The Torah does not name the pharaoh in its story about the exodus from Egypt. But some scholars guess the story is set in the 13th century B.C.E., during the reign of Rameses II. At that time the land of Canaan was a remote province of the Egyptian empire. Canaanite vassals ruled individual villages and their surrounding regions, but they reported to the Egyptian government in the provincial capital, Gaza. Egyptian garrisons were scattered around the province.
The two biggest powers then were the Egyptians and the Hittites. The capital of Egypt was in the Nile delta; the capital of Hatti was in present-day Turkey. Naturally the two empires fought over the land in between, until their kings, Rameses II and Hattusili III, made a peace treaty circa 1260 B.C.E. that froze the border. A long period of peace followed—as far as the Egyptians and Hittites were concerned. If one Canaanite vassal overthrew another, that was not their business.
In this week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), the Israelites are preparing to cross the Jordan River and overthrow every ruler in the province of Canaan.
God spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that will fall to you as a hereditary possession: the land of Canaan by its boundaries. Your southern limit shall be from the wilderness of Tzin next to Edom … (Numbers/Bemidbar 34:1-3)
Canaan (כְּנָעַן) = a territory roughly including present-day Israel, Lebanon, and part of Syria—but not Jordan. (Probably from the Egyptian name Kanana, though it may also be related to the Hebrew verb root kana (כּנע) = humble, subdue, subjugate. Much later, in the Second Temple period, a kinani (כְּנַעֲנִי) was a merchant or tradesman rather than a Canaanite.)
God promises to give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants in the book of Genesis,and to the descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob in the book of Exodus.
When God delineates the boundaries of the promised land in this week’s Torah portion, Masey (“Journeys”), the northern boundary is about the same as the boundary between the Egyptian and Hittite empires, as set by their treaty. Like the province of Canaan, Israel is to include the coastline from Wadi el-Arish all the way to a Mount Hor north of Byblos (now the Lebanese city of Jubayl). (This is different from the Mount Hor east of Edom where Aaron dies.)
The northern boundary goes from the Mediterranean to a point deep in present-day Syra. The eastern boundary swings around to the Sea of Kinneret and follows the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, like the eastern boundary of Canaan in the 13th century B.C.E.
The Israelites never rule the entire province. But they are so attached to Canaan as their promised land, that Moses gets upset in last week’s Torah portion (Mattot) when two and a half tribes want to settle on the east side of the Jordan River, in the land the Israelites recently captured from a pair of Amorite kings.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses makes the distinction between Canaan and the land east of the Jordan again.
And Moses commanded the Children of Israel, saying: This is the land that you will divide for hereditary property by lot, that God commanded to give to the nine tribes and the half tribe. For the tribe of the Reubenites…the tribe of the Gadites… and the half-tribe of Menashe, they have taken their hereditary possession. The two tribes and the half-tribe took their hereditary possession from across the Jordan at Jericho, eastward toward the sunrise. (Numbers 34:13-15)
Why must the land promised to the Israelites be no more nor less than the Egyptian province of Canaan?
One answer is that the Israelites are Canaanites. Some archaeologists suspect the exodus was a literary invention, and that although a small band of slaves may have run away from Egypt, the majority of ethnic Israelites lived in the hills of eastern Canaan all along. When the kingdom of Judah conquered more of Canaan during the reign of King Josiah (Yoshiyahu), 600 years later, they rewrote some of the Torah to justify their expansionism.
The Torah, on the other hand, implies that Israelites are Canaanites because an extended family of 70 (plus wives and servants) go down from Canaan to Egypt, and 430 years later in the exodus 600,000 men (plus wives and children and a multitude of like-minded Egyptians) come back up. During their four centuries in Egypt, the Israelites retain their identity and language. Returning to Canaan, therefore, is returning home.
But they do not return to rejoin their fellow Canaanites. The god of Israel orders them to conquer the current population and drive them out of their towns, so that the people and religion of Israel will rule the land. The Torah gives two kinds of justifications for taking over Canaan. One is that Canaanite religious practices are evil in God’s eyes, and therefore must be eliminated. The other is that the Israelites, as descendants of Abraham, are supposed to be a blessing to the rest of the world. Presumably part of this blessing is setting an example of a country run according to God’s laws.
Some mystical commentary claims that the promised land had to include Jerusalem. According to these mystics, the Temple Mount is also Mount Moriyah, where Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac. This is the holiest spot in the world. (Mount Sinai, which lies outside Canaan, is somehow less important!)
I think all of these explanations ignore the power of myth and legend. As an American child, I grew up reading English stories full of menhirs, dolmens, fairy circles, and henges, where magical things happened to previously ordinary people. When I visited England as an adult, it moves me to tears to see these legendary structures cropping up in the woods and in the middle of farms. This was the world of the stories I grew up with, the world my imagination lived in. Every day I spent in the English and Welsh countryside filled me with awe. I can only imagine the awe I will feel when I finally get to Israel and see the places I keep reading about in the Torah as an adult.
The ancient Israelites, whether they stayed in Canaan or migrated to Egypt and back, grew up with the legends that found their way into the book of Genesis. Imagine what it would mean to them to see Mount Moriah, the grove of Mamre, the cave of Makhpelah, Beeir-sheva, or Beeir-lachai-roi.
Never underestimate the power of story. It can turn a rural Egyptian province into the Promised Land.