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  • Christine Silk

Why Were the Canaanites So Bad? A Commentary on Numbers 33:1-36:13 (Parsha Masei)

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

This talk was delivered at Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica on July 30, 2011

What I'm going to talk about today may strike you as a theme that's more appropriate to Halloween than summertime. But because we're on the Torah's time-table and not our own, I'm giving this talk now rather than at the end of October.

The three things I'm going to talk about are: 

1. How bad the Canaanites were

2. Why God commands the Israelites to carry out the death penalty before they'd even had a chance to set foot in the land of Canaan

3. Whether you can turn an evil place into a holy place

In today's parsha, God tells Moses he is going to give the Israelites a homeland in a place called Canaan, which is where modern Israel stands today. Keep in mind that the Canaanites had been in that land for thousands of years before Judaism even existed.

God commands the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites who live there. This means the Israelites must take away the land and property of the Canaanites. Notice God does not tell the Israelites to kill the Canaanites, just take over. Then God tells the Israelites something else that sounds intolerant to our modern ears: “You are to destroy their figured objects, all their molten images you are to destroy, all their high-places you are to annihilate” (Numbers 33:52).

God warns the Israelites that if they don't do this, those Canaanites who are left will be as “barbs in your eyes” and “spines in your sides . . . they will assault you . . . as I thought to do to them, so I will do to you!” (Numbers 33:55-56).

Now this brings me to my first point. Why couldn't God just let the Israelites and the Canaanites co-exist? The Canaanites could have their religion, and the Israelites could have their religion, and everybody would be happy, living peacefully in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society. What was so bad about the Canaanites?

What I am about to describe about the Canaanite religion is going to strike you as downright evil—and it should strike you as downright evil. The fact that you will have this reaction is proof that Torah values have taken hold in you and in our culture. Even if you are a Christian, agnostic, or an atheist, your negative reaction to Canaanite practices shows that Judeo-Christian values have replaced Canaanite values throughout the Western World.

Canaanite Mythology

Let's look first at Canaanite mythology. We know from texts (called the Ugaritic texts), found in Syria about 80 years ago, that the Canaanites worshiped a family of gods. In other words, Canaanites were polytheistic just like the Greeks and Egyptians were. In the Canaanite religion, there was a god named El who killed his father and married his sisters and his daughter, Anat. El's son Ba'al also took Anat as his consort. So the goddess Anat was a consort to both her father and her brother (Cross 1973, Chapter 2).

Archaeological evidence shows that the Canaanites made idols of Ba'al in the shape of a bull or a calf (Stager 1991). Another symbol for Ba'al, inscribed on stone burial markers, was a crescent and a disc, and these inscribed markers have been found in both in Carthage and in Israel. In fact, the Israel stone markers with the crescent and disc pre-date the Carthaginian ones by about a thousand years (Stager 1984). This proves that Canaanite practices were widespread in the Middle East.

The Canaanite gods, like all pagan gods, were lustful, impulsive, jealous, spiteful, and sometimes lazy. They didn't really care about humans, except when humans could satisfy their whims or vanity. Such gods amused themselves by toying with humans, taking them as mates, or making them suffer. The gods were greedy and had big egos, so humans believed that to placate the gods and win good fortune, it was necessary to offer them sacrifices of great value.

Because the Canaanite religion was a fertility religion, ritual prostitution of both males and females was a common feature of worship. (Gray 1964, p. 136). Temple prostitution is one of the major things Judaism detested about paganism, and the Torah went to great lengths to de-sexualize religion and religious rites. For example, Deuteronomy 23:18 states: “There is to be no holy-prostitute of the daughters of Israel, there is to be no holy-prostitute of the sons of Israel.”

Child Sacrifice

Besides ritual prostitution, and a mythology sanctioning polygamy, patricide and incest, were the Canaanites really all that bad? The answer is: Yes. They practiced child sacrifice.

How do we know this?

Several references to child sacrifice are made throughout the Torah and in the writings of the prophets such as Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Micah and Jeremiah. Here is are two typical examples:

Deuteronomy 12:31: “Everything abominable to Adonai, which he hates, they do with their gods; indeed even their sons and daughters they burn with fire to their gods!”

Jeremiah 13:5: “They have filled this place [the valley of Ben-Hinnom, outside of Jerusalem] with the blood of innocents and have built the high places of Ba'al to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Ba'al, which I (God) did not command.”

How do we know the Canaanites really practiced child sacrifice? What if the Torah demonized them in order to justify the Israelite conquest of Canaan?

