Bible Verse Explanations and Resources


Job 39:9

King James Version (KJV)
Adam Clarke
Bible Commentary

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee? - The "fine elegant animal like a horse, with one long rich curled horn growing out of his forehead," commonly called the unicorn, must be given up as fabulous. The heralds must claim him as their own; place him in their armorial bearings as they please, to indicate the unreal actions, fictitious virtues, and unfought martial exploits of mispraised men. It is not to the honor of the royal arms of Great Britain that this fabulous animal should be one of their supporters. The animal in question, called רים reim, is undoubtedly the rhinoceros, who has the latter name from the horn that grows on his nose. The rhinoceros is known by the name of reim in Arabia to the present day. He is allowed to be a savage animal, showing nothing of the intellect of the elephant. His horn enables him to combat the latter with great success; for, by putting his nose under the elephant's belly, he can rip him up. His skin is like armor, and so very hard as to resist sabres, javelins, lances, and even musket-balls; the only penetrable parts being the belly, the eyes, and about the ears.

Or abide by thy crib? - These and several of the following expressions are intended to point out his savage, untameable nature.

Albert Barnes
Notes on the Whole Bible

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee? - In the previous part of the argument, God had appealed to the lion, the raven, the goats of the rock, the hind, and the wild ass; and the idea was, that in the instincts of each of these classes of animals, there was some special proof of wisdom. He now turns to another class of the animal creation in proof of his own supremacy and power, and lays the argument in the great strength and in the independence of the animal, and in the fact that man had not been able to subject his great strength to the purposes of husbandry. In regard to the animal here referred to, there has been great diversity of opinion among interpreters, nor is there as yet any one prevailing sentiment. Jerome renders it “rhinoceros;” the Septuagint, μονόκερως monokerōs the “unicorn;” the Chaldee and the Syraic retain the Hebrew word; Gesenius, Herder, Umbreit, and Noyes, render it the “buffalo;” Schultens, “alticornem;” Luther and Coverdale, the “unicorn;” Rosenmuller, the “onyx,” a large and fierce species of the antelope; Calmet supposes that the rhinoceros is intended; and Prof. Robinson, in an extended appendage to the article of Calmet (art. Unicorn), has endeavored to show that the wild buffalo is intended.

Bochart, also, in a long and learned argument, has endeavored to show; that the rhinoceros cannot be meant. Hieroz. P. i. Lib. iii. chapter xxvi. He maintains that a species of antelope is referred to, the “rim” of the Arabs. DeWette (Com. on Psalm 22:21) accords with the opinion of Gesenius, Robinson, and others, that the animal referred to is the buffalo of the Eastern continent, the bos bubalus of Linnaeus, an animal which differs from the American buffalo only in the shape of the horns and the absence of the dewlap. The word which occurs here, and which is rendered “unicorn” (רים rêym or ראם re'êm is used in the Scriptures only in the following places, where in the singular or plural it is uniformly rendered “unicorn,” or “unicorns” - Numbers 23:22; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psalm 22:21; Psalm 29:6; Psalm 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7. By a reference to these passages, it will be found that the animal had the following characteristics:

(1) It was distinguished for its strength; see Job 39:11 of this chapter. Numbers 23:22, “he (that is, Israel, or the Israelites) hath as it were the strength of a unicorn - ראם re'êm In Numbers 24:8, the same declaration is repeated. It is true that the Hebrew word in both these places (תועפה tô‛âphâh ) may denote rapidity of motion, speed; but in this place the notion of strength must be principally intended, for it was of the power of the people, and their ability manifested in the number of their hosts, that Balaam is speaking. Bochart, however (Hieroz. P. i. Lib. iii. c. xxvii.), supposes that the word means, not strength, or agility, but height, and that the idea is, that the people referred to by Balaam was a lofty or elevated people. If the word means strength, it was most appropriate to compare a vast host of people with the vigor and force of an untamable wild animal. The idea of speed or of loftiness does not so well suit the connection.

