The history of Israel mentioned in the Old Testament is developed in the territory known as Canaan or Palestine. This story is also linked to the nations which lived in Canaan before Israel’s entry into the land. In order to get a better understanding of the Old Testament, it is necessary to become familiar with the geography of the Ancient Near East.
The Land of Canaan
Canaan was the original name of the land where Israel lived. Although the etymology of the name Canaan is uncertain, the name comes from a word that means “the land of purple”. The Greeks called the northern region of Canaan, Phoenicia, present-day Lebanon. The word “Phoenicia” means “purple” or “crimson.” Thus, the name Phoenicia is associated with the crimson or purple dye which merchants sold in the Mediterranean region. In addition, the land of Canaan was known as Palestine. This name was given to the region by the Greeks and the Romans and means “the land of the Philistines.” The designation of Palestine as the “Promised Land” refers to the promise God made to Abraham and his offspring: “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7).
The land that formed the Old Testament world stretches from the Persian Gulf to Egypt. The Old Testament world is commonly called the “Fertile Crescent” because this fertile area of the Ancient Near East formed a semicircle similar to the crescent of the moon. This territory includes Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Mesopotamia means “the land between rivers” and it was the land of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, and Persians. It was also the land from which Israel took its origins. According to the book of Genesis, Abraham and his family came from Ur of the Chaldeans to live in the land of Canaan (Genesis 11:31). Ur of the Chaldeans was a city located in the southeastern region of ancient Babylon.
The Old Testament world also includes the Syro-Palestinian coastal plains and Egypt. The Syrians or the Arameans played a very important role in Israelite history. Aram and Israel constantly fought for control of the land in northern Palestine. An old confession of faith in Israel proclaimed that the patriarchs came from Syria: “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deuteronomy 26:5). Egypt was one of the oldest empires in human history. Egypt was also the place to where Israel emigrated at the time of a great famine in Canaan in the days of Jacob and it was the Egyptians who oppressed Israel.
The Land of Palestine
The Land of Palestine is small when compared to the United States. Palestine is about 10.000 square miles, or one seventh the size of the state of Missouri. Palestine, from Dan in the north to Beer-sheba in the south is about 145 miles. From east to west the length of Palestine varies between 20-90 miles wide.
Palestine is divided into four natural divisions: the Maritime Plain, the central mountain, the Jordan Valley, and the Transjordanian plateau.
The maritime area of Canaan, west of Judah, is the territory on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. This area includes the Philistine plains in the south, the Sharon Plain and the Acco Plain in the north (Judges 1:31). The plain of Sharon is the fertile area in the central part of Canaan, between Joppa and Mount Carmel. The Israelites did not conquer the greater part of the maritime area of Canaan. In the south, the Philistines extended their control of the area along the Mediterranean coast of Gaza to Joppa. In the north, the Phoenicians, with their cities of Tyre and Sidon, remained independent of the Israelites throughout the period of Israel’s history.
The central mountain begins in the hills of Lebanon and crosses Canaan from north to south, ending in the desert. In the north of Canaan, the mountain was known as “the Mountain of Ephraim” (Joshua 20:7). In the south the mountain was known as “the Mountain of Judah” (Joshua 20:7). Most of Israel’s population lived in the central mountain.
The territory between the mountain of Judah and the coastal plain is called Shephelah or “lowlands.” South of the mountains of Judah is the arid territory called Negev (Genesis 12:9), The Negev is the semidesert region of southern Israel. The Negev begins south of Hebron and goes to the Gulf of Aqaba. The central mountain is divided into three sections: Galilee in the north, Samaria in the center, and Judah in the south.
The Jordan Valley is the result of a geological rift that divides Palestine from north to south. The Jordan Rift Depression begins in Syria, separates the mountains from Lebanon and from Anti-Lebanon (a mountain range between Syria and Lebanon), and continues through Palestine, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Red Sea. The Dead Sea, also known as the Salt Sea (Genesis 14:3), is part of the Jordan Rift Depression. The Dead Sea is at 1290 feet below the Mediterranean Sea level and is the lowest point in the world. The Jordan River is born on Mount Hermon, on the mountains of the Anti-Lebanon and empties into the Dead Sea. The Jordan Valley, the northern and southern part of the Sea of Galilee, is a very fertile area that allows intense cultivation and abundant harvesting.
