Houghing and Uh-oh-ing

The lanky surgeon leaned back on his stool, hands folded. His feet were flat on the floor. His head touched the wall. Thus elongated, he grimaced, paused, then pronounced: "It's avulsed." 

"Avulsed," of course, is doctorspeak for "you ripped that sucka' clean off the bone."

The "it" in question was my right hamstring. It was an incredibly painful casualty of the trip described here. Even as I sat shivering in that little room, I listed heavily to port, my right leg coiled on the table beside me. It was useless. I was unable to sit, much less walk.

It is a sobering exercise to look inside yourself.

That was a week ago. Now I am stretched out on the couch at home, grappling with a future meeting with that surgeon's knife and needle.

I try to stay busy in order to avoid feeling sorry for myself. But for reasons known only to twisted old academicians, I keep imagining hamstringing in the ancient world. Oddly enough, it is a practice that is well attested.

In the course of the Punic Wars, for example, we learn of Roman footmen (or velites) who attempted to slip behind enemy war elephants in order to hamstring (and thus collapse) them. I can think of preferable work. The North Africans, for their part, returned the favor by slashing the backsides of retreating Roman soldiers. This practice of targeting the hamstring allowed the Carthaginians to maximize casualties. The victors could chase down as many of the vanquished as possible and injure them by cutting the tendons between buttocks and knee. Then, at a more leisurely pace, they could retrace their steps and dispatch the crippled. Those with a severed backside could do little more than writhe in agony and await their fate. For this and other morose thinking, see Livy, The History of Rome 22:48, 51. Here's a link.

Carthaginian war elephants in battle. Image from here.

Inside the Bible, it is not the hamstrings of people that get twanged, but rather the hamstrings of animals. Three examples come to mind.

The first is drawn from Genesis 49:5. Here, Jacob offers a poetic condemnation (or "anti-blessing" if we dare) of Simeon and Levi. The patriarch despairs that his own sons have become men of violence. 

"For in their anger they killed men and for pleasure they hamstrung oxen" (49:6b).

These are some sadistic dudes. Rage is understandable under certain conditions, but what kind of mind derives pleasure from crippling living creatures? It is no wonder that the future promise to Simeon and Levi is nothing short of "a scattering."

Note further that in some older English translations of the text, the word "houghed" is used in place of "hamstrung." Hough has only recently been added to my vocabulary, having bounced there from German as "hock" or "heel" (pronounce hough as if it were a bird,"hawk"). Issues of the horse's hock are well-known to equine specialists and counted by them as a common and frustrating ailment.

The second millennium BC warhorse-chariot was the equivalent of the modern jet fighter. Image from here.

The second millennium BC warhorse-chariot was the equivalent of the modern jet fighter. Image from here.

A second example of the biblical practice of houghing is found in Joshua 11. Here, the context is the Israelite campaign against the Canaanite league centered at Hazor. According to a directive from God himself Joshua is to

"hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire" (11:6b).

A later passage (11:9) suggests that this was successfully accomplished.

This odd command is usually understood as a part of the larger campaign.* The People of God were warned to not adopt the perspectives and practices of their well-armed enemies. The warhorse-chariot combination was the late second-millennium equivalent of the jet fighter. Squadrons were regularly deployed on the field of battle. It was a weapons package with engines that required years of breeding to produce, intensive training to condition, practice to coordinate with crews, and great expense to stable.** Israel was prohibited from investing in (or redeploying) this kind of firepower. Their identity was to be different; their defense was God Himself (Cf. Ps 33:16-19). Houghing a horse's hindquarters removed it from the realm of temptation; it would not likely pull a chariot again.

The Egyptian war-chariot was a finely balanced and delicate piece of equipment. It was built for speed, a shooting platform for archers. Image from here.

A third and final biblical mention of the practice of houghing is also directed at horses. In 2 Samuel 8 no less a personality than David is involved. David defeated his neighbor Hadad-ezer and afterwards he

"hamstrung all the chariot horses but left enough for 100 chariots" (8:4). 

A parallel text is found in 1 Chronicles 18.

Both the Samuel and Chronicles accounts suggest some fudging on David's part. He hamstrung most, but not all the horses. In the end, we are not surprised. David's successor (Solomon) would become a "horse-trader" extraordinaire. The identity of Israel's monarchy is already sliding in the direction of her neighbors. As the prophet Isaiah would lament, the land has become "full of horses; there is no limit to their chariots" (2:7).

As I think about this, I roll over on the couch. It is difficult to find a comfortable position.

Note the location of the hamstring group on the horse. Image from here.

Interestingly, the word translated as "houghing" in each of the cases mustered above is drawn from a rare Hebrew verbal root, 'aqr. The essence suggests "to pluck or root out." Not surprisingly, in every case discussed here, 'aqr is used in an intensive (or Piel) mode, i.e., to really "pluck"!

One pushback is worth noting. According to Deborah O'Daniel Cantrell,*** it is possible that "hamstringing" in the Bible does not always mean "hamstringing." I will quote her directly:

"Whether a horse is permanently injured by such an act depends on exactly which muscle, tendon, or ligament is cut. Generally, one thinks of the hamstring as the tendon running from the back of the knee, or 'point of the hock' on a horse, to the gluteal muscle. If the surgery is performed above and behind the hock of the horse on the major tendon, the leg will collapse under the slightest weight" (p. 42). 

This kind of injury would render the horse worthless. It might be kept alive as food.

However, as O'Daniel Cantrell continues, if the injury is to the "flexor metatarsus, which runs down the front of the back leg from the stifle to the hock . . . " the horse would still be able to walk. "However, the horse would not be able to trot or canter until the wound healed, a process that could take weeks or months" (p. 43).

If O'Daniel Cantrell is correct, David may have been fudging even more than expected. 

Her thesis is interesting, but one wonders who would have been fooled? A cut on the front of the leg or a cut on the back? A horse upright or a horse down? The difference would be dramatic.

Maybe I'll ask my surgeon about all this when I see him next week. Then again, maybe I won't. No horsing around; I don't want him to be distracted.

The anatomy of a horse's leg. Image from here.

*See my initial thoughts on this in our commentary on the book of Joshua (Joplin: College Press, 2008). Buy the commentary for your library so I can grow my pizza fund. Here's the link.

**If you want to read more about chariot warfare in the second millennium BC, the presentation of Robert Drews in his The End of the Bronze Age (Princeton: Princeton University, 1995) is tough to beat.

**The most comprehensive narrative of the warhorse in the biblical world (that I know of) is Deborah O'Daniel Cantrell's fine book, The Horsemen of Israel (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011). Quotes here are from this work.