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Canaanite culture and religion

Edited by Robert A. Guisepi

The Israelite tribes during the period of the guidance and leadership of Moses and Joshua mainly had to contend with nomadic tribes; in their contacts with such groups, they absorbed some of the attitudes and motifs of the nomadic way of life, such as independence, a love of freedom to move about, and fear of or disdain for the way of life of settled, agricultural, and urban peoples.

The Canaanites, with whom the Israelites came into contact during the conquest by Joshua and the period of the Judges, were a sophisticated agricultural and urban people. The name Canaan means "Land of Purple" (a purple dye was extracted from a murex shellfish found near the shores of Palestine). The Canaanites, a people who absorbed and assimilated the features of many cultures of the ancient Near East for at least 500 years before the Israelites entered their area of control, were the people who, as far as is known, invented the form of writing that became the alphabet, which, through the Greeks and Romans, was passed on to many cultures influenced by their successors--namely, the nations and peoples of Western civilization.

The religion of the Canaanites was an agricultural religion, with pronounced fertility motifs. Their main gods were called the Baalim (Lords), and their consorts the Baalot (Ladies), or Asherah (singular), usually known by the personal plural name Ashtoret. The god of the city of Shechem, which city the Israelites had absorbed peacefully under Joshua, was called Baal-berith (Lord of the Covenant) or El-berith (God of the Covenant). Shechem became the first cultic center of the religious tribal confederacy (called an amphictyony by the Greeks) of the Israelites during the period of the judges. When Shechem was excavated in the early 1960s, the temple of Baal-berith was partially reconstructed; the sacred pillar (generally a phallic symbol or, often, a representation of the ashera, the female fertility symbol) was placed in its original position before the entrance of the temple.

The Baalim and the Baalot, gods and goddesses of the Earth, were believed to be the revitalizes of the forces of nature upon which agriculture depended. The revitalization process involved a sacred marriage (hieros gamos), replete with sexual symbolic and actual activities between men, representing the Baalim, and the sacred temple prostitutes (qedeshot), representing the Baalot. Cultic ceremonies involving sexual acts between male members of the agricultural communities and sacred prostitutes dedicated to the Baalim were focused on the Canaanite concept of sympathetic magic. As the Baalim (through the actions of selected men) both symbolically and actually impregnated the sacred prostitutes in order to reproduce in kind, so also, it was believed, the Baalim (as gods of the weather and the Earth) would send the rains (often identified with semen) to the Earth so that it might yield abundant harvests of grains and fruits. Canaanite myths incorporating such fertility myths are represented in the mythological texts of the ancient city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) in northern Syria; though the high god El and his consort are important as the first pair of the pantheon, Baal and his sexually passionate sister-consort are significant in the creation of the world and the renewal of nature.

The religion of the Canaanite agriculturalists proved to be a strong attraction to the less sophisticated and nomadic-oriented Israelite tribes. Many Israelites succumbed to the allurements of the fertility-laden rituals and practices of the Canaanite religion, partly because it was new and different from the Yahwistic religion and, possibly, because of a tendency of a rigorous faith and ethic to weaken under the influence of sexual attractions. As the Canaanites and the Israelites began to live in closer contact with each other, the faith of Israel tended to absorb some of the concepts and practices of the Canaanite religion. Some Israelites began to name their children after the Baalim; even one of the judges, Gideon, was also known by the name Jerubbaal ("Let Baal Contend").

As the syncretistic tendencies became further entrenched in the Israelite faith, the people began to lose the concept of their exclusiveness and their mission to be a witness to the nations, thus becoming weakened in resolve internally and liable to the oppression of other peoples. 

The Canaanite alphabet

The two Canaanite branches may be subdivided into several secondary branches. First, Early Hebrew had three secondary branches--Moabite, Edomite, and Ammonite--and two offshoots--the script of Jewish coins and the Samaritan script, still in use today for liturgical purposes only. Second, Phoenician can be divided into Phoenician proper and "colonial" Phoenician. Out of the latter developed the Punic and neo-Punic scripts and probably also the Libyan and Iberian scripts.

The term Early Hebrew is used to distinguish this branch from the later so-called Square Hebrew. The Early Hebrew alphabet had already begun to acquire its distinctive character by the 11th century BC. It was used officially until the 6th century BC and lingered on for several centuries more. In a stylized form it was used on Jewish coins from 135 BC to AD 132-135. The most ancient example of Early Hebrew writing is that of the Gezer Calendar of the period of Saul or David (i.e., c. 1000 BC). The oldest extant example of the Early Hebrew ABCs is the 8th-7th-century-BC schoolboy graffito mentioned above. A cursive style reached its climax in the inscriptions at Tel Lakhish, dating from the beginning of the 6th century BC. The Leviticus and other small Early Hebrew fragments found in the Dead Sea caves, which are probably from the 3rd century BC, are the only remains of what is considered to be the Early Hebrew book, or literary, hand.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Phoenician alphabet in the history of writing. The earliest definitely readable inscription in the North Semitic alphabet is the so-called Ahiram inscription found at Byblos in Phoenicia (now Lebanon), which probably dates from the 11th century BC. There is, however, no doubt that the Phoenician use of the North Semitic alphabet went further back. By being adopted and then adapted by the Greeks, the North Semitic, or Phoenician, alphabet became the direct ancestor of all Western alphabets. Only very few inscriptions have been found in Phoenicia proper. This rarity of indigenous documents is in contrast to the numbers of Phoenician inscriptions found elsewhere--on Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, and Sardinia, and in Greece, North Africa, Marseille, Spain, and other place.

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