Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 1: Jealous God and Unicorns?

An atheist on twitter was frustrated that I was following my own advice about not providing evidence to mockers.[1] So in his frustration he did what mockers do: engaged in ridicule and mocking. In an attempt to deride and ridicule the faith he proceeded to tell others what he thinks I believe:

“He follows a holy book with a jealous & genocidal god, ghosts, zombies, seers, devils, demons, witches, satyrs, unicorns, talking animals, a man who lived in a fish and a 7 headed dragon.”[2]

Clearly he takes exception to all of these. But since he is an atheist, that neither surprises, nor concerns me. The question I do want to address however is what are we believers and people who are seeking the truth to think about what many would consider mythical creatures in the list?  With that in mind let’s look at what the Bible has to say about each of these items, plus one that is usually questioned, but not in his list: a talking snake. So let’s look at these one by one in the light of what the holy book – the Bible – says about them. But before I start, let me highlight the main problem:

The Heart of the Problem and The Argument for a Modern Translation

At the end of the Book of Judges, there is a recurring phase: 

“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”
Judges 17.6 and 21.25:

We see those were lawless times. Since there was no central authority, people acted accordingly – in their own best interest leading to strife between individuals and groups. Thus this phrase is what I call the argument for a King. And in the first record of the kingdom, what do we see? – The selection of a king (1 Samuel 9).  Well if that recurring phrase is the argument for a king, these charges against God and concerning these mythical creatures is the argument for a modern translation. 

The reason people bring up these objections is because they are like the Ethiopian official – who couldn’t understand what he was reading. (Acts 30-31) But in this case the lack of understanding is due to the fact that most read not the original language, but a translation. Now reading a translation per se is neither bad nor a problem. The problem is the misunderstandings that are generated by reading a translation that no longer conveys the intended meaning. Like one completed more than 400 years ago – using the English of 1611.

Need I say the English language has changed a bit in the intervening years?  Consider the word “gay”. Today it means “homosexual”. When I was growing up it meant “happy” or “festive”.  Now consider  James 2.3 in the Bible. The 1611 authorized version reads: “And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, …”  Are they talking about clothes that homosexuals wear? Or are they talking about exquisite clothing as modern translations translate it: “If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say,…” How do we know the modern translation – “fine clothes” – is correct and more accurate than “gay clothing”?

The only way to be sure is to check the original language.[3] The words variously translated “gay clothing” or “fine clothes” are: την  εσθητα (estheta)  την λαμπραν (lampran) – translated from the Greek, that’s: “brilliant or magnificent clothes”. Thus “fine clothes” appropriately communicates in today’s language what the original text intends. So we see the language of 1611 is misleading to the modern reader.

Thus between overcoming the ancient language barrier, and reading the words in context, we will be able to resolve most if not all the modern questions around these often questioned biblical words. So let’s get to it:

A Jealous God?

  • The accusation is God is a: “jealous & genocidal god”

First off, though I referenced “creatures” in the title, need I point out that God is not a creature? He’s the uncreated, eternal creator of all creation.  That said, it’s  tempting to dismiss this accusation by saying since he is speaking of a “god” (lower) case – he is not speaking of the true God (capital G). The Bible speaks of Satan as the “god of this age” (lower case g) (2 Cor 4.4), and it says of him:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;” (John 10.10)

So the god of this age is in fact a genocidal god.  But taking that approach is a silly game atheists and evolutionists play – logically it’s called Equivocation – the illicit switching of a term. I know he’s using the lower case “g” to refer disrespectfully to the true God.  So let me address that.

Is God a “jealous” God?  One of the most memorable uses of the term comes from the second of the Ten Commandments against idols where we read:

“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,”
Ex 20.5

The underlying word translated as “jealous”, in the original is the adjective: קנא (kan-na) from the verb of the same form (קנא) In verbal form the Hebrew word means to be “jealous or zealous” (a usage that parallels the old English usage[4]). In adjectival form it is used only of God, and describes God as “punishing those who hate him”[5] taken no doubt from the context of Ex 20.5. Continuing in context we read about God: “but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Ex 20.6)

We see here clearly God is distinguishing between two groups of people: Those who are his – who love him, and those who are not his and who “hate” him.  This is in keeping with the root meaning of the word jealous. Referring again to Webster Online: for “jealous“:

Sense 1: “Hostile toward a rival…”
Sense 3: “Vigilant in guarding a possession”

Sense 1 describes group 2 and sense 3 describes group 1. Is making this distinction a bad  thing? Consider a loving mother who wants to protect her children. It might be said of her, “This parent jealously protects her children from pedophiles and child pornographers.”  Here again we see the two groups – those the mother loves who she protects (her children) – and those she (for all practical purposes) hates and protects her children from – the pedophiles.  The word “jealous” sets up the same two categories, the same boundaries, and the same protective intent for the loved ones. And when applied to God, with it comes an implicit understanding:  since God is the judge of all the earth, all those he jealously guards against are ultimately also those who are judged and punished for their evil doing.

