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The horse was the latest and strongest transport animal to be developed; it spread rapidly, first over Eurasia and N Africa, later to the Americas and Australasia, escaping and becoming feral in suitable areas. Everywhere it has become the most important beast of burden and an intimate associate of man, next only to the dog. This factor may have helped to fix a prejudice against eating horsemeat in Eng.-speaking lands. This was forbidden to the Heb. for, like its close relative the ass, the horse is single-hoofed and does not ruminate; there is no obvious hygienic basis for this ban.


Zeuner sets out in detail the archeological and zoological evidence of the horse’s early history and this section owes much to his research. The equines once formed four groups, fairly distinct geographically. a. The zebras in E and S Africa; sporadic attempts to use them had only temporary success. b. The true asses of N and NE Africa, from which the donkey is derived (see Ass). c. The half-asses from the dry belt running from Pal. eastward to the Gobi Desert (see Wild Ass). d. The horses of the grassy lowlands of Eurasia N of the great mountain ranges. All four groups were divided into local species or races. Of the true horses, only Przewalski’s, the E race, survives precariously in Mongolia and some zoo parks. It stands about forty inches at the shoulder and is reddish brown, the hair becoming longer and paler in winter; the mane is dark brown. Like all equines it runs in herds. The W race was the tarpan, of which the last known specimen died in 1851 in the Ukraine. It was a small gray-brown horse with upright mane and the chief ancestor of the many breeds of domestic horses today, with the Plains of Turkestan a likely center of domestication, though not the only one.


Undoubtedly this occurred later than with the sheep, goat, ox and ass but nothing is known of its early pattern. Oxen had long been used for pulling wheeled carts, and with the fertile patches of plains country becoming exhausted and dried out (as happened after a few centuries of primitive agriculture) the need for faster draught animals might have prompted the farmers to catch and tame these wild horses. The actual means remains a mystery; modern man has achieved nothing like it, other than the catching and training of a few zebras. Regarding its original domestication, this must have been during the 3rd millennium b.c. but evidence prior to 2000 b.c. is not reliable. The Sumerians mention the horse in proverbs from c. 2100 b.c. but apparently did not use it. The horse first found regular mention about 1,800 b.c., though it was not yet important, for Hammurabi’s law (c. 1750 b.c.) does not list it. Within the next fifty years it spread rapidly to the SW including Asia, Palestine, and Egypt, where it arrived in the Hyksos era not many decades before Joseph came to power. This spread, which took it as far as Troy, resulted from its use in war chariots. Whatever its purpose when first brought into service, the horse added a new dimension to invading armies.

The horse in Biblical narrative.

Solomon made no attempt to obey God on this point and within a year or so of becoming king he had built stables for 4,000 horses (2 Chron 9:25). The figure of 40,000 in the corresponding passage in 1 Kings 4:26 is a scribal error. He imported horses from Egypt, with which he had profitable connections through marrying the daughter of the pharaoh, paying 150 shekels of silver (60 ounces) per horse. Horses also formed part of the regular tribute paid him (1 Kings 10:25). From then on both Judah and Israel regarded horses and chariots as essential for fighting the frequent wars with neighboring nations. Early in its history the horse sometimes had sacred connections. The only Biblical instance is in 2 Kings 23:11, where Josiah, in his sweeping reforms, removed horses that earlier kings had dedicated to the sun.

Biblical significance.

There is nothing about the horse’s biology or habits in the many Biblical contexts, in contrast to other major animals. Psalm 32:9 lists it with the mule as “without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle else it will not keep with you” RSV (cf. KJV “lest they come near unto thee”). Many carvings illustrate the early use of the bit. Job’s description (Job 39:19-25) is of a war horse and speaks merely of its strength and fearlessness in battle. 1 Kings 18:5 concerns the famine foretold by Elijah “perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive.” Asses were much more numerous but could manage on poorer forage and were owned in ones and twos.

