Origin and domestication.

Many authorities consider the goat was the first domesticated ruminant. The main wild ancestor is still alive—the Bezoar, or Cretan Wild Goat (Capra aegagrus), which is reddish-brown in summer and gray-brown in winter. Its overall range is from India to Crete, but its numbers have been much reduced; it has disappeared from many areas, and elsewhere is very rare. A few remain in the mountain parts of Crete and an island of the Cyclades. Other wild goats from farther E have contributed to the stock, but the position is complicated. (See Zeuner, ch. 6.) All are hill animals and very sure-footed; they are browsers as much as grazers. Two factors add to the problem of dating: first, for some time the tame form did not differ markedly from the wild. Second, in many cases even experts cannot distinguish some bones of sheep and goats.

The earliest accepted evidence for domestication is from the Neolithic pre-pottery levels of Jericho, with carbon dating of 6,000-7,000 b.c. The remains of some horns show damage suggestive of close confinement. Material from N Iran is of similar age, prob. indicating an earlier origin from which both areas were supplied. Among the early goats, two types are recognized—with corkscrew and with scimitar horns. Gradually the variety increased in size, proportions, color and hair type; but the wide range of breeds now seen, esp. in Europe, is of modern origin. These show a wide range of colors, including black, white and parti-colored. The only Biblical mention of color is the spotted and speckled goats of Genesis 30. Ancient Egyp. art illustrates all these.


The goat was first kept for its milk. The meat was eaten, normally, of young only, e.g., Judges 6:19, “Gideon...prepared a kid,” the standard meal for a stranger arriving unexpectedly. Later, the kid was less highly rated. Luke 15:29ff. compares it unfavorably with the fatted calf. Goatskins became the standard material for water bottles in countries of limited rainfall, and the hair was spun and woven into cloth. It seems that the sheep was tamed fairly soon after the goat (see Sheep). Sheep began to replace goats in the areas where it could thrive, i.e. the less hilly places with better grazing, largely because it yielded much better meat, with ample fat, and wool instead of rather coarse hair. The goat was still valued as a milk-producer, but when the domestic cow became available, the goat was more and more confined to the rougher and drier areas. By the time of the patriarchs. sheep and cattle prob. greatly outnumbered goats. Milk is mentioned forty-two times in the OT; only four are specifically goats’ milk, three of which refer to the prohibition against seething (boiling) a kid in its mother’s milk (Exod 23:19, etc).

Damage to vegetation.

Second to man, and with man’s help, goats have been the most important land-destroyers in history (see Fauna). In Mediterranean lands, they climb trees and destroy them by eating twigs and leaves. This is illustrated in ancient art. The goat is hardy, and if allowed to escape it can quickly establish itself and develop a feral race. The damage to vegetation continues, sometimes until the habitat is destroyed and, if it is an island, goats die of starvation.

Place in Biblical narrative.

Numerous references in OT and NT show that the goat was important to the Hebrews, though the range of names and total numbers are far below the sheep and cattle. Goats are spoken of only once in thousands. “The Arabs also brought...seven thousand seven hundred he-goats” (2 Chron 17:11). In most W countries, the problem of dividing sheep from goats (Matt 25:32f.) would never arise, for flocks are unlikely to mix and the two species are not easily confused. This is not so, however, in many lands around Pal., where they often run together and native breeds may be alike in size, color, and shape. The usually up-turned goat tail may be the only obvious difference. Apart from one symbolic passage (Dan 8), the goat seems to have no fig. significance, but some seventy percent of the occurrences refer to animals for sacrifice. This would seem to have been its main importance to the Hebrews (see above). In addition, goats’ hair was the material woven by Heb. women to cover the Tabernacle (Exod 26:7), and it is still used in tentmaking by the Bedouin. The context of scarlet, fine linen, etc. may imply superior quality cloth, perhaps comparable to cashmere from the Kashmir goat today. It is likely that long-haired races from farther E had become established by this time. In general, little can be inferred from the context about the natural history or habits of the goat.


G. S. Cansdale, Animals and Man (1952); F. E. Zeuner, A History of Domesticated Animals (1963).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Names:

2. Wild Goats:

The original of our domestic goats is believed to be the Persian wild goat or pasang, Capra aegagrus, which inhabits some of the Greek islands, Asia Minor, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan, and Northwestern India. It is called wa’l (compare Hebrew ya`el) by the Arabs, who in the North apply the same name to its near relative, the Sinaitic ibex, Capra beden. The last, doubtless the "wild goat" (ya`el) of the Bible, inhabits Southern Palestine, Arabia, Sinai, and Eastern Egypt, and within its range is uniformly called beden by the Arabs. It is thought by the writer that the "chamois" (zemer) of De 14:5 may be the Persian wild goat. The word occurs only in this passage in the list of clean animals. See Chamois; Deer; ZOOLOGY. Wild goats are found only in Southern Europe, Southwestern Asia, and Northeastern Africa. They include the well-known, but now nearly extinct, Alpine ibex, steinbok, or bouquetin, the markhor, and the Himalayan ibex, which has enormous horns. The so-called Rocky Mountain goat is not properly a goat, but is an animal intermediate between goats and antelopes.

3. Domestic Goats:

Domestic goats differ greatly among themselves in the color and length of their hair, in the size and shape of their ears, and in the size and shape of their horns, which are usually larger in the males, but in some breeds may be absent in both sexes. A very constant feature in both wild and domestic goats is the bearded chin of the male. The goats of Palestine and Syria are usually black (So 4:1), though sometimes partly or entirely white or brown. Their hair is usually long, hanging down from their bodies. The horns are commonly curved outward and backward, but in one very handsome breed they extend nearly outward with slight but graceful curves, sometimes attaining a span of 2 ft. or more in the old males. The profile of the face is distinctly convex. They are herded in the largest numbers in the mountainous or hilly districts, and vie with their wild congeners in climbing into apparently impossible places. They feed not only on herbs, but also on shrubs and small trees, to which they are most destructive. They are largely responsible for the deforested condition of Judea and Lebanon. They reach up the trees to the height of a man, holding themselves nearly or quite erect, and even walk out on low branches.

4. Economy:

Apart from the ancient use in sacrifice, which still survives among Moslems, goats are most valuable animals. Their flesh is eaten, and may be had when neither mutton nor beef can be found. Their milk is drunk and made into cheese and semn, a sort of clarified butter much used in cooking. Their hair is woven into tents (So 1:5), carpets, cloaks, sacks, slings, and various camel, horse and mule trappings. Their skins are made into bottles (no’dh; Greek askos; Arabic qirbeh) for water, oil, semn, and other liquids (compare also Heb 11:37).

5. Religious and Figurative:

See also

  • Animals