Recently, after giving a presentation at the Creation Museum, a person asked me why many newer Bible translations include the word jackal instead of dragon in a number of Old Testament verses. For example, Job 30:29a in the King James Version states, “I am a brother to dragons…” while the same verse in the New King James Version reads, “I am a brother of jackals…” Why did this change occur? Is it because modern translation committees have been influenced by evolutionary thinking and refuse to consider using a word that could possibly refer to a dinosaur, as some creationists have contended? Nope. That’s not the reason. Although some creationists have made this claim, so this serves as an important reminder to be careful not to make false claims about fellow believers, which is the same as lying about them. So, why did this change take place? The short answer is that the newer translations are correct, and the older translations conflated some similar-looking words that have very different meanings.
[Note: this discussion is not about the seven-headed red dragon seen by John in a vision in Revelation. That dragon clearly represented Satan, as we are told in Revelation 12:9, but although that discussion is important, it has very little bearing on this topic.]
Understanding the meaning of the terms translated as dragon has been a point of confusion for some biblical creationists. This is due in part to the idea that some of the dragon legends from ancient cultures were probably based on real encounters with what we now call dinosaurs. I think a good case can be made for this conclusion in certain legends, and I make this point in my dinosaur presentation. Thus, it makes sense why some biblical creationists would see the word dragon in older Bibles as support for the idea that dinosaurs and man were made on the same day of the creation week (Day 6). However, these two concepts are not interdependent. That is, if these older versions of the Old Testament were mistaken when translating certain words as dragon, it would not rule out the possibility that some dragon legends were based on human interaction with dinosaurs. For example, I believe the most likely explanation for behemoth (Job 40:15–24) is that it was a sauropod dinosaur or something similar.
Because of the confusion that has existed on the topic, in 2012 Ken Ham requested a definitive article on the topic for Answers in Genesis. At first, I wrote a basic article that essentially stated what I had read from other creationists—that the words tannin and tannim were two varieties of a word that referred to serpentine creatures that could be on land or in the water and could even refer to dinosaurs or dinosaur-like creatures. After a couple of Hebrew language experts told me that this wasn’t correct, I decided to keep digging. I quickly discovered that these two words are different and refer to very different things, even though they look nearly the same. In fact, one of these is singular and the other is plural. I had made the mistake of relying on others who did not know Hebrew and had never done a careful study of these words. So, I ended up writing a much longer article that included a breakdown of every single use of tannin and tannim in the Old Testament, and it became painfully obvious that the words referred to different creatures. This time, the Hebrew language experts approved the article. It was posted on the Answers in Genesis website on August 8, 2012. You can read my detailed article here, and you’ll see that it addresses three objections to this position, I want to offer a quick summary of my findings here.
Simply put, tannin and tannim are two different words that were mistakenly treated as the same term in many older Bibles. A very simple comparison will show why this view is outdated.
- Tannin – (singular noun used with singular verbs) This word describes what Aaron’s rod became when he threw it down in front of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:10), and it is paralleled with a cobra (NKJV) or an adder (ESV) in Psalm 91:13. Its plural form is tanninim, which is used with plural verbs, and it is compared to cobras (NKJV) or asps (ESV) in Deuteronomy 32:33. This word describes the great sea creatures God made on Day 5 (Genesis 1:21) and what Pharaoh’s magicians’ rods became when they were thrown down (Exodus 7:12).
- Tannim – (plural noun used with plural verbs, singular form is tan) This word is frequently used to describe animals that haunt desolate places (Isaiah 34:13), and we are told that they sniff at the wind (Jeremiah 14:6) and howl (Isaiah 13:22). In Isaiah 13:22 it appears in connection with hyenas while many verses place it in the same environment as ostriches (Micah 1:8, Job 30:29).
When laid out like this, do you see how easy it is to spot the distinction between the two terms? A tannin is one serpentine creature on land or in the sea while tannim are multiple land animals that haunt deserted places, can howl, and sniff the wind. Tannin is a singular noun used with singular verbs while tannim is a plural noun used with plural verbs. This point is made clearer by the fact that the masculine plural form of tannin (tanninim) is also used five times in the Bible (Genesis 1:21, Exodus 7:12, Deuteronomy 32:22, Psalm 74:13, and Psalm 148:7). And the feminine plural form of tan (tannot)1 is found in Malachi 1:8. These words clearly refer to different creatures, so they should not be treated as though they are the same. Tannin refers to a serpent or serpent-like creature while tannim are jackals or something similar to a jackal.
It might help if you could see an example in English. Suppose you wrote a book that included brief mentions of cats and a catfish at various points. Of course, people who know the language readily recognize that these are two different words and refer to very different creatures. Similar to tannim being the plural of tan, cats is the plural form of cat. And just as tannin is singular, catfish is also singular. Now imagine that English diminishes to the point where hardly anyone uses it, and over the centuries, some people wrongly translate your work by making cats and catfish the same creature. Then imagine someone trying to translate your work into a different language thousands of years from now. And when it comes to these animals, the primary thing they can base their translation on is how you describe them in the book, and yet those two creatures were not in any way the focus of your book. And they can also look at the wrong translations done over the centuries preceding them. Since the words share the same first three letters and because others have confused these words, that person might assume that they refer to the same thing, but we know they are different. This is similar to what has happened with tannin and tannim.
If someone does not look closely at the Hebrew text, then he or she is left to rely on what others have said about these words. And let’s be honest, most of the time, people will gravitate toward those who say what they want to hear and ignore information that challenges that. But we do not need to do that in this case because the Hebrew text makes it abundantly clear that they are different words that refer to different creatures that generally lived in different environments and often exhibited different behaviors. Thus, while modern translation committees may be influenced by evolutionary thinking, this idea is not reflected in how tannin and tannim have been translated over the past several decades. Those who conflated these terms in older Bibles were mistaken, and biblical creationists need to do a better job of carefully examining the biblical text so that we can avoid making false claims about others and promoting outdated and mistaken ideas about the Bible.
The “o” in tannot should have a solid line over it to indicate a long o sound, but I’m not sure how to make this symbol in WordPress. ↩