Recently, TikTok has been abuzz with the discovery that some versions of the Bible mention unicorns. Lots of folks have been pulling down their old family Bibles off the shelf and looking up Psalm 22:21 9 (“But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil”), Numbers 23:22 (“God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn”), Job 39:10 (“Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?”), or any of the other half-dozen mentions of this supposedly mythical animal. So, what gives? Did unicorns once live amongst us?
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Not so fast. While it’s true that unicorns are mentioned multiple times in English translations of the Bible (particularly the King James Version), it’s important to remember that these are translations. It’s not always a perfect match. In the case of the Old Testament verses, the original is in Hebrew, where the word used is “re’em,”most commonly translated nowadays as a wild ox or buffalo.
According to many scholars, the animal being referenced in these instances was actually the now-extinct aurochs. (You know, the animal in all those European cave paintings.) Aurochs was the progenitor of modern cattle breeds, but it was a massive wild animal revered through Europe and the Near East in a variety of cultures and religions.
And don’t these versus sound more like they are talking of a giant beast of burden, that can carry people out of Egypt, or help plough fields, rather than a lithe, deer like woodland creature like a unicorn?
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More modern translations of the Bible substitute “wild ox” and similar terms, because the image of a unicorn is so very different.