Bible mockers have long derided Scripture for references to unicorns. They chortle with condescending glee over the presence of unicorns in the Bible.
They think that the inclusion of an “obviously mythical” animal like a unicorn means that the whole Bible is therefore a myth and not to be trusted.
Is this mockery well-founded? Is it impossible that unicorns might really have existed? Could Adam have seen them, named them, tamed them, and even ridden them?
It turns out that the unicorn issue is not a Bible-killer after all. The beasts of myth and fantasy that are called unicorns today are not the unicorns of the Bible.
Historical References to Unicorns
First of all, if one decides to dismiss the Bible because some translations mention unicorns, then one must also dismiss works of ancient history which scholars almost uniformly accept. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that ancient Greeks writing on nature, including Ctesias, Strabo, and Aelian, all describe the unicorn as a real animal. So did the Roman authors Pliny the Younger and Tertullian. Should these writers be dismissed? To be consistent, if one dismisses the Bible because of unicorns, then one would also have to discount the reliability of these Greek and Roman authors.
Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo (1254–1324) reported seeing unicorns on his travels in Sumatra (Indonesia):
“They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead . . . They have a head like a wild boar’s . . . They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at.”
(Marco Polo: The Travels, translated by Ronald Latham, Penguin, 1958, p. 253)
Unicorns in the Bible
The Hebrew word that the King James Version translates as unicorn is רְאֵם, transliterated rĕ’em. It appears nine times in the KJV. In addition, Luther’s 1534 German Bible and the Greek Septuagint (2nd century BC) both translate the Hebrew word rĕ’em with words meaning “one-horned animal” or unicorn. The Latin Vulgate of around 400 AD sometimes translates rĕ’em as unicorn and sometimes as rhinoceros.
However, most modern versions translate rĕ’em as wild ox. A few versions use wild bull, buffalo, and even rhinoceros.
It’s significant that the 70 Hebrew scholars who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the 2nd century BC chose to translate rĕ’em by monokerōtos, literally one horn or unicorn. These Hebrew scholars were probably the best equipped of anyone to know what the Hebrew word rĕ’em meant. Their translation into Greek influenced the King James translators to use unicorn for rĕ’em, meaning a one-horned animal.
Thus unicorn seems to be a good translation for the Hebrew rĕ’em. But all that unicorn means is “one-horned animal.” What kind of animal was the Biblical rĕ’em? Was it the mythical horse-like animal with a long pointed horn on its forehead that the word connotes today? Or was it some other kind of one-horned animal?
To answer this question one must look at the context of the word as it is used in the Bible.
Here are the Old Testament verses that mention the rĕ’em animal (unicorn or wild ox): Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9–10; Psalm 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; Isaiah 34:7.
In the popular imagination the unicorn is a mythical horse-like animal with a single sharp-pointed horn protruding from its forehead. But that’s not the rĕ’em (unicorn or wild ox) of the Bible. The Biblical references indicate an animal of great power and strength with a wild, untamed nature. It is not even clear from the verses that the rĕ’em was one-horned, although that may be indicated by Psalm 92:10, but not necessarily. For example, Yahweh says this to Job about the rĕ’em (unicorn or wild ox):
“Will the wild ox [rĕ’em] consent to serve you,
Or will he spend the night at your manger?
Can you bind the wild ox [rĕ’em] in a furrow with ropes,
Or will he harrow the valleys after you?
Will you trust him because his strength is great
And leave your labor to him?
Will you have faith in him that he will return your grain
And gather it from your threshing floor?” (Job 39:9-12 NASB)
Whatever the rĕ’em animal of the Bible was, it is clear from the context of the Biblical references that a real animal is in view by the Biblical authors. It is not an imaginary creature. The book of Job refers to the rĕ’em as a real animal in the midst of a list of other well-known animals: lion, raven, goat, deer, donkey, ostrich, horse, hawk, and eagle (Job 38:39-39:30).
In this list of familiar animals, Yahweh highlights to Job impressive characteristics that He has placed in each of these animals that He created. His point was to demonstrate to Job that Almighty God is far above man in wisdom, power, and ability. If one of the animals in the list were imaginary, like the rĕ’em, then the argument would lose its force. In fact, Job himself would have to be familiar with the rĕ’em for Yahweh’s illustrative example to be effective. Obviously Yahweh did not think the rĕ’em (wild ox or unicorn) was imaginary, and neither did Job.
