Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis: Unicorns in the Bible

For similar posts, see “Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis.

I am an atheist. This means that I do not believe there are any gods in existence. Am I 100% certain about this? No. But on balance I find it more likely than not that the god of the so-called Abrahamic religions, the various deities of Greco-Roman lore, and any other supernatural divine beings simply do not exist. As an atheist, I’m sympathetic to the atheist cause (if one can even speak of a singular “cause” which atheists promote) insofar as this cause is one of promoting the tools of reason and critical thinking to the big questions of life. This doesn’t mean that I think theists are unreasonable or lack the ability to think critically. To the contrary, I know a few theists who have thought about their views and can adequately defend them against most interlocutors. In fact, there are a few who would absolutely mop the floor with me if we got into a debate over the existence of God or other topics related to philosophy of religion. In other words, contrary to the claims of some antitheists, theists aren’t stupid simply because they believe there is some variety of god or gods in existence.

Nevertheless, I remain an atheist. But I am an atheist with a pretty particular and somewhat counterintuitive agenda: to promote an understanding of the Bible that does justice to what it says and not simply what we would like it to say. To that end, I’ve written scores of posts countering the claims of Christian apologists and their malformed and uninformed views on the Bible. Yet from time to time I find it necessary to stand outside my own particular philosophical clique and counter the bad takes from my fellow atheists. For this I sometimes get flak: I’ve been called an “enabler” of belief, an “idiot,” and more. (At least I’ve never been told I’m going to hell!) But I do find it necessary to do this, not because I am going to convince the close-minded atheist who has already made up their mind but because I may perhaps reach a more curious atheist who appreciates nuance and scholarship, albeit from an amateur exegete. 

Recently, I stumbled across this meme on Twitter.

I’m not sure who produced it but the point of it is obvious: look at what the Bible doesn’t say, compare it to what it does say, and you’ll see how absurd it truly is. In principle, I’m okay with this. For example, if the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God, then why does it go on about things that don’t really matter (e.g. dietary laws) but ignore things that do (e.g. germ theory of disease, etc.)? Or, why does God find it morally egregious when two men have sex (Leviticus 18:22) but seems to not even bat an eye when women are taken as veritable sex slaves (Numbers 31:15-18)? There’s plenty in the Bible that, on a particular reading of it, makes it all seem quite absurd. 

But this meme ain’t doing it. 

Unicorns in the Bible

Let’s start with the obvious: there are no unicorns in the Bible. That is, if by “unicorn” one is referring to the mythological horse with a single horn sticking out of its head, then there are no unicorns in the Bible. “But wait,” objects the enthusiastic antitheist, armed with his King James Bible. “Numbers 23:22 says, “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” Indeed! It is to this that the meme is referring when it speaks of nine occurrences of the word in the Bible. References to “unicorns” in the KJV can be found in Numbers 23:22; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psalm 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; Isaiah 34:17. But this is an English translation, not the Hebrew text underlying it. So, what does the Hebrew text speak of in these verses? 

Let’s begin with Numbers 23:22. Here is how the NRSV renders the verse: “God, who brings them out of Egypt, is like the horns of a wild ox for them.”[1] If you compare this translation with that of the KJV, you will notice two major differences. First, whereas the KJV speaks of the “strength” of the creature in question, the NRSV refers to its “horns.” The Hebrew word here is tôʿăpōt, a plural noun from tôʿāpâ. This substantive is pretty rare in the Bible, occurring here in Numbers 23:22 and in only three other places. One occurrence is particularly instructive about its meaning. In Psalm 95:4, the psalmist contrasts “the depths of the earth” with tōwʿăpōwt hārîm, “the heights of the mountains.” And what do we call the highest point on a mountain? It’s peak. And what do such peaks resemble? You guess it – horns! We still use this language today when referring to mountains and their peaks. For example, some readers may be familiar with the Kitzbüheler “Horn” in the Alps of Austria or, more famously, the Matterhorn of the Alps. So, when the text of Numbers 23:22 (and 24:8) refer to the tôʿăpōt of the “unicorn” or “wild ox,” it is referring to its horns. But wait, horns? A unicorn has only one horn but the animal of Numbers 23:22 has more than one! 

This leads us to the second difference between the KJV and the NRSV. While the KJV speaks of a “unicorn,” the NRSV refers to “a wild ox.” This is because the Hebrew word rĕʾēm almost certainly refers to a wild ox. There are a number of reasons for thinking this. For starters, in Deuteronomy 33:17, the horns of a rĕʾēm are compared to those of a “firstborn bull.” Thus, these two animals are in the mind of the Deuteronomist very similar, set parallel to one another. Next, David Clines notes that the “domestic ox and ass are often mentioned together” as in Exodus 20:17. In Job 39, the wild ass appears in vv. 3-8 and then, in vv. 9-12 the rĕʾēm is mentioned. Based upon the pattern of the domestic variety elsewhere, it stands to reason that this is the wild ox.[2] Finally, the Hebrew rĕʾēm seems etymologically related to the Akkadian word for “wild ox,” rêmu.[3]

So, the authors of the Hebrew Bible weren’t referring to a unicorn.  Instead, they were speaking of the wild ox, a now extinct bovine whose descendants make up the cattle we have today.[4] In the ANE, these animals were revered for their strength and fierceness, frequently depicted in Mesopotamian art with menacing horns.[5] In the Hebrew Bible, they are also depicted as strong, fierce animals to whom Yahweh himself can be compared. 

But this does leave the question of why the translators of the KJV rendered rĕʾēm with the English “unicorn.” As it turns out, the answer to that question is simple enough: the translators were taking their cues from the LXX. There in Numbers 23:22, Yahweh isn’t compared to the wild ox but rather to the monokerōs, the unicorn. The Hebrew word rĕʾēm is consistently replaced with the Greek monokerōs in Numbers 23:22, 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9,[6]Psalm 29:6 (28:6 LXX), and 92:10 (91:11 LXX). Why did the translators of the LXX take a creature that had multiple horns and turn it into one with a single horn? Here is one explanation offered by Joachim Schaper. 

[It] seems that we should probably understand the replacement of the bull imagery in favour of the unicorn metaphor as the interpretatio graeca of an old, traditional element of the Hebrew and ancient oriental myth. A mythical image of the Israelite forefathers, still known to the Septuagint translators but no longer useful as a literary means of depicting God’s might and glory, had to be reinterpreted to a Hellenistic Jewish audience living in a cultural sphere very different from that of their Israelite ancestors. Therefore any translation had to fall back on well-known concepts, and especially in the area of mythology it had to introduce subtle changes into the textual framework and yet still to convey a sense similar to that of the original text. The translators were well equipped with a stock of mythical motifs from Greek resources. One of these motifs was that of the [monokerōs]. It is not clear whether certain mistaken observations in nature or pictorial representations, especially in ancient palaces, originally inspired the idea about “unicorns.” However, the concept of animals with a single horn as a symbol of might was widespread in many different times and cultures, not only amongst the Greeks but also in Iran, India, and Palestine. The Septuagint translators, by choosing the [monokerōs] imagery, made an effort to mediate between their sacred scriptures and ‘modern culture’, being faced with very much the same problems biblical translators have been confronted with right through the ages.[7] 

It seems then that in the interest of communicating effectively with their audience, the translators of the LXX chose to take a real creature of legendary strength and exchange it for a creature of legend. The translators of the KJV, perhaps unaware of the meaning of rĕʾēm, chose to follow the LXX instead. 

No Cats. So What? 

If the meme is attacking the King James Bible specifically, that’s fine. As majestic a translation the KJV is, it has its problems and translating rĕʾēm with “unicorn” is as problematic as they come. But this meme isn’t doing that; rather, with a broad brush it claims that “the Bible” speaks of unicorns. But the Hebrew Bible doesn’t refer to such a creature, and while the LXX does, its reasons for doing so are rooted in accommodating metaphorical imagery for a Hellenistic audience. 

So, the only real issue this meme has with the Bible is that it doesn’t mention cats. And to that I say, So what? 

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] David J. A. Clines, Job 38-42, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2011), 1123.

[3] BDB, s.v. “רְאֵם.” Clines (Job 38-42, 1123) notes that references to the rimu (i.e. rêmu) appear in the annals of Assyrian kings. Cf. “רְאֵם” in Hayim ben Yosef Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew: Etymological-Semantic and Idiomatic Equivalents with Supplements on Biblical Aramaic (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House Inc., 2009), 351.

[4] See the discussion in Paolo Ajmone-Marsan, José Fernando Garcia, Johannes A. Lenstra, and The Globaldiv Consortium, “On the Origin of Cattle: How Aurochs Became Cattle and Colonized the World,” Evolutionary Anthropology, vol. 19 (2010), 148-157.

[5] Catherine Breniquet, “Animals in Mesopotamian Art,” in A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East, Billie Jean Collins, editor (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 160-161.

[6] Rĕʾēm also appears in Job 39:10 but in the LXX it is only implied. 

[7] J. L. W. Schaper, “The Unicorn in the Messianic Imagery of the Greek Bible,” Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 45 (April 1994), 132.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

4 thoughts on “Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis: Unicorns in the Bible

  1. You provided a really great example of how translation choices are affected so strongly by culture, background, and motivations of the translators. It makes me think of JMac scoffing about translation committees trying to add more women and minorities to the committee.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is just utter nonsense and you trying to defend the indefensible! Why are you trying to help the Christians if your an Atheist, so you say, we need every attack we can get. Yes, including attacks against the magical nature of their dear Holy Books. Why you are trying to defend people who are stuck in the primitive Bronze Age is beyond me. Grow up!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close