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I was reading Psalm 22 (from this question) and I found this verse:

Psalms 22:21 (KJV)
Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.

When I switched translations I found "wild oxen" instead:

Psalms 22:21 (NASB)
Save me from the lion’s mouth; From the horns of the wild oxen You answer me.

However, the idea of unicorns in the Bible really surprises me!

Was this a mistranslation in the original King James version? Or does "unicorn" seem to be a valid translation for this word?

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From my discussions with translators of ancient languages I have learned that Animal names and varieties of plants are the most difficult words to translate. For example - what does gopher wood refer to in the Genesis account of Noah's Ark. The lack of context and the small number of times they occur in literature make them the most complex. Hopefully a Hebrew scholar can step in to confirm this. –  David Boswell Oct 5 '11 at 20:00

6 Answers 6

up vote 34 down vote accepted

David Boswell is absolutely correct - animal names are consistently difficult to translate.

The word under inspection is reim (Hebrew: ראם). The word also comes up in Numbers 23:22:

God brought them out of Egypt; they have the strength of a wild ox. (NIV)

Here are some commentaries.

...It is difficult to say what kind of beast is intended by the original word. The Septuagint translate the word μονοκερως, the unicorn, or one-horned animal; the Vulgate, sometimes, unicornus; and in the text rhinocerotis, by which the rhinoceros, a creature which has its name from the horn on its nose, is supposed to be meant...The creature referred to is either the rhinoceros, some varieties of which have two horns on the nose, or the wild bull, urus, or buffalo; though some think the beast intended is a species of goat; but the rhinoceros seems the most likely. There is literally a monoceros, or unicorn, with one large curled ivory horn growing horizontally out of his snout; but this is not a land animal, it is the modiodan or nurwal, a marine animal of the whale kind, a horn of which is now before me, measuring seven feet four inches; but I believe the rhinoceros is that intended by the sacred writers.

(Clarke's Commentary on the Bible)

This book deals extensively with the word reim (spelled as re'em), the question of unicorns and many other difficult to translate animals in the Bible (some relevant content is available to read as a free preview on google books).

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Why didn't you summarize Rabbi Slifkin's argument, rather than just offering a link to the book? –  Bruce James Jul 30 '14 at 17:50

I am by no means a Greek scholar and I am not really giving an answer here, but rather a, possible, helpful clue that may help in finding the answer.

I looked at the LXX (that includes English translation) for Psalms 22:21 and have noticed that, it too, uses the term "unicorn".

The Greek word that is used in the LXX (Ps 22:21) is monokeros (μονόκερως). Using a Greek-English dictionary I found that monokeros translates to "unicorn".

Regarding "Was this a mis-translation in the original King James version? Or does "unicorn" seem to be a valid translation for this word?" - It appears as though the KJV translated from the LXX and, if so, then the translation would be valid. I think the question begs whether or not the LXX has used monokeros properly in its translation.

Just throwing it out there.

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Nice find on the Septuagint. –  Richard Oct 5 '11 at 20:31
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It should be noted that μονόκερως does not necessarily refers to a one horned horse, this is a misrepresentation of the historical definition of it's appearance. This term and the latin "unicorn" only mean one-horned. See also –  Trinidad Oct 6 '11 at 13:02
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It would be better to say that the KJV consulted the LXX for how it translated this word instead of saying that they "translated from the LXX." There are many places where the KJV translators consulted the LXX and the Vulgate. –  Frank Luke Feb 5 '12 at 23:45

Interestingly, despite there being several good answers here, no one has yet raised the possibility that the word ראם (re'em) refers to an animal known as the aurochs or urus (Bos primigenius). (Edit: Bruce James' answer does say "the ראם is a type of cow", which would be consistent with the aurochs conclusion.)

Around the turn of the twentieth century (i.e. 1900), the Akkadian cognate word rimu was discovered. (Wikipedia credits Johann Ulrich Duerst for this discovery, while this article says it was Henry Rawlinson.) In any case, the idea made an impact quickly as can be seen by, for example, the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article:

The allusions to the "re'em" as a wild, untamable animal of great strength and agility, with mighty horns (Job xxxix. 9-12; Ps. xxii. 21, xxix. 6; Num. xxiii. 22, xxiv. 8; Deut. xxxiii. 17; comp. Ps. xcii. 11), best fit the aurochs (Bos primigenius). This view is supported by the Assyrian "rimu," which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild, or mountain bull with large horns.

The linguistic history is laid out in detail in The Unicorn in the Old Testament (1939) by Allen H. Godbey: (As an aside, this article is a fascinating read on the history of the understanding of the passages, rhinoceros trade, and various other things.)

The decisive factor came with the deciphering of the cuneiform inscriptions... reaching back four thousand years earlier than any Hebrew text that we have, [the texts] give the word rimu repeatedly... It is a gigantic wild ox. The cuneiform ideogram confines him to the mountains.

The unicorn mistranslation derives from the Septuagint. The aurochs, it seems, was typically depicted in Assyrian art from a profile view with gives it the appearance of having one horn. (This image may show the animal in question.) Perhaps lacking a specific word for the aurochs, but being aware of what it looked like, the translators described in as the monkeros ("one-horned") because of the one horn. (The animals was likely locally extinct by then; it went extinct globally in the 16th century.) As Greeks learned of the rhinoceros this word adopted to describe it (or maybe the word was first used for the rhino and adapted to translate re'em since both animals essential feature was having one horn), and eventually changed to rhinokeros.