The territory to the east of the Jordan River is called Transjordan. The rivers Yarmuk, Jabbok, Arnon, and Zered flow into the Jordan River and divide Transjordan into five areas. To the north of the Yarmuk is the land of Bashan, a place famous for its cattle (Amos 4:1), its rich pastures (Micah 7:14; Jeremiah 50:19) and its oaks of Bashan (Isaiah 2:13; Ezekiel 27:6). Between the Yarmuk and the Jabbok is Gilead, an area famous for its forests (Jeremiah 22:6-7) and for its balm and medicinal plants (Genesis 37:25; Jeremiah 8:22). The tribe of Gad was established in the southern part of Gilead while the half tribe of Manasseh received their inheritance in the northern part of Gilead (Deuteronomy 3:12-13). Between the Jabbok and the Arnon was the region of the Ammonites. Between the Arnon and the Zered was the region of the Moabites and to the south of the Zered was the region of the Edomites.
The Israelites lived in fortified towns and villages (Joshua 15:20-62). Most of the Israelite cities were conquered from the Canaanites or assimilated through the integration of the Canaanite population. Many of the cities in Canaan were located at strategic points. These cities were built on the hills to be natural defenses against invading armies. The cities in Canaan were built near springs to ensure a constant supply of water for its inhabitants. Later, a system of cisterns was developed to provide a regular source of water. The cisterns contributed to the construction of cities away from the water sources.
The Nations of Palestine
The nations that lived in Canaan are mentioned several times in the Old Testament: the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, (Deuteronomy 7:1). Generally, the number of nations mentioned as pre-Israelites are seven, but the number and the order of the nations vary in other passages (see Genesis 15:19-20; Exodus 3:8). In the Old Testament, the number seven represents the idea of completeness. Thus, the seven nations represent the complete conquest and possession of the Promised Land as a divine gift.
The Hittites inhabited Anatolia (now Turkey) and formed a large empire that was destroyed around 1200 B.C. The references to the Hittites in Genesis 23:10 indicate that many Hittites emigrated to Canaan before Israel’s entry into the land. According to Numbers 13:29, the Hittites lived in the hill country of Canaan with the Jebusites and the Amorites. The Girgashites are unknown, but they appear in Genesis 10:15-16 as a descendant of the Canaanites. The word Amorites means “Westerners.” The Amorites were a group of Semitic people who invaded northern Syria and Mesopotamia around the year 2000 B.C. The name “Amorites” does not describe a nation, but a group of people related to each other by a common culture. In the Old Testament the word “Amorites” is used as a generic term to designate the pre-Israelite population of Palestine and also the inhabitants of the mountainous region of Canaan.
Nothing is known about the Perizzites. A similar word is translated “unwalled villages” in Deuteronomy 3:5, indicating that the Perizzites were probably peasants, people living outside the fortified towns of Canaan, in the territory conquered by the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 17:15). The Old Testament says nothing about the Hivites. It is possible that the Hivites were the Horites of the Bible. The Horites were from the mountains of Armenia who infiltrated Canaan in the fifteenth century B.C. The Horites lived in Shechem (Genesis 34:2) and in Seir, a city on the other side of the Jordan (Deuteronomy 2:12). The Jebusites were the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Joshua 15:63). They were conquered by David after his coronation as King of Israel (2 Samuel 5:6). David made Jerusalem the nation’s capital and the religious center of Israel.
In addition to these seven nations that formed the indigenous population of Canaan, the Old Testament mentions other peoples with whom Israel had contact during the period of its history. The Philistines were one of the groups that came from the Greek world with “Sea Peoples.” The Philistines entered Canaan in the days of Joshua, seized the Mediterranean coast between Gaza and Joppa and established their hegemony over five major cities, the so-called Philistine Pentapolis: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath (Joshua 13:3). The Philistines oppressed Israel harshly in the days of the judges. This period of oppression appears in the stories of Samson, Saul, and David. Israel’s defeat by the Philistines in the days of Samuel was the main reason that forced Israel to consider the need for a strong central government and for the monarchy in the days of Saul.
The Ishmaelites were the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham (Genesis 25:12-15). They were engaged in trade between Gilead and Egypt. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau (Genesis 36:1) and lived in the region of Mount Seir (Genesis 36:8). The Moabites and the Ammonites were the descendants of Lot and his two daughters (Genesis 19:37-8).
The Old Testament mentions other groups of people, but their origins go back to the prehistory of Israel. The Anakites were the descendants of Anak (Numbers 13:28); they lived in Hebron (Numbers 13:22,33). The Emim, a large and numerous people (Deuteronomy 2:10), lived in Transjordan. The Zamzummim, a group of people whom the Ammonites call Rephaim, also lived in Transjordan (Deuteronomy 2:20). According to the Israelite tradition, the Emim and the Zamzummim belonged to a race of giants called the Rephaim. The Rephaim were as tall as the Anakim (Deuteronomy 2:21).
This is the third post in the series “An Introduction to the Old Testament.” For other posts in this series, click on the links below.
NEXT: The Old Testament: Inspiration and Revelation
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on An Introduction to the Old Testament
7. The Formation of the Canon