Is the word “unicorn” an erroneous translation in the King James Bible? The English word unicorn occurs nine times in the KJB, and is found in Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deut. 33:17; Job 39:9,10; Psalms 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7. It is translated from the Hebrew word reem, which comes from a verb used only once, and found in Zechariah 14:10 “Jerusalem, and ?it shall be lifted up’ and inhabited in her place.”
?This animal is characterized by something lifted up or high and in a prominent position. It is very strong – “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” Num. 23:22. It is also used in a symbolic way in our Lord’s prophetic prayer as recorded in Psalms 22:21 “Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.” There was no literal lion present when Christ died, but Satan, as a roaring lion, was present, for it was his hour and the power of darkness. There were no literal unicorns present either, but they symbolically or spiritually were present and assisted our Lord Jesus in His greatest hour of need.
This animal was untamable, as can be seen in Job 39:9 – 12, where God asks Job “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 him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?”
This passage shows that the unicorn, whatever it was, could not be tamed at all, nor used in farming to plow the fields like an ox can. This, as well as other verses soon to be discussed, shows that many modern versions, like the NKJV, NIV, and NASB, are incorrect in their rendering of this word as “wild ox”. The wild ox is nothing more than a “wild guess” and pure speculation on the part of the modern bible editors. A wild ox is like a wild horse. It can be tamed, by castration or placing a yoke on its neck, and bind him with his band in the furrow to bring home thy seed. God’s question to Job is intended to produce a definite NO, not a ?Yeah, I can do that.’
Those who criticize the KJB’s unicorns try to muster a group of “scholars” who give their opinion as to what this animal was. But listen carfully to their words. Henry Morris – “The Hebrew word translated unicorn is believed by most Hebrew scholars to refer to the huge and fierce aurochs, or wild ox now extinct.” W. L. Alexander (Pulpit Commentary) “the reem is supposed to be the aurochs, an animal of the bovine species, allied to the buffalo, now extinct.” Charles Spurgeon wrote “The unicorn may have been some gigantic ox or buffalo now unknown and perhaps extinct.” William Houghon “we think that there can be no doubt (how is that for certainty !) that some species of wild ox is intended.”
Eastons’ Bible dictionary says: “The exact reference of the word is doubtful. Some have supposed it to be the buffalo, others the white antelope called by the Arabs rim. Most probably, however, the word denotes Bos Primigenius, which is now extinct.”
All of this is pure speculation. The fact is the modern bible translators do not know what this animal was, and many of them say that whatever it might have been, it is now extinct. Wild oxen still exist, and they can be tamed and domesticated. In fact some bibles like Darby and the Spanish of 1960 translate this word as “buffalo”, while the Douay Rheims sometimes has “rhinoceros” and other times “unicorns”. Young’s ‘literal’ translation shows that he simply did not know what the animal in question referred to, so he merely transliterated the Hebrew word, and did not translate it at all. His version consistently reads “the rheem”.
I recently discovered something that I think is very interesting of quite enlightening about how modern scholars are changing the definitions that words once had. I have in my study two different printings of the well known Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. One is from 1887 and the other one is from 1976, which was a reprint of the 9th edition of 1940. The more modern Liddell and Scott defines the word monokeros as “a wild ox”. However the 1887 edition gives only one definition of the word – A UNICORN!!!. Now, it should be obvious that Liddell and Scott themselves were not alive in 1976 so that they could suddenly change their minds about what this word meant. So who changed the definition of this word for future generations?
Unicorn means literally, “one – horned”; it was a one horned animal. Daniel Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 defined unicorn as “an animal with one horn; the monoceros. This name is often applied to the rhinoceros.” There have been fossils found, and are now in museums, of a giant one horned beast or dinosaur. There are also the unicorn bird, the unicorn fish, the unicorn moth, the unicorn shell, plant, root and the unicorn constellation. So several things, both plants and animals have the word unicorn attached to them to describe some physical characteristic.
There are even historical accounts of the unicorn. In 416 BC, the Greek physician Ctesias set out to attend to the Persian King Darius II, where he spent 18 years. He later wrote a book called Indica, in which he said: “There are in India certain wild asses which are a large as horses, and larger. They have a horn on the forehead which is about eighteen inches in length.”
Pliny the Elder, in the first century AD, describes “an exceedingly wild beast called the Monoceros (one – horned)…It makes a deep lowing noise, and one black horn two cubits long projects from the middle of its forehead. This animal, they say, cannot be taken alive.” Aristotle frequently mentioned the unicorn. He said in one passage: “I have found that wild asses as large as horses are to be found in India.
