By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
It is surely puzzling why Eretz Yisrael is called Eretz Cana’an throughout the Torah. It is given this perplexing title even when out of context to the situations and circumstances being discussed. Furthermore, throughout Bamidbar and Devarim where we find Eretz Yisrael described, all of the seven Canaanite people are enumerated by name, as if they have some sort of special significance.
What is the reason that the Canaanites have to be mentioned so frequently and why is the Holy Land referred to as Eretz Cana’an?
Let us consider these nations at the time when Lot separated from Avraham Avinu. The verses say: “And Lot journeyed eastwards and they parted from each other. Avram lived in the land of Cana’an, while Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, pitching his tent as far as S’dom” (Bereishis 13:11–12).
It seems misleading to say that Avraham lived in Eretz Cana’an, while Lot went to live in the cities of the plain. Surely, the plain containing S’dom and Amorah is also part of Eretz Cana’an!
The Seforno addresses this. He says that even though S’dom and its sister cities are part of the territory of Cana’an, nevertheless the inhabitants were not Canaanites. He goes on to explain: “Thus, it tells us that Avram chose to settle in that part of the land where the Canaanites lived, since they were not as wicked as the inhabitants of S’dom. He did not come close to the environs of S’dom” (Seforno, Bereishis 13:12).
It seems that the people of S’dom and Amorah were actually descendants of Shem. This can be deduced from Rashi elsewhere, who comments that, at that time, the Canaanites were taking over the land that had originally belonged to Shem. As the verse says: “And the Canaanite lived then in the land” (Bereishis 12:6). “They were progressively conquering Eretz Yisrael from the descendants of Shem” (Rashi, ad loc.).
Indeed, Canaanite culture was extraordinarily evil, compared by the Torah to Egypt. When Hashem warns us not to learn from their evil ways, both these nations stand out in terms of their corrupt, deviant culture. (See Vayikra 18:3, Rashi, loc. cit.) Still, the Canaanites were not as bad as S’dom and Amorah. Even the Canaanites had moral qualms about what was transpiring in the Jordan River plain, and they separated themselves from the people and culture of S’dom. We see clearly that only S’dom was destroyed, not the rest of Cana’an.
Only the inhabitants of S’dom were so extraordinarily evil that they “merited” being destroyed in such a fashion, suffering utter obliteration from the face of the earth. In the meantime, the rest of Cana’an continued on its normal fashion. To be sure, over the course of the next 400 years, they, too, were going to be driven out. However, S’dom in its entirety lasted only 52 years. Its evil was so great that it did not even live to 60, whereas Cana’an took approximately 500 years before deserving destruction—almost ten times as long.
We know that “Hashem does not withhold reward from any creature.” (Pesachim 118a) What was the Canaanites’ reward for not following the ways of S’dom?
Perhaps our question is the answer. The land of Israel is called Eretz Cana’an by the Torah to show recognition to the Canaanites for their praiseworthy rejection of S’dom and its ways.
This continued until their time came to pay the price of their own wickedness, until Klal Yisrael finally inhabited the land and took it over from them.
Thus, the Canaanites are given credit for protecting the Land from the evil of S’dom. Each one of the nations is mentioned individually, so as not to give a generalized credit, since each one of the seven individual nations deserves credit for having preserved Eretz Yisrael from the evils of S’dom.
This is what the above-mentioned Seforno alluded to when he wrote that Avram chose to live in the part of the land where the Canaanites lived, since they were not as wicked as those in S’dom. Avram could set up his tent, his Eshel, amongst the Canaanites and carry on his holy work there. This would have been incomprehensible within S’dom.
Let us note that in Parashas Noach, the verse defines the borders of the Canaanites in the following way: “The Canaanite borders extended from Sidon toward Gerar until Gaza” (Bereishis 10:19). This is the area along the west coast of Eretz Yisrael, along the Mediterranean. Then it says: “And toward S’dom, Amorah, Admah, and Tzevoyim, until Lasha.”
The Torah here clearly states that the borders of the Canaanites included S’dom. So now we can understand why it says later in the verse, in Parashas Lech Lecha, that it is on the border of Cana’an. It could very well be that the Canaanites were able to conquer and take it, but consciously chose not to have anything to do with it or its inhabitants. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Bereishis, Sh’mos, and Vayikra.