The word unicorn means "beast with one horn" and does not necessarily refer to the creature we usually picture when we think of a unicorn—that is, a beautiful fantasy horse with one long, shining silver horn on its forehead. Today, there are only a few creatures that could fit the description of a "beast with one horn," most notably the rhinoceros and the narwhal.
There once existed an animal, now extinct, called the Elasmotherium. This animal was a very large Eurasian rhinoceros with a large horn in the middle of its forehead. The Bible uses the word re'em to describe a similar beast, and it is possible that the writers were referring to the Elasmotherium when they used the word re'em (Numbers 23:22, 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psalm 22:21, 29:6; Isaiah 34:7). The word re'em is only translated "unicorn" in the King James Version of the Bible. Modern translations say "wild ox" instead. Scholars think that the re'em could possibly be a reference to another extinct animal, the auroch, which was a large ancestor of the domesticated cow.
In Numbers 23:22, the word tow'apaha is also translated "unicorn" but the word tow'apaha refers to a beast with more than one horn. It is possible that the writers meant to give the impression of a large, powerful animal with great strength. The context of the word re'em in Job 39:9-10 backs up this theory. God is asking Job whether or not he has the power to control the unicorn, to make it furrow the fields or lie meekly by his bedside as his servant or pet. God is making the point that only He can control such a powerful animal, because His power is much greater than that of a man.
The mythical unicorn has appeared in art and historical accounts since antiquity as a reclusive and wild woodland animal of extreme purity and grace that could only be tamed by a virgin. What those writers were referring to—whether it was based on a real animal that no longer exists, or simply a figment of their imagination—it is not the same creature that is mentioned in Scripture. There is no evidence that the writers of the Bible were referring to the mythical unicorn. When translators of the KJV used the word "unicorn" they were probably trying to simply give the impression of a beast with one horn (the re'em) that was powerful and untamable.
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