It has a horn on the brow, about one cubit and a half in length..” Julius Caesar said they could be found in the Hercynian Forest, and Alexander the Great is said to have seen one before attempting to invade a certain territory, and took it as a sign not to attack, because the land was protected. Are these reports true? I do not know, but I mention them only to show that there are many conflicting views as to what this animal was and in what form it existed.
Justin Martyr writes concerning the unicorn in Psalm 22. In his book “Dialogue with Trypho” this early church fathers says: “And what follows of the Psalm,–‘But Thou, Lord, do not remove Thine assistance from me; give heed to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword, and my only-begotten from the hand of the dog; save me from the lion’s mouth, and my humility from THE HORNS OF THE UNICORNS,’–was also information and prediction of the events which should befall Him.
For I have already proved that He was the only-begotten of the Father of all things, being begotten in a peculiar manner Word and Power by Him, and having afterwards become man through the Virgin, as we have learned from the memoirs. Moreover, it is similarly foretold that He would die by crucifixion. For the passage, ‘Deliver my soul from the sword, and my only-begotten from the hand of the dog; save me from the lion’s mouth, and my humility from the horns of the UNICORNS,’ is indicative of the suffering by which He should die, i.e., by crucifixion. For the ‘horns of the, unicorns,’ I have already explained to you, are the figure of the cross only.”
In chapter 16 Justin Martyr continues his reference to the unicorn, saying: “And God by Moses shows in another way the force of the mystery of the cross, when He said in the blessing wherewith Joseph was blessed, ?From the blessing of the Lord is his land; for the seasons of heaven, and for the dews, and for the deep springs from beneath,… Let him be glorified among his brethren; his beauty is like the firstling of a bullock; his horns the horns of an UNICORN: with these shall he push the nations from one end of the earth to another.’ Now, no one could say or prove that the horns of an UNICORN represent any other fact or figure than the type which portrays the cross.
For the one beam is placed upright, from which the highest extremity is raised up into a horn, when the other beam is fitted on to it, and the ends appear on both sides as horns joined on to the one horn. And the part which is fixed in the centre, on which are suspended those who are crucified, also stands out like a horn; and it also looks like a horn conjoined and fixed with the other horns.”
The King James Bible is not at all alone in translating this specific Hebrew word as unicorn. In fact the word unicorn is found in Wycliffs translation 1395, Tyndale 1525 (he translated part of the Old Testament before he was killed), Coverdale’s Bible 1535, Taverner’s Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishops Bible 1568, the Geneva Bible 1599, the so called Greek Septuagint version, the Italian Diodati 1649, Las Sagradas Escrituras of 1569, as well as the Spanish Reina Valera of 1602, all of which preceeded the King James Bible.
Today, other more modern versions that contain the word unicorn are the Spanish Reina Valera of 1909, the Spanish Las Sagradas Escrituras 1999 edition “unicornio”, the French Martin 1744 “licornes”, Luther’s German 1545 and the updated Luther German Bible of 1912 “einhornshomer”, the Modern Greek translation of the Old Testament “monokeros”(not to be confused with the so called LXX), the Catholic Douay version of 1950, Darby’s translation of 1870, the 21st Century King James Version, the Third Millenium Bible, Daniel Webster’s translation of the Bible 1833, Lamsa’s 1933 Bible translation of the Syraic Peshitta, and in the 1936 edition of the Massoretic Scriptures put out by the Hebrew Publishing Company of New York.
The Greek Septuagint (LXX). Regardless of when you think this Greek translation of the Old Testament was made or by whom, this version is chock-full of satyrs, devils, dragons, and unicorns. The word unicorns is found in Numberbs 23:22; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9; Psalms 22:21; 29:6; 78:69, and 92:10.
One other verse that puts the lie to the modern versions use of “wild ox”, besides the reference in Job, is Psalms 92:10. ?But my HORN shalt thou exalt like the HORN of AN UNICORN.” The NASB, NIV, NKJV read: “You have exalted my HORN like THAT OF A WILD OX.” Now, I ask you a simple question. How many horns does a wild ox have? Not one, but two.
Psalm 92:10 Wycliffe 1395 – And myn horn schal be reisid as an vnicorn; and myn eelde in plenteuouse merci.
