Unicorns and Girdles in the Bible
By Beth Demme
Did you know that Bible translators may have invented the unicorn? Learning tidbits like this has made the Bible, and Bible study, more manageable and meaningful to me; I hope it does the same for you.
The King James Version uses the word unicorn nine times, all in the Old Testament.
- “God brought them out of Egypt; he [God] hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.” (Numbers 23:22)
- “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” (Numbers 24:8)
- “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 33:17)
- “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said … ‘Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow or will he harrow the valleys after thee?’” (Job 38:1, 39:9-10)
- “Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.” (Psalm 22:21)
- “He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” (Psalm 29:6)
- “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” (Psalm 92:10)
- “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” (Isaiah 34:7)
There is an additional reference in Daniel 8:5 to a flying goat with “a notable horn between his eyes,” but the word unicorn isn’t specifically used there.
How did the King James Version come to include unicorns?
It’s all about Bible history – not the history contained in the Bible, but the history of the Bible itself and the on-going development of language.
The Old Testament was originally composed in Hebrew. About three hundred years before Jesus, the king of Egypt (Ptolemy II Philadelphus) tasked 72 elders with the responsibility of translating the sacred Hebrew texts into Greek. That Greek translation is called the Septuagint.
The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word re’em (wild ox) to monoceros. English biblical translators in the early 13th century working from the Septuagint translated monoceros (which literally means one horn) to uni-cornus (which also means one horn).
Voilá! The word unicorn was born.
Our modern translations aren’t based on the Septuagint and, therefore, aren’t tied to the use of monoceros. Instead, they translate re’em as a wild ox.
- “God, who brings them out of Egypt, is like the horns of a wild ox for them.” (Numbers 23:22)
- “God who brings him out of Egypt, is like the horns of a wild ox for him.” (Numbers 24:8)
- “A firstborn bull—majesty is his! His horns are the horns of wild ox; with them he gores the peoples, driving them to the ends of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 33:17)
- “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind … ‘Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will it spend the night at your crib? Can you tie it in the furrow with ropes, or will it harrow the valleys after you?’” (Job 38:1, 39:9-10)
- “Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” (Psalm 22:21)
- “He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.” (Psalm 29:6)
- “But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil.” (Psalm 92:10)
- “Wild oxen shall fall with them, and young steers with the mighty bulls. Their land shall be soaked with blood, and their soil made rich with fat.” (Isaiah 34:7)
Another fun example of how changing language is reflected in different translations of the Bible comes from Genesis 3:7.
As soon as Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they realized they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together and created what is variously described as “something to cover themselves” (NCV, CEV), “breeches” (GNV), “girdles” (JUB, YLT), “loincloths” (ESV), “coverings” (NIV, LEB), “loin-coverings” (TLV), “aprons” (DRA, ASV), and “things to gird about” (KJ21).
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never pictured Adam and Even wearing breeches, girdles, or aprons. An apron that says “Kiss The Cook” is cute, but one sewn together from fig leaves would be EPIC.
Incidentally, St. Augustine suggested Adam and Eve wore “wrestling aprons” like those worn by ancient Roman wrestlers. Perhaps this is the best example of how language changes. Augustine probably never envisioned the WWE star, Roman Reigns:
What do you think? Does knowing how changing language has influenced the Bible make it more manageable and meaningful to you? Does the language of the Bible get in your way? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
More Like This From Beth:
It is kinda odd though how today, if you use a translate app to translate “rinocerotis” from the Latin you get “reem”, and if you translate the Latin of psalms 22 : 21, you get “four horns of the wild oxen” (though for this last one if you cut the verse in half, you get “and the horns of unicorns”).
That’s fun! Does that make you more, or less, interested in the history of Bible translation? It makes me more curious. It’s interesting how language changes and how those changes can influence our understanding of God.