The horse’s place in the Scriptures contrasts markedly with the ass. Of over 140 occurrences only about 50 are truly literal; the rest, with all the fifteen NT references (except horsemen, Acts 23:23, 32) are fig. or prophetic. In a small minority of cases a single horse is mentioned: notably 1 Kings 10:29—the price of a horse from Egypt; Esther 6:8ff.—the Persian king’s horse; and nine quasiproverbial expressions in Job, Psalms and Proverbs. Otherwise the word is always pl. There is no record of a horse being owned by the common people; throughout OT times the horse was a monopoly of kings and their nobles in both Pal. and nearby countries and, thus, in effect, a symbol of human power. This confirms its metaphorical significance. Some of the prophetic passages of Zechariah and Revelation are highly symbolic and beyond the scope of comment here, but the tenor of all the many fig. passages may be summed up in two vv.—Psalm 33:17, “The war horse is a vain hope for victory”; and Hosea 1:7, “I will not deliver them by...horses, nor by horsemen.”


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

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Names:

The common names are (1) cuc, and

(2) hippos.

(3) The word parash, "horseman," occurs often, and in several cases is translated "horse" or "warhorse" (Isa 28:28; Eze 27:14; Joe 2:4 the Revised Version, margin); also in 2Sa 16, where the "horsemen" of English Versions of the Bible is ba`ale ha-parashim, "owners of horses"; compare Arabic faris, "horseman," and faras, "horse".

(4) The feminine form cucah, occurs in So 1:9, and is rendered as follows: Septuagint he hippos; Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) equitatum; the King James Version "company of horses," the Revised Version (British and American) "steed." It is not clear why English Versions of the Bible does not have "mare."

(5) The word ’abbirim, "strong ones," is used for horses in Jud 5:22; Jer 8:16; 47:3; 50:11 (the King James Version "bulls"). In Ps 22:12 the same word is translated "strong bulls" (of Bashan).

(6) For [~rekhesh (compare Arabic rakad, "to run"), in 1Ki 4:28; Es 8:10,14; Mic 1:13, the Revised Version (British and American) has "swift steeds," while the King James Version gives "dromedaries" in 1Ki and "mules" in Est.

(7) For kirkaroth (Isa 66:20), the King James Version and the English Revised Version have "swift beasts"; the English Revised Version margin and the American Standard Revised Version "dromedaries"; Septuagint skiddia, perhaps "covered carriages." In Es 8:10,14 we find the doubtful words

(8) ’achashteranim, and

(9) bene ha-rammakim, which have been variously translated. the King James Version has respectively "camels" and "young dromedaries," the Revised Version (British and American) "used in the king’s service" and "bred of the stud," the Revised Version margin "mules" and "young dromedaries."

See Camel.

2. Origin:

The Hebrew and Egyptian names for the horse are alike akin to the Assyrian. The Jews may have obtained horses from Egypt (De 17:16), but the Canaanites before them had horses (Jos 17:16), and in looking toward the Northeast for the origin of the horse, philologists are in agreement with zoologists who consider that the plains of Central Asia, and also of Europe, were the original home of the horse. At least one species of wild horse is still found in Central Asia.

3. Uses:

The horses of the Bible are almost exclusively war-horses, or at least the property of kings and not of the common people. A doubtful reference to the use of horses in threshing grain is found in Isa 28:28. Horses are among the property which the Egyptians gave to Joseph in exchange for grain (Ge 47:17). In De 17:16 it is enjoined that the king "shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he may multiply horses." This and other injunctions failed to prevent the Jews from borrowing from the neighboring civilizations their customs, idolatries, and vices. Solomon’s horses are enumerated in 1Ki 4, and the se`irim and tebhen of 1Ki 4:28 (5:8) are identical with the sha`ir ("barley") and tibn ("straw") with which the arab feeds his horse today. In war, horses were ridden and were driven in chariots (Ex 14:9; Jos 11:4; 2Sa 15:1, etc.).

4. Figurative and Descriptive:

The horse is referred to figuratively chiefly in Zechariah and Revelation. A chariot and horses of fire take Elijah up to heaven (2Ki 2:11 f). In Ps 20:7; 33:17; and 76:6, the great strength of the horse is recalled as a reminder of the greater strength of God. In Jas 3:3, the small bridle by which the horse can be managed is compared to the tongue (compare Ps 32:9). In Job 39:19-25 we have a magnificent description of a spirited war-horse.

See also

  • Animals