Bishop’s Bible 1568 – But my horne shalbe exalted lyke the horne of an vnicorne: for I am annoynted with excellent oyle.
Coverdale 1535 – But my horne shalbe exalted like the horne of an Vnicorne, & shal be anoynted with fresh oyle.
Geneva Bible 1599 – But thou shalt exalt mine horne, like the vnicornes, and I shalbe anoynted with fresh oyle.
Third Millenium Bible 1998 – But my horn shalt Thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn; I shall be anointed with fresh oil.
Some would criticize the KJB in Deut. 33:17 where Moses is blessing Israel. He says: “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.” The Oxford and Cambridge KJB editions say in the marginal note: Hebrew – unicorn. This is a masculine singular absolute noun. Yet it is rendered as a plural “unicorns” not only by the KJB but also by Websters Bible, the Third Millenium Bible and the 21st Century KJB. Those who criticze the KJB for rendering a singular noun as a plural are showing their selective use of the Hebrew language.
All Bible translations frequently translate a singular masculine absolute noun as a plural. In this same book of Deuteronomy, in just the first 10 chapters, the NKJV, NIV and NASB do this very thing. Deut. 8:15 “nachash” & “aqrab” (singular nouns) are translated by all as “serpents & scorpions”, in Deut. 1:19, 20 “har” is mountains in the NKJV, Deut 1:1, 2:37 “bahar” and “har” as hills or mountains in NKJV, KJB, and NIV. Deut. 1:23, 35 and in many many other places “ish” as “men”; Dt. 3:3 “sarid” as survivors in NIV, NKJV; Deut. 5:15 “ebed” slaves in NIV, Deut. 7:9 “dowr” generations in NIV & NKJV; Deut. 8:8 “rimmown” as pomegranates in NASB, NIV and NKJV; Deut. 9:ll, 18, 25 “layil” as “nights” in NASB, NIV and NKJV; and Deut. 10:19 “gare” as strangers or aliens in NIV, NKJV, and NASB.
So the person who tries to attack the KJB for rendering a singular noun as a plural, just doesn’t know what he is talking about. Because of the “horns” plural, the KJB has made the singular noun as plural in the context. There are many words like this in English which can be either singular or plural like: deer, sheep, moose, elk, fish and trout etc.
By the way, some have tried to blame the rendering of unicorn on the alleged KJB translator’s use of the so called Greek Septuagint. However, the translators marginal note in Deut. 33:17 clearly says: “Hebrew – unicorn”, not “LXX – unicorn”. The King James Bible translators clearly believed that the Hebrew word itself means unicorn. You can differ if you like from their beliefs, but don’t try to blame this reading on the supposed use of the Greek Septuagint.
The historic rabbinic commentary (Ibn Ezra, Radaq, Rashi, Saadi Gaon et. al.) views on Deuteronomy 33:17, and the re’em question in general support the King James reading in Deuteronomy. As an example Radaq (Kimchi) is considered, historically, as the single most important Hebrew linguist and grammatical expert.
Rabbi David Kimchi (Safer HaShorashim, RAEM): His horns are like the horns of unicorns (Deuteronomy 33:17). “It is intended to mean that his horns are like the horns of (several) unicorns for the Raem has only one horn.”
The Unicorn was a one horned animal of some kind. I don’t think we know for sure what it was, but it was not a wild ox as the NKJV, NASB, NIV have it. It could not be tamed (Job 39: 9, 10) and Psalm 92:10 is speaking of a one horned animal, while the “wild ox” of the NKJV, NIV, NASB has two horns; not just one.
One definite possibility is the Indian rhinoceros, of which there are still about 2000 alive today. They used to cover large areas, but are now limited to India and Nepal. They weigh about 4,500 pounds, can run at over 20 miles an hour; they have one large horn on the snout and their scientific name is Rhinoceros UNICORNIS.
In the original 16ll edition of the KJB, the editors placed “or Rhinoceros” in the margin of Isaiah 34:7 where it reads: “And the unicorns shall come down with them.” It is still in the modern editions of the KJB. So the KJB editors were not ignorant of the possibility of the unicorn being a rhinoceros. I do not know, nor does any one else but God, what the unicorn was or is.
It was a one horned animal of great strength; it could not be tamed, and it is always used in a good and positive sense in Scripture. The KJB is not in error by translating this word as unicorn, but the modern versions are just taking a wild guess with their “wild oxen” and the other scriptures show their wild guess to be wrong.