Possible Biblical Unicorn Animals
Just because an animal is not familiar to man today does not mean it never existed. Fossil evidence sometimes reveals the past existence of unknown animals. In fact, this is true of the unicorn. A unicorn is simply a single-horned animal. Scientists now confirm they existed based on fossil evidence that has been discovered.
Even today, one species of rhinoceros can be called a unicorn, because it is a one-horned animal. In fact, back in the early 1800s the one-horned rhinoceros was called a unicorn in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, and the two-horned rhinoceros was called a bicornis.
The article ‘Unicorns’ And Humans Once Walked The Earth Together…Sort Of from the Huffington Post (03/29/2016) reports the discovery of fossil “unicorns” in Kazakhstan. This fossil, Elasmotherium sibiricum, also called the “Siberian unicorn,” was a massive rhino-like creature 6 feet tall, 15 feet long, and weighing 9,000 pounds with a 7-foot long horn.
So what animal was the rĕ’em, the Biblical unicorn? It could have been the Elasmotherium, the extinct giant rhinoceros. Or it could have been the present-day one-horned rhinoceros. Or it could have been one of the one-horned dinosaurs.
Those who mock the Bible for using unicorn to translate rĕ’em, have in mind the fanciful modern romanticized unicorn. Such a creature may not have existed, but it has no relation to the unicorn of the King James Bible. It has no relation to the rhinoceros-like wild animal that seems to be a good description of what the Bible means by rĕ’em.
It is not valid to apply today’s meaning of unicorn to the word unicorn in the 17th century King James translation. Words change meaning over time.
Did Adam Ride a Unicorn?
Since the rĕ’em was a real animal, it is certain that Adam saw it. In fact, he would have named it in the Garden of Eden on Creation Day Six (Genesis 2:19-20).
Did he ride it? I think it’s possible that Adam took a ride on a unicorn in the Garden of Eden before he sinned, before all of creation was cursed and turned topsy-turvy. I think it is unlikely that Adam rode the Biblical unicorn after he was expelled from Eden, because the Bible indicates the animal was untameable (Job 39:9-12). So whether Adam rode a unicorn or not, we do not know. Put this on your list of questions to ask if you see Adam in heaven.
Questions to Ponder
- If the Bible mentions an unknown animal for which there is no external evidence, should people accept that it once existed?
- Why do you think the unicorn has spawned such imagination and speculation?
Share your thoughts on these questions in the comments below. It could encourage or help another reader.
Soli Deo Gloria.
This is the 23rd of a series of weekly blog articles on Adam.
Read the prequels:
1. Was Adam in the Garden of Eden?
2. Did Moses Believe in Adam?
3. Did Jesus Believe in Adam?
4. Did Paul Believe in Adam?
5. Does Belief in Adam Matter?
6. Adam and Puppies
7. Why Did Adam Sin?
8. What Should Adam Have Done?
9. What Did Adam Cause?
10. What Was Adam’s Forbidden Fruit?
11. How Long Was Adam in Eden?
12. Was Adam’s Garden of Eden Real?
13. Christmas & Adam (with videos)
14. Where Was Adam’s Garden of Eden?
15. Did Adam Wear Clothes in Eden?
16. Was Adam Backward or Brilliant? (with video)
17. Who Was Mrs. Adam?
18. Adam’s Dream Girl
19. Adam’s Prolific Princess
20. Adam’s Problematic Princess
21. How Many Children Did Adam Have?
22. Whom Did Adam’s Sons Marry?
Read the sequels:
24. How Long Did Adam Live?
25. Did Adam Swat Mosquitoes in Eden?
26. Did Adam’s Garden Have a Talking Snake?
27. Why Should Adam’s Sin Affect Me?
28. Did Roses Have Thorns in Adam’s Garden?
29. Adam the Image-Bearer & Harambe the Gorilla
30. Did Adam Ever Return to Eden?
31. What Was Adam’s Tree of Life?
32. Will Adam Be in Heaven?
33. Did Adam See the Big Dipper?
34. Did Adam Know Earth Is Round?
35. Did Jesus Say When Adam Was Created?
36. Did Adam See Dinosaurs?
37. Did Adam Like Steak?
38. Could Adam Read & Write?
39. Did God Use Evolution to Make Adam?
40. Adam & the Olympics
41. Adam and the Gospel
42. Adam and the Genesis Road
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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
“for the defense of the gospel”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:5; Phil 1:16)
Wednesday April 20, 2016 A.D.
The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. (Genesis 2:16; 3:1-6)