What Does “Hamstrung” Mean in the Bible?

The word “hamstrung” appears several times in the Bible, referring to the practice of cutting the tendons on the back of an animal’s legs to disable it. This was typically done to render horses or other livestock unable to walk or escape. But what exactly does it mean, and what is the significance and context of this practice in Scripture? Let’s take a deeper look.


“Hamstrung” comes from the Old English words “ham” (meaning the back part of the knee joint) and “string” (meaning sinew or tendon). To hamstring is literally to cut the tendons on the back of the joint, causing an animal to become lame.

In the Bible, hamstringing was a cruel method of immobilizing horses and other animals to keep them from running away or being used by enemies in war. There are a few key passages that mention this practice, which we’ll examine here.

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Key Takeaways:

  • The term “hamstrung” refers to cutting an animal’s leg tendons to disable it from walking or running away.
  • It was a cruel method used in Biblical times to keep horses and livestock from escaping or being used by enemies.
  • The practice is mentioned in a few key passages that illustrate its strategic use in wartime and conquest.
  • Understanding the meaning and context helps us grasp the significance of biblical stories and God’s perspective on cruelty to animals.

With this background in mind, let’s look at some of the key biblical uses and references to hamstringing.

What Does "Hamstrung" Mean in the Bible?

Hamstringing Horses in Joshua 11

One of the first mentions of hamstringing in Scripture is in Joshua 11, which describes Joshua and the Israelites conquering and destroying the cities of the northern Canaanite kings. Verses 6 and 9 say:

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid because of them, for tomorrow about this time I will deliver all of them slain before Israel. You shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire.” (Joshua 11:6)

And Joshua did to them as the Lord had told him: he hamstrung their horses and burned their chariots with fire. (Joshua 11:9 NKJV)

This was part of God’s direction for Israel to completely wipe out and destroy the Canaanites and their property as judgment and to remove their corrupting spiritual influence. Hamstringing the horses kept the Canaanites from being able to use them in battle or escape.

This illustrates the strategic purpose behind hamstringing in wartime: to disable enemy cavalry and transportation. It kept the horses from being recaptured and used against Israel. So it served to enforce God’s command to thoroughly defeat and destroy His enemies.

Saul’s Order to Hamstring the Amalekites’ Horses and Oxen

1 Samuel 15 records Saul’s disobedience when God commanded him to attack and completely destroy the Amalekites. Verses 3 and 9 say:

Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:3 NKJV)

But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed. (1 Samuel 15:9 NKJV)

Yet verse 4 clarifies that Saul disobeyed by keeping the best livestock alive:

So Saul gathered the people together and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand men of Judah. And Saul came to a city of Amalek, and lay in wait in the valley. Then Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart, get down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the children of Israel when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites. So Saul attacked the Amalekites, from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is east of Egypt. And he took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed. (1 Samuel 15:4-9 NKJV)

So Saul directly disobeyed by sparing the king and keeping the best livestock. God specifically commanded everything to be completely destroyed. So Samuel later confronts Saul about his disobedience:

Now the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the Lord all night… Then Samuel went to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” And Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.” (1 Samuel 15:10-15 NKJV)

Saul tries to justify his disobedience by claiming they only kept the animals to sacrifice to God. But Samuel confronts him, making it clear that God commanded everything to be devoted to destruction, emphasizing in verse 22:

So Samuel said: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22 NKJV)

This demonstrates that willful disobedience cannot be covered up or justified, even under the pretense of religious sacrifice. God demands full obedience.

So in the case of Saul disobeying God’s command to destroy the Amalekites, the reference to hamstringing again serves to illustrate his failure to completely fulfill God’s orders. If he had obeyed fully, they would have hamstrung all the livestock to destroy them.

Hamstringing as Judgment on the Egyptians

The final passage mentioning hamstringing is Jeremiah 47, in a pronouncement of God’s judgment on the Philistines and Egyptians:

“Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, waters rise out of the north, and shall be an overflowing flood; they shall overflow the land and all that is in it, the city and those who dwell within; then the men shall cry, and all the inhabitants of the land shall wail.

