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The Bible says 'And the Canaanite was in the land' in Gen 12:6. Is this referring to a specific person or this is just a linguistic error in translation that is meant to refer to the group of people.

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    – Dottard
    Commented May 4 at 11:17

3 Answers 3

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This is a matter of Hebrew grammar called a gentilic noun.

כְּנַעֲנִי: gentilic of כְּנַעַן ... -- Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). In The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 485). E.J. Brill.

b. Nouns that often occur in the plural form can, however, also sometimes be used in the singular collective. ... (iii) The singular noun occurring after cardinal numbers, after כֹּל and other words indicating quantity, refers to a class or a group. Gentilic nouns (names of people or groups) are also often used in the singular. -- Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., Kroeze, J., Van der Merwe, C., Naudé, J., & Kroeze, J. (1999). A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (electronic ed., pp. 183–184). Sheffield Academic Press.

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    +1. I like that you delt with the specific grammar.
    – Jason_
    Commented May 4 at 16:53
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"the Canaanite" is a Hebrew idiom meaning "Canaanites" generally.

The Cambridge commentary says this:

And the Canaanite was then in the land i.e. long before the conquest of Palestine. This clause reminds the reader, that the land promised to the seed of Abram was “then” in the possession of the Canaanites.

Ellicott is similar:

The Canaanite was then in the land.—This is no sign of post-Mosaic authorship, nor a later interpolation, as if the meaning were that the Canaanite was there at that time, but is so no longer. What really is meant is that Abram on his arrival found the country no longer in the hands of the old Semitic stock, but occupied by the Canaanites, who seem to have gained the ascendancy, not so much by conquest as by gradual and peaceful means.

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“And the Canaanite was in the land”

This is understood to refer to the Canaanite people as a group, not a specific individual. The term “Canaanite” in the Bible often refers to the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, a region in the ancient Near East.

Take what Charles Ellicott says for example:

The Canaanite was then in the land.— ...What really is meant is that Abram on his arrival found the country no longer in the hands of the old Semitic stock, but occupied by the Canaanites, who seem to have gained the ascendancy, not so much by conquest as by gradual and peaceful means.

Really all the phrase means is that the land where Abram (later renamed Abraham) was traveling was inhabited by the Canaanites.

Look also at the Benson commentary:

The Canaanite was then in the land — He found the country possessed by Canaanites, who were likely to be but bad neighbours; and for aught appears, he could not have ground to pitch his tent on but by their permission.

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