Unicorns in the Bible… What’s Up With That?
Why are there unicorns in my bible?
About a week ago I ran across a word in Isaiah 39 that caught me by surprise. Let me correct that, I was in utter shock. Why was my bible referring to a mythical creature? What I uncovered as I began to research the incongruity was that there are up to nine mentions of unicorns in the bible, depending on the translation, and it had been a favorite subject for bible debunkers to quote in an effort to discredit the accuracy of the Holy scripture Christians believe is the unerrant word of God, given to us through divine inspiriation of its authors.
In the original Hebrew, all nine instances translated as unicorn are found to be various forms of a word that would be pronounced “reem” or “re’eym”. Rabbinic scholars refer to it as a “creature long extinct”. I found that newer biblical translations have morphed it into a wild ox rather than unicorn, but there are some problems that come up based on the context in which the word was used that do not support the wild ox theory at all. That same text can, however, offer some clues as to the true identity of the creature being described.
In the KJV the word unicorn is used twice in Chapter 39 verses 9-10. Looking at verses 1-12 helps us understand the context in which the word unicorn has appeared.
Job 39:1-12 (KJV)
1 Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? 2 Canst thou number the months that they fulfil? or knowest thou the time when they bring forth? 3 They bow themselves, they bring forth their young ones, they cast out their sorrows. 4 Their young ones are in good liking, they grow up with corn; they go forth, and return not unto them. 5 Who hath sent out the wild ass free? or who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass? 6 Whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. 7 He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the crying of the driver. 8 The range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing. 9 Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? 10 Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? 11 Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? 12 Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?
Initially God was asking Job questions about animals to demonstrate how little Job knew about them when compared to God, who created them and knew everything about them. Beginning with verse 9, the questions are surely rhetorical as God uses sarcasm (much like my mother did when I was young) to put Job in his place. Had Job been able to answer yes to any of them, then the entire message makes no sense, but if Job, even with his limited knowledge of the creature, knew the obvious answer to those questions was a resounding no, the verses take on the character of a parent scolding a child and reminding them that they have much to learn.
With that in mind…
“9 Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?” tells us the animal described is not one that can be tamed or domesticated.
“10 Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?” tells us that this creature is no good for plowing as he will not go where we desire him to.
“11 Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him?” tells us that this creature has great strength.
“12 Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” further tells us that its power and spirit is so strong that we can not trust it nor should we be overconfident around it.
The wild ox was tamed in ancient times, and trained to plow, so the “wild ox” translation we see in newer biblical translations seems pretty far off the mark to me. I still am not sure what kind of creature we are talking about, but I am pretty confident it has one horn, duh, and I am ready to look at another scripture to see what else I can glean from the context.
Psalm 92:10 (KJV) lends support for the one horn theory. This verse is clearly speaking of a singular horn, “10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.”
“Accounts of a real single-horned creature abound in ancient writings dealing with natural history. The earliest surviving record comes to us from the fourth century Greek physician and historian, Ctesias. John Gill, an 18th century Hebrew scholar, agreeing that the biblical unicorn must be a real creature, in his commentary cites several ancient writers who described such an animal, which was, like the unicorn described in Job, not able to be domesticated. Ancient writers who described a realistic unicorn include Aelian, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and Tertullian.” The creature eluded to may be the elasmotherium which resembles a rhinocerous, but has only a single horn.
BUT… Deuteronomy 33:17 (KJV) is clearly speaking of multiple horns, the horns of Joseph which are Ephraim and Manasseh.
“17 His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.”
It seems I have jumped into another one of those rabbit holes, or maybe a wild ride on a unicorn… let’s see where this goes.
Some further research took me to an analysis more obscure biblical translations, adding buffalo and rhinocerous to the possibilities. Remember when we started I mentioned these instances were translated from various forms of a Hebrew word. In Hebrew subtle changes in vowels or “plus or minus” a letter can give subtle change to the meaning of a word. The latin translations are reported to use the word unicorn in Psalm 92:10 and rhinoceros in Deuteronomy 33:17. I wonder if that was a subtlety understood by the early latin translators?
Unicorn… Buffalo… Rhinoceros… Wild Ox… What are we talking about?
Adding to the confusion around this whole subject is the fact that the “English” definition of the word unicorn has changed over the years as well. In older dictionaries the word unicorn was associated with rhinoceros and vice versa. In fact, Websters’ 1828 Dictionary of the English Language defined Rhinoceros this way:
RHINOC’EROS, n. [L. rhinoceros; Gr. nose-horn.]
A genus of quadrupeds of two species, one of which, the unicorn, as a single horn growing almost erect from the nose. This animal when full grown, is said to be 12 feet in length. There is another species with two horns, the bicornis. They are natives of Asia and Africa.
So, in the Rhinocerous family we have two species, one with a single horn and one with two horns. Does the Rhinocerous (or bicornis) add imagery
that makes sense in our understanding of Deuteronomy 33:17?
Let’s see… Ephraim and Manasseh are the two tribes named for the two sons of Joseph. Contrary to the established custom of those days, the younger son, Ephraim was given the greater blessing by Jacob. Manasseh’s seed would become a people, but Ephraim’s seed would become a multitude of nations (see Genesis 48:17-20).
The Rhinoceros has a large and a small horn. The larger representing Ephraim and the smaller representing Manasseh. I like the imagery and it seems plausible to me, however after all of this study, there are only two things I feel I can say for sure…
1. The biblical unicorn is not the mythical stallion with the barbershop striped horn affixed to its forehead.
2. Like He did with Job, God has demonstrated to me how little I know, compared to Him who created me and knows everything about me.