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After more than two centuries of decline, urban life returned to Canaan in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000–1550 B.C.) as classical Canaanite culture reached its zenith. Cities and villages sprang up, especially in the coastal plains and the great fertile valleys of Jezreel and the northern Jordan Valley. Over five hundred Middle Bronze Age sites have now been identified in Canaan. The urban character of Canaanite society is clear; perhaps as much as 65 percent of the population of Canaan dwelt in the numerous heavily fortified towns that dotted the land. Most towns were small, however, less than twenty acres in size. About 5 percent of the settlements were large cities by standards of the region—up to two hundred acres in size.
Several major Canaanite cities of this period have been excavated. Gezer, Megiddo, Aphek, Shechem, Jericho, Dan (Laish), and Hazor are among many sites yielding evidence of a sophisticated urban society. The most characteristic feature of these cities was an extensive fortification system. Each site was heavily fortified with thick walls made of mud brick set on a stone foundation. Builders utilized huge stones, quarried locally, some weighing more than a ton each. Some walls consisted of boulders roughly fitted together, called “Cyclopean Masonry.” Often these walls stood on massive ramparts made of local soils and debris.
Inside the walls, the Canaanites erected temples, palaces, administrative and judicial buildings, industrial facilities, along with more modest domestic houses. Many of the cities bear clear evidence of town planning. Certain crafts, such as metalworking and pottery manufacturing, reached high levels of achievement. The beautiful pottery of this period attained technical standards seldom surpassed in later times. By adding tin to copper, Middle Bronze Age metalsmiths developed a true bronze, allowing the production of new, often better and stronger, tools and weapons.
Politically, Canaan was a land of city-states. Each larger Canaanite city functioned independently and was headed by a king who controlled the surrounding villages and territory. Security must have been a prime concern, judging from the large fortifications; likely, the various kings feared the ambition of other city-states.
The Canaanites basically were agricultural in their economy, although trade played an important role also. Surpluses of grain, olive oil, wine, and possibly timber and cattle were exchanged for luxury goods. Trade with Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Cyprus flourished. Contemporary economic documents found at Mari mention both Hazor, the largest of the Canaanite city-states, and Laish (Dan) in connection with the international metal trade vital to all Middle Bronze Age kingdoms. The Bible recalls that “Hazor formerly was the head of all those [Canaanite] kingdoms” (Josh. 11:10), a recognition of the political and economic importance of that great city.
Relatively few kings or cities are mentioned in the biblical accounts of the patriarchal journeys in Canaan, leading to the impression that the land was sparsely inhabited. In light of the previous description of Canaan in the Middle Bronze Age, how are we to explain this? First, the patriarchs migrated through portions of Canaan less densely inhabited at this time, primarily the Negeb and the Western Mountains. Second, the patriarchal lifestyle essentially was pastoral, avoiding the larger cities in preference for grazing land, though their travels occasionally brought them into contact with their urban neighbors. Many of the cities mentioned in Genesis in connection with the patriarchs—Shechem, Bethel, Salem (Jerusalem)—were, in fact, inhabited at this time. By and large, the patriarchal lifestyle portrayed in Genesis is pastoral rather than urban (see the following section).
By Thomas V. Brisco
Holman Bible Atlas, Holman Reference (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998)
 Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas, Holman Reference (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 43–44.