Geographic parameters

The geographic label, Canaan, is used to represent the lands under Egyptian control in the New Kingdom period. This territory included Lebanon and extended as far south as the border of the Sinai peninsula, and stretched out to the east until it met the edge of the desert of the inland regions.

Political control

The Egyptians’ interest in, and control of, Canaan followed a lengthy period in which Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos (foreign-rulers), who probably came from that region. There is no single pointer to the origin of the Hyksos rulers. They were either invaders or settlers. In the latter case, they could have come as immigrants into the Nile delta region, and rose to be strong enough to seize power in Lower Egypt from the native dynasty. Whatever their origins, the Hyksos ruled Lower Egypt from 1650 BC to 1550 BC.

While the Hyksos were in control of Egypt, the Hittites, a military elite family, were beginning to establish their control over central Anatolia. Mursili I (1556 BC – 1526 BC), extended Hittite control into Syria, taking Aleppo, and even conducting a raid on Babylon, taking booty, but apparently not looking to take control. While the evidence is fragmentary, it does suggest that a branch of the Hittites took control of Hazor around that time.

Eventually the Hyksos were expelled from Egypt. This happened under Ahmose I (1550 BC – 1525 BC), who led Upper Egyptian forces to restore native Egyptian rule to the whole of Egypt. The power of the Hyksos was broken when Ahmose destroyed the last Hyksos outpost, located in southern Canaan. Ahmose became the first Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt; he brought in the period known as the New Kingdom.

Ahmose’s successor appears to have been content to concentrate his attentions in Egypt, including building activities in Upper Egypt, and military activities into Nubia. His successor, Thutmose I (1506 BC – 1493 BC), led the Egyptians in a military excursion that reached as far north as the Syrian section of the Euphrates River. This did not lead to Egyptian hegemony in Canaan, and a more determined approach can be dated to the reign of Thutmose III (1479 BC – 1425 BC). After taking power in his own right (in 1458 BC), Thutmose conducted a succession of military campaigns in Canaan and Syria. Through these campaigns, Thutmose III secured Egyptian control of Canaan. The Egyptians maintained this control, in some form or another, until after the Israelites entered Canaan. Despite opposition from the Egyptians, the Hurrians (who took control in this region soon after the Hittite sack of Babylon) continued to possess a large swathe of land in northern Mesopotamia and Syria.

When Thutmose III battled the Canaanite kings at Megiddo (in 1457 BC), Hazor stood apart from the contest. This can be taken to suggest that the king of Hazor did not take common cause with the Canaanite kings in resisting the Egyptian onslaught, possibly content to remain in the impregnable fortress of Hazor. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Hazor ever rebelled against Egyptian hegemony, or was subjected to the periodic punishing attacks to which the Egyptians subjected other Canaanite cities. This shows that Hazor followed a political trajectory that was different from its Canaanite neighbours.

Client kings

Egypt managed its possessions in Canaan through a network of client kings, each being required to give their allegiance to the current Pharaoh. Most of our information about this arrangement comes through a collection of letters that, through a chance of history, have survived, being found in the Egyptian archaeological site, el-Amarna. This was briefly the capital of Egypt, established by Pharaoh Akhenaten (1353 BC – 1336 BC) and abandoned soon after his death. These letters are cited as EA 68, etc.

In these letters we find in the coastal towns there were still Canaanite client kings, such as Rib-Hadda, the ruler of Byblos (a city on the Lebanese coast). He complained to the Pharaoh about the harassment of his town by the Haribu (EA 68 – 96) – and complained about many other things also. We have no reason to doubt that Rib-Hadda was Canaanite, since his name means “I strive for Haddad” the North-west Semitic storm god.

In the inland cities, Hurrians had served as client kings, but they were being gradually replaced by others, who were taking their kingdoms, one by one, by force. A few still survived up to this time, including Abdi-Heba, the Hurrian client king of Jerusalem. (Although Abdi-Heba is a Semitic expression, it means “Servant of Heba” – the Hurrian mother goddess.) It would appear that a “take-over” from the existing client kings was happening without any push back by the Egyptians. Indeed, if one reads the correspondence of Abdi-Heba it would appear that the Egyptians were happy to have an alternative ruling-elite available to them from a different racial group, especially since these Hurrian client kings might have conflicted loyalties, with other Hurrians (the Mitanni) in possession of a rival empire located to the immediate north-west of Canaan. While Abdi-Heba did not realize that he was being squeezed out, with the tacit acceptance of the Egyptians, it is apparent in his own letter, AE289, that this was actually happening.

Lab’ayu of Shechem was one of those who was becoming stronger in the disturbed conditions of those times. (Was this happening with the tacit encouragement of the Egyptian officials?) Lab’ayu does not carry an obviously Hurrian name. His name means “lion of {something}”. It would appear that he did not identify himself with his Hurrian or Canaanite neighbours, since his enemies were able to claim that the sons of (the now deceased) Lab’aya had joined forces with the Habiru (EA287). During his own lifetime, Lab’ayu accepted that one of his sons might have been consorting with the Haribu (EA254). In addition, it is fairly clear from these letters that Lab’ayu was expanding his control among surrounding towns, with it not being beyond possibility that he had used Haribu fighters in this effort.

