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 labor to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn? (Job 39:9-12)
What Are those Animals Called ‘Unicorns’ in the Bible?
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
Scoffers are known to poke fun at Scripture’s mention (in the King James Bible) of “unicorns”, accusing the Bible of being “unscientific”.(1),(2) Such pseudo-science ridicule is readily refuted, however, even when it’s uncertain which beast is represented by the English word “unicorn”.
The scoffer’s ridicule of “unicorns” (in Scripture) relies upon this flawed syllogism:
ASSUMPTION A: If the Bible is perfectly true it would not treat mythical animals as if they really exist.
ASSUMPTION B: The Bible treats “unicorns”, which are mythical beasts, as if they really exist.
INFERRED CONCLUSION: Therefore the Bible can’t be perfectly true and credible.
With that sophism scoffers giddily dismiss the Bible’s perfection. Of course, the entire mockery rests upon a Straw-man Fallacy(3) because scoffers presuppose that the term “unicorn” is the core controversy—yet the real question is whether or not the underlying Hebrew noun (re’ēm) refers to a real-world animal.(4)
Assumption A contains the Uniformitarian Fallacy,(3) by assuming the Hebrew noun re’ēm must match some animal alive today. However, in light of the inescapable reality that some animal varieties are going extinct, there is no reason why re’ēm must refer to a beast existing today.
Assumption B contains the Bait-and-Switch Fallacy,(3) by assuming thhe mythological beast called a “unicorn”, that exists in fairy tales (and Hollywood cartoons), must equal the Hebrew noun re’ēm that is referred to 9 times within the Old Testament.
Yet reviewing the relevant Biblical contexts (see below) shows re’ēm was a horned beast, like a wild ox or maybe a rhino — neither of which you would try to domesticate!
Furthermore, skeptics sometimes add a corollary assumption to buttress their ridicule of Scripture’s “unicorns”—acting as if their challenge cannot be refuted unless and until Christians positively identify a real-world “unicorn” (i.e., what the Hebrew Bible calls re’ēm), presuming that any doubt about the re’ēm’s taxonomic identity invalidates the Bible’s trustworthiness.(4)
However, refuting the skeptic does not require that “unicorns” be identified with certainty; it is enough to show that plausible solutions exist, proving that “unicorns” need not refer to “mythical” beasts. In fact, more than one plausible candidate (for the “unicorn”) exists—or previously existed(2)—as shown below.
Could the “unicorn” be a rhinoceros, especially a one-horned variety?
Most modern readers don’t know that the word “unicorn” formerly referred to a one-horned Rhinoceros. Consider, however, this is the primary definition of “UNICORN” in the 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s Dictionary:
UNICORN, n. [L. unicornis; unus, one, and cornu, horn.] 1. An animal with one horn; the Monoceros. This name is often applied to the rhinoceros.(5)
The one-horned rhinoceros remains a plausible candidate for the horned beast that Moses (and other Hebrews) called re’ēm, of which there are living varieties: Indian Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) and Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus).(6)
Could the “unicorn” be a wild horned bovine, like aurochs or bison?
The presumed ancestor of domesticated bovines (including cattle, water buffalo, yak, zebu) is the now-extinct aurochs.(2) One of its kind is the inherently wild bison (a/k/a “buffalo”).(7) These wild beasts both have two horns (see Psalm 22:21; Deuteronomy 33:17), are built to be powerful (Numbers 23:22), and are biologically comparable to domesticated bovines (Psalm 29:6; Isaiah 34:7). Harnessing such dangerous bovines, to plow a farm field’s furrows, would be a reckless undertaking, for any foolish farmer who might try it (see Job 39:9-10).
So, what does this prove? First, the skeptic’s Uniformitarian Fallacy guts his criticism of Job 39:9 (and other Scriptures that refer to re’ēm). Second, the skeptic’s insistence that the English term “unicorn”, as used in the AD1611 King James Bible, equate to a spiral-cone-horned horse, is a bait-and-switch-facilitated strawman challenge, because there are plausible candidate, among real-world animals, that could fit the identity of the Scriptural re’ēm. Consequently, the scoffer’s caricature of Biblical “unicorns” is not a genuine impeachment of the Bible’s verity.
(1)The King James Bible uses the English word “unicorn” in 9 Scripture passages: Numbers 23:22 & 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psalms 22:21 (v.22 in BH) & 29:16; Isaiah 34:7.
(2)Dr. Henry Morris, concluded that the “unicorn” (of Job 39:9) was a wild ox-like bovine, the aurochs, that became extinct: “The unicorn is supposedly a mythological animal; actually the creature referred to here is the extinct aurochs, or wild ox, a fierce animal that once inhabited this region. Many of the animals mentioned [in Job chapter 39], as well as other parts of the Old Testament, are of very uncertain identity, and various translators have tied them to a considerable diversity of modern animals. The probable reason for this uncertainty is that many of the animals, like the ‘unicorn’, are now extinct, because they could not long survive the drastically changed environments following the great Flood.” [Footnote to Job 39:9 in The New Defender’s Study Bible, page 822.] Zoölogist George Cansdale concluded that re’ēm was the now-extinct aurochs. [George S. Cansdale, All the Animals of the Bible Lands (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), page 82.] The aurochs is depicted repeatedly on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, now relocated to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
(3)Regarding logical fallacies, James J. S. Johnson, “Staying on Track Despite Deceptive Distractions”, Acts & Facts, 41(5):9-11 (May 2012) (re straw-man fallacy, posted at http://www.icr.org/article/staying-track-despite-deceptive-distractions/ ); “Bait and Switch: A Trick Used by Both Anglerfish and Evolutionists”, Acts & Facts, 41(1):10-11 (January 2012) (re bait-and-switch fallacy), posted at http://www.icr.org/article/bait-switch-trick-used-by-both-anglerfish ); “Is the Present the ‘Key’ to the Past?” Acts & Facts, 43(6):19 (June 2014, posted at http://www.icr.org/article/8165 ).
(4)A related inquiry is why Bible scholars, seeking to translate re’ēm into Greek, Latin, and English, used words like “unicorn” in their translations. The Septuagint (“LXX”), a Greek translation of the Old Testament, translated re’ēm as monokerôs. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translated re’ēm as rinocerotis in Deuteronomy 33:17 and rinoceros in Job 39:9, and unicornes in Isaiah 34:7! This indicates that at least some translators though that re’ēm was one-horned, perhaps the one-horned rhinoceros.
(5)Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language (San Francisco, CA: Foundation for American Christian Education; 1995 facsimile of Noah Webster’s 1st edition of 1828), unpaginated.
(6)See Eric Dinerstein, The Return of the Unicorns: The Natural History and Conservation of the Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros (NY, NY: Columbia University Press, 2003). Obviously the term “unicorn” is not a good fit for two-horned rhinos, such as the Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), and Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). But the Hebrew noun re’ēm, unlike the English word “unicorn”, does not require the beast to be one-horned, as is indicated by Deuteronomy 33:17 (which refers to unicorn “horns”, possibly denoting a two-horned rhino). Some evolutionist paleontologists have expressed interesting (albeit forensically flawed) opinions about the ancestral rhino that they believe led to the “unicorns”. [See Deng Tao, Wang ShiQi, & Hou SuKuan, “A Bizaree Tandem-horned Elasmothere Rhino from the Late Miocene of Northwestern China and the Origin of the True Elasmothere”, Chinese Science Bulletin, 58(15):1811-1817 (May 2013).]
(7)Another candidate is the one-horned Arabian oryx antelope, but its less-intimidating traits (compared to rhinos, bison, and aurochs) seem less likely to fit the Bible’s re’ēm.