Q. The woman of worth in the Book of Proverbs “delivers girdles to the merchant” (Prov. 31:24). Why does the Hebrew say k’naani (“Canaanite”) if the meaning is “merchant”?
A. Canaan was originally the name of a person, the son of Ham and the grandson of Noah. Because he and his father put Noah to shame, he was placed under a curse and told he would be “a servant to servants” (Gen. 9:25). In time, “Canaanite” became a generic term for a slave class.
The Talmud (Pes. 113b) says that Canaan told his children, “Love one another; love robbery and unchastity; hate your masters; do not speak the truth”. These were regarded by the sages as the marks of a lowly class of thieves. The rabbis even called the Canaanites “a people that resemble an ass”. Some of Canaan’s descendants were said to have been worthy people, but their bad reputation was hard to shake off (Yoma 87a).
Late Biblical texts used the term k’naani for a trader or merchant (e.g. Zeph. 1:11, Ezek. 16:19). It is in this sense that King Solomon uses the term in Prov. 31. This reflects the commercial proclivities of the coastal inhabitants of the land named after the original Canaan.