Mythical Animals in the Bible

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Hidden within the pages of the 1611 King James Bible are references to what seems to be mythical animals, creatures that do not appear to exist in the modern world. Exotic beasts such as the Leviathan, dragons, unicorns and others appear in books written by Job (the oldest in Scripture), Moses, King David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and even the apostle John.

Are references to mythical animals in the Bible solely a product of erroneously translated verses? Were they entirely imaginary and mentioned only as a means to embellish a particular passage? On the other hand, did such amazing creatures like the Leviathan actually exist at one time, as Scripture describes them? Did they symbolize anything, such as a person or some deep spiritual truth?

This series will explore whether or not several legendary animals named within the pages of the Bible were actually created by God. The seven creatures we will examine are cockatrices, dragons, unicorns, satyrs, the leviathan, the behemoth and the phoenix bird.

How did they get there?

In 1604, King James I of England commissioned forty-seven scholars with the monumental task of translating ancient manuscripts written primarily in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into English. One of their major obstacles was that Hebrew (used in writing in the Old Testament) was a notoriously difficult language to learn and understand.

Accurately translating Hebrew's unique words and phrases, especially those referencing plants and animals, into their equivalence in English, proved especially tough. The translators did the best they could and after seven years of work produced the KJV Bible. Although largely succesfull in their efforts, scholars still debate how accurate they translated certain sections, including those that name the creatures that are the focus of this series.

But are they real?

A few commentaries argue that some Biblical verses refer to strictly mythical creatures. Still others, like the IVP Background Commentary of the Old Testament, state that certain beasts exist only in the spiritual realm. In their commentary on Job 41:1 the IVP states, "Biblically, Leviathan would therefore most easily fit into the category of 'supernatural' creature (like cherubim) as opposed to natural or purely mythological."

Mythical Animals in the Bible

Sculpture of Dragon
Many Biblical study tools state that most of the beasts discussed in this series did exist but that the KJV translators made an error when they tried to match Hebrew words and phrases to an equivalent in English. Most modern translations of God's word attempt to correct these errors. For example, the KJV reference to dragons in Psalm 91:13 is changed to 'serpents' in the NIV or 'snakes' in the TLB, CEV and NCV translations. Behemoth, mentioned only in Job (Job 40:15), is called a 'hippopotamus' in the TLB and CEV. The descriptions of the legendary Leviathan, found in Job 41, are said to refer to a crocodile in the TLB. The problem is that, in many cases, the description of these exotic creatures in the word of God correspond little to the beasts suggested either by commentaries or translations.

Evidence does suggest that the beasts referred to in Scripture are not the stuff of myth and legend but rather were quite real. In his pivotal book "The Biblical Basis for Modern Science," Henry Morris states the following regarding the idea that some creatures in God's word are mythical.

"The biblical writers mention at least 160 different specific animals by name, and always the descriptions seem quite accurate, except for these few . . . (the behemoth, dragons, etc.). The latter are apparently also intended by the writers as real animals, as real as the many others they describe accurately." (The Biblical Basis for Modern Science: The Revised and Updated Classic, Chapter 12, section "Dragons and Unicorns")

Picture of Griffon

Another possibility

The possibility exists that some beasts, such as the behemoth and the Leviathan, may have existed just as the Scripture describes them.

"Thus, it is more reasonable to regard these animals, in most cases at least, merely as extinct . . . known to the patriarchs as living animals but later known only by their ancient reputations." (ibid. Chapter 12, section "Dragons and Unicorns")

It may not be entirely coincidental that the oldest book in Scripture, Job, lists several mythical animals. Dated around the 1660s B.C., it was written more than two hundred years BEFORE Moses penned the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Job references five of our seven exotic beasts - dragons (Job 30:29), the behemoth (40:15), the leviathan (41:1), unicorns (39:9 - 10), and possibly the phoenix bird (29:18).

Additional Study Materials
Is the Bible full of contradictions?
What are the translation errors in the KJV?
When was the Old Testament written?
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