There is solid archaeological evidence that child sacrifice actually took place throughout the Mediterranean region, including Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, Malta and Carthage. Carthage, in fact, is the site of one of biggest child-sacrifice burials unearthed by archaeologists to date.

Lawrence Stager, a Harvard professor of archaeology, has written extensively about this immense burial site, which is called the Carthaginian Tophet. “Tophet” can be translated as “burning place” or “roaster.” It may even refer to the actual altar on which the sacrifices took place. The Carthage Tophet measures about 6,000 square meters, has about nine levels of stratified layers that date from about 600 BCE to about 146 BCE (Stager 1984).

What Professor Stager and his team found is gruesome. Buried there hundreds of stone burial markers, called stelae, which were often inscribed with a vow that had been made to the deities such as the god Ba'al or the goddess Tanit. Then, under a single stela, archaeologists would find a clay urn. Inside the urn were the charred remains of an occasional animal sacrifice. But most of the urns held the charred remains of young children.

By analyzing the bones and teeth in the urns, archaeologists have determined that the age of the children sacrificed were usually newborns, and two- to four-year-olds. Often, the remains of two or three children would be found in the same urn, sometimes mixed in with amulets and beads.

Professor Stager's excavations show something else: The wealthier the Carthaginians became, the more they practiced child sacrifice, so that by the third century BCE, at the height of Carthaginian civilization, child-sacrifice was sanctioned by the state and mainly practiced among the nobles and upper classes. This horror was done in a civilization that was already one of the most advanced, most cosmopolitan and affluent places in the Mediterranean. Among the Phoenicians (who were Canaanites living in northern Israel, along the coast) it was the commoners, as opposed to the upper classes, who were heavily involved in sacrificing their children.

Another piece of important evidence that child sacrifice took place can be found in the writings of Greek historians who lived during the golden years of Carthaginian rule, in the 3rd century BCE.

Kleitarchos, a Greek historian, wrote: “Whenever they [the Carthaginians or the Phoenicians] seek to obtain some great favor, [they] vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity, if they are especially eager to gain success. There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos (Ba'al) its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing, until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier” (Stager 1984, p. 2).

Diodorus, a third-century BCE Greek historian, paints a similar picture: “There was in their city a bronze image of Kronos (Ba'al), extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire” (

Afterwards, the bones and ashes would be carefully scraped out of the fire pit, sealed in a clay pot, and buried, and a stela (burial stone) would be placed on top, inscribed with the vow to the god or goddess in return for a favor.

Not many written texts survive from the Canaanite culture. We have writings from the 14th century BC that tell stories about their gods, but don't really know what day-to-day life was like for the Canaanites. So this is where we use our imaginations. What I am about to tell you is my own theory of what life was like in Canaanite society.

First, mothers didn't dare form a close attachment to their children. After all, they or their husbands might feel compelled to consign them to the fires of Ba'al in the not-too-distant future. So, small children probably didn't receive the kind of psychological nurturing, maybe not even the kind of physical nurturing, we moderns believe is due to every child.

Second, since the Canaanite gods themselves consorted with their sisters and daughters, it's hard to believe Canaanite men would view any woman of their household as off-limits if they desired her, no matter how close of a blood relation she was, perhaps even regardless of her age. After all, if they had no qualms about sacrificing a young child, why would they have qualms about respecting other boundaries?

Third, Canaan was probably not a good place to be old. Weaker, elderly men had to be wary of the lusty, power-hungry younger men who might kill them for their possessions and women, just as the Canaanite god El killed his father.

Let me digress a moment and point out that our revulsion toward incest, the sexualization of children, and killing off old people is a direct result of Judaism. The Canaanites had no divine commandments such as “Honor your mother and your father.” That would come later, when Moses brought the Ten Commandments down from Sinai, along with other laws we find in the Torah. In fact, the Torah is full of all kinds of restrictions on killing, on family relations, on who men can and cannot sleep with. As J.R. Ziskind points out, the rules governing sexual relations in the book of Leviticus were a huge benefit to women because they couldn't be passed around the male members of their household. Widowed women were free to marry whomever they wanted or not marry at all (Milgrom 2004, p. 195).

So Canaanite culture, according to what the available evidence suggests, was a brutal place for children, women, and old people.

The Death Penalty

Now lets go back to today's Torah portion. The Israelites had not even wiped the dust off their feet from all the traveling they'd been doing, they hadn't built a single house in Canaan, and yet God went into a lot of detail about the death penalty. Why? Why does capital punishment –which is a very serious topic – appear here? Why didn't God wait until the Israelites had a chance to set up a court system?

