Israelites and Canaanites. How Different Were They?

Conservative Christians admit that the divinely inspired laws of the Babylonian King, Hammurabi, predate the alleged time when Moses received divinely inspired laws. The Laws of Hammurabi were believed to have been directly inspired or handed down by a god. A picture shows King Hammurabi receiving them, or receiving inspiration directly from a god standing beside him, the sun god Shamash. Later on the Israelites claimed that their leader, Moses, received laws from Yahweh.

Israelites and Canaanites. How Different Were They?

Proto-Canaanite script, with its predecessor and main offshoot. From F.M. Cross, “The Origin and Early Evolution of the Alphabet,” Eretz Israel, 8. Jerusalem, 1967

There were also stories about gods directing people how they wanted their temples built that preceded tales in the Bible about Yahweh directing a king of Israel how His temple was to be built. See Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology. The author is a professor at a conservative Christian seminary who concludes that “Satan” was making ancient people do the things that Satan knew in advance that God was going to make his people do later. So the professorʼs hypothesis is that Satan was counterfeiting Godʼs moves in advance. Without employing such a hypothesis itʼs obvious that much of the OT simply fits its milieu, its time, place and culture. Niehausʼ book was quite a source of frustration for a Christian at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary who wrote a paper critiquing it, and concluded the following:

“Niehaus frames his book with bookend chapters that state clearly what he is setting out to show, in particular that demonic activity may be attributing to the similarities seen in the almost parallel appearing texts of other ANE cultures. However, for the reader who comes to the text in most cases from a faith background, Niehaus does not offer an easy path at all to reach the conclusion that God has indeed shown Himself unique and sovereign against the backdrop of the(not real) gods of the neighbors of His covenant people Israel. The majority of the book leaves the reader unengaged as they are not shown a true contrast to what they want to know to be biblical supremacy, showing the covenantal love of the Creator of the universe for His children. Instead, the feeling a reader may walk away with is one of frustration with the lack of differentiation.”

Even conservative Christians who date the time of Moses as early as possible, are forced to admit that many aspects of these ancient Israelite tales reflect earlier ideas in the ancient Near East, i.e., earlier creation stories, earlier stories of receiving laws from a god, and earlier stories of babies left in rivers who grow up to be great leaders. The “baby left in a river story” of Moses is similar to that of Sumerian king Sargon I left in a caulked basket in the Euphrates. Even the ancient Greeks had a story about the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, being left in the Tiber but without a basket.

In William Deverʼs book, What Did the Bible Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, he writes that archaeological investigations of Moses and the Exodus have been

“discarded as a fruitless pursuit… the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness. A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in southern Transjordan in the mid-late 13th century B.C., where many scholars think the Biblical traditions concerning the god Yahweh arose. But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage, much less prove that he was the founder of later Israelite region.”

About Leviticus and Numbers he writes that these are

“clearly additions to the ‘pre-history’ by very late Priestly editorial hands, preoccupied with notions of ritual purity, themes of the ‘promised land,’ and other literary motifs that most modern readers will scarcely find edifying much less historical.”

Dever writes that

“the whole ‘Exodus-Conquest’ cycle of stories must now be set aside as largely mythical, but in the proper sense of the term ‘myth’: perhaps ‘historical fiction,’ but tales told primarily to validate religious beliefs.”

What Did the Bible Writers Know and When Did They Know It is not easy reading. But Dever recommends an anthology by the Biblical Archaeology Society, published by Prentice Hall entitled Ancient Israel, edited by Hershel Shanks — a book that is very readable. Those testifying for Deverʼs book (on the back cover) are: Paul D. Hanson, Professor of Divinity and Old Testament at Harvard University; David Noel Freedman, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the University of Michigan; Philip M. King, Professor at Boston College and author of Jeremiah; William W. Hallo, Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature at Yale University; and Bernhard W. Anderson, Professor of Old Testament, Boston University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Like Dever, the above scholars are not a bunch of minimalists nor radical revisionists. But their opinions demonstrate that a literalistic inerrantistic reading of Exodus is not widely held.

See for Instance

Archaeologically speaking, the change from “Canaanite” to “Israelite” appears to have been gradual, more evolutionary than revolutionary. Did full scale massacres occur? Or are the stories in the book of Joshua yet another instance of biblical hyperbole? Note especially how “Canaanit-ish” the ancient Israelites were, or, how much Canaanite thought and culture lived on via the Israelites:

The Hebrew language is in fact a “language of Canaan,” as says the prophet (Isaiah 19:18), a conclusion amply confirmed by ancient inscriptions. In scholarly terms, Hebrew is a “southern dialect of the Canaanite language.” From its earliest appearance until the Babylonian destruction, Hebrew was written in the Canaanite alphabet.

As with language and the alphabet, so with culture generally: Ancient Israelite culture was in many respects a subset of Canaanite culture. The most powerful and extensive demonstration of this last statement comes from the body of literature uncovered at the site of Ugarit.

