The land of Canaan is the original name for what became the Promise Land of Israel in the Old Testament. It was named after Noah’s grandson Canaan, who was the ancestor of various groups living in that region (Gen 10:15-19). In general, the term Canaanite was applied to any all peoples who lived along the eastern end of the Mediterranean and west of the Dead Sea.
FAR FROM GOD’S PEOPLE
In biblical history, the original people who lived in the land of Canaan were to be displaced by God in favor of a people he had chosen to live there, the offspring of Abraham. God gave strict instructions that the values and religious practices of Canaan were not to be adopted by his people.
The Lord you God will bring you to the land you’re about to enter and take possession of. He will force many nations out of your way: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites-seven nations larger and more powerful than you. When the LORD your God gives them to you and you defeat them, destroy every one of them because they have been claimed by the LORD. Don’t make any treaties with them or show them any mercy. Never marry any of them. Never let your daughters marry any of them. Never let your daughters marry their sons or your sons marry their daughters. These people will turn your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the LORD will get very angry with your and will quickly destroy you.
But this is what you must do to these people: Tear down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their poles dedicated to the goddess Asherah, and burn their idols. (Deut 7:1-5).
God’s instructions for living were radically different from those practiced by the inhabitants of the land, but God’s people gradually and then persistently chose to adopt religious traditions of the local people and neglect the God who had chosen them. Canaan thus became a symbol for the people who were farthest from him, for those who were either not chosen as his people or who had rejected him as their God.
The term Canaan rarely occurs in the New Testament, but a couple of occurrences are noteworthy. In Matthew 15 we read that Jesus had contact with a Canaanite woman. “Jesus left the place and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that territory came to him and began to shout, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon’ ” (Matt 15:21-22). The exchange that follows reveals a woman of humility and faith who understood that, despite her background, she could appeal to Jesus for help. Being a Canaanite didn’t cut her off from God’s grace. What made this incident noteworthy to the disciples was that the woman was a Canaanite. She symbolized those who were farthest from the kingdom of heaven and least worthy of Jesus’ mercy.
When the apostle Paul was preaching to Jews and Jewish converts in Antioch of Pisidia, he gave a quick overview of God’s hand on the people of Israel through history:
Then Paul stood up, motioned with his hand, and said, “Men of Israel and converts to Judaism, listen to me. The God of he people of Israel chose our ancestors and made them a strong nation while they lived as foreigners in Egypt. He used his powerful arm to bring them out of Egypt, and he put up with them for about forty years in the desert. Then he destroyed seven nations in Canaan and gave their land to his people as an inheritance. He did all this in about four hundred and fifty years. After that he gave his people judges until the time of the prophets Samuel. (Acts 13:16-20).
THE PROMISED LAND
The land of Canaan came to hold two symbolic meanings for believers. It can remind us of our life before Christ. Each of us was at one time his enemy, just like the Canaanites were (Rom 5:10). But it also reminds us that one God has stepped into the picture, the land that was formerly saturated with sin becomes the Promised Land. God brings about radical change, redeeming those who are farthest from him. The land that was originally his creation, then used for evil for a time, remains his land and returns to usefulness for him as we live our new lives. That is why it was with such joy that the Israelites ate the fruit of the land of Canaan: “The day after that, the manna stopped. The people of Israel never had manna again. That year they began to eat the crops the grew in Canaan” (Josh 5:12). In this sense Canaan is a symbol for heaven, the ultimate Promised Land for believers.