(2) It was an animal that was not subjected to the service of tilling the soil, and that was supposed to be incapable of being so trained. Thus, in the place before us it is said, that he could not be so domesticated that he would remain like the ox at the crib; that he could not be yoked to the plow; that he could not be employed and safely left to pursue the work of the field; and that he could not be so subdued that it would be safe to attempt to bring home the harvest by his aid. From all these declarations, it is plain that he was regarded as a wild and untamed animal; an animal that was not then domesticated, and that could not be employed in husbandry. This characteristic would agree with either the antelope, the onyx, the buffalo, the rhinoceros, or the supposed unicorn, With which of them it will best accord, we may be able to determine when all his characteristics are examined.

(3) The strength of the animal was in his horns. This was one of his special characteristics, and it is evidently by this that he is designed to be distinguished. Deuteronomy 33:17, “his glory is like the firstling of a bullock, and his horns like the horns of unicorns.” Psalm 92:10, “my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn.” Psalm 22:21, “thou hast heard me (saved me) from the horns of the unicorns.” It is true, indeed, as Prof. Robinson has remarked (Calmet, art. “Unicorn”), the word ראם re'êm has in itself no reference to horns, nor is there in the Hebrew an illusion any where to the supposition that the animal here referred to has only one horn. Wherever, in the Scriptures, the animal is spoken of with any allusion to this member, the expression is in the plural, “horns.” The only variation from this, even in the common version, is in Psalm 92:10, where the Hebrew is simply, “My horn shalt thou exalt like an unicorn, “where the word horn, as it stands in the English version, is not expressed. There is, indeed, in this passage, some obvious allusion to the horns of this animal, but all the force of the comparison will be retained if the word inserted in the ellipsis is in the plural number. The horn or horns of the ראם re'êm were, however, beyond question, the principal seat of strength, and the instruments of assault and defense. See the passage in Deuteronomy 33:17, “With them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.”

(4) There was some special majesty or dignity in the horns of this animal that attracted attention, and that made them the proper symbol of dominion and of royal authority. Thus, in Psalm 92:10, “My horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn,” where the reference seems to be to a kingly authority or dominion, of which the horn was an appropriate symbol. These are all the characteristics of the animal referred to in the Scriptures, and the question is, With what known animal do they best correspond? The principal animals referred to by those who have examined the subject at length are, the onyx or antelope; the buffalo; the animal commonly referred to as the unicorn, and the rhinoceros. The principal characteristic of the unicorn was supposed to be, that it had a long, slender horn projecting from the forehead; the horn of the rhinoceros is on the snout, or the nose.

I. In regard to the antelope, or the “rim” of the modern Arabs, supposed by Bochart to be the animal here referred to, it seems clear that there are few characteristics in common between the two animals. The onyx or antelope is not distinguished as this animal is for strength, nor for the fact that it is especially untamable, nor that its strength is in its horns, nor that it is of such size and proportions that a comparison would naturally be suggested between it and the ox. In all that is said of the animal, we think of one greater in bulk, in strength, in untamableness, than the onyx; an animal more distinguished for conquest and subduing other animals before him. Bochart has collected much that is fabulous respecting this animal, from the rabbis and the Arabic writers, which it is not needful here to repeat; see the Hieroz. P. i. Lib. iii. c. xxvii.; or Scheutzer, Physi. Sac. on Numbers 23:22.

II. The claims of the “buffalo” to be regarded as the animal here referred to, are much higher than those of the onyx, and the opinion that this is the animal intended is entertained by such names as those of Gesenius, DeWette, Robinson, Umbreit, and Herder. But the objections to this seem to me to be insuperable, and the arguments are not such as to carry conviction. The principal objections to the opinion are:

(1) That the account in regard to the horns of the ראם re'êm by no means agrees with the fact in regard to the bison, or buffalo. The buffalo is an animal of the cow kind (Goldsmith), and the horns are short and crooked, and by no means distinguished for strength. They do not in fact surpass in this respect the horns of many other animals, and are not such as would occur ordinarily as the prominent characteristic in their description. It is true that there are instances where the horns of the wild buffalo are large, but this does not appear to be the case ordinarily. Mr. Pennant mentions a pair of horns in the British Museum, which are six feet and a half long, and the hollow of which will hold five quarts. Lobo affirms that some of the horns of the buffalo in Abyssinia will hold ten quarts; and Dillon saw some in India that were ten feet long. But these were manifestly extraordinary cases.

