The Bible and Unicorns, Flying Fiery Serpents, and Cockatrices (Whatever They Are)

The Old Testament mentions some interesting creatures that are hard to find these days: unicorns, flying fiery serpents, and cockatrices (whatever they are). In my last article I explained why the mythical creature Rahab is mentioned in the Old Testament.  Today let’s take a look at some of these other strange characters.

The King James Version of the Bible mentions the “unicorn” (Job 29:9-12; Psalm 29:6; Isaiah 34:7). The KJV translators apparently consulted the Septuagint in translating the Hebrew at this point. The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament accomplished some 200 years before Christ) uses the word “monokeren” (literally “one horn”) to describe this wild desert creature that is now extinct.

What was this creature? An animal appearing to be one-horned is not unknown in the animal kingdom, as the narwhal and rhinoceros show. So, the idea of a one-horned now extinct animal is not entirely far-fetched.

However, we now know from linguists, archeologists, and naturalists that in the ancient Middle East there existed a wild ox called the aurochs. The Hebrew here is now translated more accurately as “wild ox” in modern versions of the Bible. In the aurochs’ profile, its two symmetrical horns appeared as one horn. And we see this wild ox in engravings commemorating the glories of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. The “unicorn” was nothing mythical but rather the now extinct aurochs.

Isaiah 30:6 in the KJV mentions a “cockatrice” and “fiery flying serpents.” A cockatrice was a mythical creature that had the head of a rooster and the body of a snake with two legs. The KJV translators were not sure what this word meant, so they guessed.

Next Page: So what was the “cockatrice,” really?

Today, Hebrew scholars have much more information and a better understanding of the language. We now know that the word is better translated “viper.” Skeptics have problems with some English mistranslations, but the Hebrew text is pretty clear. Nothing mythological or fanciful at all. It’s just a viper.

But Isaiah 30:6 and 14:29 also talk about “fiery flying serpents.” What about that? A true, legitimate meaning from Hebrew to English is “darting, venomous serpent.” The word for “fiery” refers to burning pain from the venom, not flames shooting out of the animal. The word for “flying” can mean any kind of quick, darting, flicking motion.

Hebrew scholar Geoffrey Brogan confirms this meaning in his commentary on Isaiah found in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Vol 6, p110). He says: “. . . ‘sarap me’ opep.’ ‘a darting, venomous serpent’ may refer to some dragon of popular fancy, but not necessarily. Any swift-moving reptile with a lethal bite or sting would fit the description.”

In Numbers 21 we have the story of the “fiery serpents” who attacked Israel as punishment. But no one catches fire. It is fairly obvious from the story that the “fire” refers to the excruciating pain of the snake’s bite; it does not say that they are fire-breathing dragons.

The problem with all of these examples is the mistranslation into an English text, not the Hebrew Old Testament itself.