my friend's father arrives. After the usual long greetings, the old farmer comments, "How good the fruits and vegetables used to taste when they were grown ba'al." I ask, "Do you know why we use this word to describe agricultural produce that is not irrigated?" I try to explain this is an inherited term that refers to natural soil moisture caused by Ba'al, the ancient Cana'anite god of thunder and rain. Indignantly the old man replies, "But the Cana'anite were pagans and idol worshippers condemned by Allah in the Qur'an."
This anecdote illustrates how the Palestinians themselves often unknowingly participate in the biases against them. Partly, this self-bias is caused by lack of awareness; partly, it comes about when religious identification overwhelms deeper, subaltern cultural traits. The Palestinians and other people in the region, who carry habits, customs and a language that connect them to the ancient world, are often unaware that they do so. In this way, they truncate their own history and shorten its memory. Most Palestinians make no attempt to claim their own ancient heritage, and by neglecting it allow its free appropriation by others.
Another contradictory aspect of identity is reflected in some traditions about holy places. Almost all "holy places" in Palestine and Israel were previously pagan sites ("Unearthing, Ra'ad 2001), associated usually with the burial of biblical or other holy characters. Even in the recent past, as Meron Benvenisti describes, many Palestinian sacred places were turned into synagogues and Jewish sites after 1948, even in places where "there had never been a Jewish tradition" (268-275). The process was repeated after the occupation in 1967.
This applies to the place in Hebron where tradition says Abraham was buried. In the 4th century CE (i.e., AD), this site in Hebron was used for pagan sacrifice around a well and a tree, until the time Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and ordered churches to be built there and in many other places with the express purpose of suppressing paganism. Pagan practices were hard to erase, and contemporaneous writers tell us that the people continued to offer pagan sacrifices there for about two hundred years (Fowden 2002, 128). Later, a mosque was built in the same area and called El-Haram il-Ibrahimi. After the occupation in 1967 and infiltration by Jewish extremists, supported by the Israeli army, the mosque was forcibly divided and half of it made into a synagogue. In this way, the association with a name (Abraham), not a fact, was used to create an unwieldy kind of reality and a point of contentious attachment.
It is similar to what happened with the Western Wall and El Haram esh-Sharif, now bones of contention. As mentioned in Encylopaedia Judaica, the Wailing Wall was not associated with any temple or Jewish memory by earlier Jewish visitors or sources until 1520 CE (A.D.) when Spanish Jews came to Jerusalem after the Ottoman occupation. All three monotheistic religions have accumulated, in different periods, metaphoric associations in connection with these sites that now carry intense emotional value.
An interesting case is Maqam en-Nabi Musa, named after Moses. The shrine, however, is not near Mount Nebo but southwest of Jericho, west of the Jordan River. How do we explain this Muslim tradition, especially when the story says Moses died east of the Jordan and his burial place is unknown! More pertinently, for a Palestinian Muslim it should be somewhat troubling to associate the conquest narrative given in the Qur'an with that given in the Bible, a story that forms part of the Zionist claim system. (It is too complex to discuss the conquest story here, but the legendary source is different from that indicated in the Bible, since there is no archaeological or other evidence of a Joshua conquest in Jericho.) The discrepancy about this Maqam is one reason why Israeli authorities have not taken control of it, since in other cases the mere association with names (Daoud/David, Ibrahim/Abraham, Rahel/Rachel, et cetera) has led to Jewish appropriation of Muslim sites. So, it is the very emphasis of Islam on being inclusive of the other two monotheistic religions that has precisely given Israeli authorities literal excuses to control the sites.
The dilemma between identity and belief is equally acute for some Palestinian Christians, whether it is because of Constantine, or the Crusades, or the priesthood, or colonial designs to make Palestinian Christians feel separate in their identity and connection to the land.

Archaeology, Culture and Narratives

Despite intense efforts by early Israeli scholars to support the Bible, recent research and discoveries are showing that biblical accounts are not supported by either history or archaeology. Such revelations apply to a number of narratives like the Exodus and the adventures of David, and many common religious and demographic assumptions. Stories like the Exodus and the Greek Sojourn are recycled from Cana'anite folklore memories (Redford 1992: 422). Hundreds of articles and books can be cited to support similar new findings.
Since the classic Zionist version of history involves a conquest event (the book of Joshua, which recounts how the Cana'anites were massacred), it sees a major challenge and a threat in any archaeological discoveries that disprove the story. One theory that has emerged is the "peaceful infiltration" and another theory about a slow local development whereby the "Israelites" grew out of Cana'anite society. However, such theories to replace a conquest seem to be merely more "politically correct" historical reinterpretations. While they may have grains of truth, they are still rationalizations and scholarly adaptations, and therefore no less a justificatory strategy for claims, now modified to appeal to more acceptable trends in scholarship.

DNA Studies: Will the Real Cana'anites Please Stand Up?

