Episode #2 Unicorns? In the Bible!?
Interested in this topic? You might enjoy my book: Monsters in the Bible
Our focus on this show is on the Bible, and how interesting it is. Sometimes the show will be straight up Bible Q and A – down to earth topics with answers solidly grounded in the biblical text. Sometimes the show topics will be a little more – out there, shall we say. Like today. Today’s topic is Unicorns, and it is dedicated to my daughter, Phoebe – who is a huge unicorn fan. You might be wondering what Unicorns have to do with the Bible, but if you are a King James only kind of person, you probably already know that the word ‘Unicorns’ appears in the KJV version of the Bible 9 times in the 1611 KJV and 9 times in the updated 1769 Standard version.
At some point in the show, we will probably do a podcast solely focused on the 1611 KJV and King James Version only people. It’s an interesting topic for me in particular, because most people in the KJV Only camp would reject the more Catholic associated apocryphal books of the Bible, and yet the 1611 KJV contains 14 apocryphal books, in addition to the OT and the NT. But I digress. One day soon, I think we will cover both the 1611 KJV AND the Apocrypha, but today is not that day.
Today is the day, however, that we cover unicorns. You might not know that unicorns are actually in the Bible – but they are. Sort of. In the Bible. Let’s take a look:
Psalm 22: 19 But be not thou farre from mee, O Lord; O my strength, hast thee to helpe me. 20Deliuer my soule from the sword: my darling from the power of the dogge. 21Saue me from the lyons mouth: for thou hast heard me from the hornes of the vnicornes. 1611
So – let me say this. As I mentioned in the trailer for the show, I believe that the Bible is faithful and true – inerrant in its original language and absolutely trustworthy. Therefore, I believe that the Bible is speaking of a real animal here and is not putting forward some sort of myth, or what have you. Does that mean unicorns are/were real creatures? Not necessarily. Believing in the trustworthiness of the Bible, we have two options here for our KJV Unicorns.
#1 – Unicorns actually existed, but they are probably extinct now.
#2 – The KJV translators of the Bible did not properly or exactly translate the Hebrew word for ‘unicorn.‘
We will take a long look at both options, but first, let’s take a look at the Hebrew word itself.
Re’em, Reh·ām’ Reh-Aim from the Verb rä·am‘ (Rah-Am), which means to ‘Raise up.’ All 9 times Reh-Aim appears in the Old Testament, the 1611 and 1769 translators of the KJV used the word ‘unicorn.’
Here are all of the appearances of the word in the Bible. Let’s pay attention to any physical descriptions to determine if the word Reh-Aim actually refers to the equine/horselike creature of fantasy and legend, or perhaps some other creature:
Numbers 23:22 God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.
Isaiah 34: And the Unicornes shall come downe with them, and the bullockes with the bulles, and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatnesse.8 For it is the day of the Lords vengeance, and the yeere of recompences for the controuersie of Zion. KJV 1611
Deuteronomy 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?
Psalms 22:21 Already read.
Psalms 29:6 He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.
Psalms 92:10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.
Isaiah 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.
So some interesting passages, to be sure. The KJV Bible seems to indicate that God has the strength of a unicorn, That his horns are like the horns of the unicorns, and that God is coming with unicorns and bulls on the day of judgment.
So, wow – what in the world is going on here? Here’s what we learn from these passages, remembering that the actual Hebrew word in question is reh-Aim . Reh-Aims are powerful, they are difficult to control or tame, they have at least one horn (more on that later) and they are quite wild and untamable, Unfortunately, that description fits many wild animals, and doesn’t really tell us exactly what creature the authors of the OT were referring to, though we can safely remove three toed sloths, dung beetles, and platypodes from consideration.
The Bible’s mention of unicorns was not lost on the leaders of the early church, who also puzzled over these passages.
Origen, an early church father living in the 200s, wrote this : “other prohibitions such as that to eat of the unicorn (τραγέλαφος), a creature which has no existence” Source: Frederic William Farrar, History of Interpretation (London: Macmillan and Co., 1886), 192.
Jerome, however, seems to have believed in the reality of these beasts, writing, “There are beasts of this sort in the desert of the East, but they are never seen by human beings or captured by them.” (circa 400 A.D.)
Source: John Cassian, John Cassian: The Conferences, ed. Walter J. Burghardt, John Dillon, and Dennis D. McManus, trans. Boniface Ramsey, vol. 57, Ancient Christian Writers (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Newman Press, 1997), 578.