So the jealousness that is spoken of with regards to God is not the type of jealousy that people tend to look askance at: the green eyed monster that drives people to fits of outlandish and unrighteous behavior type.  Rather it is a  protective quality that compliments the one character trait about God that best describes him – which is love. “God is love” we’re told (1 John 4.8). But God would hardly be considered a loving God if he did not zealously (and yes jealously) love and protect those of his own family.  Thus the term, once properly understood, points to a further perfection in God, not a character flaw.

Genocidal?

This charge shows the willingness of those who hate God – for whatever reason (ignorance, anger, etc.) to misrepresent him and bear false witness against him.  How far off the mark are they? Consider a judge who sentences multiple people to death after a court of law finds them guilty of capital murder. Or consider the executioner(s) who kills them.  Would you call either of these serial killers? That would be a grave misrepresentation, would it not? The judge and executioner are correctly administering justice. The connotation of a “serial killer” is the repeated, wrongful, illicit taking of innocent lives. That is not true of the actions of the judge or the executioner. What they did is neither wrongful nor illicit, nor were those sentenced to death innocent.

The same can be said of God. He is administering justice in the supposed cases where he’s accused of “genocide.” The only difference is God sits as both judge and executioner.  Clearly those tossing out the accusation of “genocidal” are ignorant of the justice behind why judgment was pronounced, and/or are willfully hiding the fact that just as a judge who hands down many sentences of death is not guilty of genocide, neither is God. They would do well to read why those sentences were pronounced. (See for example Deut 20.17-18)

Unicorns?

For those eagerly awaiting the comment on unicorns, let me jump down the list to address the matter. The authorized version does in fact mention unicorns. The first question is, should it? Should the word “unicorn” be used, or should we follow modern translations that typically use “wild ox” instead. For reasons listed in the side bar here (Are Unicorns in the Bible) the short answer is yes – a single horned creature is intended.  And to demonstrate that no translation is perfect, here is one case where the modern translations mislead us because it appears the intent for  the word – ראם (reh-ahm) – the Hebrew word behind “unicorn” – once properly understood (it’s not a mythical creature) – is a reference to a single horned creature.

The question is – is that a problem? It is only if you have the wrong idea of what a unicorn is. The problem is we bring modern ideas of what a unicorn is to the text instead of reading the text in its historical and grammatical context. Actually the misconceptions about unicorns is not so modern. It goes back at least to 16th century England. History researcher Don Wildman provides us some detail:

“It’s the 1500’s in England. Queen Elizabeth the First has just acquired an extraordinary artifact. A magical article that’s said to protect its owner from all harm. Supposedly it’s the horn of a unicorn. So is there any truth to this potent protrusion?”[6]

By the end of the segment, we learn what the queen likely had was the horn of a narwhale, not of a unicorn. But the fact that she was deceived by those collecting her money for the horn does not negate the main point: that unicorns were considered – in that age – to be magical creatures.  This is in stark  contrast to the Biblical depiction – which is that of a common creature which anyone could see.  Not a mysterious magical creature with a supernatural horn.

The Bible speaks of unicorns as a real creature – as real as a peacock or an ostrich. But just as the peacock has its beautiful tail feathers, and the ostrich its speed, the Bibles speaks primarily of the unicorn’s great power – not its single horn – which is noted mostly as a symbol of strength. And strength was a feature the creature apparently had in abundance. In fact the strength is so notable that God’s strength is compared to the strength of a unicorn:

“God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: …” (Num 24:8 KJV)

Even from this short description, it is clear the primary characteristic in view is the power and strength of the creature – not equine features like speed or beauty, and certainly not the magical qualities some attribute to unicorn’s horn.

What does a Unicorn Look like?

So what exactly did unicorns look like? No one is sure. This Answers in Genesis (AIG) article has some suggestions like the “elasmotherium, an extinct giant rhinoceros” a creature whose bones reveal the support structure for a single massive horn, or alternately an extinct wild ox known as an aurochs.[7]  Certainly both are a possibility. But I’d like to add one more possibility into the mix. This suggestion is based on  two facts: 1) Apart from a word we no longer know the meaning of, the Bible does not indicates what type of animal a unicorn is – whether equine, bovine, reptile, or other[8] etc. 2) According to the Bible, humans and dinosaurs have always lived in the same age – they were created on the same day – day six – along with the other wild animals and livestock according to Gen 1.24-28. 

Thus, since it is unclear what animal the word translated as “unicorn” actually points to, it is possible that the unicorn is a single horned dinosaur like the Centrosaurus pictured above (left).  Or Monoclonius (pictured below). The image used to illustrate the AIG article has what appears to be 3 creatures in a forest shrouded in mist and distant enough that all you can really discern is a large creature with a single massive horn – it could be a dinosaur, a rhinoceros (though the horn is much longer than what is depicted for either), an elasmotherium or something else. Since the animal the word points to is unclear, to preserve accuracy they are necessarily vague with the depiction since no one knows for sure which animal it is.