Finally, we come to the king of Hazor, Abdi-Tirsi, who wrote to the Pharaoh about the cities under his care (EA 227 – 228), declaring his loyalty to the Pharaoh. His name, Abdi-Tirsi, means “Servant of Tirsi.” This name cannot be clearly identified with a god in Hittite, Hurrian or Semitic pantheons. The most prominent of the statuary found in Hazor dated to this period was of a seated male moon-god. Frustratingly, we do not know the name of Hittite moon god, sometimes identified by a Sumerian logogram for the Sumerian moon-god, Sin, but this is not a phonetic representation. In any event, a moon-good would not be exceptional for Hittite, Canaanite or Aramean peoples. Furthermore, it is likely that the people of Hazor worshipped a variety of gods; it would be hard to rule out Hittite occupation of Hazor even if Canaanite gods were found there, since we know the Hittites embraced the gods of the conquered peoples. It would not be totally surprising if a local god had become the favourite god of the kings of Hazor, although one would expect a Hittite god or goddess to be the most prominent.

Shechem – a special case

In the J source material in Genesis 34 we read that a much earlier ruler of Shechem, Hamor, had agreed that all of the people of Shechem would convert from their native religion to that followed by Jacob, undergoing circumcision as a mark of this change. It is also reported in the same source that Hamor’s people were deceived by two of Jacob’s sons and then killed.

An alternative version of the winning of Shechem is found in the E source narrative in Genesis 48:22, where Jacob simply assumes that Shechem remains his possession, being something he was able to assign to his children, claiming that he had won this city from the Amorites [Hurrians?] by his sword and bow.

At least the continuing allegiance of Shechem to Jacob is confirmed when we come to the Biblical book of Joshua, where we find that the people of the town of Shechem were the natural allies of the Israelites. The same situation emerges in the book of Judges as well. Yet these reports are somewhat conflicted and cannot be easily reconciled; not everything can be exactly as reported in Genesis 34 and 48 and in Joshua and Judges. In any event, it is likely that Lab’ayu was a descendant of those who had given their allegiance to Jacob, thus marking the people of this city off from the dynastic rulers of the neighbouring major city of Jerusalem, who were Hurrians.


The probable allies of Lab’ayu and his sons, the Haribu, were not solely from a particular racial group, but represented the stateless fighters who were tormenting the kings throughout Canaan. Nevertheless, when we have another look at this part of Canaan one hundred years later, the Amorites are in charge. This suggests that the Haribu were primarily Amorites. It was from this group that Hammurabi (d. ca. 1750 BC), the king of Babylon had been drawn. His dynasty came to an end with the sacking of Babylon by the Hittites in 1531 BC, effectively releasing a very vigorous and well motivated group to explore their own futures. From the Biblical account we can deduce that a number the Amorite groups must have moved into Canaan, gaining a foothold in small individual fiefdoms.

End of the 12th Century

When Moses was preparing the Israelites for the conquest of Canaan, the Amorites had already supplanted all of the Hurrian client kings. Nevertheless, the Canaanite kings still controlled the coastal lands, with the Canaanite king of Arad maintaining a kingdom for himself in the Sinai peninsula. He was defeated, and his kingdom brought to an end by the Israelites, under Moses.

As can be expected, the Egyptians still had a strong hold on the coastal cities. In addition, the city of Hazor controlled a number of surrounding towns in its region under the suzerainty of the Pharaoh. Hazor can be considered to have been one of the strongest Egyptian strongholds in Canaan.

The interior was relatively under-developed, but here Jerusalem was still a very defendable city. Yet this city was now ruled by an Amorite, instead of it being ruled by a Hurrian king (as in the Amarna period): it was under King Adoni-Zedek. This king had a good Amorite name, which means “Lord of Righteousness”. Shechem was the other major city: it controlled its surrounding towns.

The major city of Jericho had been destroyed a couple of centuries earlier, possibly in an unreported raid by the same group of Hittites who took possession of Hazor. If there were people living in Jericho, as the Bible reports, they were living among the ruins of the former city. While this is not at odds with a sympathetic reading of the description of this event in the Biblical book of Joshua, it conflicts with the idealized way in which that story has been interpreted by many Bible readers.

On the other side of the Jordan River, the Amorites had taken part of the territory of the Aramean Moabites, while the Israelites’ kinsmen, the Edomites, had settled themselves to the south of the Moabites. As the Israelites passed through that region, under Moses, the Edomites and the Moabites kept possession of their lands, but King Sihon of the Amorites lost his territory to Israel when he unsuccessfully attempted to stop Israel’s advance.

Each of these individual local regions had their own strengths and weaknesses, but it can be said that when Joshua approached the land, Canaan was not in good health, particularly in a military sense. The military weakness of Canaan is not surprising, since the Egyptians had done their best to reduce the whole region to a state of relative impoverishment. This had arisen through the Egyptian demand for booty at time of war, and it also appears to have been Egypt’s intention to keep Canaan weak, militarily and economically, probably so that it was unable to threaten the homeland. This represented an opportunity for Israel to settle this greatly weakened and troubled land.

Select Bibliography

Kathleen M. Kenyon. Digging up Jericho: The Results of the Jericho Excavations, 1952-1956 (Praeger: New York, 1957).

William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters (John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore,1992).

Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton University Press, 1992).

David Ussishkin, “The Syro-Hittite Ritual Burial of Monuments,” J. Near Eastern Studies, 29 (1970), 124-128.

Yigael Yadin, Hazor: The Rediscovery of a Great Citadel of the Bible (Random House: New York, 1975).