To hamstring an animal means to cripple it by severing the large tendon at the back of the knee on the hind legs. These tendons are unable to heal or reunite. To hamstring a horse would render the animal incapable of any useful work after that. God sometimes ordered the Israelites to hamstring horses that had been captured in war.
Hamstringing an enemy’s horses captured in war was a customary strategy throughout history. A hamstrung horse was disabled to the extent that it was ineffective for further military action. When a band of warriors captured an enemy’s horses, they would hamstring any excess animals to prevent those horses from being used against them at a later time.
Before Joshua entered into battle with King Jabin of Hazor, God ordered him to hamstring all the horses that he would capture and burn their chariots with fire (Joshua 11:6–9). There are a few possible reasons why Joshua was given such a command. One is the reason just cited: to prevent the Canaanites from ever using those horses and chariots against Israel in the future.
Another potential reason God commanded the hamstringing of horses and the burning of chariots is that the Israelites were not yet trained to use horses and chariots, and therefore God required the destruction of those engines of war. And another possible reason is that God wanted to prevent Israel from relying on their own military strength and prowess. Without horses and chariots for future battles, Israel learned to depend on the Lord and give credit to Him alone for their success in combat: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7; see also Isaiah 31:1).
By the time King David led his troops into war, the Israelites were well-trained in military conflict. David knew how to use horses and hamstrung only those he couldn’t use: “David captured a thousand of [Hadadezer’s] chariots, seven thousand charioteers and twenty thousand foot soldiers. He hamstrung all but a hundred of the chariot horses” (2 Samuel 8:4; see also 1 Chronicles 18:4).
The hamstringing of oxen is mentioned in Genesis 49:6: “Let me not enter [Simeon and Levi’s] council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they pleased” (Genesis 49:6). This act of crippling oxen was done purely out of spite, a reference to Simeon and Levi’s plunder of Shechem’s city because he had defiled their sister, Dinah (Genesis 34).
Horses and chariots were ancient weapons of war. The age-old practice of hamstringing enemy horses and burning their chariots is based on the same principle of modern warfare. Any guns, ammunition, and provisions of captured enemy troops that cannot be carried off or converted to good use are destroyed.