Ezra Brand

Claims on ‘Canaan’ by Africans and Arabs in the Talmud

For an overview of the depiction of Alexander the Great in Talmudic literature, with bibliography, see the Hebrew Wikipedia entry “אלכסנדר הגדול באגדות היהודיות – ויקיפדיה”. 

Summary and Analysis of the Debate with the Africans, with historical and linguistic comments

This Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 91a (sections # 6-9)) starts with a quote from Megillat Ta’anit (a pre-rabbinic text, written in Aramaic): “On the twenty-fourth day in Nisan it is a joyous day, since the usurpers [dimusana’ei] were expelled from Judea and Jerusalem.” (Jastrow says that dimusana’ei (דימוסנאי ) is “a corruption of δημοσιῶναι  demosionai publicani) farmers of public revenues under the Roman government.” So, related to the Greek word demos – “people”and here meaning “tax collector”, see Publican – Wikipedia, equivalent to the later rabbinic term mokhes – מוכס.)

It then describes a debate led by Geviha ben Pesisa, representing the Jewish people against the claims of the “Africans” (בני אפריקיא – the people of the Roman province of Africa, the northern coast of what is now known as the African continent).

Geviha ben Pesisa requested the Sages’ permission to debate with the people of Africa before Alexander of Macedon. He proposed that if he were defeated, the Sages could minimize the loss by stating he was just an ordinary person (hedyot – הדיוט – see my discussion in the next paragraph) and that a true victory would require defeating the Sages. Conversely, if he won, the victory should be attributed to the wisdom of the Torah, not to his personal abilities. The Sages agreed and gave him permission to proceed with the debate.

(Hedyot – הדיוט – is a common loan word in Talmudic literature. It is cognate with modern English idiotIdiot – Wikipedia:

The word “idiot” comes from the Greek noun ἰδιώτης idiōtēs   ‘a private person, individual’ (as opposed to the state), ‘a private citizen’ (as opposed to someone with a political office), ‘a common man’, ‘a person lacking professional skill, layman’, later ‘unskilled’, ‘ignorant’, derived from the adjective ἴδιος idios ‘personal’ (not public, not shared). In Latin, idiota was borrowed in the meaning ‘uneducated’, ‘ignorant’, ‘common’, and in Late Latin came to mean ‘crude, illiterate, ignorant’. In French, it kept the meaning of ‘illiterate’, ‘ignorant’, and added the meaning ‘stupid’ in the 13th century. In English, it added the meaning ‘mentally deficient’ in the 14th century.)

The Africans argued before Alexander the Great that the land of Israel (eretz kana’an – “Land of Canaan”) belonged to them, citing biblical inheritance. Clearly, these “Africans” were of Canaanite ethnicity. This makes historical sense, since the major city in the area known as Africa was Carthage, a Canaanite colony.

Wikipedia, “Ancient Carthage“:

“Ancient Carthage ([…] Punic: […] romanized: qart hadaš; lit. ’New City’) was an ancient Semitic civilisation based in North Africa. Initially a settlement in present-day Tunisia, it later became a city-state and then an empire. Founded by the Phoenicians [=Canaanites] in the ninth century BCE, Carthage reached its height in the fourth century BCE as one of the largest metropolises in the world.“

(See more on the use of the place-name “Canaan” at the end of this piece.)

Geviha ben Pesisa challenged this claim using the Torah, stating that Canaan (son of Ham), being cursed as a slave, meant that his descendants and their possessions belonged to their masters. He argued that since the Africans had not served the Jews, they were not entitled to the land and owed debts and servitude. Unable to respond to Geviha’s argument, the Africans fled, leaving their fields and vineyards, which benefitted the Jewish people, especially since it was a Sabbatical Year with agricultural restrictions.

Similar stories, with very similar literary structure are then given for a debate with Egyptians (בני מצרים – b’nei Mitzrayim – Sons of Egypt, ibid. sections # 10-13) and a debate with Arabs (בני ישמעאל ובני קטורה – b’nei Yishma’el u’b’nei Keturah – Sons of Yishmael and Sons of Keturah, ibid. sections # 14-16).

The Egyptians argue, based on the Bible: “Give us the silver and gold that you took from us; you claimed that you were borrowing it and you never returned it”. Geviha responds with a counter-claim: “Give us the wages for the work […] whom you enslaved in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years.”

The Arabs claim, based on the Bible: “The land of Canaan is both ours and yours”. Notice that unlike the Africans, who say that the land is exclusively theirs, the Arabs are simply claiming a share, as opposed to the Jewish exclusivist claim. Geviha responds with a rhetorical question, after citing a Biblical verse: “In the case of a father [=Avraham] who gave a document of bequest [agatin – אגטין ] to his sons during his lifetime and sent one of the sons away from the other, does the one who was sent away have any claim against the other?” In this case, unlike in the debates with the African and the Egyptians, there’s no counter-claim, but simply that the Arab’s ancestor Yishmael had been disinherited by Avraham. (Jastrow explains agatin as a loan word stemming from Latin legatum meaning “bequest”, leaving in a will. Cognate with modern English legacy.)

The use of the term “Canaan” to refer to Eretz Yisrael

The use of the term “Canaan” to refer to Eretz Yisrael is interesting. This word is the standard one in the Bible, and was the one used by the natives themselves (the Canaanites), especially those who lived on the coast of modern-day Lebanon, and those who lived in Carthage in (North) Africa (see earlier), known to the Greeks as Phoenecians.

Presumably, Alexander himself would mostly likely have referred to the area as “Palestine”, which was the standard term in Greek, see Timeline of the name Palestine – Wikipedia:

“The term “Palestine” first appeared in the 5th century BCE when the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a “district of Syria, called Palaistinê” between Phoenicia and Egypt in The Histories. Herodotus provides the first historical reference clearly denoting a wider region than biblical Philistia, as he applied the term to both the coastal and the inland regions such as the Judean Mountains and the Jordan Rift Valley. Later Greek writers such as Aristotle, Polemon and Pausanias also used the word, which was followed by Roman writers such as Ovid, Tibullus, Pomponius Mela, Pliny the Elder, Dio Chrysostom, Statius, Plutarch as well as Roman Judean writers Philo of Alexandria and Josephus.”

It’s also possible that Alexander would have called it “Syria” or “Phoenecia”. See also the recent balanced overview: by Lyman Stone, “Who Has Claim? 3,000 Years of Religion in the Land Between”, In a State of Migration (October 27, 2023).

It’s likely that the term Canaan is used by the Talmud here, because the editors were sensitive to the fact that their standard term for the land Eretz Yisrael, was used only by Jews. The other natives, especially the so-called Phoenicians (a Greek exonym, meaning, a term that only non-natives used, to refer to natives), called the land Canaan, and the Greeks called it Palestine.

About the Author
Ezra Brand is an independent scholar, whose research interests include the Talmudic era, medieval Kabbalah, digital humanities, and linguistics. He has a Master's degree in Medieval Jewish History from Yeshiva University, and spent a year studying in the Talmud Department in Bar-Ilan University. In addition to blogging here, he is a frequent contributor to The Seforim Blog.