A number of first millennium commentaries on passages that contain the word re'em are extant. In general, the animal is equated with the rhino, but in a few cases it is compared to a bull, or seen as symbolic of power. The mythical unicorn doesn't enter into the picture until the middle ages.

The aurochs theory is generally accepted as accurate today, which is why many modern translations use "wild ox" - a rough English description of the creature. (Incidentally, it is thought that this is the animal depicted in the Lascaux cave paintings.) "Rhinoceros" is not an entirely impossible translation, but considerably less likely.

A more recent/popular account of much of this material (plus the rise of the unicorn myth) can be found in The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers.

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Since the Book of Psalms was written in Hebrew, let's look at what Hebrew language and Bible scholars say on the subject. Specifically with regards to Psalm 22:21 (verse 22 in some Bibles), it says:

"Save me from the lion's mouth; yea, from the horns of the רמים[plural version; pronounced "reymim"]."

This is an animal that appears elsewhere in the Bible. For example, Numbers 23:22 states:

God brought them out of Egypt, He has as though the lofty horns [תועפֹת] of a רְאַם [singular, pronounced "re'em"].

From this verse and its reference to "horns" we can see that the רמים have two horns, not one. It is hard to understand the Septuagint's translation of that phrase, however, which, instead of "lofty horns of the רְאַם" it says it means "the glory of a unicorn." Rabbi David Kimhi (the "Radak"), in his commentary to the verse, and others adopted the Septuagint’s translation and explained the רְמֵם to be a single-horned animal. Rav Saadiah Gaon also seems to follow this view, translating the רְאַם in this verse as the karkadan, which is the name of the unicorn in Arabian legend. But although the Septuagint defines the רְאַם as an animal with a single horn, Scripture itself in another verse indicates that it possesses more than one horn:

His firstborn ox, grandeur is his, and his horns are like the horns [קַרְנֵי] of a רְאַם; with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth; and they are the ten thousands of Ephraim, and they are the thousands of Menasheh (Deuteronomy 33:17). Even with this verse, Radak continued to hold that a רְאַם had just one horn, but his view was rebutted by Rabbi Eliyahu Ashkenazi, in his response to Radak, who said that the animal does have two horns and is therefore not a unicorn.

The above analysis, by Rabbi Nathan Slifkin, one of the most prominent authors on Biblical references to exotic animals, in an article titled "Exotic Shofars: Halachic Considerations," goes on to determine that the ראם is a type of cow, citing additional Biblical verses and Talmudic authority.

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@BruceJames I revoted (removed my DV and upvoted). Good job! Very interesting. –  Dan Jul 30 '14 at 18:46

Unicorn is a correct translation. Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary says that a unicorn is a rhinoceros, and a rhinoceros is a unicorn.

The Latin Vulgate says "rinocerotis" in Deut 33:17 and "rinoceros" in Job 39:9.

The King James says "Or Rhinocerots" in the marginal note in Isaiah 34:7.

Even scientists today use the word unicorn in reference to the one-horned rhinoceros, which has the scientific name "Rhinoceros unicornis."

But Deut. 33:17 is actually a two-horned rhinoceros (bicornis), so the KJV translated that verse wrong. But Psalm 92:10 is talking about a one-horned rhinoceros, so that verse is translated correctly.

I made a video about this topic:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BNsjsbJLaM

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Hi Nathan and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! Please consider creating an account. While I agree that rhinoceros is one likely possibility for what the Hebrew word referred, I think it's misleading to use the 1828 Webster's definition. In this day and age, "unicorn" means something entirely different. (You covered that ground better in your video. Could I persuade you to edit this answer to go into a bit more detail?) –  Jon Ericson Jun 7 '13 at 19:23

Rregardless if this is a "Rhinoceros" or not, the people by and for whom it was originally written knew exactly what the animal was, and for them it was not fiction or mythology, but a REAL flesh and blood animal.

Therefore we're left with one of two possibilities:

  1. "Unicorns" as English speakers do or DID understand them exist (the Panda was thought to be mythological until 1916, the Gorilla was a "myth" until 1902, and the "Giant Squid" was mythical until 2004!), plus there are plenty of extinct large animals such as "Marsupial Wolves" which were thought to be myth, were later discovered, and went extinct afterwards - though this particular animal, a.k.a the "Thylacine", is reported to have up to 3,800 official independent reported sightings since it supposedly went "extinct" in 1936, some with photographic and / or other physical evidence, and some of the sightings being as recent as 2006.

  2. Or of course there is another option — "unicorn" simply means "Rhinoceros" or some other animal as many have suggested. And that for me is satisfactory enough.

Either way, whatever a "unicorn" was / is, either IT, or the animal the ancient name refers to, definitely existed at the time that the verses that refer to them were written. Of course I do acknowledge that at present times, it lend ammunition for mockers, and just because of that I wouldn't be altogether surprised to someday find out that God left a few REAL literal "unicorns" around in some remote wilderness just to make the mockers eat some more crow. Particularly since the very same silly vain people would have mocked you to scorn if you told them - in all their worldly "scientific" ignorance, and with equal vitriol, about Gorillas as recently as a hundred years ago.

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