I believe the answer is because God wanted the Israelites to immediately put an end to all child sacrifice in the land of Canaan, otherwise they risked getting sucked into practicing it themselves. The fact that the death penalty appears where it does, and the particular way the Torah lays out the conditions for the death penalty, means that in this Torah portion, God is taking direct aim at the Canaanite practice of human sacrifice.

The Torah's conditions for imposing the death penalty are two-fold. First, the killing had to be intentional. Second, there had to be at least two witnesses. Child sacrifice fits both conditions: it was intentional, and there were witnesses (the parents and a priest, possibly even other community members). Therefore, Canaanites practicing any kind of human sacrifice were eligible for the death penalty under Mosaic law, and the Israelites were commanded by God to carry out this punishment.

I mentioned before that the Israelites would have been tempted to practice human sacrifice themselves if the the Canaanite religion had been allowed to co-exist. In fact, the some Jews were either tempted, or did in fact practice it:

  • Genesis 22:1-22:14: The binding of Isaac (which ultimately teaches that child sacrifice is not God's wish).

  • 1 Kings 16: Ahab, who was an Israelite prince, married a Canaanite Jezebel. They both built shrines to Ba'al, converted Jews to the Canaanite religion, leaving Jewish worshipers of Adonai a minority. Ahab's deputy sacrificed two of his children in building projects by burying them in foundation stones.

  • 2 Kings 16: The Israelite Prince Ahaz sacrificed two of his children and worshiped pagan gods.

  • Judges 11:30-39: Jephthah pledges the “first living thing” to God if he beats the Amorites, and is forced to sacrifice his only child when his daughter runs out to greet him.

Christianity, which grew out of Judaism, recognized the pull of child sacrifice on the human psyche. They did something ingenious: Christians made human sacrifice a central motif of the religion, positing Jesus as the Son of God who is offered up as a sacrifice to end all sacrifices. They have managed to simultaneously bring the concept of child-sacrifice out in the open while simultaneously rendering it completely unnecessary and off-limits.

To summarize my point about the death penalty: If God had not decreed the death penalty before the Israelites moved into Canaan, it is extremely probable that the Israelites would have assimilated into Canaanite culture and would have adopted practices contrary to Judaism. Remember, the Jews had betrayed God once before, when they built the golden calf after Moses went up to Sinai. The golden calf was a Canaanite god. We know this from archaeological excavations of statues of Ba'al depicting him as a calf. These calf-statues were found in Israel, and they pre-date Moses by at least a hundred years (Stager 1991). By worshiping the golden calf, the Israelites were worshiping Ba'al. No wonder God now tells them, as they stand on the border of their new homeland, that they have to smash all the Canaanite idols and shrines, and execute those who intentionally kill innocents. The Torah and the writings of the prophets repeatedly denigrate Ba'al and warn the Jews that they will befall the same fate as their enemies if they go prostituting themselves after foreign gods. Given the Jews' track-record with the golden calf at Sinai, these warnings are sensible.

Jeremiah (19:4-5) quotes God as saying: “They have built the high places of Ba'al to burn their sons and daughters in the fire as offerings to Ba'al – something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter My mind.” Jeremiah is anticipating the fact that this new group of Jews might delude themselves into thinking that God somehow wanted them to sacrifice their children, but God just didn't say it out loud. God emphasizes that such a thing never entered His mind.

The prophet Micah (6:6-8) anticipates the powerful hold that human sacrifice has on the psyche.

Micah starts of with a question that any God-fearing person might ask: “'With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings. . . thousands of rams . . . rivers of oil? Shall I give my first born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?'” Notice how the offerings progress from minor to major: from burn offerings, to thousands of rams, to rivers of oil, to finally—the ultimate sacrifice—killing one's first-born child to atone for sin.

Micah gives the answer: “He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah's point is this: There is no need for all the sacrifice stuff. It's how you behave toward your fellow man that counts. So, be kind and just, and walk humbly with God.

Can an Evil Place Become Good?

I've just spent considerable time demonstrating that Canaanite culture was not the kind of place where we would want to live or raise our children.

Now, as the Israelites stand on the threshold of their new homeland, whether Israel survives or not depends on their ethical behavior, as we shall see in my third point.

Canaan was an evil place. What can be done about an evil place? Is it fixable?

Let's turn for a moment to the modern genre of horror fiction and tales of the supernatural.

