Parshat Lech Lecha
The Cannanites Were Then in the Land
God told Avraham to go "to the land that I will show you" (Bereshit 12:1). When he arrived there, the passuk tells us that "the Canaanites were then in the land" (ibid 6). The word "then" – "אז" in Hebrew, has troubled traditional Jewish commentaries for it implies that at the time Sefer Bereshit was written, the Canaanites were no longer in the land. Orthodox Jews believe that Sefer Bereshit was written by Moshe. That makes the word "then" problematic, for the Canaanites were the unchallenged rulers of Canaan in Moshe's day.
Rashi states that Avraham's time marked the beginning of the Cannanite conquest. The word "then" then implies that the Canannites were then taking control of the land, as opposed to today, Moshe's day, when the Cananites had supreme control.
This interpretation is difficult to accept for it cannot be historically justified. The Canannites were firmly in control of Canaan well before Avraham arrived on the scene.
The Chizkuni therefore, explains that the word "then" was included for later generations, such as ours, so that we should understand that when Avraham first arrived in Israel, it was actually a strong holding of the Canaanites.
Ibn Ezra however, has real trouble with world and hints, though he doesn't say it openly, that the word was added at a later date.
I would like to add an alternative suggestion that will make the traditionalists more comfortable. But before I do I would like to ask, why God repeats His promise to Abraham numerous times throughout the parsha, God had already told Avraham that he would become a great nation in the land. Why does God then repeat "To your descendants I will give this land," (ibid 7)?
If we recall, Avraham was not told specifically what land he was directed to go to and that he had never been to Canaan before. It is possible that Avraham assumed that he would arrive in a sparsely populated region, a place that he could claim and inherit to his children.
However, when he arrived in Canaan he was shocked. This land was already full of people, not just any people, but the Canaanites; a highly developed people with a distinct culture and strong army. Could this be the land where he was to become a great nation?
Therefore Avraham may have assumed that he was at the wrong place. God immediately appears to him therefore and says: "To your descendants I will give this land". God explains that the promise is to be fulfilled in the future. Avraham's immediate reaction is to build an altar and show his trust in God. The word "then" therefore, expresses to Israel four hundred years later, Avraham's shock and surprise.
Moshe explains that they should not think that when Avraham arrived in the land it was unoccupied and that he was claiming it for them. No, even in Avraham's day, the land was fully occupied and controlled by Canaan.
Therefore, the pesukim can be understood as follows: "Avram passed through the land, until the place of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh, and [found that] the Canaanites were [already] then [firmly entrenched] in the land. [In order to allay Avram's doubts] the Lord appeared to Avram, and He said, 'To your descendants I will give this land'. There [showing his faith and new understanding of God's promise] he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him" (ibid 6-7).
Therefore, the word "then" need not be a post-Mosaic addition to the text, but merely a tool to teach us and ancient Israel:
- That Avraham had problems understanding God's promise in light of the facts
- Why God repeated his promise to Avraham
- Why Avraham did not build the altar immediately upon arriving in the land.
Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat Lech Lecha, entitled: "Sarah, Wife of Avraham” appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006_11_01_archive.html
Another Sedra Short for Parshat Lech Lecha, entitled: "The Double edge of Circumcision" can be found at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2005_11_01_parshablog_archive.html