Appendix 2. The Peoples of Canaan

Audio (12:49)

 If you were to go to a large American city 50 years ago, you'd be able to find the sections where the Irish lived, as well as the Italians, Polish, Chinese, and Jews. The Midwest has towns settled by Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans. Within their own communities they would speak their own languages or dialects, but might communicate with each other by means of a sort of Pidgin English. Gradually, over a period of generations, they assimilated into one people, though you can still detect regional differences.

Palestine is a natural highway between Asia and Africa. The Arabian Desert on the East makes Palestine's roads the natural travel routes for armies as well as migrating peoples. When God sent the Israelites to the Promised Land, the land was lived in by a number of peoples who had migrated there from other locations.

"This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites." (Joshua 3:10)

Just who were the peoples that were displaced to give the Promised Land to the Israelites? What do we know about them? There are several passages which provide clues to their locations:

"The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan." (Numbers 13:29)

"The Canaanites in the east and west; to the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites and Jebusites in the hill country; and to the Hivites below Hermon in the region of Mizpah." (Joshua 11:3)

While Joshua defeated many of the kings of these peoples, they were not entirely destroyed, as this reference from Solomon's time, three hundred years later, indicates:

"All the people left from the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these peoples were not Israelites), that is, their descendants remaining in the land, whom the Israelites had not destroyed -- these Solomon conscripted for his slave labor force, as it is to this day." (2 Chronicles 8:7-8)

Canaanite Tribes and the Route of the 12 Spies (Numbers 13; Joshua 3:10)

How are we to think of these people? Canaan at the time of the Conquest was inhabited by people from various ethnic backgrounds, each area typically having allegiance to the king of a city-state. Some kings were stronger, and they might have alliances with kings of neighboring areas.

We look in vain to make hard and fast geographical distinctions between these seven peoples. They were fairly mixed by the time Joshua reached Canaan. The Amorites and Jebusites both inhabited Jerusalem, even though it was considered a Jebusite city. Sometimes the terms "Amorite" and "Canaanite" were with reference to a particular race; other times they are used more generally to refer to several related peoples.

Below you can see some of my notes on these various peoples mentioned in the Book of Joshua.


The Canaanites apparently lived along the coast and the Jordan during Joshua's time. However, the term Canaanite is often used collectively of all the inhabitants of Canaan regardless of racial origin. It is used specifically in Joshua 5:1 to refer to the coastal peoples, "all the Canaanite kings along the coast," as well as those who lived along the Jordan (Numbers 13:29 and Joshua 11:3). For example, Genesis 36:2f speaks of the "Canaanite" wives of Esau, which included a Hittite, a Hivite (later Horite), and an Ishmaelite).

However, despite the broad diversity of the origins of the people who inhabited Canaan, we can speak of a Canaanite culture. Cultural unity included language, religion, political forms, legal institutions, architecture, and domestic arts. Groups that arrived in Canaan with different customs, like the Philistines, were soon drawn into the dominant culture while adding to it their own special contributions. This was the danger for the Israelites, too, to adapt to the culture and lose their uniqueness as the people of the One God.[63]


The Hittites developed a powerful empire in east central Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) from 2000 BC on. By 1600 BC, king Hattusilis I extended his sphere of influence into north Syria, one or two hundred years prior to Joshua's Conquest of Canaan. By 1560 BC, the Hittites were strong enough to raid Babylon. But their influence and power were waning by about 1200 BC when the capital of Hattusilis was destroyed by invaders from the west. We know quite a bit about the Hittites due to the discovery of inscriptions in north Syria.

Apparently some members of this group lived in the hill country (Joshua 13:11). Several centuries later, Uriah the Hittite, one of David's mighty men (and first husband of Bathsheba) was apparently from around Jerusalem (2 Samuel 11:3-24; 23:39).[64]


The name of this nation appears 25 times in the Bible as a people living west of the Jordan. Hivites are mentioned in Gibeon (Joshua 9:7; LXX Horite; 11:19), in Shechem (Genesis 4:2, LXX Horite), and in the North (Joshua 11:, "under Hermon in the land of Mizpah). In Judges 3:3 they are "on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal Hermon as far as Lebo-Hamath." Most scholars assume that the Hivites and the Horites were the same nation. The name does not occur later than David's time (2 Samuel 24:7). The name may have developed from the word for "tent village." The city of Gibeon that had deceived the Israelites into thinking they were a far-away tribe, was also a Hivite city (Joshua 11:19).[65]


The Perizzites had lived in Canaan since the Patriarchs. We know little about this specific people. They do not occur in extra biblical literature, and in the Bible they are not mentioned specifically, but along with other Canaanite groups who lived in the hill country of northern Canaan (Joshua 11:3).

In Abraham's day, they appear to have lived around Bethel (Genesis 13:3, 7). When Jacob's family lived outside of Shechem, he was concerned about the danger from the Perizzites that lived in that area. In Joshua's time, they may have lived in the forested parts of the hill country of Ephraim.

