“The Extermination of the Canaanites”, F. Phillippoteaux (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“So now I say, I will not drive [the Canaanites] out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” – Judges 2:3 (ESV)

Recently, news coverage of a DNA study reported the remarkable findings of a link between ancient Canaanites and their modern descendants in Lebanon. The coverage also highlighted the need to be savvy Thinkers when it comes to assessing claims from any source, because many of these news stories contained a blunder of biblical proportions.

Very little remains of the ancient civilizations of the Canaanites. We have not yet found clay tablets or other methods of record inscribed in their hand. Most of what we know has been recorded by other cultures; for example, records from the Egyptians, the Greeks or from scripture. Some believe that it’s possible that the Canaanites might have preferred papyrus which would not have survived.

Using a technique developed in recent years, scientists were able to recover enough genetic material to test. Although the skeletal remains were discovered along the Mediterranean where it is hot and humid; genetic material that was useable was found in the petrous bone, an area of the skull behind the ear. It is the densest bone in the human body.

The study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, “sequenced five whole genomes from ∼3,700-year-old individuals from the city of Sidon, a major Canaanite city-state on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. We also sequenced the genomes of 99 individuals from present-day Lebanon to catalog modern Levantine genetic diversity. We find that a Bronze Age Canaanite-related ancestry was widespread in the region, shared among urban populations inhabiting the coast (Sidon) and inland populations (Jordan) who likely lived in farming societies or were pastoral nomads… We show that present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age.”

Human skeleton dating back to the Canaanite period, around 1800 B.C. at an excavation site in Sidon, southern Lebanon August 5, 2008. Archaeologists have been working on the site for 10 years in a project undertaken with the British Museum. (credit: Reuters/ Ali Hashisho)

In the report researchers further state that, “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.” This statement may have been what journalists grabbed hold of and further suggest that these results prove the Bible to be inaccurate. They deduce that if people in the area of Lebanon derive 90 percent of their genetics from the Canaanites; they could not have been destroyed and thus the Biblical account is false. However, by reading only 2 verses from the Bible, they missed the rest of the account.

These findings are an amazing confirmation of the Bible’s report of the Canaanites remaining in the land after the Israelites failed to completely defeat them, as is seen in the passages below and from numerous accounts later in the Bible where the Israelites kept running into these people.

But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day. – Judges 1:21 (ESV)

Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely. And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them. Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol, so the Canaanites lived among them, but became subject to forced labor. Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon or of Ahlab or of Achzib or of Helbah or of Aphik or of Rehob,so the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out. Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, so they lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them. The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain. The Amorites persisted in dwelling in Mount Heres, in Aijalon, and in Shaalbim, but the hand of the house of Joseph rested heavily on them, and they became subject to forced labor. – Judges 1:27-35 (ESV)

Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” – Judges 2:1-3 (ESV)

Despite this fact, the reports of several major publications completely misrepresented the biblical account by writing articles that set up their articles on these DNA findings by claiming that they contradicted the Bible. This was from The New York Times:

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.

The Hebrew text offers one explanation for the destiny of the Canaanites: annihilation. The Israelites, per Deuteronomy 20:16-18, were commanded to utterly destroy the cities of various tribes including the Canaanites. Those who survived fled or became servants.

But historians are skeptical that either exodus or annihilation occurred… Now a study of Canaanite DNA, published Thursday in the American Journal of Human Genetics, rules out the biblical idea that an ancient war wiped out the group.

Following the lead of these early reports, numerous other publications then jumped on the Bible-bashing bandwagon by repeating this “news.” One headline even proclaimed, “Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon”.

These media stories were focusing on God’s command to wipe out the Canaanites, but did not look any further to see what actually happened to them according to the biblical account. Several Christian and Jewish sites published articles afterward lambasting these erroneous claims against the Bible.

Quoted in an article From The Christian Post:

Michael Brown, author and host of “Line of Fire,” argued that unlike many of the
headlines, the results of the study actually confirm what the Bible states. In
Deuteronomy 20, God orders the Israelites to completely destroy the Canaanites,
among others. But they did not complete their mission. Thus, “the inhabitants of
Lebanon were not driven out, as these DNA discoveries seem to confirm.”

“So, the headlines should have read, ‘DNA Confirms the Bible,'” Brown said,
echoing what other Christians have also pointed out in the comments sections of
the articles in question.

Breaking Israel News was quick to point out how the news media at large arrived at their incorrect conclusions and explained how the genetic finds actually prove the Bible. They quote Rabbi Pinchas Winston who references several passages to clear up the misunderstanding. “They were not wiped out in the Bible, so of course they would still exist,” the rabbi said. “But not in Israel.”

By reading passages before and after the passage in Deuteronomy 20:16-18 referenced by many news sites, there is context which paints a fuller picture of the evidence. God gave instruction “to destroy” a few cities because of the vile practices among the people that they refused to cease. He did this to seek to preserve the nation of Israelites. They in fact disobeyed which can be read in the passage from Judges, saving some of the cities and thus becoming polluted themselves and also eventually driven out of the land.

Unfortunately, what was evident in most of the “news reports” was that the researchers and journalists demonstrated a deep lack of biblical literacy as well as incompetent research concerning the Bible’s record of what happened between the Israelites and the Canaanites. This new study of genetics using ancient DNA could prove to be a powerful tool. As with all evidence it’s important to try to approach it carefully and not within our own paradigm, but rather be open to other viewpoints and honest about what the biblical text is actually saying. Keep Thinking!