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38 | Did King David actually battle unicorns?

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Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this podcast I want to talk about the curious theory that King David may have actually fought unicorns.

And no, you don’t have to turn up your volume, I said unicorns.

There is strange verse in Psalm 22, that was written by King David and according to the introductory remarks was set to the melody of another popular pop song of the day entitled: “The Deer of the Dawn.”

In the New King James the verse reads:

Save Me from the lion’s mouth
And from the horns of the wild oxen!
You have answered Me.

Psalm 22:21 NKV

Now when we look at this verse, nothing seems too outrageous here. King David was calling on God to save him from Lions and wild oxen and implied that God had answered those prayers.

Of course, lions we understand because they are predatory and actually will stalk humans, while wild oxen are not that way. They don’t eat humans and will typically flee human contact.

But something strange happens when we read that verse in the old King James, Aside from a slightly different reading, it switches out the word wild oxen and replaces it with unicorns. Yes, unicorns. Of course, that doesn’t help things much either. The image of cute little pink horses with white, flowing manes and horns sticking out of their foreheads doesn’t sound very fearsome either.

But the verse seems to suggest that King David was in some battles with unicorns. And if you make it to the end of this podcast, you will hear a brief description of how unicorns attacked humans told by an explorer from the tenth century.

But to understand what is going on in this verse we must first talk a little bit about the Rouffignac Cave located in South Western France. It is made up of a series of caves and caverns that extend more than 8 km underground. There are even several deep shafts that have not been fully explored yet.

The cave was first mentioned in 1575 and has become a tourist attraction because of the hundreds of ancient cave drawings on its walls that includes 224 animals – 158 of which are Mammoths, those giant woolly elephants with elongated, curvy tusks. There are also images of horses, bison, and ibex.

But there are also 10 drawings of rhinos, and one in particular has caught everyone’s attention because it is so unusual.

It is a drawing of a rhinoceros with a towering single horn. I mean towering.

Now maybe this was the work of the world’s first abstract artist but most believe it  is a drawing of an elasmotherium, a now extinct species of rhino.

It was massive, the size of a woolly mammoth. It stood seven foot tall at its shoulder and 15 feet long weighing an estimated 3.5 metric tons or 7,700 pounds. It towered over modern rhinos that come in at around one metric ton.

But perhaps elasmotherium’s most distinctive feature was a huge horn estimated to be over two meters or six feet and half in size that towered over this beast.

Artist’s rendering of an elasmotherium Credit: DiBgd/Wikipedia/Creative Commons 3.0

So what in the world do elasmotheriums have to do with unicorns in the Bible?

During the past century when the King James Bible was widely used, atheists and secularists mocked it because of its reference to unicorns.

And in fact, the King James mentions unicorns nine times in five different books of the Bible. Now, we all know unicorns are make believe, but it appears the writers of the King James Bible, that was first printed in 1611 weren’t as enlightened as we are today, and didn’t realize these delicate pink creatures were mythical.

Well if you think that, you are missing one key point. The King James Bible was written over 500 years ago in the English of that day.

But that English has become archaic and difficult to read as it uses words that are no longer spoken today.

Such as cogitation in Daniel 7:28 that refers to meditation or wimples and crisping pins in Isaiah 3:22 that refer to coats and purses and firkins in John 2:6 that describes about nine gallons (34.07 l) of water.

We have these old medieval words and have no idea what they mean because the English language has changed.

And the same thing applies to unicorns, but in this instance the word is still in use, and it is the meaning of this word that has changed.

When we look up the word in a 2013 Mirriam-Webster dictionary, it provides the following definition:

“an imaginary animal that looks like a horse and has a straight horn growing from the middle of its forehead.”

2013 Mirriam-Webster dictionary

But what did the word unicorn mean when the King James Bible first went to press 500 years ago. Well fortunately Webster’s dictionary has been around for a few years. Noah Webster wrote his first dictionary in 1806 and then released an expanded edition in 1828.

And that expanded edition included the word unicorn, that Webster defined as this:

1. an animal with one horn; the monoceros. this name is often applied to the rhinoceros.

Webster’s Dictionary, 1828

In other words, unicorn, which is from the Latin word “unicornis,” that means simply single horn, was commonly used to describe the single-horned rhinoceros.

So when the writers of the King James Bible used the word unicorn they were not talking about some magical pink horse as we envision them today, but rather the ornery rhino.

So when the translators were working on the King James version of the Bible, they defined the Hebrew word ‘re’em’ as unicorn. Now the Hebrew language has changed over the centuries, just like the English, and today people have no idea what ‘re’em’ referred to.

But the modern versions of the Bible no longer translate ‘re’em’ as unicorn because the meaning of unicorn has changed.

Today they often translate ‘re’em’ as the wild oxen, a reference to the extinct aurochs. But some versions still footnote the word with “or rhinoceros”.

But do the two-horned aurochs fit the description of ‘re’em’?

Not really, because Psalm 92:10 uses the word ‘re’em’ in a unique way:

10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

Psalm 92:10 KJV

As the translators looked at this verse in the Hebrew, they understood that the word horn was in the singular, in other words whatever ‘re’em’ was it only had one horn.

Which is why they translated the word as unicorn, a one-horned animal. But we will see in a couple of minutes, why others have translated ‘re’em’ as wild ox.

