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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Lands of Canaan and Egypt during the Middle Bronze Age

The land of Canaan stretched to the south of present-day Damascus. In the second millennium BCE, its culture bore some resemblance to that in Syria, but at the same time it had distinctive features. The Canaanite cultural sphere covered all of Palestine, as well as modern Lebanon and coastal Syria as far north as Ugarit. Only peripherally did Palestine enter into the affairs of northern Syria; the predominant outside influence was Egyptian. Complex relationships united the land of Canaan and Egypt during this period, with cultural influences flowing in both directions. Unfortunately, little documentation survives that might lift the veil on Canaan and its affairs. The paltry written sources include a few texts from Egypt and even fewer from Canaan itself. During the first part of the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1700 BCE, a period contemporary with the Middle Kingdom of Egypt), inscriptions point to a significant Egyptian role in the economic, and perhaps also the political, situation of Canaan. Beginning in the early eighteenth century, Semitic migrants from Canaan began drifting into the delta region of Egypt, and eventually they came to dominate it.

In the centuries between 2300 and 2000, Palestine was largely home to pastoral nomads, but during the twentieth century BCE, a revival of the region's urban life led to the reoccupation of most of the old Early Bronze Age cities and the founding of several new ones. Most cities were fortified with huge ramparts that required constant remodeling and reinforcement throughout the Middle Bronze Age. For the most part the cities did not approach the size of the large towns of northern Syria, with only one real exception—Hazor, which at 72 hectares (180 acres) was larger than Ebla. Most Middle Bronze Canaanite towns covered less than 20 hectares (50 acres). As in the Early Bronze Age, Palestine remained on the periphery of the predominant cultures of the Near East, but it was neither isolated nor unsophisticated.

The revival in Canaan coincides with a similar upsurge in Egypt. The end of the third millennium had constituted a period of political and economic disintegration for the ancient land of the Nile, but Egypt's disruption ended about 2000 BCE, when the country was reunited under the rule of the pharaohs of Dynasty 12. Archaeological evidence from various sites in Palestine indicates that the revival of Egypt brought a restoration of Egyptian trade into Canaan. Byblos, on the Lebanese coast, had been the primary trade port for Egypt during much of the third millennium, and it became such again. But unlike the situation during the Early Bronze III period (2700–2300 BCE), when the Egyptians' sea trade with Byblos had simply obviated their need to import goods overland through Canaan, during the Middle Bronze Age a considerable Egyptian economic influence spread all over the land.

Middle Bronze Age Canaan has yet to produce any significant literary remains. Accordingly, written historical sources are confined to documents from surrounding states, especially Egypt. We gain some sense of the political makeup of the region from the Execration Texts, Egyptian magical texts that name potential enemies of Egypt. The lists were written on bowls or figurines, which were then broken as part of a ceremony believed to render the enemies helpless. Among the foes named in these texts are numerous Canaanite princes, the rulers of small city-states, none of which compared in extent or power to those in Syria.

The close connections between Egypt and Canaan took a surprising turn as the Middle Bronze Age unfolded. Excavations in the Nile Delta have shown that as early as the nineteenth century, large numbers of Canaanite immigrants began to settle there, building towns similar to those in Canaan. Tell ed-Dab‘a, ancient Avaris, is such a town. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Semitic population in the delta had managed to gain political control of much of northern Egypt, with Avaris as their capital. During the next century (1650–1550) their domination widened, encompassing most of Lower and Middle Egypt. Only partially did they assimilate Egyptian cultural characteristics. The Egyptians called these nonnative kings heqaw khasut, “rulers of foreign lands,” a designation rendered into Greek during the first millennium as “Hyksos.” This extraordinary period, when northern Egypt became virtually an extension of Canaan, finally ended when the native Egyptian rulers of Thebes (Dynasty 17) launched a revolt against the Hyksos and eventually reestablished native political authority over the north. Following the reunification of Egypt, the rulers of Dynasty 18 carried the attack into Canaan itself in a series of military campaigns. Egypt's emergence as a new imperial power was one of the major forces that brought the Middle Bronze Age to a close in Canaan.

We cannot leave our discussion of Middle Bronze Age Canaan without noting that this region produced one of the most important innovations in the history of civilization. About 1700 BCE, someone in Canaan, needing a notational system to keep records but lacking time or opportunity to master either of the complex writing systems available at the time, Akkadian or Egyptian, created the alphabet. This brilliant achievement would revolutionize the development of writing and literacy throughout the Western world. The new script used drawings of common objects, but they designated only the first sound of the name of each object. Since Canaanite, like most languages, had only about thirty sounds, a compact, easy-to-learn system of writing had been invented. This is the beginning of what is popularly known as the Phoenician alphabet (Phoenician is the Greek word for Canaanite), the ancestor of every Western alphabet, including the one you are reading now.

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