Friday, January 22, 2016

Unicorns in the Bible by Henry Chichester Hart 1888

Unicorns in the Bible by Henry Chichester Hart 1888

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The reem is mentioned several times in the Bible, and always in connection with its great strength and the enormous size of its horns. “He hath as it were the strength of an unicorn” (Numb. xxiii. 22). “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of an unicorn’ (Deut. xxxiii. 17). In this passage the marginal reading “an unicorn” (not ‘unicorns') is the correct one, and the context agrees with it in demonstrating that a two-horned animal is referred to. The reem is spoken of as a fierce and terrible beast in Psalm xxii. 21, ‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for Thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.” So also in Isa. xxxiv. 7, ‘The unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood.’

In Job is given a poetic account of the reem: ‘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?’ (xxxix. 9–12).

The translation of the word reem by ‘unicorn, an animal partly horse, partly narwhal, partly antelope, and wholly fabulous, is adopted from the rendering of the Septuagint MONOKERWS, and it is an unfortunate interpretation, which has been happily amended to ‘wild Ox’ in the Revised Version.

There are several arguments in favour of an animal of the ox tribe. The Bible text itself associates it with the domesticated cattle, contrasting the tameable species with its wild and savage congener. In Isa. xxxiv. 7 the reem is spoken of as suitable for sacrifice, and we know oxen were especially ordained to be used for this purpose.

Apart from this internal evidence we have other proofs to bring forward. In the first place, there is no doubt that the auroch (Bos primigenius) is the same as the urus of Caesar and other ancient writers. This wild ox, the European bison, is now almost entirely extinct, but is still preserved by severe game laws in Lithuania, Moldavia, Wallachia, and the Caucasus. It is a very powerful animal, with long horns, and gallops swiftly, with its head lowered. An old bull is a match for at least four wolves. Caesar, in his description of the Black Forest, says, 'They are little less than elephants in size, and are of the appearance, colour, and form of a bull. Their strength as well as speed is very great. They spare neither man nor beast that they see. They cannot be brought to endure the sight of men, nor can they be tamed even when taken young. The people, who take them in pitfalls, assiduously destroy them, and young men harden themselves in this labour and exercise themselves in this kind of chase; and those who have killed a great number, the horns being publicly exhibited in evidence of the fact, obtain great honour. The horns in magnitude, shape, and quality differ much from the horns of our oxen. They are much sought for, and after having been edged with silver at their open ends, are used for drinking vessels at great feasts.'

It is evident from the above that not only was the urus abundant in Germany in Caesar's time, but also that there is no difficulty in believing that that abundance must rapidly diminish with an increasing spread of people and civilization. The urus was an animal to be extirpated as speedily as possible.

Besides this European evidence we have that of the Assyrian monuments. Layard tells us that the ‘wild bull of the bas-reliefs of Nimroud is evidently a wild animal which inhabited Mesopotamia or Assyria. Its form is too faithfully delineated to permit of the supposition that it was an antelope. It is distinguished from the domestic ox by a number of small marks covering the body, and probably intended to denote long and shaggy hair.’ And this writer goes on to adduce arguments that it became extinct in the later period of the Assyrian empire in that region.

Whether this animal was identical with the Lithuanian bison it is impossible to say. There may have been two varieties of wild ox. But Layard points out that the Assyrian animal was regarded as ‘scarcely less formidable and noble game than the lion in the days of Semiramis and Sennacherib, and we have seen that later in the little civilized forest countries of Central Europe it was similarly spoken of by Caesar.

Some of the commentators have identified the reem with the rim, an Arabic name for the oryx, chiefly on account of their similarity of names. But, as Canon Tristram points out, when an animal becomes extinct, the popular name is apt to be transferred to some other animal resembling it. And there is reason to believe the auroch became early extinct in the regions about the Holy Land. The mention of it as a familiar animal ceases in the Bible after the time of David.

What the exact characteristics of the mighty urus of Caesar were, and whether that animal be identical with the Lithuanian auroch, and also with the bull of the Assyrian chase, is far too difficult a question to enter into here. A paper by Mr. Boyd Dawkins, on the ancient urus, may be referred to, in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1866, and more will be found on the subject in other recent palaeontological and zoological works. Canon Tristram discovered four teeth in the bone breccia of the Lebanon, which were identified by Boyd Dawkins as belonging to some gigantic wild ox, no doubt the auroch or urus. This is confirmed in a most interesting way, as Houghton shows, by the Assyrian records. On a broken obelisk, an Assyrian king (probably Tiglath Pileser I) proclaims ‘Wild rimi destructive, which he slew at the foot of Lebanon.’

Enough has been said, however, to show that in all probability some species of wild ox was intended by the word reem, and also that not only is the rendering ‘unicorn a very unlucky one, but also that the animal probably meant is one of extreme appropriateness in those passages which it serves to illustrate.

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