Was God Cruel to Animals?

By Wayne Jackson

When the children of Israel were battling against the people of Canaan, God commanded them to “hough [hock] their horses” and burn their chariots (Joshua 11:6). What was the purpose in this? It seems both cruel and wasteful.

Whenever a command of Jehovah appears frivolous or unreasonable, one needs to study more closely. The Lord always does what is right (Genesis 18:25), regardless of how the situation might appear from humanity’s limited vantage point.

First, we should define the term. To “hock” or “hamstring” a horse was to cut the sinew in the back legs so as to render the animal incapable of speed. Earlier, when the law of Moses was given, the Lord had forbidden Israel to “multiply horses,” i.e., breed them (cf. Deuteronomy 17:16). In the days of Solomon, of course, this injunction was violated flagrantly (1 Kings 9:19; 10:26).

The divine commands relative to the Hebrew’s use of horses was likely for the following reasons:

  1. These animals had to be obtained from Israel’s pagan neighbors (cf. Deuteronomy 17:16; 1 Kings 10:28-29). Commercial enterprises with the heathen would bring Israel into contact with numerous corrupting influences, which would tend to their infatuation with idolatry, a practice very evil and detrimental to their sacred destiny.
  2. Repeatedly, Jehovah had promised his people that he would be with them and fight for them against the enemy. The Lord wanted their confidence grounded in him, not in strength of sophisticated military implements. The multiplication of horses and use of chariots, therefore, evinced a lack of faith on the part of Israel in God’s ability to achieve the victory.
  3. Horses may have been used as a part of pagan religious pageantry as well, which the Israelites were inclined to mimic (cf. 2 Kings 23:11).
  4. Horses would provide Israel with a greater range of transportation, hence, tempt them to travel afar—away from the special place (Canaan) where the Lord intended for them to cultivate spiritual values without distraction in anticipation of the coming Messiah. There was, therefore, likely a redemptive purpose in this command that may seem to be quite novel and irrational to the modern mind.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.