Unicorns, in the biblical sense

Unicorns Illustration from: S. Bochart: ''Hierozoicon, sive Bipertitum opus de animalibus Sacrae Scripturae .. "

David Lamb, of God Behaving Badly has a post on biblical unicorns. He wrote about these unicorns in the Bible:

A student in my psalms class (Phil) pointed out to me recently that unicorns appear in the Bible.

I said, “What?”  He said, “Yep”.  I said, “Where?”  He said in Psalm 22 and other places.  “You’re kidding.”  “Nope, but only in the King James Version.”

I opened up BibleWorks 7.0, and discovered 9 references, including these two:

“His horns are like the horns of unicorns” (Deut. 33:17).
“And the unicorns shall come down with them” (Isa 34:7).

Fine and dandy, at least in the KJV does indeed mention “unicorns”. BUT are all the nervous fundies and exultant atheists right to get excited?

Well, no, as Dt 33:17 makes clear:

His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth: and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Manasseh.

RTFT (read the flipping text!) these unicorns have “horns” plural, now if we only had the KJV one might argue that this just means there are several unicorns, except in the Hebrew the word is a not plural it reads: vecarne re’em “horns of a XXX” a single XXX has “horns” therefore the unicorn in the KJV has more than one horn. I can think of loads of non mythical animals that have more than one horn, and I do not need even to join Jerome in wondering if this is a rhinoceros!

Unless I get really carried away, and look at the Greek, instead of the Hebrew, there I find mention of a μονοκέρωτος or “one horn” which suggests that at least the Greek translators were thinking of a rhino…

8 comments on “Unicorns, in the biblical sense

  1. Pingback: Unicorns, in the biblical sense – Sansblogue « David T. Lamb

  2. Mark S.S.

    Certainly can see the ‘rhinoceros’ of Jerome’s translation being the ‘unicorn’ in the KJV text and others! The horns ‘like unicorns’ being in line (tandem rather than dual like a bull). Sumatran and African rhinos have TWO horns and the Indian and Javan have ONE horn. It may have been possible they roamed the areas together as a thought. The rhino is related closer to the horse family than the hippopotamus. A group of rhino is called a “crash”! Ill tempered and will charge easily due to their poor eyesight , they have no knees, so are rather ‘unbending’ (pun intended). And can you imagine up to six foot and a tonne of this running nimbly on their toes up to 50 kmph at you?! Now that’s quite a metaphor (?)! The trouble is they fight each other and have the highest rate of death among all mammals in fights among those of same species (50% of males and 30% of females die from these intra-species fights!). Jerome himself had the reputation of being short fused and unbending too!

    One can certainly appreciate the rhinoceros being or could be intended in Job 39:9-11 [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? Wilt thou trust, because his strength is great? Or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? “ Jerome wrote in Job 39:9-10 [Vulgate] “..numquid volet rinoceros servire tibi aut morabitur ad praesepe tuum 10 numquid alligabis rinocerota ad arandum loro tuo aut confringet glebas vallium post te.”

    Many translations of course translate ‘unicorn’ as ‘wild ox’ and the ox was hunted as a sport of royalty as in the likes of Assyria (ESV Study Bible).

    Today, man is the rhinos’ only predator, though the Nile crocodile is known to be a natural predator taking mainly the young. The rhinoceros are protected today, even being under guard because of their 90% depletion due to killing for their horns ( being considered medicinal in some cultures). The horns are made of the same tissue as our fingernails and actually grow back (so those who think rhino horns have special properties might as well chew their own fingernails in my opinion).
    Presently I will continue to sing the Irish Rover’s, “There were green alligators and long neck geese….” for fun with those in Rest Homes :-)

    Rhinoceros facts from: http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/news-25-facts-about-critically-endan. and http://www.rhinoworlds.com/rhinoceros-facts.html [accessed 9/3/2012]

  3. Dysmas

    “horns of unicorns” is like “noses of the men” — it does not mean men have more than one nose. Plural unicorns would obviously have plural horns. The “horn of the unicorns” would not only be awkward syntax, but would mean that all those poor unicorns have to share their one horn.

  4. tim

    You are right, except this needs “men” not “man” and the Hebrew means “horns of a unicorn”. So the KJV may be thinking of a one horned animal, the Hebrew was not. I think.

  5. Pavla Antheros

    Unicorns are called unicorns because they have one horn, if they had two they would be called something like doucorns or something of the sort, so if the ”unicorns” mentioned in the passage have ”horns” in ”plural” then they are not unicorns, probably the person who did the translation didn’t know the animal being described in hebrew, and just thought up the name of a horned mythological beast, the first one that popped into his head. Please note that i don’t believe in unicorns, witches, fairies, or a character named jesus, he’s a great character, but so is harry potter, that doesn’t make him real. I make this note because it just sounds silly to me that you’re talking about two-horned unicorns… you may know a lot about the bible, but not enough about language… and yes, it makes sense that he was referring to rhinos, which have a large horn and another little one right behind it, which would make it look like a ”unicorn” but in reality would have horns ”in plural”

  6. tim

    Pavla, thanks for commenting. I’ll try and reply politely, even if you do seem to think I know nothing about language. Please notice, as I wrote in the post, and repeated in a comment above:
    The Hebrew text means “the horns of a [singular] XXX” that is ONE animal with MORE than one horn. I.e. it is nothing to do with unicorns and the KJV translators were just using the LXX (an ancient Greek translation) to guess what the unknown word XXX meant. To get a better guess one probably needs to look at what the root means in cognate languages.
    As for your side note about a list of things and people in whose existence you do not believe, it seems odd to list Jesus there as his existence is attested better than most characters in our history books from that period. Assuming that you are and want to be a reasonable person, I think perhaps what you mean is that you don’t believe some set of claims you think Christians make about him.

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