Domesticated Animals of the Exodus

The Hebrews had cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, dogs, and birds of various kinds.

Whether they graze on grass, shrub, or manna, the animals do need to graze daily. And drink water. This means the travelers can only move 15 miles a day. Perhaps 20 if the grazing is good.

The animals vastly increase the footprint of the group, as well as the water and food pressures. They don’t require huge numbers of people to tend to them when they are encamped in a valley or other natural site that that is semi-enclosed, with water and grazing nearby. But they do require a fair number of people while on the move. Probably 100-300 people completely dedicated to shepherding/wrangling.


If there were about 1000 male lambs under the age of one year (the minimum needed to feed 40,000 people for Passover) then the total sheep flock must have at least 1000 female lambs under the age of one year and 1000 ewes. There will also be older lambs, imperfect lambs (or others not chosen for Passover, plus their female counterparts), ewes who aren’t raising lambs at the moment, and a few rams.

Let’s say that, after Passover, the flock has at least 5000 sheep. Honestly, it could easily be 10,000 or more.

Herd of sheep (number unknown but my best guess is 600-700)
Sheep on migration through streets of Madrid, Spain. Total 2000 but not all are shown. Traditional migratory routes in Spain are 90 yards wide.


Cattle drives in the Renaissance through the modern era would be in the range of 1000-3000 cows and take a good dozen or more crew on horseback to manage. We don’t know how many cattle accompanied the Exodus travelers, but it was at least in the thousands, starting with the 4000 oxen that pulled 2000 wagons in use. (These numbers are completely utterly speculative of course, but they should be in the right order of magnitude.)

Cowboy handling cattle 1902


Without horses or dogs, dealing with large animals would be a challenge. Even smaller animals like sheep or goats would be difficult. Horses were domesticated by New Kingdom Egypt, but the Hebrews would not have them (aside perhaps from a token horse or two as part of their treasure).

Chariots and archers were weapons of war in Ancient Egypt.
By Ägyptischer Maler um 1355 v. Chr. – The Yorck Project (2002)

In the New Kingdom horses were animals of the military elite and the ruling class. In general Egyptians did not ride on horses but used them for chariots. Two horses are the rule. Horseshoes were not used. Egyptian horses, which were probably almost identical to those in the Near East, are rather small by comparison with modern horses, and attested in different colours (brown, reddish etc.). (University College London)

It’s likely that the Hebrews would have had donkeys though. But no camels or other draft or riding animals.

Egyptians also had horses, but as luxury animals. They did not appear until the thirteenth dynasty and only to the very wealthy. Horses were treated very well since they were considered of high worth. They were never used for plowing and rarely ridden during the second millennium BCE. Though they were attached to chariots for hunting and war. King Tutankhamen was a big fan of riding horses and Ramses II built a stable big enough to house 460 horses…Unlike horses, Donkeys were used for transportation and work because they were not deemed as worthy as horses. And surprisingly, camels were not domesticated in Egypt until the Persian Conquest. (ref)

Laden Donkeys and Ploughing, Tomb of Djar. circa 2060 –2010 B.C., Middle Kingdom Egypt


Domesticated dogs existed in large numbers in the New Kingdom.

Egyptologist Margaret Bunson notes that dogs “were probably domesticated in Egypt in the Pre-Dynastic eras” and they “served as hunters and as companions for the Egyptians and some mentioned their hounds in their mortuary texts” (67). An early tomb painting dated to c. 3500 BCE shows a man walking his dog on a leash in a scene recognizable to anyone in the modern day. (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

Breeds included the Basenji, Greyhound, Ibizan, Pharaoh, Saluki, Whippet, and Molossian. But it is the Basenji, Greyhound, or Saluki which is “frequently depicted helping to herd cattle.”

A detail of the funerary stele of Intef II depicting his dogs. Egyptian, c. 2063 BCE, 11th Dynasty. (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)


I envision domesticated birds on the Exodus being in cages on the carts, but they’d still need to be let out to graze after the first day or two. Once the Hebrews settled in Mt. Sinai, the birds could be safely pastured during the day. My story predates the arrival of chickens by about 800 years.

The Nile was home to many varieties of fish that the Egyptians could eat, and the surrounding marshlands were home to many fowl, such as partridges, quails, pigeons, ducks, geese, doves, herons, and storks, all of which were used as food. Eggs as well were used. Chickens were not known in the earliest times, but were introduced to Egypt probably in the 4th century, B.C.E. (Culinary Lore)

The Smithsonian claims that chickens showed up in Egypt around 1750 BCE “as fighting birds and additions to exotic menageries.” They go on to say: “it would be another 1,000 years before the bird became a popular commodity among ordinary Egyptians.”

Detail of the geese of Meidum, CG 1742, JE 34571, Egyptian Museum of Cairo, Egypt

1 Comment

  1. Exodus Travelers: How Many Were There? – Out of Egypt

    February 28, 2020 at 2:07 pm

    […] For details on domesticated animals, please see:Domesticated Animals of Ancient Egypt […]

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