Unicorns in the Bible

For many months now I've been using the King James Version of the bible in my daily devotionals. Beyond reading a passage here or there I don't believe I've ever read the KJV so thoroughly and closely. And it's been interesting.

Here's one interesting thing. Did you know there are unicorns in the bible?

By my searching, unicorns are mentioned nine times in the Old Testament of the KJV:
Numbers 23.22
God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

Numbers 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.

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?

Psalm 22.21
Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.

Psalm 29.6
He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

Psalm 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.
It's both delightful and a bit startling to run across a unicorn when you are reading the bible.

Translationally speaking, where did the unicorn come from?

The Hebrew word in question is re’em (רֶאֵם). Re'em is believed to refer to aurochs (also called urus), an extinct form of wild cattle that was the ancestor of modern domesticated cattle.

When the authors of the Septuagint (who began to translate in the 3rd Century BCE) translated the Hebrew of the Old Testament into Greek the re'em was getting rare and scarce, on its way to eventual extinction. Having little to no exposure with the creature the translators of the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word re'em for the Greek word monokeros, which means “one-horned.”

In the 4th Century AD St. Jerome translated the Greek Septuagint into Latin giving us the Latin Vulgate, which became the official bible of the Catholic Church. Encountering the Greek word monokeros ("one-horned") Jerome translated it with the Latin equivalent--unicornis. (From uni- ‘single’ + cornu ‘horn’).

When the translators of the King James Version encountered the Latin word unicornis rather than translating the word they simply turned the Latin word into an English word.

Unicornis became unicorn.

And that's how unicorns got into the bible.

But more modern translations, knowing more about the re'em, tend to go with "wild ox" over "unicorn."

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8 thoughts on “Unicorns in the Bible”

  1. Illustrative of the difficulty of sticking to a 'plain reading of scripture', when some ancient word forms and idioms are very difficult to define or understand, especially if only used in the Bible, and exaggerated still more if used less than 3 times.

    Hence debates about Romans 3 are valid, not just caving in to modern culture.

  2. I always knew that if you read the Bible just right you'd find that there's a mouse on the moon eating green Cheese
    blessings rich

  3. Who knew? I'll need to read the Scriptures more closely in the future :) An interesting look at the history of Bible translations.

  4. Who knows what interesting words people will be discussing from today's translations five hundred years from now. And while the Bible is not just poetry, this does show us how its poetic nature resonates through time, never letting the literal, legalistic mind get too comfy, just as long as there are others, like many who comment on this blog, who sing the scriptures from their hearts.

  5. thanks! ripples across several layers of meaning, art, understanding!

  6. That's hilarious! And then this reminds me why the KJV is not "the best" translation possible!

  7. My favorite engagement with the ancient aurochs was in the film "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Which, if you recall, I once did a sermon on, and leaned heavily on your material from "The Slavery of Death."

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