So who are the Canaanite descendants today? And why does it matter to know?
Some recent DNA studies seem to be headed toward answering such questions. One study by a group of Israeli and US scientists (Nebel et al 2000) came to the conclusion that Palestinian Arabs have close genetic similarity to Jews and that the findings agree with historical records indicating that "Moslem Arabs in this country [Palestine and Israel] descended from local inhabitants, mainly Christians and Jews, who had converted after the Islamic conquest in the seventh century AD." More recent research by the same group (2001) found Jews to be more closely related to populations in the northern Fertile Crescent.
Another genetic study (Antonio Arnaiz-Villena et al) recently caused a furor after its publication in Human Immunology. The journal took the unusual step (under pressure) of asking subscribers and libraries to disregard or preferably tear out the article. This study found that "Jews and Palestinians share a very similar HLA genetic pool ... that support [sic] a common ancient Canaanite origin." The study also hypothesized other close relatives to the Palestinians in people like "Cretans, Egyptians, Iranians, Turks and Armenians." Then follows the well-meant conclusion:
The Eurocentric confusion "Arab=Muslim" has also lowered [sic] the Palestinian identity by identifying the country were [sic] Mohammed was born (Saudi Arabia [sic]) with the Muslim religion; it also has artificially divided peoples both coming from ancient Canaanites (Jews and Palestinians). (Arnaiz-Villena et al 2001: 897)
As obvious from this quotation, the published study is replete with editorial errors, and it also confusingly uses "Palestinians" to refer to "Philistines." Nevertheless, its conclusion is important and worth pursuing in future studies.
DNA studies have the potential to show unexpected human commonalities. But careful sampling criteria should be adopted, and efforts made to avoid historical preconceptions. If DNA studies can be used to understand the Etruscans and their relationship to present populations in Italy, there may be even more pressing reasons to find potential connections in our region.


It is advantageous for religiously based claims to emphasize links to narratives in sacred books, and thus to consider them as true history. However, these books should be seen as sources of spiritual values and as literary products. All histories are constructed, and more seriously so when religious and literary histories are perceived as literal and exclusive. Such constructions, once established, try to find support by increasingly complex appropriations and justifications that are endless and humanly destructive. It continues to cause harm, in our context, to limit identity questions to recent "nation state" concepts or only to religious identifications, as is increasingly done.
How is it possible then to balance the need for mythic belief and respect for tradition with knowledge and consciousness - I mean a sensitive higher consciousness? Perhaps an inclusive cultural perspective holds promise (of which the Cana'anite past is a factor that offers possibilities), even if it is combined with positive aspects from monotheistic religious outlooks. There is a pressing need to negotiate collective memories and narratives in a manner that is likely to reconcile them equitably, to reverse the drive toward more invention. Otherwise, the general public will continue to believe myth is truth in ways that poison people's minds and actions. A cultural outlook would diminish intensity and blindness - a difficult thing to do. Here, it may be that only when recognition is given to cultural connections that the potential for consistency within each identity and genuine rapprochement between peoples can become at all possible.


Arnaiz-Villena, Antonio, et al. 2001. "The Origin of Palestinians and their Genetic Relatedness with Other Mediterranean Populations." Human Immunology 62: 889-900.
Bennett, Ramon. 1995. Philistine: The Great Deception. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Arm of Salvation.
Benvenisti, Meron. 2000. Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948. Berkeley: U of California P.
Diamond, James. 1986. Homeland or Holy Land: The "Canaanite" Critique of Israel. Indianapolis: Indiana UP.
Fowden, Elizabeth Key. 2002. "Sharing Holy Places." Common Knowledge 8.1: 124-46.
Hunt, E.D. 1982. Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire AD312-460. Oxford: Clarendon.
Nebel, Almut, et al. 2000. "High-resolution Y chromosome haplotypes of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs reveal geographic substructure and substantial overlap with haplotypes of Jews" Human Genetics 107:630-641.
. 2001. "The Y Chromosome Pool of Jews as Part of the Genetic Landscape of the Middle East." American Journal of Human Genetics 69: 1095-112.
Niehr, Herbert. 1995. "The Rise of YHWH in Judahite and Israelite Religion." The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms.Ed. Diana Vikander Edelman. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Prior, Michael. 1997. The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic.
Ra'ad, Basem L. 2001. "Primal Scenes of Globalization: Legacies of Canaan and Etruria." PMLA 116.1: 89-110,
. 7 February 2001. "Unearthing Rachel's and Other Tombs." Palestine Report www.
Redford, Donald B. 1992. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton UP.
Silberstein, Laurence J. 1999. The Postzionism Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture. New York: Routledge.
Smith, Mark S. 2001. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. New York: Oxford UP.
Tubb, Jonathan N. 1998. Canaanites. London: British Museum.
"Western Wall." Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed.