Fantastical Beasts of the Bible Part 1: What in the World are Unicorns Doing in the Bible?

If your preferred Bible translation is the King James, you can’t help but notice that the Bible refers to more than a couple of fantastical creatures that would today be considered mythological. Unicorns, behemoth, leviathan, dragons, satyrs, and cockatrices for example. Atheists and Bible skeptics have a field day with these examples, scoffing at anyone who could take a literary work seriously that speaks of these fairy tale creatures as if they are (or were) real.

Some Bible scholars who lean toward a much less literal reading of the Bible readily believe that these creatures are indeed mythological and are only mentioned symbolically, with Biblical authors employing a literary style in which they borrow mythological creatures from pagan cultures. This line of reasoning however, is not without its major issues. If you’d like to delve into the arguments for a mythological view versus a literal view, there is a section with an excellent description of both sides in the article Behemoth and Leviathan—Creatures of Controversy by Apologetics Press.

As the famous scientist and theologian Henry Morris pointed out in his book The Biblical Basis for Modern Science, “The biblical writers mention at least 160 different specific animals by name, and always the descriptions seem quite accurate, except or these few…(the behemoth, dragons, etc.). The latter are apparently also intended by the writers as real animals, as real as the many others they describe accurately.”

Could there be a logical explanation?

In this series, we’ll look at the most debated fantastical beasts of the Bible and present a logical case for each that will enable you to debate any skeptic! Let’s start with unicorns…

Close your eyes and imagine you’re reading your King James Bible. You’re reading one of the 9 passages in your King James that mention a unicorn: Numbers 23:22, Numbers 24:8, Job 39:9, Job 39:10, Psalms 29:6, Psalms 92:10, Deuteronomy 33:17, Psalms 22:21, or Isaiah 34:7. When you read the word “unicorn”, what mental picture comes to your mind? A majestic white horse with a beautiful horn extending from its forehead…maybe even wings…usually in the company of rainbows, and sparkly glitter…delicious, sugary Starbucks frappuccinos? Maybe something like…this…

Oops. Sorry, I got carried away…forget about the heat packing cat.

Anyway. Snap out of it! The Bible version you’re reading was translated in 1611 for Pete’s sake! Language evolves. Word meanings change. The word “unicorn” did not conjure any of the above images in the minds of the readers of the King James version of the Bible 400 years ago.

The very first edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary, published in 1828, gives this definition of the word unicorn: noun [Latin unicornis; unus, one, and cornu, horn] an animal with one horn; the monoceros. This name is often applied to the rhinoceros. In the same dictionary, if you look up the word rhinoceros” you will find the following: A genus of quadrupeds of two species, one of which, the unicorn, has a single horn growing almost erect from the nose. The animal when full grown, is said to be 12 feet in length. There is another species with two horns, the bicornis. They are natives of Asia and Africa.

Here they are today: the one horned version, aka Indian rhinoceros, scientific name Rhinoceros unicornis:

And the more common two horned version, aka Black Rhinoceros, scientific name Diceros bicornis :

Today we recognize 5 species of rhinoceros and you’ll find no mention of the word “unicorn” when you look them up in a modern dictionary. The definitions have changed.

So, that settles it, right? The biblical unicorn is not a fantastical beast, but just one of two species of rhinoceros depending on the context of the biblical verse (one horned creature or two horned creature). Or is it?

Maybe not quite… Modern Bible translations often translate “unicorn” as “wild ox”. This is a translation of the Hebrew word “re’em” which refers to an animal whose identity scholars really aren’t sure of. Could it be that the true Biblical unicorn is a now extinct species?

It’s not a far-fetched idea at all. Species become extinct all the time. There are actually quite a few ancient, yet reliable sources describing a rare animal seeming to fall somewhere between a rhinoceros and a horse in appearance. If you are interested in reading about them, 8 very interesting accounts are recorded at!ScptNotesOT4.html.

Here are a couple of examples:

Ludovice de Bartema, a Roman patrician who visited Mecca in 1530, gives this account, “On the other side of the Kaaba is a walled court in which we saw two unicorns that were pointed out as a rarity and they are indeed truly remarkable. The larger of the two is built like a three-year-old colt and has a horn upon the forehead about three ells (about 45 inches long). This animal has the color of a yellowish brown horse, a head like a stag, a neck not very long with a thin mane; the legs are small and slender like those of a hind or a roe (small deer); the forefoot hoofs are divided and resemble the hoofs of a goat.”


A Swedish naturalist named Dr. Sparrman, who visited the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1700’s tells of an animal described to him by the Hottentots (shepherding peoples of Nambia and South Africa) as, “an animal with a single horn…very like the horse on which he rode, but had a straight horn upon the forehead…they were rare…ran with great rapidity and were very fierce.”

Interestingly, just last year in 2016, a fossilized Elasmotherium sibiricum skull was found in Kazakhstan. It caused quite a paleontological shake-up since this species was considered to pre-date humans. But this new find places this now extinct “unicorn” in the company of our ancestors. (I’m not even going to point out that this is yet another example of the fallible assumptions of scientific dating- well, other than just now.) Not so surprising to historians, however, who choose not to dismiss reliable sources regarding the existence of such an animal living alongside humans.

Anyway…here’s an artist’s rendering of an excellent candidate for the Biblical “re-em” or “unicorn”.

Nathan Hoffman has a must see short video on the topic of unicorns in the Bible that will leave you an expert on the subject.