(2) The animal here referred to was evidently a stronger and a larger animal than the wild ox or the buffalo. “The Oriental buffalo appears to be so closely allied to our common ox, that without an attentive examination it might be easily mistaken for a variety of that animal. In point of size, it is rather superior to the ox; and upon an accurate inspection, it is observed to differ in the shape and magnitude of the head, the latter being larger than in the ox.” “Robinson, in Calmet.” The animal here referred to was such as to make the contrast particularly striking between him and the ox. The latter could be employed for labor; the former, though greatly superior in strength, could not.

(3) The ראם re'êm it was supposed, could not be tamed and made to subserve domestic purposes. The buffalo, however, can be made as serviceable as the ox, and is actually domesticated and employed in agricultural purposes. Niebuhr remarks that he saw buffalo not only in Egypt, but also at Bombay, Surat, on the Euphrates, Tigris, Orontes, and indeed in all marshy regions and near large rivers. Sonnini remarks that in Egypt the buffalo, though but recently domesticated, is more numerous than the common ox, and is there equally domestic, and in Italy they are known to be commonly employed in the Pontine marshes, where the fatal nature of the climate acts on common cattle, but affects buffalo less. It is true that the animal has been comparatively recently domesticated, and that it was doubtless known in the time of Job only as a wild, savage, ferocious animal; but still the description here is that of an animal not only that was not then tamed, but obviously of one that could not well be employed in domestic purposes.

We are to remember that the language here is that of God himself, and that therefore it may be regarded as descriptive of what the essential nature of the animal was, rather than what it was supposed to be by the persons to whom the language was addressed. One of the principal arguments alleged for supposing that the animal here referred to by the ראם re'êm was the buffalo, is, that the rhinoceros was probably unknown in the land where Job resided, and that the unicorn was altogether a fabulous animal. This difficulty will be considered in the remarks to be made on the claims of each of those animals.

III. It was an early opinion, and the opinion was probably entertained by the authors of the Septuagint translation, and by the English translators as well as by others, that the animal here referred to was the unicorn. This animal was long supposed to be a fabulous animal, and it has not been until recently that the evidences of its existence have been confirmed. These evidences are adduced by Rosenmuller, “Morgenland, ii. p. 269, following,” and by Prof. Robinson, “Calmet, pp. 908,909.” They are, summarily, the following:

(1) Pliny mentions such an animal, and gives a description of it, though from his time for centuries it seems to have been unknown. “His. Nat. 8,21.” His language is, Asperrimam autem feram monocerotem reliquo corpore equo similem, capite cervo, pedibus elephanti, cauda apro, mugitu gravi, uno cornu nigro media fronte cubitorum duum eminente. IIanc feram vivam negant capi. “The unicorn is an exceeding fierce animal, resembling a horse as to the rest of his body, but having the head like a stag, the feet like an elephant, and the tail like a wild boar; its roaring is loud; and it has a black horn of about two cubits projecting from the middle of the forehead.”

(2) The figure of the unicorn, in various attitudes, according to Niebuhr, is depicted on almost all the staircases in the ruins of Persepolis. “Reisebeschreib. ii. S. 127.”

(3) In 1530, Ludovice de Bartema, a Roman patrician, visited Mecca under the assumed character of a Mussulman, and among other curiosities that he mentions, he says, “On the other side of the caaba is a walled court, in which we saw two unicorns that were pointed out to us as a rarity; and they are indeed truly remarkable. The larger of the two is built like a three-year-old colt, and has a horn upon the forehead about three ells long. This animal has the color of a yellowish-brown horse, a head like a stag, a neck not very long, with a thin mane; the legs are small and slender like those of a hind or roe; the hoofs of the fore feet are divided, and resemble the hoofs of a goat. Rosenmuller. “Alte u. neue Morgenland, No. 377. Thes ii. S. 271,272.”

(4) Don Juan Gabriel, a Portuguese colonel, who lived several years in Abyssinia, assures us that in the region of Agamos, in the Abyssinian province of Darners, he had seen an animal of the form and size of a middle-sized horse, of a dark, chestnut-brown color, and with a whitish horn about five spans long upon its forehead; the mane and tail were black, and the legs long and slender. Several other Portuguese, who were placed in confinement upon a high mountain in the district Namna, by the Abyssinian king Saghedo, related that they had seen at the mountain several unicorns feeding. These accounts are confirmed by Lobe, who lived for a long time as a missionary in Abyssinia.

