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The Horse in Jewish Religious Text

March 19, 2018Paul Devassy

by A.D. Paul

 

THE TORAH's attitude to horses reveals a range of perspectives, based on the different experiences of the ancient Jewish people. Unlike the pig and the dog, which are not only forbidden as food but are widely scorned throughout the Torah, the horse, also forbidden as a food, often symbolizes great strength and courage, as well as spectacular beauty. After the excruciating suffering that has befallen Job, for example, he asks God the perennial question, Why do innocents suffer? In a series of awesome examples of how God’s power and glory are displayed in the animal world and other phenomena of nature, Job realizes the lesson that he is but dust and will never be able to comprehend the unfathomable mysteries of God. The breathtaking description of the horse’s immense power include: Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with a mane? Do you make him leap like the locust? (Job 39:19-20).

In the Song of Songs, the spectacular beauty of the horse is used as an image to portray the comeliness of the beloved. The bejeweled Egyptian mare was by then well known to the Jews, resulting in this encomium: I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots (Song of Songs 1:9). The theme of the great strength of the horse is also orchestrated in Isaiah, when the prophet remembers the Mighty Hand that led Israel from Egypt through the river Nile: Who led them through the depths? Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble (Isaiah 63:13).

Sometimes a horse is an image of nobility and prosperity, in keeping with the prevailing attitude of people around the Mideast. In Judea, for example, only nobles and those in wealthy circumstances rode horses. Similarly, the Parthians and Persians reserved the right for the use of horses only for their nobles; commoners had to go on foot. This verse in Ecclesiastes associates the horse with nobility: I have seen servants on horses, and princes walking like servants on the earth (Ecclesiastes 10:7). In Isaiah’s inventory of articles that denote wealth and majesty, horses are referred to a number of times: Their land is full of silver and gold, neither is there any end of their treasures. Their land also is full of horses . . . (Isaiah 2:7).

Horses are also used frequently in the Bible as images of inordinate passion. Adulterers are often thought of as similar to horses in their excessive libido, an idea found in Jeremiah and expressed very forcefully to bring out the unbridled nature of fornicators: They were as fed horses roaming at large; everyone neighed after his neighbor’s wife (Jeremiah 5:8). A similar image of the horse as a lecherous creature is forcefully employed by Ezekiel as an indictment of Israel for associating with its unholy neighbors, especially the Egyptians. The prophet's own vituperative language itself borders on bawdy: She doted on their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of donkeys, and whose issue is like the issue of horses (Ezekiel 23:20).

Often an individual horse is portrayed as an example of stupidity, dullness, and recklessness. In this sense, the horse is synonymous with a mule, a donkey, and a human fool. A horse is presented as the opposite of a person who governs himself or herself by willing submission to God’s law; it is by nature wild and unbridled and has to be subdued with sustained training. The Psalmist echoes this idea when he says: Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you (Psalms 32:9). The Book of Proverbs orchestrates the same motif: A whip for the horse, a halter for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools (Proverbs 26:3).

 

THE EXODUS experience that we anticipate at Passover altered the Biblical image of the horse dramatically. The crossing of the Sea of Reeds, with the God of Israel leading the people with a "mighty arm," etched in the psyche of Israel the unreliability of horses and chariots compared to divine power. This caused Jews to look at horses with some derision, and several taboos relating to horses were incorporated into Jewish law. The Book of Deuteronomy, in no unequivocal terms, forbids the use of horses: Only he shall not multiply horses to himself. (Deuteronomy 17:16). To counterbalance the use of horses by Israel's enemies, Joshua did to them as Yahweh told him. He hamstrung their horses and burnt their chariots with fire (Joshua 11:9). The idea that the magnificent edifice of Egyptian military power, based on their horsemen and chariots, crumbled as the waters of sea engulfed them, resulted in derision towards everything that the Egyptians prized. So, in the Psalms, the horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save (Psalms 33:17). The prophet Isaiah, too, expresses scorn for horses: Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, and rely on horses . . . (Isaiah 31:1).

For military reasons, however, this derision could not endure. The efficacy of the horses in war was a foregone conclusion, and with neighboring nations arming themselves with cavalry and chariots, it was necessary for Israel to fall in line with them. David was the first to say farewell to the taboo of horses for military use and to organize a cavalry. The horse thus emerged as a majestic creature again. After David defeated the King of Zobah and recovered his border at the river Euphrates, he reserved the horses of the defeated king for a hundred chariots. The rest he hamstrung as a remnant of the traditional Jewish taboo towards horses.

King Solomon systematically equipped himself with more horses. The proliferation of chariots and horses by King Solomon is a recurring theme in the Book of Kings: And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horse for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen (1 Kings 4:26). Solomon not only used horses for military purposes, but also sent his merchants to buy them from Egypt and run a lucrative trade in horses. The derided quadrupeds became the pride of Solomon’s military might as well as the source that filled his coffers; the vain hope of the Psalmist in the passage of time became the bastion of ancient Israel’s strength.

 

A. D. Paul is a retired principal of a college. He is from the the state of Kerala in South India, where he runs an English language training center called EXODUS and  writes on culture, history, literature and religion. He last appeared here with "Mirrors in the Bible and Jewish Tradition."