The Canaanite King Kirta of the Ugaritic epic with the same name, was called out by his own son who is shown speaking like a Hebrew prophet calling out rulers for their lack of solicitude for widows, orphans, and the poor:

  • When raiders lead raids,
  • and creditors detain (debtors),
  • You let your hands fall slack:
  • you do not judge the widowʼs case,
  • you do not make a decision regarding the oppressed,
  • you do not cast out those who prey upon the poor.
  • Before you, you do not feed the orphan,
  • behind your back the widow” (vi 49-51).
  • — Context of Scripture 1.102 vi 25-53

Another clay tablet reveals something of the Canaanitesʼ family values:

ʽStarting from today I Yaremano give up all my properties to my wife Baydawe and two sons Yataleeno and Yanhamo. If one of my sons treats his mother Baydawe meanly, he must pay five hundred pieces of silver for the king. Beyond that he should take off his shirt, leave it on the doorʼs lock and go into the street. But the one who treats his mother Baydawe with respect and consideration, his mother will give him all the properties.ʼ


The Israelites shared with their neighbors the eastward orientation of their tabernacle and temple, the placement of important cultic objects within them, the designation of areas of increasing holiness, rules for access to the Holy Place and Holy of Holies, as well as practices like circumcision and sacrificial offerings. [Dr. Bealeʼs admissions, and heʼs a biblical inerrantist and Evangelical Christian]

They agreed with their ancient neighbors that it was important to appease a high divinity via building a temple, saying prayers, giving praises, having priests and sacrifices, all important to a nationʼs blessing and protection granted from its high god. For instance, after Babylon had been plundered by the king of Assyria, the next king of Babylon interpreted the invasion as a punishment sent by Babylonʼs high god who had been angered by his peopleʼs lack of righteous behavior and lack of worship of Marduk:

“[The citizens of Babylon] had oppressed the weak, and handed the weak into the power of the strong. Inside the city there was tyranny, receiving of bribes, people plundering each otherʼs things, sons cursing fathers in the street, slaves cursing masters, they put an end to offerings [to the gods], they laid hands on the property of the temple of the gods, and sold silver, gold and precious stones. . . . Marduk [the high god of Babylon] grew angry and devised evil to overwhelm the land and destroy the peoples,”
—cf. W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 5.

Ancient cultures also praised their high moral gods in ways very similar to how the Hebrewʼs praised theirs. In a ritual for the Babylonian New Year festival, the Babylonian high god, Marduk, was invoked in this fashion:

  • “My lord is my god, my lord is my ruler, is there any lord apart from him?”

  • Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II prayed at his accession to Marduk:

    “Everlasting lord, master of all that exists, grant to the king, whom you love, and whose name you name, all that is pleasant to you. Keep him on the right way…You have created me and entrusted to me the dominion over all peoples. O lord, let me according to your grace, which you pour over them all, love your exalted might, and create in my heart fear of your divinity.”

  • And in the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, the high moral god Marduk is depicted as:

    “The trust of the land, city and people. The people shall praise him [Marduk] forever…At his name the gods shall tremble and quake…Who administers justice, uproots twisted testimony, In whose place falsehood and truth are distinguished…Who uprooted all enemies… snuffed out all wicked ones…his name shall be the truth!” (Tablet VI:135—36, 146 and VII:39—40, 43, 45, 54).

    He [Marduk] shall be ʽLord of All the Godsʼ…No one among the gods shall [make himself equal] to him.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VI:141 and VII:14

  • He [Marduk] established the holy heavens… creator of the earth above the waters, establisher of things on high…who made the worldʼs regions…He created “places” and fashioned the netherworld.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VII:16, 83, 89, 135

  • He [Marduk] patterned the days of the year…established the positions of Enlil and Ea [referring to the rotation of stars in the sky]…made the moon appear, entrusted (to him) the night…assigned to the crown jewel of nighttime to mark the day (of the month)…[Marduk] d[efined?] the celestial signs [for religious festivals]…the doorbolt of sunrise…the watches of night and day.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet V:3, 5, 8, 12—13, 23, 44, 46 [Compare Genesis 1 that tells of Yahweh creating the sun and moon for “signs and seasons,” literally for religious festivals in Yahwehʼs honor, same as in the earlier tale in Enuma Elish. The same Hebrew word translated as “seasons” appears elsewhere in the Pentateuch meaning religious festivals.]

  • He [Marduk] made mankind…creatures with the breath of life…creator of all people.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VI:33,129 & VII:89

  • He [Marduk] shall be the shepherd of the [Mesopotamians], his creatures.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VI:107

  • Creation, destruction, absolution, punishment: Each shall be at his [Mardukʼs] command.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VI:131-32

  • His [Mardukʼs] word is truth, what he says is not changed, Not one god has annulled his utterance.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VII:151—52

  • Word of him [Marduk] shall endure, not to be forgotten.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VII:31—2

  • Let them ever speak of his [Mardukʼs] exaltation, let them sing his praises!
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VII:24

  • His [Mardukʼs] beneficent roar shall thunder over the earth.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VII:120

  • [Marduk,] who crossed vast Tiamat [sea goddess] back and forth in his wrath, Spanning her like a bridge at the place of single combat.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VII:74

  • He [Marduk], profound of wisdom, ingenious in perception, Whose heart is so deep that none of the gods can comprehend it.
    —Enuma Elish Tablet VII:117—18

[Quotations from Enuma Elish trans. by Benjamin R. Foster, From Distant Days: Myths, Tales and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia (Bethesda: CDL Press, 1995)]

There are Bible verses that are very similar to all of the praises of Marduk above, including treading down the waves of the sea and defeating monsters.

Further Reading

1 comment:

  1. Wow, you really did your research on this article, Ed.

    Deserves 👍 👍 👍 👍 👍 for sure.