Author: Associate Pastor Cliff Castle February 19, 2020
Today, the common perception of a unicorn is that of a mystical, mythical one-horned horse-like animal, that may or may not be able to fly and generate rainbows! So, at a ladies’ ministry meeting study in Job 39, one could imagine the discussions that occurred when they came to verses 9-10:
“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?” (KJV)
Here there are just two occurrences of the word “unicorn” in the King James Version Bible but there are seven more (Numbers 23:22, 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Psalm 22:21, 29:6, 92:10, and Isaiah 34:7). Believing that the Bible is the inerrant and inspired Word of God Himself, how could this be? Some possibilities include that perhaps there truly were these unicorn creatures as we imagine from children’s stories roaming the earth in biblical times; perhaps the Bible is wrong, or more specifically that the King James Version of the Bible is wrong; or perhaps there is a better explanation for the verse.
English versions of the Bible differ greatly based mainly on how the version is developed. It is safe to say that the best way to translate the Bible is from the original language and the original Scriptures / documents. Sometimes, versions are created as translations of translations or by modernizing the language from older translations. This could amplify errors or misunderstandings that arise between the different languages (both in definitions and in the construction of the written word). This may be the case in the discussion of the unicorn!
In the Hebrew, the word in Job 39:9 is reh-ame’ which means quite literally “wild ox”. However, when the Scriptures (i.e., Old Testament) were translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the word became monokeros (one-horned) which is a compound word from mono meaning “one” or “single” and keras meaning “horn”. Then, the Latin Vulgate (translated by the early church father, Jerome) interpreted the word in this passage as rinoceras. It is worth noting that Jerome also uses the word unicornis to translate reh-ame’ in other passages and is relatively evenly split between unicornis (unicorn) and rinoceros (rhinoceros).
In Job 39:9, the context certainly seems to fit the rhinoceros best, especially if one considers the strength of a rhino. However, it should not be construed that an actual rhinoceros is the object of the Lord’s comparison for Job. First, there is no indication that rhinos ever were indigenous to Canaan. Second, there is a contextual clue in the passage that references a “furrow” (insinuating a plow animal) and therefore a type of cattle. Some would suggest that the wild ox here references an extinct species of wild cattle called aurochs, which were prevalent in Europe, Asia and northern Africa during biblical times. They finally died out in Europe in the 1600s.
Since the translators of the King James Version may not have had a good understanding of the word reh-ame’ it is quite possible that they consulted the Septuagint and the Vulgate to clarify the confusion. This could explain how the translation of the original word gives us “unicorn” today. The Bible is not wrong and unicorns (as they are portrayed in stories today) did not exist in biblical times (or ever). We can also see that the Bible is not referencing the rhino either.
So, does this call into question the validity and accuracy of the KJV Bible or any English Bible? Certainly not! Even in the original languages, the Scriptures are written in “God’s baby talk to us” so we, created beings, can even begin to remotely understand. Language causes confusion sometimes as to the meaning of the Bible passages and can make them unclear. So, we must study, pray, and let the Holy Spirit guide and teach us in the Word. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).