One of my favorite silly videos on You Tube is one that has a character named Charlie the Unicorn being bothered by two annoying little unicorns who tell him about Candy Mountain. Of course, Charlie the Unicorn tells them that Candy Mountain doesn’t exist. Until he finds out, over the course of the journey in the video, that it does exist, though not necessarily to his liking . The irony, of course, is that unicorns aren’t supposed to exist.
As I’m not a subscriber to the KJV-only view of scripture, there are a lot of scriptural arguments I don’t involve myself in. In fact, though I have quite a few translations of the Bible (in multiple languages) I don’t have a single King James Version of the Bible around. I do, however, have a very fine 1599 Geneva Version of the Bible, and as the KJV is basically an inferior rip-off of the Geneva and Tyndale versions of the Bible, I will go back one step behind the KJV in examining the issue of the unicorn in scripture. Let us devote the remainder of this entry to examining the question of whether unicorns exist according to scripture, and what the Bible says about them.
Unicorns In The Bible
If you have a relatively new translation of the Bible, you will not find any unicorns in it. But, if you have an older version, you will. The word translated unicorn is re’em in Hebrew. While the word is translated as wild ox in most recent translations, its original label as unicorn comes from the fact that it was called monokeros in the Greek translations (for one-horn) . Picking up on that thought, the early translators of the Bible into English used the word unicorn in describing the “one-horned” nature of the animal.
Of course, the KJV translation happened to err in translating at least one passage about unicorns, making a singular unicorn plural to avoid a contradiction in Deuteronomy 33:17, a place where unicorn appears as follows in the Geneva: “His beauty shall be like his firstborn bullock, and his horns as the horns of an unicorn: with them he shall smite the people together, even the ends of the world: these are also the ten thousands of Ephraim, and these are the thousands of Manasseh.” In this verse we see the unicorn shown as a very powerful animal with great strength in its horns (the marginal note to this verse states that “horns” is used as a pun to describe strength). So we see the superiority of the Geneva by virtue of its honest wrestling with the meaning of the Hebrew rather than the KJV’s error in introducing changes to the verse in order to avoid apparent contradictions.
This verse ought to give us some pause. Given that the references to the unicorn in scripture are designed to refer to something in nature that was able to be known by the audience and understood as having great symbolic importance, let us assume that whatever it is, that the unicorn actually existed as a creature in the time of Job and Moses and Isaiah, and that it may possibly exist today, though not necessarily in the way in which we imagine unicorns to be. With that assumption, let us precede to examine what the Bible says about unicorns so that we may seek to uncover their identity.
What The Bible Says About Unicorns
Let’s look at the 1599 Geneva and examine what the Bible says about unicorns. We have already seen how in Deuteronomy 33:17 that the strength of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) is compared to that of the unicorn, which which the unicorn smites the nations. Therefore, we must remember that the Bible’s conception of a unicorn is not some kind of skinny, delicate creature with one horn, but something decidedly more ferocious.
The strength of a unicorn, after all, is something the Bible makes very plain. Numbers 23:22 says: “God brought them out of Egypt: their strength is as an unicorn.” The fact that Israel went out mightily thanks to God and with a high hand means that the unicorn is truly a mighty animal. Numbers 24:8 elaborates on this premise, saying: “God brought him out of Egypt: his strength shall be as an unicorn: he shall eat the nations his enemies, and bruise their bones, and shoot them through with arrows.” Here the unicorn is described as a terribly strong animal capable of causing human beings great harm, devouring them and defeating them as if it were an armed warrior.
That the unicorn is a fierce animal is made clear by its reference in Job 39:12-15: “Will the unicorn serve thee? Or will he tarry by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band to labor in the furrow? Or will he plow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust in him, because his strength is great, and cast off thy labor unto him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it unto thy barn?” These questions all have an assumed negative answer. Just as the rest of the animals in this passage of scripture are real animals (the behemoth is probably a hippo, while the leviathan is probably some kind of crocodile), let us then gather that the “unicorn” is an animal of the same general type as these other ones.
The fact that the “unicorn” is strong and mighty means that mankind would want to hook him to a plow, domesticate him, and make him like an ox as a plow animal. However, God here clearly states that the unicorn is wild and cannot be tamed by mankind. The wild nature of the unicorn means that it will not carry a plow, will not be domesticated, will not tread the grain in the barn of the farmer. In short, the unicorn will remain a strong wild animal respected (and possibly even feared) by mankind, a fact that has not escaped some commentators even of the blinkered KJV-only variety .
Psalm 92:10 gives some additional comments about the unicorn, saying: “But thou shalt exalt mine horn, like the unicorns, and I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” The horn of the unicorn is here compared to the horn that holds the anointing oil for priests or kings (it is not surprising in light of this anointing for rulership that Psalm 92 itself is a hymn for the Sabbath day, pointing to the importance of obeying the sabbath in being ordained as kings and priests in the kingdom of God).
Unicorns are even mentioned in fearsome biblical prophecies, such as in Isaiah 34:7-8: “And the unicorn shall come down with them, and the heifers with the bulls, and their land shall be drunken with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness. For it is the day of the Lord’s vengeance, and the year of recompense for the judgment of Zion.” Now, just as the unicorn is an untamed and wild animal and bulls and heifers are tamed, so God promises here to avenge himself on both the strong and the weak in the day of His wrath. The land will be sated with the blood of the wicked on that awful and horrible day, whether they are weak or strong their strength is nothing compared to God’s.
Identifying The Unicorn
The 1599 Geneva Bible makes no attempt to identify the unicorn with any animal known to us. It simply follows the train of thought of the one-horned animal and leaves it at that. Most modern translations translate the animal to be a wild ox. Like some biblical animals, it is impossible to be dogmatic about their identification simply because the language used to describe them is not always purely literal, but often has symbolic connotations as well.
Nonetheless, it would appear that the best identification possible is the rhino. Some versions of the Bible, including the Vulgate, made that identification in most of the references for unicorn. Additionally, the rhino describes an animal that is strong and mighty, fearsome (even for hunters with guns, much less earlier warriors), impossible to domesticate, and of the general type of “cattle” family, but of a kind sufficiently strong that hunting them became a macho rite of passage for safari hunters, to such an extent that the noble animals have been hunted nearly to extinction in some parts of the world. The fact that the Indian rhino has the scientific name Rhinoceros unicornis means that it is not a far-fetched identification for scientists either.
Admitting the existence of the unicorn on the terms of the Bible (rather than our own mistaken mythological conception) is what allows us to properly understand what the Bible means when it describes a mighty and fearsome animal that simply will not be tamed. It is unclear why modern translators have largely sought to expurgate unicorns from the scriptures. Perhaps they fear their readers will think of unicorns like “Charlie” rather than the fearsome rhino, or perhaps they simply do not know enough about what the Bible means to make a better identification themselves than the wild ox. At any rate, though, a proper understanding of what the Bible says means that the unicorns it describes are real, and not creatures of myth and fantasy, and are creatures to be respected. Let us therefore accept the reality that the Bible really does talk about unicorns, even if they are not the kind of unicorns we may be most familiar with.