Theoderot also writing in the 400s, seems to take the Unicorn as symbolic, in a way, used by the biblical writers as a sort of euphemism: “They say the unicorn is equipped with one horn, and the Law gave instructions for adoring one God; so it was right for him to liken the one Temple, dedicated to the one God, to a unicorn.”
Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Psalms: Psalms 73–150, ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Robert C. Hill, vol. 102, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 39.
So – lots of information so far, but no answers. Back to our original question: Does the Bible proclaim the existence of unicorns?
Here are our two options:
Yes, the Bible teaches that Unicorns, the fantastical beasts of legend, exist, or once existed, or no – the word Reh-aim means something different.
On the yes side, Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, writing for Answers in Genesis, says this:
Modern readers have trouble with the Bible’s unicorns because we forget that a single-horned feature is not uncommon on God’s menu for animal design. (Consider the rhinoceros and narwhal.) The Bible describes unicorns skipping like calves (Psalm 29:6), traveling like bullocks, and bleeding when they die (Isaiah 34:7). The presence of a very strong horn on this powerful, independent-minded creature is intended to make readers think of strength.
The absence of a unicorn in the modern world should not cause us to doubt its past existence. (Think of the dodo bird. It does not exist today, but we do not doubt that it existed in the past.) Eighteenth century reports from southern Africa described rock drawings and eyewitness accounts of fierce, single-horned, equine-like animals. One such report describes “a single horn, directly in front, about as long as one’s arm, and at the base about as thick. . . . [It] had a sharp point; it was not attached to the bone of the forehead, but fixed only in the skin.” SOURCE
Dr. Mitchell goes on to mention a few other possibilities for the Reh-Aim, but does clearly seem to favor an equine, mono-horned solution – much like what we would call a unicorn. She does mention some evidences scattered about for such a creature as well, including drawings and eyewitness accounts from Africa of possible unicorn sightings.
This brings to mind that cryptid from the Congo in Africa that many talk about – the Mokele Mpembe. “ “one who stops the flow of rivers” A German explorer, Captain Ludwig Von Stein, wrote this as a description of the Mokele Mpembe: The animal is said to be of a brownish-gray color with a smooth skin, its size is approximately that of an elephant; at least that of a hippopotamus. It is said to have a long and very flexible neck and only one tooth but a very long one; some say it is a horn. A few spoke about a long, muscular tail like that of an alligator. Canoes coming near it are said to be doomed; the animal is said to attack the vessels at once and to kill the crews but without eating the bodies. The creature is said to live in the caves that have been washed out by the river in the clay of its shores at sharp bends. It is said to climb the shores even at daytime in search of food; its diet is said to be entirely vegetable. This feature disagrees with a possible explanation as a myth. The preferred plant was shown to me, it is a kind of liana with large white blossoms, with a milky sap and applelike fruits. At the Ssombo River I was shown a path said to have been made by this animal in order to get at its food. The path was fresh and there were plants of the described type nearby. But since there were too many tracks of elephants, hippos, and other large mammals it was impossible to make out a particular spoor with any amount of certainty
Is such a thing possible? I’ve no idea. It makes for a great campfire tale, but the lack of fossilized remains does seem to be a bit of a strike against the creature.
Likewise, the lack of fossilized remains seems to be a strike against the existence of an equine-style unicorn. In fact, I think, barring evidence to the contrary, it’s likely that such a creature has never existed. Perhaps a horse or other horse-like animal with one horn has been seen – such mutations occasionally happen, but I’d like to see more evidence for a mythical unicorn before I sign on enthusiastically.
So that brings us to option #2 for Unicorns in the Bible. And that option is that the translators of the KJV, like the translators of the Latin Vulgate upon which much of the KJV is based on, mistranslated the word ‘Reh-Aim’.
Michael Heiser, Logos scholar in Residence – the difficulties of Bible Translation.
A famous Italian proverb declares “traduttore, traditore,” which means, “Translator, traitor.” Those who assume this is true are unaware how difficult it is to produce a translation. Every translator at some point invariably discards the meaning of the original text.
A committee of scholars assembled to produce a translation typically adopts an overarching philosophy of translation. In simplest terms, there are two. The first is called “formal equivalence,” which seeks to account for virtually every word in the original text by producing its English counterpart in translation. This is “word-for-word” or “literal” translation. The second is called “dynamic equivalence.” This approach seeks to capture the thought of the original verse in context, and then re-create that thought using whatever English words are most precise. This is “thought-for-thought” translation. But adopting an approach does not mean that all the translators will apply it equally. There is also a matter of interpretation. When the biblical text allows more than one translation due to ambiguity in the context, grammar, or word usage, a translator needs to make his or her own decision—which can lead to controversy.
