Name of the son of Ham, and a brother of Cush (Ethiopia), Mizriam (Egypt), and Put (Phut), occurring in the geographical-ethnographical table, Gen. ix. and x. Originally the name "Canaan" was not an ethnic term. It belongs primarily to the vocabulary of geography; the curse pronounced upon its bearer for the misconduct of Ham demonstrating only the knowledge of the author that the dominant Semitic population of the land so designated was the deposit of a wave of immigration and conquest coming from the south. Originally an appellative (compare Moore, on the use of the article in Egyptian inscriptions, in "Proceedings of Am. Oriental Soc." 1890, lxvii. et seq.), it described some peculiar aspect of the country, and was only later transferred from the territory to the inhabitants.
Like most geographical terms in the Bible, "Canaan" is employed in a very loose and confusing manner; and it is almost impossible to establish definitely the limits of its application. In earlier times its range was probably very narrow; designating the strip of coast-line along the Mediterranean, more particularly the northern—i.e., the Phenician—part thereof. With this restriction "Kan'na" appears in the Egyptian inscriptions (Müller, "Asien und Europa," pp. 206 et seq.). But it was also applied to the whole coast district down to the Egyptian frontier (Philistæa). Like the Greek "Palestine," which originally designated only the southern coast-line, "Canaan" was then extended to the adjacent highlands. In Josh. xi. 3 it covers the land from the foot of Mt. Hermon to the southern end of the Dead Sea, and also the territory west of the Jordan to the Mediterranean. It is doubtful whether the name was ever given to districts east of the Jordan. These, as "the land of Gilead," are generally put in antithesis to "the land of Canaan" (Num. xxxii. 29 et seq.; Josh. xxii. 9, 32). "Canaan" is the favorite appellation of the Jahvist, sometimes with the prefix "land" and sometimes without (Ex. xv. 15; Gen. xii. 5, xvi. 3; and elsewhere).
The etymology of the name is in doubt. After Augustine ("Ennarationes in Psalmos," civ. 7), it has been explained as designating lowland either in contrast to Aram, or to the mountainous highland looming beyond the coast-line and removed from the sea only by a narrow strip of "lower land" (Num. xiii. 29; Josh. xi. 3). The former implication is now generally abandoned; but the latter, though open to objections (see Moore, l.c.), may be provisionally retained. Canaan is geographically identical with the land of the Amorites. As such it is mentioned in the El-Amarna tablets, though it also occurs in them as "Kinahhu" or "Kinahna." See Canaanites.
The first of the seven sinners who made idols for the heathens, the other six being Phut, Shelah, Nimrod, Elah, Diul, and Shuah. Canaan, with his six companions, brought precious stones from Havilah (Gen. ii. 11-12), and made of them idols, which at night shone as brightly as the sun, and which were endowed with a power so magical that, when the blind Ammorites kissed them, they regained their eyesight ("Chronicles of Jerahmeel," p. 167; compare Kenaz).
Canaan, in a certain sense, was predestined to this and similar offenses; for he was begotten by his father while in Noah's Ark, whereas God had commanded that the sexes should live separately therein (Gen. R. xxxvi.). Canaan was of so low and base a character that Ham, in the record of his wickedness, is designated "the father of Canaan," whereby father and son were ironically characterized as a "par nobile" (noble pair) (Gen. R. l.c.; Origen on Gen. ix. 18).Curse of Noah.
Concerning the curse of Noah upon Canaan, the Midrashim endeavored in different ways to give a solution to the question why Canaan had to suffer for the sins of his father. The old explanation was that Canaan, not Ham, though he had in no sense transgressed against his grandfather, had to be cursed by him because God had blessed Noah and his sons; and wherever the blessing of God rests there can be no curse (R. Judah, Gen. R. l.c.; Justin Martyr, "Dial. cum Tryph." cxxxix.). This explanation, however, was found to be defective; for it was contrary to Jewish sentiment to curse an innocent man; hence the new assertion that Canaan, like his father, transgressed against Noah.