(5) Dr. Sparrman the Swedish naturalist, who visited the Cape of Good Hope and the adjacent regions in 1772-1776, gives, in his Travels, the following account: Jacob Kock an observing peasant on Hippopotamus river, who had traveled over a considerable part of Southern Africa, found on the face of a perpendicular rock, a drawing made by the Hotttentots of an animal with a single horn. The Hottentots told him that the animal there represented was very like the horse on which he rode, but had a straight horn upon the forehead. They added, that these one-horned animals were rare; that they ran with great rapidity, and that they were very fierce.

(6) A similar animal is described as having been killed by a party of Hottentots in pursuit of the savage Bushmen in 1791. The animal resembled a horse, was of a light grey color, and with white stripes under the jaw. It had a single horn directly in front, as long as one‘s arm, and at the base about as thick. Toward the middle the horn was somewhat flattened, but had a sharp point; it was not attached to the bone of the forehead, but was fixed only in the skin. The head was like that of the horse, and the size about the same. These authorities are collected by Rosenmuller, “Alte u. nerve Morgenland,” vol. ii. p. 269ff, ed. Leipz. 1818.

(7) To these proofs one other is added by Prof. Robinson. It is copied from the Quarterly Review for Oct. 1820 (vol. xxiv. p. 120), in a notice of Frazer‘s Tour through the Himalaya mountains. The information is contained in a letter from Maj. Latter, commanding in the rajah of Sikkim‘s territories, in the hilly country east of Nepaul. This letter states that the unicorn, so long considered as a fabulous animal, actually exists in the interior of Thibet, where it is well known to the inhabitants. “In a Thibetian manuscript,” says Maj. Latter, “containing the names of different animals, which I procured the other day from the hills, the unicorn is classed under the head of those whose hoofs are divided: it is called the one-horned “tso‘po.” Upon inquiring what kind of an animal it was, to our astonishment, the person who brought the manuscript described exactly the unicorn of the ancients; saying that it was a native of the interior of Thibet, about the size of a tattoo (a horse from twelve to thirteen hands high,) fierce and extremely wild; seldom if ever caught alive, but frequently shot; and that the flesh was used for food. They go together in herds, like wild buffalo, and are frequently to be met with on the borders of the great desert, in that part of the country inhabited by wandering Tartars.‘

(8) To these proofs I add another, taken from the Narrative of the Rev. John Campbell, who thus speaks of it, in his “Travels in South Africa,” vol. ii. p. 294. “While in the Mashow territory, the Hottentots brought in a head different from any rhinoceros that had been previously killed. The common African rhinoceros has a crooked horn resembling a cock‘s spur, which rises about nine or ten inches above the nose, and inclines backward; immediately behind this is a short thick horn. But the head they brought us had a straight horn projecting three feet from the forehead, about ten inches above the tip of the nose. The projection of this great horn very much resembles that of the fanciful unicorn in the British arms. It has a small, thick, horny substance, eight inches long, immediately behind it, and which can hardly be observed on the animal at the distance of 100 yards, and seems to be designed for keeping fast that which is penetrated by the long horn; so that this species must look like the unicorn (in the sense ‹one-horned‘) when running in the field.

The head resembled in size a nine-gallon cask, and measured three feet from the mouth to the ear; and being much larger than that of the one with the crooked horn, and which measured eleven feet in length, the animal itself must have been still larger and more formidable. From its weight, and the position of the horn, it appears capable of overcoming any creature hitherto known.” A fragment of the skull, with the horn, is deposited in the Museum of the London Missionary Society. These testimonies from so many witnesses from different parts of the world, who write without concert, and yet who concur so almost entirely in the account of the size and figure of the animal, leave little room to doubt its real existence. That it is not better known, and that its existence has been doubted, is not wonderful. It is to be remembered that all accounts agree in the representation that it is an animal whose residence is in deserts or mountains, and that large parts of Africa and Asia are still unexplored. We are to remember, also, that the giraffe has been discovered only within a few years, and that the same is true of the gnu, which until recently was held to be a fable of the ancients.

At the same time, however, that the existence of such an animal as that of the unicorn is in the highest degree probable, it is clear that it is not the animal referred to in the passage before us; for

(1) It is in the highest degree improbable that it was so well known as is supposed in the description here; and

(2) The characteristics do not at all agree with the account of the ראם re'êm of the Scriptures. Neither in regard to the size of the animal, its strength, or the strength of its horns, does it coincide with the account of that animal in the Bible.