First Corinthians 7:1 is illustrative of the potential hazard.
ESV: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
NASB: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
NIV: “It is good for a man not to marry.”
TNIV: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
NLT: “It is good to live a celibate life.”
The most “word-for-word” of these translations is that of the NASB, which captures the literal reading of the Greek words in the verse, particularly the verb “touch” (ἅπτοµαι, haptomai). Other translations move away from the ambiguous “touch” to “have sexual relations with” (ESV, TNIV).
The most controversial renderings are the NIV (“It is good for a man not to marry”) and the NLT (“It is good to live a celibate life”). How is it that the translators could go from a Greek word that means “touch” to these options?
The answer is that the translators factored in what was presumed to be the wider context of the chapter and, ultimately, the writer. In 1 Cor 7:7–8, Paul describes himself as single. His advice to the Corinthians in several places is that it would be wiser for those who are not married to remain unmarried (1 Cor 7:7–8, 26–27) because of an undefined “present distress” (7:26). This context is presumed in 7:1 by the NIV and NLT.
These translations are certainly plausible, but still problematic. While Paul notes a “present distress” in 7:27, can we be certain that Paul was thinking of that distress in 7:1? Might Paul have been thinking about sexual morality instead? The verses that immediately follow 7:1 speak frankly of sexual temptation (7:2–4). If morality was on Paul’s mind, then the ESV and TNIV are more on target. The point would then be an admonition to avoid sexual contact outside of marriage, not to avoid marriage itself.
Translation isn’t just a matter of matching words of one language to words of another. Rather than consider Bible translators as traitors, we need to be sympathetic to their burden. Reading multiple translations can reveal the complexities of the process.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t understand the Bible, of course – but what we are dealing with in this question of the unicorn, and what we are dealing with when we read some of the more thorny issues in Paul’s letters is largely the same thing – the difficulty in translation. It’s not an insurmountable difficulty, but it does require some careful study and thought.
Back to Unicorns. I believe the best way to handle the unicorn/Reh-Aim issue is to realize that the writers of the KJV likely used a word, ‘Unicorn’ which is a less than ideal translation. I have yet to see evidence that convinces me that these KJV translators themselves believed in the mythical unicorn. So, going with the thought that ‘Unicorn’ isn’t the best translation or meaning of Reh-Aim, what is? I suggest three Three possibilities, and then conclude with what I think is the best option:
- Siberien Unicorn Elasmotherium sibiricum four metres long, 2.5 metres high, weighs 3.5 metric tonnes and has a preposterously large horn in the middle of its face? For you American listeners, we’re talking 14 feet long, almost 9 feet tall, and beefier than your’e uncle Bubba carrying a four by four tire.
The Elasmotherium Sibircum is A really massive unicorn, that’s what….Despite its huge size it was lithe and seemed adapted to running across its homelands of central Asia: Kazakhstan, western and central Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and possible areas of Mongolia and China. This animal GREATLY matches the biblical description of the Reh-Aim. It was large, powerful, had an incredible horn, but was also agile and fast. According to Cosmos Magazine, “Until now, E. sibiricum had been thought to have gone extinct about 200,000 years ago as part of the natural extinction rate that preceded the arrival of humanity,” The radiocarbon dating yielded some surprising results, suggesting that the unicorn was still kicking until 39,000 years ago.
So, science up until late last year, was off on the extinction of the Elasmotherium by about 160,000 years. What if they are still off by a few more thousand years – what if Elasmotherium lived until Old Testament times? Not very likely, but a distant possibility. I rank this as the 3rd most likely explanation of Reh-aim.
2. Our second most plausible explanation is that the Reh-aim is actually what we would call a rhinoceros. There’s a few solid reasons to go in this direction. For one, The Latin Vulgate says “rinocerotis” in Deut 33:17 and “rinoceros” in Job 39:9. The noble rhino would, like the Siberian ‘unicorn’ Professor Allen H. Godbey wrote an extended article on the biblical ‘unicorn in 1939. In that article, he notes that Pliny’s Natural History records that in roughly 62 B.C., a rhinoceros was exhibited during the games of Pompey the Great. That rhinoceros had white skin, was roughly the size of an elephant, and that it had a single horn on its nose. Though we would hesitate to think of a rhino as graceful, they can be quite powerful, and fast, and undoubtedly have a large and powerful horn. Would that writers of the Old Testament be familiar with the rhino? It is possible, though nowhere near certain.
