Horses: Bible Archaeology


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War chariots

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Horses in Israel

The horse developed in the wide grazing lands of the steppes of Asia and Europe and seems to have reached Canaan from southwestern Asia. It was the last of the draft and transport animals to be domesticated. This took place around the same time in western Europe, southwestern Asia and Mongolia. 

The first mention we have of the horse in Akkadian documents at the end of the 3rd millenium BC where it is called the rather undignified “mountain ass” or “foreign ass". It is referred to as “an ass of the west” in a fable of the time of Hammurabi (1750 BC). Three Przewalski horses This is about the same time the Hyksos introduced the horse into Egypt for military purposes, particularly for chariots. The Bible states that horses originated in Egypt and that the kings of Aram and the Hittites bought their horses from the Egyptians (I Kings l0:28—29). 

It seems much more likely that the horses were first brought to Egypt from the north. The passage in I Kings 10 suggests that horses seem to have come from Cilicia (Asia Minor) while chariots came from Egypt. The implication is that Solomon acted as middleman, getting the chariots from Egypt and the horses from Kue (Cilicia). 


Mounted cavalry first appeared in the Near East around 1000 BC, although it had previously been used by northern peoples in the Black Sea region. Stone wall relief from Tel Halaf in Syria, showing warrior mounted on his horse Warriors on horse-back are shown on the bas-relief of Tel Halaf (see right) at the beginning of the 9th century BC, and some cavalry were introduced into the Assyrian army at about the same time. 

Dueteronomy 17:16 expressly forbids the king of Israel to increase greatly the number of his horses “nor cause the people to return to Egypt to the end that he should multiply his horses". Obviously at this time Egypt was the main source of supply for the horses used in Palestine. 

Under the governorship of Joseph, horses and cattle were accepted in Egypt in exchange for bread. During the Exodus, the Egyptians pursued the Israelites with chariots and horses (Exodus 14: 9). When the Israelites arrived in Canaan, they found that the Canaanites already had horses and war chariots (Joshua 11:4). The Bible and Egyptian and Assyrian inscriptions frequently mention horses, mainly in connection with war. The Bible refers to horsemen and those who drive a horse or a chariot (Isaiah. 28:28; Ezekiel. 27:14; Joel 2:4; II Samuel 1:6). 

Arab mare The mare is used as a symbol of beauty in the Song of Songs (1:9). The term abir (a mighty one) is synonymous with a swift war horse (Judith 5:22; Jeremiah 8:16; 47:3; 50:11), while rehesh refers to a riding or chariot horse (I Kings 4:28; Micah 1:13; Esther 6:8, 10). 


In the time of David, the Arameans and Canaanites had large numbers of chariots and war horses. But the Israelites still made no use of them. David is reported to have destroyed the animals (!) and it was Absalom, a very interesting character in the story of David's family, who was the first to have a chariot and horses (II Samuel 15: 1). Solomon, who is said to have had 1400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen (I Kings 10:26) developed an extensive international trade in horses and chariots. 

Ahab’s interest in horses appears from the story of the drought which occurred during his reign and his concern to find grass to save them (I Kings 18:5). 

Although horses were used almost exclusively for military purposes - hardly at all in farming - the Israelites had no cavalry. In stories of the monarchical period, the term parashim which is often translated  “horsemen” or cavalry”, meant either chariot teams or the men who rode in chariots, like those shown in the Assyrian engraving below. 

Assyrian chariot horses with chariot and driver: notice the elaborate harness on the horse's forequarters

Even much later, during the time of the Maccabees, the Jews could field only infantry against the Syrians, at least in their first encounters. King Herod, however, was a better strategist: he had 6,000 cavalry in his army, besides 30,000 infantrymen. 

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Horses, cavalry for military purposes but never for farming: the horse was a noble animal

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher