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History Before the Bible (5) The Canaanites

Original Date
April 26, 2009

The Canaanites of the Late Bronze Age

The end of the Middle Bronze Age in Palestine was accompanied by the widespread destruction of cities. These destructions can be attributed to Egyptian campaigns following the expulsion of the Hyksos. Unlike the end of the Early Bronze Age, however, the urban nature of the land continued following the destruction. Cities were rebuilt, albeit on a smaller scale, and the Late Bronze Age was a continuation of the Canaanite culture. It was the Late Bronze Canaanite culture that the Israelites encountered in the land following the Exodus.

A word should be said here about terminology. “Canaan” was used as a geographic term in cuneiform documents, but came to refer to a province including Palestine and southern Syria under the Egyptian New Kingdom. The Bible seems to present a somewhat narrower view, the “Land of Canaan” apparently being coterminous with the “Promised Land” or Palestine. This may be because the Canaan of Egyptian control was reduced to this area by the time of the Exodus.

Cities. Settlement and population density declined in Palestine during the LB (Late Bronze) period. In general, the number and size of cities was smaller than in the Middle Bronze periods. Some former MB  (Midd Bronze) cities ceased to exist or were reduced to poor villages. An exception to the downsizing rule is found in Hazor, which continued to be settled over its 200 acre enclosed area. The hill country areas seem especially to have declined, even in the number of small agricultural settlements. A few new cities appeared along the coast to facilitate marine trade, a growing economic aspect of Canaanite life. A few former cities became fortress-bases for the Egyptian presence in parts of the land.

The Transjordanian regions of Edom and Moab were occupied during the Middle Bronze-I with settled villages, but beginning in the early nineteenth century, these sites were abandoned. Surface explorations by Nelson Glueck in the 1940’s suggested that sedentary populations were not again present in these regions until the thirteenth century BCE, and that the area was occupied only by semi-nomadic groups. On this basis, it had been argued that a pre-thirteenth century Exodus impossible, as no sedentary population capable of refusing passage (cf. Numbers 20-22) would have been present . New explorations, however, have revealed sedentary occupation during the supposed gap. In the northern and central areas of the Transjordan, several cities of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages are now known. A cultic structure at the Amman (Rabboth-ammon) airport , formerly seen as an isolated semi-nomadic shrine, now fits into a context of Late Bronze cities and other remains. The occupational gap of the northern and central areas of the Transjordan now appears questionable  and, though the question remains open for southern Transjordan, this issue is no longer a major criteria in determining the date for the Exodus.

The divisions of LB Palestine into sub-phases and their relationship to Egyptian chronology are disputed and need not concern us here.  Many sites exhibit 3-5 LB phases, often punctuated by destruction levels. This level of disruption must have been caused by the political turmoil of Egyptian campaigns as well as fighting between cities and raids by the Habiru (as described in the Amarna Letters). Most Late Bronze cities in Palestine continued to utilize the Middle Bronze fortifications with little or no renovation and modification. In some areas, regional defense was effected by small rectangular forts, apparently built under Egyptian auspices. A chain of such forts extends across northern Sinai and into southern Palestine, guarding the main military route from Egypt .

Religious Architecture. A wide variety of temple structures are known from Late Bronze Palestine. A large temple precinct has been found at Beth Shean, one of the Egyptian strongholds in the land, where there is evidence for the mixing of Canaanite and Egyptian religious ideas . With its beginnings in the MB, this rambling complex continued through the LB and into the following Iron I period. Some individual temples of the monumental type common in the MB period survived or where rebuilt in the Late Bronze at Hazor, Megiddo, and Shechem. At the former, two large temples (Areas A and H) continued into the Late Bronze with rebuilding and modifications, including the addition of basalt orthostats. One of these temples (in Area H) was rebuilt through the end of the Late Bronze period, it’s last phase exhibiting twin freestanding pillars and a tripartite plan which recalls the Temple of Solomon .

An interesting phenomenon is the building of several temples in isolated locations, not associated with any city. Tel Mevorakh has such a building, and the isolated structure near the Amman airport may also be a temple. These may have been places of pilgrimage or served the needs of travelers . A related phenomenon is the construction of religious structures outside the city walls. At Lachish, for example, a small temple (known as the Fosse Temple) was built at the base of the mound and continued through several phases in the Late Bronze. It has been suggested that such extramural temples served foreign populations at or travelers to the adjoining cities. The latter seems more likely, and the type is now known a bit earlier, owing to the discovery of an extramural sanctuary of the last phase of Middle Bronze Age Ashkelon. This structure, located on the rampart below the city gate, produced a exquisite bronze calf statuette overlaid with silver and an accompanying pottery shrine . The calf is an excellent example of Canaanite iconography. Calves and bulls were associated with El or Baal, Canaanite deities. Though a bit early, it represents the type of image the Israelites tended to adopt (e.g., Exodus 32)—either as a symbol of the Lord or as part of the outright worship of Canaanite gods (the following chapters will deal with this issue more completely).

Overall, there is a tendency towards smaller religious structures, each perhaps with a single cult focus, from the middle of the Late Bronze period onward. At Hazor, a small structure with benches along the wall contained a raised niche in which were found eleven basalt stelae, a statue of a seated male deity (probably the moon god), and a miniature orthostat (a large stone set upright.) with a lion in relief . The stelae (an ancient upright stone slab bearing markings) are excellent representations of Canaanite masseboth (w. Semitic / biblical Hebrew pl. – monuments, or standing stones), which the Israelites were explicitly instructed to destroy (Deuteronomy 12:2-3) and not to make for themselves (Leviticus 26:1). The religious structures lead us to other questions about the religion of the Canaanites. By happy circumstance, a body of texts from this period sheds considerable light on that subject



ANE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - Ancient Near East

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