It is a staple of scary movies, and scary books, that once a place is tainted with evil, that place is forever evil, haunted by disembodied spirits. It is a place that threatens to corrupt innocent people. For example, Stephen King is the master of this theme. In the book and movie, The Shining, an old hotel is haunted by evil ghosts who corrupt a man and cause him to go insane and attack his wife and son. In Salem's Lot, the old Marsden house had been inhabited by evil people, and evil still haunts the place, making it an attractive new home to the vampire who moves into town and terrorizes it. In the book Pet Semetary, an old cemetery has supernatural powers to bring back animals and people from the dead, and it corrupts the main characters into doing bad things they wouldn't have done otherwise.

The theme running through this kind of modern horror fiction is, in some ways, a pagan one: The forces of evil are disembodied and separate from the human realm, they can rule a place forever. Humans are powerless to do anything about it, except placate the evil, try to fight it by discovering esoteric rules of supernatural war. Or they can avoid the place altogether and keep others away from it, too.

The Torah takes the opposite approach. Canaan was an evil place, not because the Canaanite gods were powerful, not because of disembodied evil spirits, but because of human behavior. The land was polluted with the blood of innocent children because humans practiced child sacrifice. The Canaanites were bad because their behavior was bad, and consequently, their society and environment was contaminated.

God commanded the Israelites to go there and replace Canaanite religion with Judaism, and make it into a good place. He warned the Israelites that if they did not obey His commands, if they did the same bad things the Canaanites did, they would suffer the same fate as the Canaanites.

This is a profound and revolutionary idea that Judaism is proposing: The goodness or badness of a place is directly tied to human action, not to supernatural spirits. If human action is good, the place is good. If human action is bad, the place is bad. There is no other yardstick. One of the Torah's ultimate points is that humans become good and make their land good by following the commandments that God set forth in the Torah. And, because God is in charge, because He is all-powerful, it is possible to take an evil, blood-soaked place and make it into a good and holy place.

Israel itself is the proof of this idea. I've just spent most of my talk describing how bad Canaan is. Physically, it was located on the same spot as modern-day Israel. For those of you who have been to Israel, you know that it is a holy place. You can feel that in the air. It is the freest place in the Middle East. The lives of everyone who live there --Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic-- are freer and more prosperous in Israel than they would be in any other country in that region.

But it's more than political freedom. There is a certain electricity in the air, as if Israel itself is God's lightening rod, and the cosmic rays of spirituality converge on the place. I think it is no coincidence that the three major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, consider it a holy place. Other religions, such as Hindu and Baha'i, have a presence in Israel. Newer Christian religions, such as Protestantism and Mormonism, have a presence in Israel. And the older branches of Christianity, such as Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians, also have a presence there.

It's as if every religion knows Israel is the place to be. Maybe they can't say why, but they can feel it, and that's why they want to at least have a representative there.

So, today's Torah portion teaches us three things: The Canaanites were very bad, and we judge them as such because we have absorbed Torah ethics. The death penalty was put in this Torah portion in a particular spot to give the Israelites an effective tool to snuff out human sacrifice. Finally, the Israelites turned a blood-soaked evil place into a good and holy place by following God's laws and by making sure that their actions toward their fellow human beings followed God's ideas of moral behavior.

We are all the beneficiaries of this Jewish world view, and we are blessed to live in a time when throwing children into pits of fire is viewed as the barbaric, vile practice it is. We are lucky that we here in the United States have good, moral society to live-- not a perfect society, far from it – but one that recognizes the importance of treating other people well, of honoring one's parents, not oppressing the widow or the orphan, of not tolerating murder or theft, and generally treating other people with mercy, kindness and dignity, since we are all made in the image of God. Or, in the Prophet Micah's words: Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.


Cross, Frank Moore. 1964. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gray, John. 1964. The Canaanites: Ancient Peoples and Places. London: Thames and Hudson.

Milgrom, Jacob. 2004. Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Stager, Lawrence E. and Wolff, Samuel R.. 1984. “Child Sacrifice at Carthage—Religious Rite or Population Control?” Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1984.

Stager, Lawrence E. 1991. “When Canaanites and Philistines Ruled Ashkelon.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Mar/Apr 1991.

Ziskind, J.R.. Quoted in Milgrom 2004.

Further readings on pagan practices, including human sacrifice and ritual prostitution:

Antonelli, Judith S. In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aaronson, Inc. 1995.

Avodah Zarah, 38th tractate of the Talmud, dealing with idol worship.

Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice in History and Today. New York: William Morrow and Company. 1981.

Davies, Nigel. The Rampant God. New York: William Morrow and Company. 1984. 

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