IV. If neither of the opinions above referred to be correct, then the only remaining opinion that has weight is, that it refers to the rhinoceros. Besides the considerations above suggested, it may be added that the characteristics of the animal given in the Scriptures all agree with the rhinoceros. In size, strength, wildness, untamableness, and in the power and use of the horn, those characteristics agree accurately with the rhinoceros. The only argument of much weight against this opinion is presented by Prof. Robinson in the following language: “The ראם re'êm was obviously an animal well known to the Hebrews, being everywhere mentioned with other animals common to the country, while the rhinoceros was never an inhabitant of the country, is nowhere else spoken of by the sacred writers, nor, according to Bochart, either by Aristotle in his treatise of animals, nor by Arabian writers.” In reply to this we may observe:

(1) that the ראם re'êm is mentioned in the Scriptures only in seven places (see above), showing at least that it was probably an animal not very well known in that country, or it would have been alluded to more often;

(2) it is not clear that in those places it is “everywhere mentioned with other animals common to that country,” as in the passage before us there is no allusion to any domestic animal; nor is there in Numbers 23:22; Numbers 24:8; Psalm 92:10. In Psalm 22:21, they are mentioned in the same verse with “lions;” in Psalm 29:6, in connection with “calves;” and in Isaiah 34:7, with bullocks and bulls - wild animals inhabiting Idumea. But the entire account is that of an animal that was untamed and that was evidently a foreign animal.

(3) What evidence is there that the Hebrews were well acquainted, as Prof. Robinson supposes, with “the wild buffalo?” Is this animal an inhabitant of Palestine? Is it “elsewhere” mentioned in the Scriptures? Is there any more evidence from the Bible that they were acquainted with it than with the rhinoceros?

(4) It cannot be reasonably supposed that the Hebrews were so unacquainted with the rhinoceros that there could be no allusion to it in their writings. This animal was found in Egypt and in the adjacent countries, and whoever was the writer of the book of Job, there are frequent references in the book to what was well known in Egypt; and at all events, the Hebrews had lived too long in Egypt, and had had too much contact with the Egyptians, to be wholly ignorant of the existence and general character of an animal well known there, and we in fact find just about as frequent mention of it as we should on this supposition. It does not seem, therefore, to admit of reasonable doubt that the rhinoceros is referred to in the passage before us. This animal next to the elephant, is the most powerful of animals. It is usually about twelve feet long; from six to seven feet high; and the circumference of its body is nearly equal to its length.

Its bulk of body, therefore, is about that of the elephant. Its head is furnished with a horn, growing from the snout, sometimes three and a half feet long. This horn is erect, and perpendicular to the bone on which it stands, and it has thus a greater purchase or power than it could have in any other position. “Bruce.” Occasionally it is found with a double horn, one above the other, though this is not common. The horn is entirely solid, formed of the hardest bony substance, and so firmly growing on the upper maxillary bone as seemingly to make but a part of it, and so powerful as to justify all the allusions in the Scriptures to the horn of the ראם re'êm The skin of this animal is naked, rough, and knotty, lying upon the body in folds, and so thick as to turn the edge of a scimetar, or to resist a musket-ball. The legs are short, strong, and thick, and the hoofs divided into three parts, each pointing forward. It is a native of the deserts of Asia and Africa, and is usually found in the extensive forests which are frequented by the elephant and the lion. It has never been domesticated; never employed in agricultural purposes; and thus, as well as in size and strength, accords with the account which is given of the animal in the passage before us. The following cut will furnish a good illustration of this animal:

Be willing to serve thee. - In plowing and harrowing thy land, and conveying home the harvest, Job 39:12.

Or abide by thy crib - As the ox will. The word used here (ילין yālı̂yn ) means properly to pass the night; and then to abide, remain, dwell. There is propriety in retaining here the original meaning of the word, and the sense is, Can he be domesticated or tamed? The rhinoceros never has been.

Ellen G. White
Selected Messages Book 3, 310.2

In the Word of God many queries are raised that the most profound scholars can never answer. Attention is called to these subjects to show us how many things there are, even among the common things of everyday life, that finite minds, with all their boasted wisdom, can never fully comprehend. 3SM 310.2

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