The Torah reading of VaYishlach concludes with a record of Esau’s descendants and chieftains. Since Esau married into the Canaanite family of Seir, and settled in his hill country in the south, the Torah lists the sons of Seir, “the inhabitants of the land” (Gen. 36:20).
What does this phrase, “the inhabitants of the land,” mean? As the Talmud humorously asks: Did everyone else live in the sky, and only Seir’s clan lived in the land?
The simple explanation is that Seir and his family were the original residents of that region, before Esau arrived. The Talmud, however, chose a different interpretation. According to Rabbi Yochanan, these Canaanites were true inhabitants of the land, as they were unparalleled experts in farming the land. They had an amazing sense of which crops were best suited for which fields.
“They would say: Plant olive trees in this area, plant grapevines in this one, and plant fig trees in this one.
They were called ‘Chorites’ because they could smell (merichim) out the land [to assess its suitability for different crops], and ‘Chivites’ since they would taste the land like a snake (chivya).” (Shabbat 85a)
Why does the Torah mention the agricultural expertise of the Canaanites? In general, why did God place these idolatrous and immoral nations in the Land of Israel? Would it not have been simpler if the Jewish people could have gained possession of Eretz Yisrael without needing to conquer it from the Canaanite nations?
God meant for humanity to work the land — “to till the ground from which he was taken” (Gen. 3:23). But acquiring an intimate knowledge of the land and its qualities requires intense dedication to this area of study. How could human society gain the necessary skills to work the land when occupied with higher, spiritual goals? For the pioneers of agricultural science to be successful, they needed to be unburdened by spiritual pursuits.
Therefore, these “first settlers” (as Rabbi Yochanan explained the verse, “boundaries that the first settlers established” (Deut. 19:14)) worked and tilled the land before the Torah’s light was revealed in the world. This way, they could invest all of their efforts in connecting with the earth. The Canaanites were truly “inhabitants of the land.” The depth of their ties to the land enabled them to establish the foundations of an agrarian society. This prepared a solid economic basis for future — and more spiritually advanced — generations.
Their mastery of horticulture was so complete that, besides discovering general principles, they acquired a detailed knowledge of the best conditions for each crop. But why does the Talmud specifically mention their cultivation of olives, grapes, and figs?
Even farmers who share the Canaanites’ total absorption in agricultural pursuits have a spiritual life of sorts, an earthy culture that appreciates physical beauty, festive joy, and sensual pleasures. For this reason, the Talmud mentions olives, grapes, and figs. The Canaanites were certainly experts in the basic staples such as wheat, barley, and other grains. Yet their expertise extended even to agricultural products that highlight cultural pursuits. The olive relates to external beauty and aesthetics — “to make the face radiate from olive-oil” (Ps. 104:15). The grape represents joy — “Wine gladdens a person’s heart” (ibid). And the fig, a natural source of sweetness, is a symbol of sensual pleasure.
This intense connection to the land, of course, was not an end to itself. It was only a preparatory phase that set the stage for a more advanced society. These ancient agronomists were replaced, and “freed” of their holdings, as the Talmud (Shabbat 85a) explains,
“They are called ‘Chorites’ because they were freed ("bnei chorin") from their possessions.”
Humanity was not to remain forever mired in earthiness. Lowly souls were needed to establish a stable and thriving agricultural economy, but these souls were not meant to possess the land for all generations. They formed the foundation upon which a loftier building was erected. As human society became more refined, it lost these deep, primal ties to the physical land. The artificial freedom of a base, earthy culture is a freedom that brings with it exile, as it is replaced by a holier society.
Thus we find the psalmist speaks of two stages. First, agricultural settlement by the Canaanite nations who established the cities of Judah. And afterwards, the land’s inheritance by the people of Israel, God’s servants:
“God saves Zion and builds the cities of Judah, and they dwell there and take possession of it. And the descendants of His servants will inherit it; those who love His Name will dwell in it.” (Psalms 69:36-37)
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 165-166)