Unicorns? In the Bible?

A few weeks ago, during a weekly high school small group that I help facilitate, one of the students challenged me with a bet. The conversation went something like this:

Student: “Ken, did you know that unicorns are in the Bible?”

Me: “I’m not listening to you? You’re crazy.” (This, you may have recognized, is a quote from Nacho Libre when Stephen tells Nacho that “eagle eggs” have special powers.)

Student: “Well, they’re in there.”

Me: “No they aren’t.”

Student: “Yes they are.”

Me: “I’ll give you $50 bucks if you can show me that ‘unicorns’ are in the Bible.” (Pride cometh before the empty wallet. I think it says that in the King James.)

Student: “I’ll take that bet!”

Me: (Overly confident)

Student: (Doing a quick search of his new YouVersion Bible app, while another student Googles it and another student thumbs through a paper-bound Bible.)

Me: (Increasingly over confident) “I don’t know why you would ever think tha..”

Student: “Ah ha! Told you! Numbers 23:22!”

Me: (Jaw dropped. I felt like I’d just been stabbed by a charging mythical beast.)

Student: “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.”

Me: “No way. Let me see that.”

Student: (Dancing with bravado) “You owe me $50! Unicorns in the Bible. Hey everybody! I know the Bible better than Ken. He didn’t even know that unicorns are in the Bible!” (Turning towards me) “And you’re supposed to be some kind of Bible teacher or something.”

Me: “Hold on a second!” (Quickly doing a search on http://www.biblegateway.com for “unicorn” in the King James Version.) “What? This can’t be right. The word “unicorn” appears 9 times in the King James Version!”

Student: “Told you! Now where’s my money?”

I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard of this before. Unicorn? In the Bible? The magical fairy spear-headed horse creature?! When my daughter was younger, she imagined that unicorns blew Skittles out of their horns and made rainbows with their toots (and pots of gold with the other stuff that accompanies their toots). It’s hard to wrap my mind around the idea that this is what the biblical writers could have imagined. A white pony with magical powers and a narwhal-type weapon pointing out of their skull. But there it was. Numbers 23:22. And Isaiah 34:7. And even in the famous Psalm 22, verse 21.

Something in this conversation had gone very wrong.

And I lost $50.

No wonder some people have a hard time believing some things in the Bible are true. If they were raised with a version of the Bible that used the word “unicorn”, then it’s understandable to conclude that some of the other stories, such as that whole Whale-Swallowing-Incident or the Red-Sea-Parting-Party or the Ark-Flooding-Family, can seem far-fetched too. If one thing is imaginary, then perhaps so are a lot of the other stories.

But before we write off the rest of the Bible because of a unicorn fiasco, we’ve got to realize there is a problem with the biblical unicorn: In the early 1600s, over 400 years ago, when the King James Version of the Bible took the radical step of translating the Latin Bible into what-was-then contemporary English, the word unicorn meant something different than it does today. Back then, unicorn referred generally to a “uni-corn”… a one-horned animal. In fact, it was the old English name for the rhinoceros. (Still today, by the way, the full scientific name for the Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros in India and Nepal is Rhinoceros Unicornis.)

In the early 1600s, the King James Version was derived primarily from Latin translations of Scripture. In nine verses, the Latin word unicornis (one-horned) or rhinoceros (nose-horned), or variations of these two words, are used interchangeably. So here’s a sample of what we get in the KJV translations as a result (with the Latin word in parentheses):

Deuteronomy 33:17 … His horns are like the horns of unicorns (rinocerotis): with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth…

Job 39:9 Will the unicorn (rinoceros) be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?

Job 39:10 Canst thou bind the unicorn (unicornis) with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

Psalm 92:10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn (unicornis): I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

And these: Numbers 23:22 ; Numbers 24:8 ; Psalm 22:21 ; Psalm 29:6;  Isaiah 34:7

Learning From Unicorns and the Bible: 
  1. Unless you want to lose money, don’t make a bet with a high school student who is correct. Well, or mostly correct. Technically the word unicorn was there. So I lost the bet. But I’d still like to point out that the mythical one-horned pony beast was not.
  2. It’s important to translate the Bible in the language that people can comprehend. We want people to be able to trust that what they hold in their hands is trustworthy. In other words, the Bible someone reads today should be as close of an interpretation in their common language to the originally written language as we can possibly get. When we use the original languages, our comprehension of the passages is clarified further. For instance, in a few of the verses mentioned above, the original Hebrew texts seem to refer more to a “wild ox” or “buffalo” type animal rather than a rhinoceros, though scholars are not sure exactly which horned animal the texts envisioned. So many more modern translations, using the original Hebrew texts rather than the later (and somewhat unreliable) Latin translations, reflect this more accurate understanding.
  3. It’s important to meet together and dig into the Bible with others. One of the treasures of the small group experience we have each week is the opportunity to make new discoveries about the Bible. Ultimately, this sort of encouragement leads each of us to a closer attachment to Jesus. Interestingly, one student and I talked about how our discussion of unicorns had actually helped him grow closer to Jesus by making him less afraid of, and more excited about, the Bible. With that in mind…
  4. A discussion about surprising and unique features of the Bible can introduce people to fresh Bible studying skills. One of our students who got pulled into our conversation had never looked up anything in the Bible before. He spent over 30 minutes looking through the Bible and reading out verses and ideas that caught his eye. I wouldn’t normally recommend that trying to find awkward references to strange animals would be the best approach to engaging students in Scripture… but this one time, at least, it broke down a barrier that had kept this student from opening his Bible and discovering the content of its pages.
  5. If you lose a bet to a high school student, give the money towards their missions trip. My wallet and pride were wounded, but it is a joy to donate this money to the student’s summer missions experience.


For follow up:

10 Animals that look like unicorns

Rhinoceros Unicornis

9 Bible verses in the King James Version that refer to unicorns

Why Does the Bible Mention Unicorns?

Jesus-Centered Bible – A trustworthy Bible that focuses on what (WHO) the Bible is all about.

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