Are There Unicorns in the Bible?

Bible page with unicorn
Border frieze at the foot of the page with unicorn, Volume II f 245, v, Bible of Borso dEste, Taddeo Crivelli (1425-1479) and assistants, Latin manuscript, 15th century.

De Agostini / Getty Images 

You might be surprised to learn that there are, indeed, unicorns in the Bible. But they're not the fantastical, cotton candy-colored, glittery creatures we think of today. The unicorns of the Bible were real animals.

Unicorns in the Bible

  • The term unicorn is found in several passages of the King James Version of the Bible.
  • The biblical unicorn most likely refers to a primitive wild ox.
  • The unicorn is a symbol of strength, power, and ferocity in the Bible. 

The word unicorn simply means "one-horned." Creatures that naturally resemble unicorns are not unheard of in nature. The rhinoceros, narwhal, and unicornfish all boast a single-horn. It's interesting to note, rhinoceros unicornis is the scientific name for the Indian rhinoceros, also called the greater one-horned rhinoceros, native to northern India and southern Nepal.

Sometime in the middle ages, the English term unicorn came to signify a mythical animal resembling the head and body of a horse, with the hind legs of a stag, the tail of a lion, and a single horn protruding from the center of its forehead. It's highly implausible that the writers and transcribers of the Bible ever had this fantasy creature in mind.

Bible Verses About Unicorns

The King James Version of the Bible uses the term unicorn in several passages. All of these references seem to refer to a well-known wild animal, probably of the ox species, characterized by extraordinary strength and untameable fierceness.

Numbers 23:22 and 24:8

In Numbers 23:22 and 24:8, God associates his own strength with that of a unicorn. Modern translations use the term wild ox here in place of unicorn:

God brought them out of Egypt; He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn. (Numbers 23:22, KJV 1900)
God brought him forth out of Egypt; He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: He shall eat up the nations his enemies, And shall break their bones, And pierce them through with his arrows. (Numbers 24:8, KJV 1900)

Deuteronomy 33:17

This passage is part of Moses' blessing on Joseph. He compares Joseph's majesty and strength to a firstborn bull. Moses prays for Joseph's military force, picturing it like a unicorn (wild ox) goring the nations:

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, KJV 1900)

Unicorns in the Psalms

In Psalm 22:21, David asks God to save him from the power of his wicked enemies, described as the "the horns of the unicorns." (KJV)

In Psalm 29:6, the power of God's voice shakes the earth, causes the great cedars of Lebanon to break and "skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn." (KJV)

In Psalm 92:10, the writer confidently describes his military victory as "the horn of an unicorn."

Isaiah 34:7

As God is about to unleash his wrath upon Edom, the prophet Isaiah draws a picture of a great sacrificial slaughter, classifying the wild ox (unicorn) with the ceremonially clean animals that will fall to the sword:

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. (KJV)

Job 39:9–12

Job compares the unicorn or wild ox—a standard symbol of strength in the Old Testament—with domesticated oxen:  

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? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? Or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, And gather it into thy barn? (KJV)

Interpretations and Analysis

The original Hebrew term for unicorn was reʾēm, translated monókerōs in the Greek Septuagint and unicornis in the Latin Vulgate. It is from this Latin translation that the King James Version took the term unicorn, most likely with no other meaning attached to it than "a one-horned beast."

Many scholars believe reʾēm refers to the wild bovine creature known to ancient Europeans and Asians as aurochs. This magnificent animal grew to heights over six feet tall and had a dark brown to black coat and long curved horns.

Aurochs, the ancestors of modern domesticated cattle, were widely distributed in Europe, central Asia, and North Africa. By the 1600s, they faded into extinction. Allusions to these animals in Scripture may have come from folklore associated with wild oxen in Egypt, where the aurochs were hunted up until the 12th century B.C.

Some scholars suggest monókerōs refers to the rhinoceros. When Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate, he used both unicornis and rhinoceros. Others suppose the debated creature to be a buffalo or white antelope. Most probable, however, is that the unicorn refers to the primitive ox, or aurochs, which is now extinct throughout the world.

Sources:

  • Easton's Bible Dictionary
  • The Lexham Bible Dictionary
  • The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 4, pp. 946–1062).
  • A Dictionary of the Bible: Dealing with Its Language, Literature, and Contents Including the Biblical Theology (Vol. 4, p. 835).