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War and Peace: how we understand others depends on how we interact with them
By Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Emeritus Faculty in Humanities, Austin College
Mar 25, 2021
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In the Mid-East history classes I taught, one class-inclusive exercise that ended with students being surprised, started when I wrote ‘Canaanites’ on the blackboard. I asked what word or phrase first came to their mind.

As their thoughts came, I would write under ‘Canaanites’ their responses. The most frequent ones over past years were: “worshipped Baal,” “child sacrifice,” “warlike,” “pagan,” “dangerous,” and so forth.

Then I went back to the top and wrote ‘Phoenician’ next to ‘Canaanite’ asking for the same input. The most frequent replies were “first alphabet,” “trading-post colonies in Mediterranean* and in Europe,” “coveted purple cloth made in Tyre,” and so forth. 

When I asked what was most striking between the two lists, their reply was that the Canaanite description was a list of negatives while the Phoenician list was of positives. It seemed to be “good guys versus the bad guys.” 

A look of surprise was evident when I said that they were basically the same “guys”—the same people. I explained that the reason for the contrasting descriptions was no surprise at all. The word ‘Canaanite’—the name came from the fourth son of Ham in the Genesis flood story (Chapter 9). After the flood, Noah cursed Ham whose descendants, in biblical tradition, the ancient Israelites called Canaanites.

The Greeks called the same people ‘Phoenician’ from their word for ‘purple cloth’(porphura), which they could only acquire in Tyre. What these “Canaanites/Phoenicians” called themselves depended on their closest city: Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, Berytus (Beirut), and so forth. 

Why are the Canaanites/Phoenicians described in such opposite ways? The ancient Israelites, in biblical tradition, escaped slavery in Egypt; and Moses led them into the land of Canaan where they were in conflict with the inhabitants. The Greek relationship was based on trade, mostly by sea. 

One lesson here appears obvious. Trading with other people develops a more peaceful relationship than competing forcefully — usually over land ownership and resources.

*Carthage (now a suburb of Tunis, capitol of Tunisia), is the most known trading post. It is mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid. Its wars with Rome were called Punic Wars, since ‘Punic’ (derived from Latin), designated Carthage’s Phoenician roots.