Lemche on the Canaanites

For my write-up today of Niels Peter Lemche’s Prelude to Israel’s Past, I’ll talk a little about what Lemche says about the Canaanites, or, for Lemche, the so-called Canaanites.

One page 104, Lemche begins his discussion by citing Genesis 12:6, which says that, in the time of Abram, the Canaanites were in the land (of Palestine).  Lemche says that the Bible dates Abram’s arrival at Canaan to 2300 B.C.E., which is near the end of the Early Bronze Age.  Lemche states that, at that time, there were no “Canaanites” in Palestine, but rather Amorites—but, as you may recall from his book The Canaanites and Their Land—Lemche has problems with the label of “Canaanites” for the inhabitants of West Asia.  Lemche says why in Prelude to Israel’s Past:

“While Egyptian and Mesopotamian documents occasionally mention in a very general way the inhabitants of a geographic locale known as ‘Canaan,’ Palestine’s Bronze Age residents never referred to themselves as ‘Canaanites.’  The first known population to be called ‘Canaanites’ was a fourth-century C.E. North African peasant population during the days of Augustine of Hippo.”

Lemche says here what he argued in The Canaanites and Their Land: that Canaanite in the second-first millennia B.C.E. was not a self-designation.  I have a hard time grasping the significance of Lemche’s argument, to tell you the truth.  Lemche’s goal seems to be to dispute the characterization of a “Canaanite” culture by the Hebrew Bible and biblical scholars, but even the Hebrew Bible doesn’t present a monolithic Canaanite people, for it holds that Canaan had different people-groups, as Lemche acknowledges.  And so what if they did not call themselves Canaanites?

At the same time, it does appear that the Hebrew Bible has a conception of a common Canaanite culture—which includes the evil sex acts of Leviticus 18.  But I think that focusing on the accuracy or inaccuracy of that depiction can make Lemche’s point better than talking about whether or not the inhabitants of West Asia called themselves Canaanites.

On pages 104-105, Lemche offers his analysis of the Hebrew Bible’s depiction of Syria and Palestine in the Bronze Age.  He thinks that it only provides “vague and legendary material.”  While he acknowledges that the Hittites “represent a historical entity”, he says that “other peoples seem to exist only in the minds of the biblical authors or are derivatives of legendary and heroic figures like the Titans.”  He notes that the Rephaim in Ugaritic sources “were the spirits of the deceased ancestors, heroes never forgotten, but in Genesis they are listed among the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Canaan (Gen 15:20).”

This is a fair scholarly analysis.  Lemche distinguishes between history and legend, and he uses that distinction to evaluate what is historical and un-historical in the Hebrew Bible.  Even the maximalist scholars whom he criticizes do this, thus their “rationalistic paraphrases of the Bible” which assume that much of the Hebrew Bible is historical, but not the miracles or the fantastic elements.

If I were to put on my scholar’s cap, I’d probably take Lemche’s approach.  But there is a strong part of me that appreciates what Captain Kirk said on probably more than one episode of Star Trek: that myth is rooted in fact.  Maybe there were fantastic things in history that gave rise to legends.

I want to close this post by quoting something that Lemche says on page 125, in order to get some history straight in my head: “In Palestine…native sovereigns ruled during the Middle Bronze Age; Egyptian officials governed during the Late Bronze Age.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.