A Recent Article on Canaanite DNA

Canaanite Article

A recent journal article published in the American Journal of Human Genetics has made headlines in the last couple of days because of the implications that its findings might have for the historical accuracy of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.[1] The article is basically a report about five genomes that were sequenced from bones that are approximately 3700 years old from the Canaanite city of Sidon in modern-day Lebanon. These genomes were then compared to the genome sequencing of 99 modern-day people from Lebanon. The results, at least for the researchers, were quite surprising: modern-day people from Lebanon are mostly descended from the Canaanite population who inhabited the same area in biblical times.

For anyone who knows the history of this region, these findings should not have been surprising. However, the authors of this article presented their findings as though they should be surprising, at least to those who are familiar with what the Bible has to say about the Canaanites.  Partway through the article, the authors included a very curious statement – at least from the perspective of a biblical scholar – about what the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible has to say about the Canaanites. It says:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.[2]

It was this statement that caught the attention of the media and caused this article to make headlines in the last couple of days. Take, for example, the article by Nicholas St. Fleur in The New York Times. This is how the article opens:

There is a story in the Hebrew Bible that tells of God’s call for the annihilation of the Canaanites, a people who lived in what are now Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories thousands of years ago. “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes,” God said in the passage. “But you shall utterly destroy them.” But a genetic analysis published on Thursday has found that the ancient population survived that divine call for their extinction, and their descendants live in modern Lebanon.[3]

When I first read this article and glanced at a few other articles that basically said the same thing, I assumed that they misinterpreted something that was said in the original study. But then I read the statement from the original article that was quoted above and saw that there was no mistake: the reason why these articles were framed the way they were (i.e. the Bible is wrong because the Canaanites actually did survive) is because of the line quoted from the article above. So, in one sense, it is hard to blame articles like the one from The New York Times. On the other hand, a little bit of research or a quick phone call to a biblical scholar would have cleared up any confusion that was caused by the original article.

Let’s take a look at that statement again:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.

But does the Bible actually say that the Canaanites were completely annihilated? And would the Bible lead one to believe that the Canaanites would have made no genetic contributions to the present-day population of Lebanon or elsewhere? The answer to these questions is a complete and unequivocal “no”.

There are four main problems with the statement that was made in the article:

(a) First, the Old Testament makes it clear that the people of Israel did not, in fact, destroy all of the cities of the Canaanites or annihilate all of their people. A quick look at Judges 1, for example, shows that the Israelites weren’t able to conquer large chunks of the land of Canaan. Over and over again it says that the people of Israel failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land. And even when they did gain the upper hand in terms of power, they were only able to subject many of the Canaanites to forced labour: but they weren’t able to destroy them and they weren’t able to drive them out of the land. So the article is completely mistaken when it says that, according to the Bible, the cities of the Canaanites were completely destroyed and that the Canaanites themselves were completely annihilated.

(b) Second, the city of Sidon lies outside of the area that was conquered by the people of Israel. A common phrase in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible to describe the entirety of the land of Israel is the phrase, “from Dan to Beersheba”. Geographically, Beersheba lies at the very bottom of the land of Israel (i.e. in the south) while Dan lies at the very top (i.e. in the north). Sidon, however, is located northwest of Dan: it was not part of the land of Israel. So even if the Israelites had annihilated the Canaanites in territories it conquered, the people of Sidon would not have been included in that number.

(c) Third, the Old Testament is quite clear about the fact that the Sidonians continued to live and prosper long after the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan. In fact, according to 1 Kings 5:6, the Sidonians provided the timber for Solomon’s temple and apparently had friendly relations with both David and Solomon. According to Ezra 3:7, the people of Sidon also provided timber for the Second Temple hundreds of years later. So there is no reason from a biblical perspective to think that Canaanites from Sidon could not have contributed genetically to modern-day people from Lebanon.

(d) Fourth, as anyone familiar with ancient Near Eastern history should know, the Phoenicians, who were famous among other things for their maritime empire and the invention of the alphabet, were, in fact, Canaanites from the region around Sidon. In fact, the Carthaginians/Punics from the Punic Wars with Rome were descended from the Phoenicians. Punic is simply a dialect of Phoenician/Canaanite. The name Hannibal, which is quite familiar to anyone who knows Roman history, is actually a Canaanite name meaning “Baal is gracious”. The reason why this is important to know is because in Mark 7:24-30, Jesus is confronted by a Syrophoenician woman from the region of Tyre (in Matthew 15:22 she is simply called a Canaanite!). The NRSV is right in translating Mark 7:26 this way: “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” So the New Testament itself makes it clear that the people who were living in what is now modern-day Lebanon were descendants of the Canaanites/Phoenicians.

So this article is simply mistaken when it says that, according to the biblical account, the Canaanites were completely wiped out and that, from a biblical perspective, they could not have made a genetic contribution to modern-day people from Lebanon. Instead of making the Bible look silly, the authors of this article and every other article that was based on it only succeeded in making themselves look silly. A little bit of research, on the part of the authors of the original article or on the part of the authors who based their work on this article would have gone a long way.[4]

(Postscript #1 – I forget where I saw this but I’m pretty sure that I saw one comment somewhere that said something like, “I guess the people of Sodom did survive!” I wasn’t totally sure where they got this from until I realized that they probably mistook Sidon for Sodom. Place palm on face and shake head….)

(Postscript #2 – The value of these findings, at least from my perspective, is to dispel the popular belief that everyone in the Middle East who speaks Arabic is ethnically Arab.  While this is something that should have been known without the findings of this article, the findings of this article certainly help to dispel this myth.  If I were writing an online article for a newspaper or magazine based on the findings of this study, this is the part that I would have focused on.  I definitely would have made the connection with the biblical Canaanites, but not to show that there was something wrong with the biblical accounts.)

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Haber et al., “Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” The Journal of Human Genetics (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2017.06.013.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Nicholas St. Fleur, “Fate of Ancient Canaanites Seen in DNA Analysis: They Survived,” The New York Times (July 27, 2017): https://nyti.ms/2tNIYNy.

[4] It should be noted that the article by Kristin Romey on the website for National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/canaanite-bible-ancient-dna-lebanon-genetics-archaeology.html) did not fall into the same mistake as the original article and the articles that were based on it (“Biblical accounts generally portray Canaanites as the arch-enemies of early Israelites, who eventually conquered Canaanite territory and either exterminated or subjugated its people.”). Romey’s article is certainly less sensational but it is more accurate.