Lesson from the Unicorn

Lesson from the Unicorn
Do you believe that there was an animal in biblical days that looked like a horse with a huge horn? In ancient times people believed that such animals existed and that they had extraordinary powers. People in ancient times found horn-shaped fossils that were sometimes several feet long and believed that they were the remains of unicorns. Of course, they were wrong, but we can learn a lesson from the unicorn.

Science proved that unicorns did not exist, and the horns came from animals like the narwhal or ancient snails. So why are unicorns mentioned in the Bible? Is this evidence that much of the biblical record is simply a repeat of local legends and stories?

We can learn more than one lesson from the unicorn and the biblical record. The first lesson is that we must be very careful about translations. The King James translation of the Bible mentions unicorns in Numbers 23:22; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-12; Isaiah 34:7; and Psalms 22:21, 29:6, and 92:10. At the time of the King James translation, there were many myths and stories about unicorns, and scientific facts were not available to assist Bible translators.

In the past, we have mentioned errors and language issues in the King James translation. Genesis 6 is an example, where the Hebrew word nephilim was translated “giant,” leaving major misunderstandings of what the text means. This part of the Genesis account was not translated directly from the Hebrew. It was translated from the Latin Vulgate translation. The Catholic translators of the Vulgate translated nephilim into the Latin gigantus. The King James translators didn’t know what to do with gigantus, so they just left it as “giant.” Nephilim actually means “fallen ones” and referred to humans who rejected God and His will. In the same way “unicorn” came from the Hebrew reem which means a “roaring animal” or a “wild ox.”

The primary message here is not to rely on a translation that is from many centuries in the past. Word meanings change and what a word means now can be radically different than what it meant in the past. Think about how the word “gay” has changed in its meaning in the past 50 years.

Another major lesson from the unicorn is to take the Bible literally. That means to look at who wrote the passage, to whom it was written, why it was written, and how the people it was written to would have understood it. In the biblical use of the word reem, the context makes it clear that it is describing a violent wild animal. None of the cases would refer to a magic horse-like animal.

When we say the Bible is inspired, we mean that it is accurate in all that it teaches, and we can understand it. Sometimes we have to do word studies to answer the challenges of skeptics and critics, and that is another lesson from the unicorn.
–John N. Clayton © 2017