Middle Eastern Mythologies

The Hebrews and Canaanites

Who were the Hebrews, or Israelites?

The Hebrews—people who spoke a Semitic language (Hebrew)—began to establish themselves in Canaan (present-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and parts of western Syria and Jordan) in the 1200s B.C.E. Once they achieved a land of their own—Israel—they became known as Israelites, perhaps taking the name which the Torah (first part of the Old Testament of the Bible) tells us was given to the prophet Abraham’s grandson Jacob. The term “Hebrew” might be related to an Egyptian term Habiru, referring to several non-Egyptian tribes residing in Egypt during the time of the pharaoh Merneptah (1213–1203 B.C.E.) The Hebrews who arrived in Canaan would have been semi-nomadic tribes of herders and occasional farmers. In Canaan they would have mingled and sometimes fought with Canaanites already living there—Semitic peoples such as Edomites, Midianites, Moabites, and Jebusites (the inhabitants of Jebus, which later became Jerusalem under King David). The Hebrews also absorbed some of Canaanite culture. Canaanite religion was attractive to some; they took on the Yahweh religion—perhaps learned from the Midianites—which would be the basis for the later development of Judaism. What eventually unified the Hebrews/Israelites was struggles for settlement land against the Canaanites and the non-Semitic Philistines (the people of Goliath in the David and Goliath story).


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