There are some versions of the Bible, like the King James, that mention unicorns. Many Christians — possibly fearing that the inclusion of unicorns might make a book that has a scheming serpent, magical fruit of knowledge, and a talking ass seem positively silly — will argue that this is just a mistranslation. Indeed, other translations like the New American Standard Bible and even the New King James Version refer to a “wild ox” instead of the “unicorn.”
As a kid, I really liked that the KJV mentioned unicorns, because I liked unicorns. When my Mom pointed out that this was probably a mistranslation, I entertained the hope that it was not. If the Bible really meant to say unicorns, I reasoned at the time, they had to be real, because the Bible could not be wrong.
Well, it turns out my childhood self wasn’t alone in that thinking. Answers in Genesis has an article up by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell that addresses the same pressing issue with pretty much the same line of reasoning. The title asks, “Unicorns in the Bible?” — but the question is quickly laid to rest by the byline: “To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean God’s Word, which is true in every detail.”
Some people claim the Bible is a book of fairy tales because it mentions unicorns. However, the biblical unicorn was a real animal, not an imaginary creature. The Bible refers to the unicorn in the context of familiar animals, such as peacocks, lambs, lions, bullocks, goats, donkeys, horses, dogs, eagles, and calves (Job 39:9–12)… In Job 38–41, God reminded Job of the characteristics of a variety of impressive animals He had created, showing Job that God was far above man in power and strength…
Job had to be familiar with the animals on God’s list for the illustration to be effective. God points out in Job 39:9–12 that the unicorn, “whose strength is great,” is useless for agricultural work, refusing to serve man or “harrow (plow) the valley.” This visual aid gave Job a glimpse of God’s greatness. An imaginary fantasy animal would have defeated the purpose of God’s illustration.
This is a beautiful example of the problems inherent to Young Earth Creationism, and Creationists’ insistence on interpreting everything in just such a way as to support the conclusions they’ve already made. If you’re convinced that every word in the Bible is the pure word of God, you are not only unable to disavow potentially embarrassing bits of scripture like other Christians can, but you must instead embrace them. It’s not an option to fall back on “translator error”; nor is it an option yet to say, “Yeah, alright, that sounds hokey.” Instead, you have to jump headfirst into whatever absurdity lies before you.
That’s a quest Mitchell seems happy to undertake. After discussing Biblical references to unicorns, she gets back to demonstrating the Creationist propensity for cherry-picking facts to support belief. The unicorn’s absence today is, conveniently, probably due to extinction, she suggests… before running through a list of unicorn-candidates — horned animals that, according to her, might well have been the real unicorn God had in mind.
From creatures depicted on rock paintings to extinct rhinoceroses, she has in mind quite a few possibilities for what the unicorn, as described in the Bible, “could have been.”
The importance of the biblical unicorn is not so much its specific identity — much as we would like to know — but its reality. The Bible is clearly describing a real animal. The unicorn mentioned in the Bible was a powerful animal possessing one or two strong horns — not the fantasy animal that has been popularized in movies and books. Whatever it was, it is now likely extinct like many other animals. To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean God’s Word, which is true in every detail.
Creationism is lousy theology that leaves its proponents looking ridiculous in ways that more intellectually flexible believers are spared. But it’s lousy theology masquerading as actual science — something it’s even worse at than theology. When science asks a question, it seeks the answer — wherever that journey leads, whatever that answer is. When Creationism asks a question — “Unicorns in the Bible?” — it’s not looking for an answer… it offers one as absolute truth and grabs at whatever fact or rhetoric can be plugged in as needed, in order to cobble together the semblance of a supporting argument.
Even if that means claiming your God really did have a fireside chat about unicorns with the guy (Job) he was allowing his nemesis (the devil) to torture in order to prove a point. (Gosh, I wonder why kids who grow up religious have a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality…)
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