Sunday Morning Greek Blog

April 18, 2011

Unicorns in the Bible? (Dedicated to my son, Alec)

Filed under: Biblical Animals,Biblical Studies,Greek,Septuagint — Scott Stocking @ 6:40 am

My son and youngest daughter went to the Creation Museum in Kentucky a couple weeks ago. We had gone a few years ago, and although the Noah’s Ark displays were impressive, I was very disappointed in the overall presentation. I was hoping for something a little more scientific and a little less “preachy.” That aside, I still believe in creationism; the diversity of God’s creation always floors me whenever I learn something new and unique about it. But I digress. On the eve of his trip, my son texted me a question about whether unicorns were mentioned in the Bible. Since I had missed a blog post a couple weeks ago while I was visiting my kids, I thought I’d make it up here by honoring my son’s biblical curiosity with a blog post about what I discovered.

I had just read through the entire Bible last year (Today’s New International Version, TNIV), but didn’t remember any mention of unicorns. However, when I commissioned Logos to the task, I found that the King James Version has the word “unicorn” nine times. The English word is found in the following passages, all from the Old Testament (no New Testament or Revelation references) of the Authorized (King James) Version published in 1769 (the 1873 and 1900 versions also have the word):

Num 23:22    God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

Num 24:8    God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.

Deut 33:17    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.

Job 39:9    Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?

Job 39:10    Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

Ps 22:21    Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.

Ps 29:6    He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

Ps 92:10    But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

Isa 34:7    And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.

The Hebrew word in these passages is רְאֵם (reʾēm, /r’ AIM/ Bos primigenius bojanus). Many modern translations render this “wild ox,” which was probably the

“aurochs,” now presumed extinct. (I say “presumed,” because how many times of late have scientists found creatures or plants thought to have been extinct for thousands

 of years?) [Note added 07/18/21: I just noticed that the NIV Study Bible by Zondervan has a study note on Numbers 23:22 suggesting this may be the “oryx,” an antelope with large, straight, skinny horns; I’m wondering if the author got the homophones confused, because the skinny horns don’t strike me as strong as that of an ox, nor does an antelope itself strike me as strong as an ox.] The reason the word “unicorn” entered the text is most likely because of the unfortunate Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of the word, μονόκερως (monokerōs /mo NO kehr rohss/ ‘one-horned’). One need only look up pictures of livestock to find pictures of animals to whom the ancients would have ascribed a name meaning “having one horn.” The most obvious living animal in my mind is the rhinoceros (in modern Greek, ρινόκερος rinokeros—note the similarity; see also Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon and Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew for this possibility as well). Many other animals appear to have “one” horn, because the points from which the horns originate appear to be a horny (kerototic) mass in the middle of the head, or they come from a pair of originating points as close together as our human nostrils, much like the modern-day musk ox. Whatever this animal was, it is thought to be a clean animal, so that would rule out any horselike creatures such as unicorns and Pegasus.

The Bible authors mention numerous creatures about which we have no modern knowledge. For example, if you look at the list of clean and unclean animals in Leviticus 11, you will most likely see a footnote stating that the identification of many of the animals (especially birds) is uncertain. Job certainly is speaking of dinosaurs when he speaks of the behemoth: “Its tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of its thighs are close-knit. Its bones are tubes of bronze, its limbs like rods of iron” (Job 40:17–18; also see Isaiah 48:4 for a similar description of stubborn Israel). If you’ve ever seen the stringy tail of an elephant or the virtually nonexistent tail of the hippopotamus (see NIV footnote on Job 40:15), I don’t see how you could say it “sways like a cedar.”

So as much of a fan of fantasy literature (and the Irish Rovers) as I am, I would have to conclude that, although there may have been a truly one-horned animal similar to the unicorn, the modern conception of it most likely never existed (not even before the flood; sorry Irish Rovers). It is truly a mythological creature, but one that has sparked the creative imagination of many.


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