Canaanite DNA and the Biblical Canon
[Editor’s Note: AP auxiliary writer Dr. Bryant holds two Masters degrees as well as a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies with an emphasis in Old Testament from Amridge University. He has participated in archaeological excavations at Tell El-Borg in Egypt and holds professional memberships in the American Schools of Oriental Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the International Society of Christian Apologetics.]
A paper published on July 27, 2017 sparked a series of headlines questioning the accuracy of the Bible. A study demonstrated that comparing the DNA of modern Lebanese with ancient Canaanites revealed a striking similarity between the two.1 By comparing the genomes of five inhabitants of the city of Sidon (from roughly 3,700 years ago) with 99 persons living in modern Lebanon, researchers estimated that the genetic similarity between the two is about 93 percent. Based on these findings, it is argued by some that the Canaanites were not destroyed as the Bible alleges.
Headlines after the publication of the study ran with the story, with several of them stating flatly that DNA evidence had proven the Bible wrong. David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, noted that numerous headlines (many of them originating in the United Kingdom) seemed to take a deliberate swipe at the Bible.2 He listed a dozen headlines from various news outlets that directly challenged the truthfulness of the biblical account of the conquest.3
In an age where attention-grabbing headlines can determine the number of clicks an article gets—as well as the amount of potential revenue from advertisers—this allegation is no surprise. However, it does expose the stunning biblical illiteracy in society today. To be fair, it may have been that the authors of the news articles simply took the following statement from the study at face value:
[T]he 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. However, no archaeological evidence has so far been found to support widespread destruction of Canaanite cities between the Bronze and Iron Ages: cities on the Levant coast such as Sidon and Tyre show continuity of occupation until the present day.4
Although the removal of the Canaanite population was commanded (Deuteronomy 20:17), numerous passages indicate the incomplete nature of the conquest (e.g., Joshua 17:12-13; Judges 1:27-33). One of the clearest failures recorded in the book of Judges is that the tribe of Dan in particular (or a large segment of it) remained nomadic instead of taking the territory allotted to it (Judges 18:1). The text indicates that this tribe had particular difficulties, later losing some of the land they had taken previously (Joshua 19:47).
The northernmost border of Israel’s territory was found in the allotment given to the tribe of Asher, which included the cities of Tyre and Sidon (Joshua 24:24-31). The text states that the Israelites failed to take this territory, so that the people of the tribe of Asher “lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, for they did not drive them out” (Judges 1:31; 3:3). Both Sidon and Tyre seem to have remained as independent city states. King Hiram of Tyre made treaties with both David and Solomon many years after the conquest (2 Samuel 5:11; 1 Kings 5:1; 9:13). Later prophets denounced the Phoenician cities of Tyre5 and Sidon,6 treating them as foreign political entities. The Bible never indicates that the Israelites conquered these cities or killed their populations.
The Homeric epics of the Iliad and Odyssey mention Sidon, known in the Bible as the home of Jezebel and her father Ethbaal (1 Kings 16:31). Jezebel’s royal seal—donated to Israel’s Department of Antiquities in the early 1960s—identifies her as the “daughter of the king.”7 The city of Sidon had a succession of kings and was powerful enough that the term “Sidonian” became virtually synonymous with the term “Phoenician.”8 There is no indication—either historical or biblical—that the Israelites ever conquered the city.
Tyre was a powerful and wealthy city also, enough so that it was able to establish colonies throughout the Mediterranean. It is no coincidence that Tyre experienced a golden age beginning precisely at the time when the Bible indicates that its king made important trade agreements with David and Solomon.9 Tyre had a long succession of kings who often ran afoul of more powerful nations. For instance, the famed Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (747-727 B.C.) defeated a second Hiram of Tyre ruling in the eighth century.10 Later, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar plundered the city, which was subsequently razed by Alexander the Great in fulfillment of prophecy (Ezekiel 26).11 The biblical portrayal of Tyre—including its wealth, its continual problems with other nations, and eventually its destruction—agrees with the ancient evidence.
The Bible and ancient inscriptions both indicate that Israel never defeated Tyre or Sidon, a fact that seems to have eluded some critics. That the modern inhabitants of Lebanon should share such genetic similarity with their ancient ancestors should not be surprising. Phoenicia always remained independent of Israel despite any political or economic connections the two may have shared. Far from undermining the biblical text, the most recent findings concerning Canaanite DNA support the accuracy of Scripture.
1 See Marc Haber, et al (2017), “Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” American Journal of Human Genetics, 101, August, http://www.cell.com/ajhg/fulltext/S0002-9297(17)30276-8.
2 David Klinghoffer (2017), “For Culturally Illiterate Science Reporters, Canaanite DNA Yields Occasion to Slap Bible Around,” https://goo.gl/Pv3idN.
3 E.g., Shivali Best (2017), “Bronze Age DNA Disproves the Bible’s Claim that the Canaanites Were Wiped Out: Study Says Their Genes Live On in Modern-day Lebanese People,” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4733046/Canaanites-ancestors-modern-day-people-Lebanon.html; Chris Graham (2017), “Study Disproves the Bible’s Suggestion that the Ancient Canaanites Were Wiped Out,” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/07/28/study-disproves-bibles-claim-ancient-canaanites-wiped/; Ian Johnston (2017), “Bible Says Canaanites Were Wiped Out by Israelites But Scientists Just Found Their Descendants Living in Lebanon,” https://goo.gl/6xXTCs.
4 Haber, et al, p. 275.
5 E.g., Amos 1:9-10; Zechariah 9:3-4; Ezekiel 26:1-28:19.
6 Jeremiah 24:22; Ezekiel 28:20-24.
7 See Marjo C.A. Korpel (2008), “Fit for a Queen: Jezebel’s Royal Seal,” Biblical Archaeology Review, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/fit-for-a-queen-jezebels-royal-seal.
8 Philip C. Schmitz (1992), “Sidon” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday), 6:17.
9 H.J. Katzenstein (1992), “Tyre” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday), 6:687.
10 Edward Lipinski (2006), On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age: Historical and Topographical Researches, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 153 (Leuven: Peters), p. 187.
11 See Kyle Butt (2006), “Tyre in Prophecy,” Reason & Revelation, 26:73-79, October, http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=13&article=1790.