Monoclonius

That the unicorn might be a large single horned dinosaur  makes sense of the many descriptions of the creatures being very powerful – as such dinosaurs appear to be, and untamable.  So once again we see there is no problem with the word that is used – a word meaning single-horn – once the context is properly understood. Even though we don’t know precisely which creature is intended, it is clear there are a number of singled horned creatures that the word could be referring to. 

So when in doubt about a Biblical text, questions that clarify (what is the context?, what does the word mean?) should be the first things that come to mind when challenges arise. Such challenges are worthy of  the serpent in the garden with Eve: “Did God really say…” (Gen 3.1) And as Jesus did (Matt 4:4, 7, 10), such challenges are best answered with scripture.

Conclusion

The single horned creature described in the Bible may or may not be a single horned dinosaur. It may, as some scholars believe, be a type of single horned rhinoceros. Some think it is a twin horned wild ox[9], though for reasons pointed out in the side bar I doubt that’s the case. When God renews all things (Matt 19.28), I expect we’ll find the unicorn is indeed a powerful, impressive, single horned creature.

Until that time, as mentioned above, to overcome difficulties – recognize  when the issue is a language barrier and get a good lexicon.[10] And always read about the item in its context. Reading the context will generally reveal why challenges to the veracity of a text are meritless and baseless. (As we’ll see in the follow-up articles.)

Next up: In part 2 we’ll look at  satyrs, and “a man who lived in a fish” which can only be a reference to the Biblical book of Jonah.

Duane Caldwell | August 14,  2019


Notes

1. In “Evidence is for Believers, Not Mockers” I advise that evidence is for believers or those willing to believe. For those clearly unwilling to believe and mockers, save the evidence and merely tell them the gospel.
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2. You can view that tweet here
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3. For checking the original language the preferred resources are the scholarly standard references:
For Hebrew:
Francis Brown, et.al., The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1979 (Hereafter the BDB)

For Greek:
Walter Bauer, et. al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979 (Hereafter the BAG)

Though see note #10 for a more readily available resource.
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4. Merriam Webster Online states: “Zealous and jealous share not just a rhyme, but an etymology. Both words ultimately come from the Latin zelus “jealousy,” and in the past their meanings were somewhat closer to each other than they are today.”
Merriam-Webster, “jealous”, accessed 8/5/19,
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/jealous
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5. Ref from The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1979 p.888
(hereafter: BDB)
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6. Don Wildmon, Mysteries at the Museum episode “Titanic Orphans, Plot to Kill the Pope and Magical Unicorn” Travel Channel – History/Documentary, 2018
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7. Elizabeth Mitchell, “Unicorns in the Bible?”, Answers In Genesis, 8/18/2008, https://answersingenesis.org/extinct-animals/unicorns-in-the-bible/
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8. The word translated “unicorm” is ראם (reh-ahm) – the BDB lists several possibilities for the word: wild ox, antelope, rhinoceros; The Jameison-Faussett-Brown commentary suggests the animal is a Buffalo, (“…but the buffalo is the animal referred to here” re; Job 39.9); Elmer B. Smick writing for the Expositor’s Commentary offers the widely accepted solution of “the now extinct aurochs” (a type of wild ox). Clearly it is not known for sure what the original animal is that this word is referring to, which Strong’s states plainly – “the exact meaning is not known.”
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9. For support of the unicorn as an aurochs – a two horned wild ox, see:

“Skeptics’ Pointless Ridicule of the Bible’s ‘Unicorns'”, ICR, https://www.icr.org/article/skeptics-pointless-ridicule-bibles

The unicorn, The Bible does not refer to fantasy animals, CMI, https://creation.com/the-unicorn

Unicorns in the Blbie, AIG, https://answersingenesis.org/extinct-animals/unicorns-in-the-bible/
(This also mentions one other candidate besides the auroch.)

For support of the unicorn as a single horned creature, see the side bar “Are Unicorns in the Bible” http://rationalfaith.com/sidebar/Are-Unicorns-in-the-Bible.htm

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10. An acceptable alternative to the reference books in note 3: The abbreviated lexicons found at the back of:
James Strong, The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984
This reference has the benefit of having a numbering system incorporated that links the Hebrew or Greek word in question to the word in the above referenced BDB and BAG standard references. (see note 3)
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Images
All images used by permission
Featured: 2 Unicorns? © Duane Caldwell 2019
Featuring: Centrosaurs
Fred Wierum [CC BY-SA 4.0],
Buttermilk Unicorn
© Catmando | Fotolia used  by permission
Monoclonius by HK [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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