In Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Phoenician/Punic Canaan is spelled kn῾n, in Akkadian cuneiform it is spelled ki-na-aḫ-nu(m) (at Mari, Byblos, and Tyre), ki-in-a-nim (at Alalakh), māt ki-na-ḫi (in Assyria and Ugarit), or māt ki-in-na-aḫ-ḫi (in Egypt, Mitanni, Boğazköy/Ḫattuša, Babylon); and in Egyptian it is spelled k-3-n-῾-n-3 or k-i-n-῾-nw (with many variations). The Septuagint generally simply transliterates into Greek as Chanaan. The etymology of the name has been much discussed, and the discussion revolves around whether kn῾n should be understood as derived from the Semitic root k-n-῾, “to bend, be subdued,” with the -n suffix (the consensus at present; see Astour, 1965); or whether the same word as the place name Canaan (also spelled kinaḫḫu in several cuneiform sources) should be seen in kinaḫḫu, “blue cloth” from Nuzi (in Hurrian or hurrianized Akkadian; see Speiser, 1936, disputed in Landsberger, 1967). Kinaḫḫu would present a parallel (though opposite) process to the Greek use of a derivative of a word for red-purple to name the Phoenicians.

The term Canaan or Canaanite appears in the extant evidence for the first time in an eighteenth-century BCE text from Mari in Syria. A man named Mut-Bisir complains to his lord in a letter written from the town of Rāḫiṣum that “thieves and Canaanites are in Rāḫiṣum.” (Doubt has recently been cast on a suggestion that the term is to be seen in ga-na-na(-um) in third-millennium texts from Ebla in Syria; see Archi et al., 1993, pp. 229–230.) Other than this text, nothing appears in writing about Canaan or the Canaanites until the late fifteenth century (in a booty list, Amenophis II declares that he had deported Canaanites) and then several times in the fourteenth-century BCE Amarna letters. “Ammia in the land of Canaan” shows up in the “autobiography” of Idrimi (of Alalakh), dated variously by scholars to the fifteenth-thirteenth centuries BCE. At Ugarit, in about 1200 BCE, a list of merchants includes one Y῾l, described as a Canaanite (kn῾ny), along with other people with ethnic identifiers, such as Egyptian and Ashdodite. Because the Ugaritians bothered to label these people with gentilics, it is generally deduced that they were in some sense outsiders and that, therefore, Ugarit did not consider itself a part of Canaan. At about the same time, the “Israel stela” of Pharaoh Merneptah lists Canaan as one of the conquered lands.

The land of Canaan is described in several ancient texts, with predictably varying boundaries. Through most of the second millennium BCE, Canaan's boundaries began in the south at Wadi al-῾Arish and reached north to the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon Mountain ranges. The western border was, of course, the Mediterranean, and the eastern was Transjordan (mostly the Bashan) and the Jordan River and Dead Sea farther south. These boundaries accord with the area covered by the eighteenth-century BCE Saqqara group of Egyptian Execration texts and with the descriptions of the land of Canaan in Numbers 34:1–12 and the future inheritance in Ezekiel 47:13–20; 48:1–7, 23–29. (See also the southern boundary in Jos. 15:2–4 and the northern one in 19:24–31.) The table of nations gives a rather more restricted picture of Canaan in Genesis 10:19: from Sidon in the north to Gaza in the south; to the east, the area of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Biblical traditions about the land of Canaan cluster in the genealogies and in the stories of promise and conquest. The word Canaan occurs largely in Genesis and Numbers, a few times in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and then many times in Joshua and Judges (including the earliest-dated biblical attestation, Js. 5:19). Canaanite occurs frequently in Genesis and Exodus and a few times in Numbers and Deuteronomy, but most commonly in Joshua and Judges. These mentions, of course, refer to the land in which Israel settled (conquered, according to biblical tradition) and to the inhabitants of that land. Neither word appears very many times outside the Pentateuch and Joshua and Judges, although a few later occurrences are interesting for their apparent use of phrases with the word Canaan (once Canaanite) to mean “merchant, trader” (Jb. 40:30; Ez. 16:29, 17:4; Hos. 12:8; Zep. 1:11).

Extrabiblical uses of the terms Canaan and Canaanite end for the most part with the Iron Age, with a few exceptions. In the third century BCE, coins from Beirut read l'dk' 'š bkn῾n (in Phoenician, “Laodikea which is in Canaan”—the Greek equivalent of Laodikeia hē en Phoinikē, “Laodikea which is in Phoenicia.” The Phoenician priest Sakkunyaton (perhaps mid- or late first millennium BCE), in excerpts from Philo of Byblos (first or second century CE), quoted by Eusebius (fourth century), says that Chna was the first person to call himself Phoenician. Both Herodianus Grammaticus (second century CE; Peri monērous lexeōs, 8.5–9) and Stephanus of Byzantium (fifth century CE; see under Chna) note that Phoenicia was formerly called Chna.

[See also Canaanites; Phoenicia; and Phoenicians.]


  • Aharoni, Yohanan. The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography. Rev. & enl. ed., translated and edited by Anson F. Rainey. Philadelphia, 1979. A densely packed presentation of the geography of Israel and of what is known of the identification of sites. Find it in your Library
  • Archi, Alfonso, Paola Piacentini, and Francesco Pomponio. Archivi Reali di Ebla. Vol. 2, I nomi di luogo dei testi di Ebla. Rome, 1993. Listing of occurrences of place names in the Ebla texts, with comment where appropriate. Find it in your Library
  • Astour, Michael C. “The Origin of the Terms ‘Canaan,’ ‘Phoenician,’ and ‘Purple.’” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 24 (1965): 346–350. Discussion and evaluation of alternative arguments for the origins of the three terms. Find it in your Library
  • Attridge, Harold W., and Robert A. Oden Jr. Philo of Byblos. The Phoenician History. Washington, 1981. Fine, accessible version of Sakkunyaton, with introduction and notes. Find it in your Library
  • Landsberger, Benno. “Über Farben im Sumerisch-Akkadischen.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 21 (1967): 139–173. Wide-ranging discussion of the precise referents of color words. Find it in your Library
  • McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr. “The Patriarchal Age.” In Ancient Israel, edited by Hershel Shanks, pp. 1–29. Washington, 1988. An up-to-date introduction to the possible background of the patriarchal stories in Genesis, in the course of which Middle Bronze and Late Bronze Age Canaan are discussed. Find it in your Library
  • Mazar, Benjamin. “Canaan and the Canaanites.” In Biblical Israel: State and People, edited by Shmuel Ahituv, pp. 16–21. Jerusalem, 1992. Extensive presentation of the evidence bearing on the meaning of the name Canaan. The entire work is a collection of Mazar's essays. Find it in your Library
  • Rainey, Anson F. “The Kingdom of Ugarit.” Biblical Archaeologist 28.4 (December 1965): 102–125. Summary of the excavations, history, administration, and religion at Ugarit; includes the evidence (through the mid-1960s) that Late Bronze Ugarit did not consider itself part of Canaan. Find it in your Library
  • Speiser, Ephraim A. “The Name Phoinikes.” Language 12 (1936): 121–126. Discussion and evaluation of three theories about the origin of the Greek name for the Phoenicians. Find it in your Library

Jo Ann Hackett