At the noise of the stamping hooves of his strong horses, at the rushing of his chariots, at the rumbling of his wheels, the fathers will not look back for their children, lacking courage…

Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts, the Lord: “Behold, I will break the bow of Elam, the foremost of their might. Against Elam I will bring the four winds from the four quarters of heaven, and scatter them toward all those winds; there shall be no nations where the outcasts of Elam will not go. For I will cause Elam to be dismayed before their enemies and before those who seek their life. I will bring disaster upon them, my fierce anger,’ says the Lord; ‘And I will send the sword after them until I have consumed them. I will set my throne in Elam, and will destroy from there the king and the princes,’ says the Lord. ‘But it shall come to pass in the latter days: I will bring back the captives of Elam,’ says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 49:19-21; 35-39 NKJV)

Against Egypt. Concerning the army of Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt, which was by the River Euphrates in Carchemish, and which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah:

“Order the buckler and shield, and draw near to battle! Harness the horses, and mount up, you horsemen! Stand forth with your helmets, polish the spears, put on the armor! Why have I seen them dismayed and turned back? Their mighty ones are beaten down; they have speedily fled, and did not look back, for fear was all around,” says the Lord.

“Do not let the swift flee away, nor the mighty man escape; they will stumble and fall toward the north, by the River Euphrates…because of the day that comes to plunder all the Philistines, to cut off from Tyre and Sidon every helper who remains; for the Lord shall plunder the Philistines, the remnant of the country of Caphtor. Baldness has come upon Gaza, Ashkelon is cut off with the remnant of their valley. How long will you cut yourself?

“O you sword of the Lord, how long until you are quiet? Put yourself up into your scabbard, rest and be still! How can it be quiet, seeing the Lord has given it a charge against Ashkelon and against the seashore? There He has appointed it.” (Jeremiah 47:1-7 NKJV)

In this pronouncement of judgment, God declares He will bring an overwhelming army against the Philistines and Egyptians, vividly describing the rumbling chariots, shields, armor and spears of the invading forces.

Verse 6 speaks of the Egyptians being dismayed and turning back, not even looking behind them in their haste to flee the onslaught. This indicates the action of hamstringing to disable their horses, leaving the Egyptians unable to escape on horseback.

So again this illustrates the use of hamstringing horses as both a wartime strategy and a means of enforcing God’s declared judgment. He vows to destroy and plunder the enemies of Israel, cutting off all their helpers and defenses.

Hamstringing in Biblical Culture

From these key passages, we see that hamstringing had a clear purpose in ancient biblical culture as both a strategic wartime practice and a means of executing complete judgment or destruction as commanded by God.

Horses were one of the most important military assets at the time, used to pull chariots and transport soldiers rapidly. So hamstringing was a cruel but common way to limit enemy mobility and effectiveness in battle.

God sanctioned the practice in certain cases, such as His command for Saul to completely wipe out the Amalekites. This was meant as judgment for the Amalekites’ wickedness and idolatry.

However, we also see God’s compassion for animals and disapproval of cruelty reflected in Deuteronomy 25:4:

You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain. (Deuteronomy 25:4 NKJV)

So while God allowed or even commanded hamstringing for specific purposes in certain contexts, the general spirit of Scripture opposes mistreatment of animals and shows care for their wellbeing.

Lessons for Us Today

While hamstringing seems cruel and distasteful today, we can learn some lessons applicable to contemporary life:

  • Obedience: As Saul learned, selective obedience is still disobedience. We can’t pick and choose which of God’s commands to follow and ignore the rest.
  • Judgment: God still judges nations today for wickedness, violence and idolatry. While methods may look different today, the truths of His standards and justice are unchanged.
  • Compassion: As God cares for animals, so should we reflect His mercy in our treatment of all creatures. Cruelty merely to limit an animal’s freedom was unacceptable.

So while the practice of hamstringing is foreign to our experience today, it illustrates timeless spiritual principles of obedience, judgment and compassion that we should integrate into our relationship with God.


In summary, “hamstringing” literally refers to cutting the leg tendons of horses or other animals to cripple them and has a few significant mentions in Scripture. It was both a military strategy and a means of executing complete judgment against enemies, specifically sanctioned by God in certain situations recorded in the Bible.

While a distasteful practice to us today, understanding the biblical meaning and context of hamstringing gives us clearer insight into God’s principles of judgment, obedience, and compassion. These timeless spiritual truths remain highly relevant for us to apply in our walk with Christ.

So although the circumstances were very different, the core lessons from biblical accounts of hamstringing continue to instruct and transform us today. By studying Old Testament stories like this, we come to better know the nature of God and His work in history.

I hope this overview has helped provide context and meaning for the idea of hamstringing, revealing biblical truths we can live by and share with others to deepen faith. Let the Scriptures instruct and inspire you as you seek Christ through studying the full counsel of God’s Word.

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