There are different views as to the nature of Canaan's transgression. According to one, Canaan circulated the report that he saw Noah naked; another view is that he emasculated him that he should have no more sons (Gen. R. l.c.; Origen and Ephraem Syrus on Gen. x. 24, 25; more elaborated, in Pirḳe R. El. xxiii.).Canaan the Father of Slaves.
Through the curse which Canaan brought upon himself, the low condition of slaves (Canaan's descendants) is to be explained; for parents exercise a strong influence, for good or for evil, upon the fate of their offspring. "Wo unto the sinners," comments a Midrash, "who bring evil upon themselves, their children, their children's children; in fact, upon all the generations that follow." Many of the sons of Canaan were worthy of being ordained as rabbis; but the guilt of their father barred them from such a career (Yoma 87a). God, however, is different from man. Man seeks to deprive his enemies of the means of subsistence; but God, though He cursed Canaan, made him a slave, that he might eat and drink of that which his master possessed (ib. 75a).
Canaan upon his death-bed left to his children the following rules of life: (1) "Let there be mutual love between yourselves." (2) "Love robbery and unchastity." (3) "Hate your masters, and do not speak the truth" (Pes. 113b). Not only by words, but also by deeds, Canaan exemplified to his sonsthe life worthy of slaves. When Noah divided the earth among his three sons, Palestine fell to the lot of Shem. Canaan, however, took possession of it, notwithstanding the fact that his father and his children called his attention to the wrong he had committed. They therefore said to him: "Thou art cursed, and cursed wilt thou remain before all the sons of Noah, in accordance with the oath which we took before the Holy Judge [God] and our father Noah" (Book of Jubilees, x., end). Later, when the Jews, the descendants of Shem, drove out the Canaanites from Palestine, the land fell into the hands of its lawful owners.The Canaanites.
Among the various tribes of the Canaanites were the Girgashites, who, on Joshua's demand, subsequently left Palestine and emigrated to Africa (Yer. Sheb. vi. 36c; Lev. R. xvii.). Many of the Canaanites concealed their treasure in the walls of their houses, that they might not fall into the hands of the Jews. But God commanded that, under certain circumstances, the houses should fall into ruins; thus the hidden treasure came to light (Lev. R. xvii.). The Canaanites furthermore, on hearing that the Jews had left Egypt, destroyed all crops, cut down the trees, demolished the houses, and filled up the wells, in order that the Israelites should come into possession of a wasted country. But God promised the children of Israel a rich and fertile land (see Deut. vi. 10-12). He therefore led the Jews for forty years in the wilderness; and the Canaanites, in the mean time, rebuilt what they had destroyed (Mek., Beshallaḥ, i. [ed. Weiss, p. 28b]).
In the time of Alexander the Great the descendants of those Canaanites who had left Palestine at the request of Joshua, and had settled in Africa, sought to regain the Promised Land. Gebiha ben Pesisa, however, who appeared before the king in the interest of the Jews, showed that according to Scripture, by which the Africans traced their ancestry to Canaan, that ancestor had been declared the slave of Shem and Japheth. The Jews, therefore, not only had the right to hold the land of their slaves, but the Africans had to indemnify the Jews for the long time during which they had performed no service for them. In consternation, the Africans then fled to their homes (San. 91a).Medieval Views.
In the literature of the German-French Jews of the Middle Ages the Canaanites and the Slavs were considered identical, owing to the similarity of the latter name with the German word for "slave" (A. Harkavy, "Die Juden und die Slavischen Sprachen," pp. 19-29; Kohut, "Aruch Completum," s.v. ). In Sifre, Deut. 306 (ed. Friedmann, p. 131b) the word is used peculiarly; (literally, "Canaanitish language") means probably "a mercantile expression."
- Bacher, in Jew. Quart. Rev. iii. 354, 356;
- Ginzberg, Die Haggada bei den Kirchenvätern, pp. 84-87.