So how many one-horned animals are there today?

Well there is only one, the rhino. There are five different species of rhinos today, three of which have two horns, and two species have only one horn

But as we look at this verse in Psalms one other thing sticks out. The psalmist says that his horn will be exalted like the horn of the Unicorn.

The word exalted in the Hebrew, spelt ‘rum,’ but pronounced ‘room’ means to be raised up, to tower over.

And again this doesn’t exactly describe aurochs, whose two horns spread out horizontally, not vertically. In other words, they don’t go high.

But modern rhinos don’t really fit this description either. Though Rhinos have a horn, they only range in size from 8 inches (ca. 20 cm) to 36 inches (ca. 91 cm).

But if the horn was over six and a half feet tall and towered over an animal, well that would be a completely different story, because the elasmotherium had a massive horn that was easily its most distinguishing feature.

So are there any other verses that suggest ‘re’em’ may be speaking of an elasmotherium? In fact, there might be. To find that, we have turn to another Psalm written by King David:

He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

Psalm 29:6 King James

The Hebrew word ‘ragad’, means to skip, dance and jump.

Ok maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time envisioning a lumbering rhino, even their young, skipping around the meadow like a young calf.  And because ‘re’em’ does this, it may be the reason why modern translators went with wild ox as the definition for ‘re’em’.

Though rhinos and skipping are not two words you would use in the same sentence, the same can’t be said for elasmotherium. Though it is part of the rhino family, it didn’t have the short stubby legs of Rhino, they were more horse-like.

Here is how Wikipedia describes an elasmotherium:

“It’s legs were longer than those of other Rhinos and were designed for galloping, giving it a horse like gait.”


So the young of an elasmotherium would be completely capable of skipping and jumping through a meadow.

But if elasmotherium was a super-sized version of a modern rhino, it is likely they also had the same ornery temperament of today’s rhino that are notoriously short-tempered, aggressive, powerful and dangerous.

If the elasmotherium was similar, it helps us understand several other verses that refer to the power of the ‘re’em’:

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

In this verse, the false prophet Balaam uses the metaphorical power of the ‘re’em’ to describe the absolute power and fierceness of God when He delivered Israel out of Egypt. In Balaam’s mind ‘re’em’ was the closest wild animal he could think of to describe this power. It was even more suitable than a  lion.

And for those Bible versions thinking re’em is a reference to a wild ox, God asks Job this question:

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib?

10 Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee?

Job 39:9-10 KJV

The word crib is the Old English for pen. God is asking can re’em be put in a pen and forced to stay there? Can it be domesticated so it can be used to pull a plow?

The answer to both those questions is a rhetorical NO.

This verse was obviously not referring to wild ox, which were tamed, penned and used for plowing.

So as we wind down this discussion, let’s take a final look at the verse I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, Psalm 22:21, when David thanks God from saving him from the mouth of the lion and the horns of ‘re’ems’ implying that he had been attacked more than once.

Though paleontologists do not believe that elasmotheriums were around during the past few thousand years, there are drawings and writing that say they did. The 3rd Century BC, Chinese encyclopedia, Chunqin, said they actually caught one and an engraving on a Chinese bronze pot from that period is very similar to the drawing in the French cave. There are also Turkish writings telling of a massive beast over 10’ tall with a single massive horn.

But perhaps the most intriguing description of an Elasmotherium was provided by a tenth century explorer named Ibn Fadlan. He lived in what is today modern Iraq.

First he described the animals, horse-like appearance:

Near this river (the Volga) is a vast wilderness wherein they say is an animal that is less than a camel and more like a bull in size. Its head is like the head of a camel, and its tail is like the tail of a bull, while its body is like the body of a mule, and its hooves are like the cloven hooves of a bull. In the center of its head, it has a thick round horn, which as it rises from the head of the animal gets to be thinner until it becomes like the point of a lance. The length of some of these horns is from three to five cubits, [roughly 4.5′ to 10′] and there are those that may attain to a greater or lesser length.

Ibn Fadlan

Now remember how King David said he had been saved from re’ems attacking him with their horns, Fadlan also adds that this beast had a notorious reputation for attacking people and also provided a description of what it did:

“When it sees a horseman, it makes straight for him, and if he happens to have under him a fast horse, he is rendered safe from it with some effort. If it overtakes him, it removes him from the back of his horse with its horn, hurls him into the air, and then catches him with its horn. It continues in this manner until it kills him. It does not bother the horse in any form or manner.”

Ibn Fadlan

Then Fadlan ends this description by telling how hunters killed the animal and then as well noted its similarity to a rhino:

“They seek out this animal in the forests in order to kill it. They do that by climbing the tall trees among which it is found, and with this object in mind, they assemble a number of archers with poisoned arrows. When it stands in their midst, they shoot at it until it is severely wounded and killed by them.

“I saw in the king’s house three large bowls which looked like [they were made of] the onyx of Yemen. The king informed me that it was made from the base of the horn of the animal. Some of the people of the country told me that it was a rhinoceros.”

Ibn Fadlan

Was Fadlan in fact describing an elasmotherium? Many believe he was and even some encyclopedia type websites have cited Fadlan’s story when describing an elasmotherium.

So can I say with absolute certainty that elasmotherium is the fabled unicorn mentioned in the Bible? Of course not. But is there evidence it might be, that is for you to decide.

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