Chasing Unicorns in the Bible
- Tuesday, October 22, 2013
There are unicorns in the Bible—seriously. Check out Job 39:9–10 in the King James Version (KJV): “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? Or will he harrow the valleys after thee?” Incredible. There is a mythical beast with the body of a horse and a single horn in the middle of its forehead in the Bible. And Job isn’t the only place you’ll find unicorns in the KJV.1
This word is relatively rare. Unusual words sometimes present problems for translators. In the early 17th century, the study of Hebrew by Christian scholars was still in its infancy. Unlike today, translators could not look words up in a Hebrew dictionary. The meaning of an unknown word was found either by asking a native speaker, or by studying the word in context and venturing a guess. In the case of a biblical word, scholars could have referenced other ancient Bible versions to discern how ancient translators understood a word. At the time theKJV was produced, the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate were the most well-known ancient versions.
Using the ESV Hebrew–English Reverse Interlinear, we find that the Hebrew word translated as “unicorn” or “wild ox” in Job 39:9 is reym (רים). Its dictionary form is re’em (ראם). Using the Strong’s number from our interlinear, we can find this word in a Hebrew dictionary like Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB). BDB provides us with all the other passages where re’em occurs and, how it was translated in ancient Bible versions. BDB’S entry for re’em shows that the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—primarily used the Greek word monokeros (µονόκερως, “one-horned”) for re’em. That partly explains how the KJV translators got “unicorn.” The Vulgate—the ancient Latin translation of the entire Bible by the church father Jerome—is almost evenly split in its translation between unicornis (unicorn) and rinoceros (rhinoceros). In Job 39:9, Jerome must have felt the context fit the rhinoceros best.2
[Pick up a commentary focused on translational issues at Logos.com/UBS]
But why would the KJV translators choose “unicorn” when they had the option of “rhinoceros”? They didn’t know unicorns were mythical. Since 1382, English translations consistently rendered re’em as unicorn.3 Also, in 1607, the scholar Edward Topsell stated in his History of Four-Footed Beasts that “we have showed already… that Reem in Hebrew signifies a Unicorn.”4 In 1657, the Bible commentator John Trapp stated regarding Job 39:9 that “This is the… Unicorn… A very fierce and strong creature it is; and now days very rare, but anciently more common.”5 The KJV translators were following the typical English usage by representing re’em as unicorn. The translation was therefore more the result of the influence of tradition, and one ancient version, than the study of the Hebrew word itself. Without the knowledge that unicorns weren’t real, “unicorn” was an acceptable option.
This issue, though, isn’t resolved: Most modern English translations read “ox.” So which is it—a unicorn, an ox, or a rhinoceros? Determining the meaning from context (and in this case, known zoological reality) is best. Eliminating the unicorn leaves us with an ox or a rhinoceros. Certain contexts describe an animal with horns (plural) that is not easily tamed and known for its strength.6 Most rhinoceroses have two horns. The Indian rhinoceros (rhinoceros unicornis)—found in modern-day India and Nepal—has a single horn. However, there is no archaeological evidence that rhinoceroses were native to Canaan. Ultimately, though, Job 39:9 provides us with a conclusive contextual clue. The reference to a “furrow” indicates a plow animal was in view—and that certainly wouldn’t speak of a rhinoceros.
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