"'If you are so numerous,' Joshua answered, 'and if the hill country of Ephraim is too small for you, go up into the forest and clear land for yourselves there in the land of the Perizzites and Rephaites.'" (Joshua 17:15)

The name may come from the Hebrew word for "rural country" or "rustic," thus perhaps the Perizzites are "villagers." Some scholars see them as a subgroup of either the Amorites or the Hurrians.[66]


The Girgashites are mentioned only five times in the Old Testament and only in lists with other inhabitants of Canaan. The name Girgash has been linked with the personal names Grgshy, Grgsh, and Grgshm found in Punic texts, and grgs and bn grgs in Ugaritic, suggesting that the tribe may be related to the Phoenicians who lived on the coast of Lebanon.[67]


The Amorites (not to be confused with the Ammonites) lived primarily east of the Jordan River. Sihon, king of the Amorites in Heshbon, was one of Israel's early conquests (Numbers 21:21-31). Og, king of Bashan was also mentioned as an Amorite king (Deuteronomy 4:47; Joshua 2:10). Their lands east of Jordan became the inheritance of the Israelite tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 1:12ff).

Numbers 13:29 indicates that "The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan." But the hills mentioned refer to the mountains east of the Jordan. The trouncing of the disobedient Israelites by the Amorites is retold in Deuteronomy 1:44.

The Amorites also lived west of the Jordan. Ai, conquered after Jericho, was an Amorite city (Joshua 7:7). Other Amorite populations attacked Israel's vassal, Gibeon.

"Then the five kings of the Amorites -- the kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish and Eglon -- joined forces. They moved up with all their troops and took up positions against Gibeon and attacked it." (Joshua 10:5)

These are hill country cities in the southern part of Palestine, later occupied by the tribes of Benjamin and Judah. Amorites also lived in Aphek in the plain of Sharon (Joshua 13:4).

The Amorites living in Canaan, however, were just part of a great nomadic people that had appeared in Mesopotamia at the time of Sargon I (ca. 2360 to 2305), considered barbarians by the civilized Sumerians. They ruled in Babylon and other Mesopotamian cities for about 200 years from 1960 BC until Babylon was sacked by the Hittites in 1531 BC. From their language, they are considered of Semitic stock, with a few Indo-Aryan elements.[68]


The term Jebusites referred to a group living in the uplands of Canaan near Jerusalem. Jerusalem is referred to as a Jebusite city (Joshua 15:8, 63), though the king of Jerusalem is elsewhere referred to as an Amorite king (Joshua 10:5). The area they dwelt in was inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 18:28). Even though Jerusalem was defeated by Joshua, the Jebusites were not fully dislodged (Joshua 15:63; Judges 1:21). Later, King David conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital (2 Samuel 5:6-8). What eventually became the Temple mount was then the threshing floor of Arunah the Jebusite. David purchased the area from Arunah the Jebusite for a place of sacrifice to atone for his sin (2 Samuel 24:16-18).[69]


The land of the Philistines was listed among the seven nations the Israelites were to drive out, but they are mentioned as the unconquered peoples:

"This is the land that remains: all the regions of the Philistines and Geshurites: from the Shihor River on the east of Egypt to the territory of Ekron on the north, all of it counted as Canaanite (the territory of the five Philistine rulers in Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron -- that of the Avvites)...." (Joshua 13:2-3)

 The reference to "Canaanites who dwell in the plain" (Joshua 17:16) probably is to the Philistines, also, since they had chariots of iron.

Lessons in book formats are available.

The Hebrew name peleset which translates "Philistia" is also the origin of our word Palestine. We read of Abraham's dealings with the Philistine king Abimelech. The Philistines who occupied Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron were probably part of a migration from the Aegean (Greek) area; and pottery found in Philistine sites bears similarities to Mycenaean pottery. Their coming was probably part of a general migration caused by military or socioeconomic events in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean areas shortly after 1200 BC.

The Philistines probably settled along the coast, perhaps from Crete, in a similar time frame as when the Israelites were conquering the Jordan valley and the hill country.[70]


[63] C.G. Libolt, "Canaan," in ISBE 1:585-591. There is an extended discussion by Keith N. Schoville, "Canaanites and Amorites," in Peoples of the Old Testament World (Hoerth, Mattingly, and Yamauchi, eds.; Baker, 1994), pp. 157-182.

[64] F.F. Bruce, "Hittites," in ISBE 2:720-723. This is a helpful article which includes the map pictured above. An extended article is found by Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., "Hittites," in Peoples of the OT World, pp. 127-152.

[65] Adrianus van Selms, "Hivites," in ISBE 2:724.

[66] G. P. Hugenberger, "Perizzite," in ISBE 3:771.

[67] D.J. Wieand, "Girgashite," in ISBE 2:472.

[68] A.H. Sayce and J.A. Soggin, "Amorites," in ISBE 1:113-114. There is an extended discussion by Keith N. Schoville, "Canaanites and Amorites," in Peoples of the Old Testament World (Hoerth, Mattingly, and Yamauchi, eds.; Baker, 1994), pp. 157-182.

[69] R.K. Harrison, "Jebus, Jebusite," in ISBE 2:973-974.

[70] William Stanford LaSor, "Philistines," in ISBE 3:841-846. David M. Howard, Jr., "Philistines," in Peoples of the OT World, pp. 231-250.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text