Unicorns in the Bible?
It had to happen at some point…
My sister and her loud, obnoxious friend were watching “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” one night. My friend’s sister saw a unicorn and remarked on how “cool” it was, and proceeded to ask a stupid question. To her defense, she preceded the question with the admission that it was a stupid question.
She asked if unicorns were real, bear in mind this woman is a grown adult, and a college graduate. To my surprise and dismay, I was the only one who laughed, apparently she was serious, and no one slapped her for me. And then my sister, the erudite intellectual that she is, shrugged and said “well, they are in the Bible”.
I stopped laughing at that point. My sister is also a non-pork eating Muslim convert who used to be a non-beef eating Krishna before she became a born-again Christian after leaving the Catholic faith. At one point I think she was entertaining becoming a Mormon, at least she had a book of Mormon on her and was hanging out with their ‘elders’ an awful lot. Basically, she hasn’t met a religion she didn’t like.
She is also an anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorist with a constantly coughing daughter and all-around airhead, but enough of that (Did I mention that she works in a school, as a teacher’s assistant? Shudder). I had to pipe in at that point and assure them both that unicorns were not real and never were. She retorted that I didn’t know that. I said it was very unlikely, and if it was, where was the evidence? She remarked that they could all be dead, like the Dodo bird. I pointed out that we have good evidence that the Dodo bird existed, we have none for the unicorn. Again, she said, they’re in the Bible.
At that point I should have said “So what? There’s a lot of silly stuff in the Bible.” It has a talking Donkey in Numbers for crying out loud. But even assuming that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally(it wasn’t), Kosher laws are equally silly because bats are not birds (Leviticus) and their laws are barbaric by modern standards because it says if you want to make a slave yours for life to put their head against a door and drive an awl through their ear (Exodus).
Anyway, she kind of dared me to look for myself, and I’m not afraid of a debate so I did. With Google as my friend I quickly found some of the supposed entries and took it upon myself to look them up. In certain translations of the Bible it is rendered as Unicorn, but even in all the cases where it’s mentioned it is never described in good detail.
Usually it is mentioned in the context of real animals, often beasts of labor like Oxen and other livestock. When I pointed out that in the NIV the unicorn is rendered as things like “wild Ox” she just countered that “the white man changed the translation”. I think she was trying to be funny but I wasn’t laughing.
A little history lesson might help…
In the ancient near east, perhaps a few centuries (maybe even millennia) before the Hebrews of Israel became a major power in the middle east there were a people called the Assyrians. They were like the Romans of the ancient near east; they laid siege to cities, they had an empire, and they admired strength.
Some of the earliest depictions and descriptions of what might be called a unicorn were found carved on Emperor Ashurnasirpal II’s palace and Esarhaddon’s stone prism. The animal was called by them a Rimu and thought to be an Aurox (a now extinct species of bull with long, symmetrical horns, often appearing as a single horn in profile.
The Rimu was the perfect symbol of unbridled strength, and became a sort of mascot for Assyrian nobles. Enter the Hebrews who, like the Assyrians, spoke a Semitic language. The Hebrews, like the Assyrians, spent time living in the near east both before and after the Babylonian exile and no doubt either came contact with either Assyrian architecture or Rimus or both.
The Hebrews, like the Assyrians, respected the strength of the Rimu (whatever it was), and used it as a symbol for unbridled power. Amazingly the authors had a word linguistically related to the Rimu and an animal that sounds similar, the ‘re’em’.
No English translations will say Re’em, because it’s a foreign word, in an archaic form of a foreign language, and no one honestly knows what the hell it was. Similar words, found in other languages of people living in the same region (like the Akkadians, also a Semitic people) are often translated as “wild oxen”.
When books like Numbers or Psalms were translated first from Aramaic, the gentiles (the Greeks in the case of the Septuagint, one of the first canonical biblical texts) encountered words like Re’em, they had to find something analogous that would not completely throw off the readers.
It just happens that at the time Hellenic people had an animal like a unicorn in mind, which was also, like the Aurox, famed for strength and defiance. Strabo (63/64 BC – ca. AD 24), a Greek historian, mentions "a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length."
The animal Strabo was describing was no doubt a Rhinoceros, a creature that most Europeans would have marveled at, because they only live in Asia and Africa. To say that such an animal was a unicorn is taking a mythical creature and bending an historical narrative to give it merit. It presupposes that unicorns were real and looks for something to substantiate it. It is intellectually dishonest because it has a bias for the conclusions regardless of the facts.
There is no evidence that unicorns were ever real, on the other hand all evidence suggests that the myth of the unicorn began as ignorant people misunderstood descriptions of real animals.
It’s actually much worse than all this though, and my sister’s assertion that unicorns are in the Bible is laughable for more reasons than the ones I gave.
The reason why arguments from the Bible are notoriously weak is much more than just because the Bible is notoriously wrong about a lot of things. It is more than the fact that it is filled with a good deal of unsupported episodes indistinguishable from fairy tales. It is a bad place to find evidence, but any argument from the Bible is a circular one. I have a book, it says that I am the king of the universe. How do I know it’s right? Because---it says so.
That’s what the Bible does. When you look at it that way you realize that a single book is insufficient evidence. You may say that it’s old, that it was written by enlightened scholars, or by god himself. I will counter that just because something is old does not make it true, that a sole testimony is not enough, and that to use the Bible for proof of the Bible is circular. More evidence is needed.
It is seriously frustrating to have to use so much reason and analysis to refute something as ridiculous and concluding that a mythical creature was real if a fiction book claims it. I should not have to waste up my time looking up something so silly and turning it into a research project.
We should simply know that we live in the real world, a world with material truth and evidence. We should recognize and respect that. Until then, people like me have to put people like my sister in her place by actually using our brains and not buying into a past generation's fancy. I refuse to live in a world where ignorance abounds, it will be a world filled with willing idiots unless we make an effort to correct it.
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