Sidebar to: Is the Bible full of fantastic creatures? Part 1: Jealous God and Unicorns?
First of all, let’s dispense with the idea that the Bible speaks of the mythical magical type of unicorns pictured above – the type that most people think about when they hear the word “unicorn”. In fact the word “unicorn”- as it is understood today, is so far removed from the meaning of the original Hebrew word ראם (reh-ahm) that modern translations have chosen to not even use the word, preferring instead “wild ox.” Some translations using “wild ox”: NIV, ESV, NKJV, NASB, NRSV among others. That’s appropriate since 1. “wild ox” is the primary meaning given in the standard reference – BDB and 2. Its a word that could refer to what many commentators conclude the Hebrew word points to – the aurochs – a wild ox now extinct. The problem with that understanding is that all the wild oxen we’re familiar with have two horns. Which gets back to the main question I want to examine:
Does the Bible Really Refer to a Unicorn?
Did the Biblical writers (plural since the word shows up in more than one book) intend for us to understand the word ראם (reh-ahm) to be a single horned creature? Since, as Strong’s lexicon points out, the meaning of the word is uncertain, how can we know what animal was intended? That question cannot be answered at this time, so let’s ask the question another way: Where did the translators of the King James Version – which uses the word “unicorn” get the idea that “unicorn” was the intended meaning? That we can make some educated guesses about.
The title page of the KJV Bible informs the reader that the KJV was “translated out of the original Tongues.” The original tongue of the old testament is Hebrew, and preserved in the Masoretic text (MT). So this means, either the translators of the KJV had reason to believe that the Hebrew word ראם (reh-ahm) referred to a one-horned animal, or – and this is more likely – they were following the Greek translation of the old testament known as the Septuagint (often signified by the Roman numeral LXX). The Septuagint for Job 39.9 – (one of the verses where the word appears) – uses the word μονοκερως (monokerōs) a compound word composed of the words for “only” or “alone” and “horn”.
The Septuagint was translated into Greek in the third century B.C. That makes it about 1900 years older than the KJV and 1200 -1300 years older than the Hebrew Masoretic text. So it’s possible that the meaning of ראם (reh-ahm) had not been lost at the time the LXX was translated.
Also consider – the Biblical writers had other words to choose from if they wanted to refer to a regular two horned ox. Among them – a common word used for a domesticated ox (שור – shor), and there’s another word used for both cattle and an individual ox (בקר – baqar). Yet neither these (nor any of the other less common words for “ox”) was chosen. Instead, a word was chosen that brought to the minds of the translators of the LXX – a one-horned animal.
Given the use of a word meaning “one-horn” when other words could have been used combined with the age of the LXX (much closer in time to the Hebrew text than the MT), it suggests that the Hebrew underlying the Septuagint (which we don’t have) in fact points to a land creature with one horn, and the Septuagint translators knew that.
A Two Horned Unicorn?
So while there is a good basis to understand the biblical text to be referring to a single horned animal, many commentators suggest that the intended creature is the aurochs – a two horned wild ox. A creature with horns so identical and symmetrical that when viewed from the side, it would appear that the creature only had one horn. A strange suggestion for calling it a “unicorn” in my view. That would be like naming the single horned narwhale a “dot-head whale” because when viewed straight on from the front the horn would look like a dot. I don’t think people would call the narwhale that, nor does it seem feasible to name a two horned animal a unicorn because the horns looks like one horn from the side when everything was just right.
In support of the two horned wild ox as the meaning some suggest the KJV is mistaken at least in Deut 33.17 which mentions the unicorn. The verse appears to indicate the creature has two horns. Carl Wieland writes:
In the Hebrew of this passage, the word ‘horns’ is plural, but the word re’em is singular. But if they translated it this way, it would read, ‘His horns are like the horns of a unicorn’, which would give a unicorn more than one horn, obviously a contradiction in terms. 
Actually, it is the LXX – the Greek translation – where ‘horns’ is plural. Not the Hebrew. In the Hebrew translation (the Masoretic text) – the word ‘horn’ is singular as is the word for the creature – (reh-ahm). It can be readily demonstrated that the word “horn” is singular in Deut 33.17 by comparing it to the clearly plural form. For example, Dan 8.3 reads:
I looked up, and there before me was a ram with two horns,
This is the same root word: קרן (q r n ) – “horn”
In Dan 8:3 the word used is: קרנים (q r n y m) – “horns”
In Deut 33.17 the word used is: וקרני (v q r n y) – “and the horn of”
Note the word in Deut 33.17 is missing the plural ending. Some might point out that the verse goes on to speak of “with them” referring to the horns. But changing a pronoun to match how a concept is commonly expressed – in terms of number – is not unheard of. Consider Gen 5.2:
“He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them ‘man‘.”
Notice the pronoun “them” is plural, but the noun “man” is singular. This follows the underlying Hebrew which also has a plural pronoun and a singular verb. We see the same thing happening in this verse with the horn of the unicorn. But when speaking of horn as a symbol of strength as the verse in Deuteronomy does, it is common to use the plural. So the verse in Deuteronomy follows the common expressions: speaking of the horn of the unicorn in the singular, but the horn of strength of a person (or people) in the plural.
So the verse in Deuteronomy is not speaking of a two horned unicorn, rather it is using the horn of a unicorn as a symbol of strength. So Moses is using a figure of speech – referencing the horn of a unicorn to invoke an image of strength, and then multiplying that strength by speaking of it in the plural – thus increasing the blessing he is placing on Joseph.
So once again as is normally the case, the Hebrew Text – the Masoretic text – preserves the preferred reading – with both the animal and its horn in the singular.
In summary, the bible does not make reference to magical mythical creatures – it references real creatures – though they may now be extinct. There is reason to believe that “unicorn” – a singled horned animal – is indeed the intended meaning, particularly since there are other words that could have been used, but weren’t. Additionally since the Septuagint is much closer in time to the original Hebrew text than the MT, it is much more likely the translators of the LXX retained the meaning of the word in question: ראם (reh-ahm) and translated it appropriately as “one-horn”.
Duane Caldwell | August 11, 2019 | Printer Friendly Version
1. Francis Brown, et.al., The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1979 (Hereafter the BDB) p. 910 #7214
2. The full title page inscription is: The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, Translated Out of the Original Tongues, And with the Former Translations Diligently Compared & Revised, The Authorized, King James Version
3. History records King James commissioned 54 scholars to work on the translation of which 47 completed the 7+ year project.
“King James Bible”, All About Truth, accessed 8/11/19, https://www.allabouttruth.org/king-james-bible.htm
4. Paul Lawrence, “A Brief History of the Septuagint”, Bible Archaeology, 31 March 2016, https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/4022-a-brief-history-of-the-septuagint
5. The exact age of the MT is not known – ages range for it being codified between 9th and 11th century AD, with many assuming a 10th century date. See:
6. Support for the two-horned Aurochs as the unicorn appears wide spread. See for example:
“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 mentions one other candidate besides the aurochs as well.)
7. Carl Wieland, “The Unicorn, The Bible Does Not Refer to Fantasy Animals” (Addendum), Creation.com,March 14-15, 1992, https://creation.com/the-unicorn
All images used by permission
Featured: No Unicorns by Duane Caldwell 2019
Featuring: Buttermilk Unicorn © Catmando | Fotolia used by permission