3. Finally, I would suggest that the most likely explanation for the Reh-aim would be either the extinct aurochs, or an animal very similar. I realize, of course, that an aurochs does not merely have one horn, but two, and that is okay. It does not appear that the original Hebrew word Reh-aim, demands a one-horned animal. Indeed, one way of translating Numbers 23:22, the way that the NASB, ESV and CSB translations choose, is to say “”God brings them out of Egypt, He is for them like the horns of the wild ox.” The Hebrew for “horns” tow’apaha (also translated strength or glory) is indeed plural. That means that the mighty aurochs ticks all of the boxes off for the old testament description of a Reh-aim. It is large, and powerful. Difficult to tame, and quick, and has very imposing horns. In addition, unlike our options above, the aurochs appears to have inhabited Israel during the time of the Old Testament. Sadly, it would appear that the last aurochs died out in a forest in Poland in 1627. Happily, I think, there are several genetic projects underway right now to reintroduce the aurochs, though I can indeed imagine a sort of mammalian Jurassic Park scenario here that doesn’t necessarily end well. Julius Caesar himself was quite familiar with the aurochs (whom he called an ‘urs,’ and described him thusly in the first century:
“Those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.” Source: Gallic War Commentaries, Chapter 6.28
One more reason to support the candidacy of the mighty aurochs as the Biblical ‘unicorn’ comes from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia:
The allusions to the “re’em” as a wild, untamable animal of great strength and agility, with mighty horns (Job xxxix. 9-12; Ps. xxii. 21, xxix. 6; Num. xxiii. 22, xxiv. 8; Deut. xxxiii. 17; comp. Ps. xcii. 11), best fit the aurochs (Bos primigenius). This view is supported by the Assyrian “rimu,” which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild, or mountain bull with large horns.
Finally, Dr. Allen H. Godbey, who probably studied this question more than anybody in history, concludes: “The decisive factor came with the deciphering of the cuneiform inscriptions… reaching back four thousand years earlier than any Hebrew text that we have, [the texts] give the word rimu repeatedly… It is a gigantic wild ox. The cuneiform ideogram confines him to the mountains.” Source: The Unicorn in the Old Testament, 1939
Ultimately, though I am team aurochs, I think that recognizing the ambiguity of the term and preserving it, is the best approach here, because even though the aurochs checks all of our boxes, the evidence for it is circumstantial, at best. Therefore, we should probably do what most modern Bible translators do with the passage, which is similar to how they handle another passage of mystery, Genesis 6:4. In the KJV, Genesis 6:4 reads, “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” What the translators did there is render the Hebrew word Nephilim as ‘Giants,’ a very interesting translation, to be sure, but quite a problematic one.
Let’s look at a more modern translation. Genesis 6:4 “The Nephilim were on the earth both in those days and afterward, when the sons of God came to the daughters of mankind, who bore children to them. They were the powerful men of old, the famous men.”
Yes, it’s a bit of a cop-out, but in the absence of compelling evidence that the best translation of Nephilim is ‘giants,’ I think it might be a good cop-out, especially given that we have almost no idea whatsoever a Nephilim actually is. More on this in a future episode of this podcast.
Given all of the above, Numbers 23:22 would have been better rendered by the translators of the King James Version as, “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath, as it were, the strength of a great horned beast.” In doing that, though we have slightly elongated the text, we have faithfully translated it in a better and much less problematic way. A rendering that preserves clarity while translating re’em Reh-Aim accurately and understandably in a way that avoids guessing about what exact animal the original authors of the Old Testament were referring to. That doesn’t solve the mystery, of course, but it is our best and safest option. Of course, we could also simply say, “He hath, as it were, the strength of a re’em.
Unfortunately, it means that we’ll have to file this mystery in our ‘cold case’ file. The identity of Reh-aim will remain a secret to us, and is likely to remain so until the Second Coming. Alas.
Well, that’s all for this episode. I’m grateful that you took the time to listen – thank you for that! If you are particularly interested in this topic, I’d like to point you to my (in progress) book, Monsters in the Bible. I am editing the book, and adding lots of material to it, and should have a second edition out very soon. Please also check out our website, Biblemysterypod.com. You can leave us a voice mail there, and ask your own question. Finally, and probably most important, I’d love for you to subscribe to the show and share it with your friends. Nothing is more helpful to an indie podcaster like myself than word of mouth. Thanks again, and see you soon.