Why Do Modern Bibles Mention Jackals Instead of Dragons?

Have you ever wondered why certain Bible translations mention jackals where some older ones mention dragons?

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.

Looking for a fun way to learn about the biblical view of dinosaurs and earth’s history? Check out my youth fiction series titled The Truth Chronicles.

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.

  1. 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. 

An Overview of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology

How should we interpret the Bible? Dispensationalism and Covenantalism are competing approaches to interpreting the Bible that frequently reach very different conclusions. Which one makes better sense?

The Bible can be a confusing book, as evidenced by the many Christians who struggle to properly interpret it. Undoubtedly, a major contributing factor to this confusion is the diversity of interpretations offered by pastors and professors. If these experts disagree on how to read Scripture, how can the average believer hope to rightly divide the word of truth? Among Evangelicals, two interpretive systems dominate the theological landscape: Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. This article will provide a basic overview that will define and contrast these two competing systems while explaining how each view impacts one’s understanding of the biblical narrative.

Dispensationalism is often misunderstood as being a system that cares primarily about the nation of Israel; however, it is much more than that—it is a comprehensive hermeneutical system that has major implications, particularly in the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology (the studies of the church and end times, respectively). Michael Vlach provided the following definition of the view:

Dispensationalism is a system of theology primarily concerned with the doctrines of ecclesiology and eschatology that emphasizes the historical-grammatical meaning of Old Testament prophetic passages and covenants, a distinction between Israel and the church, and a future salvation and restoration of the nation Israel in a future earthly kingdom.1

While Dispensationalism emphasizes a straightforward understanding of the text according to the interpretive principles for the various genres, Covenant Theology views all of Scripture through the lens of either two or three covenants:

Covenant theology is a system of interpreting the Scriptures on the basis of two covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Some covenant theologians specify three covenants: works, redemption, and grace.2

According to adherents of Covenant Theology (Covenantalists), Adam was initially under the covenant of works. If he would not have sinned, then he would have procured salvation for himself. But upon his rebellion, every person has been under the covenant of grace, which encompasses the other major covenants in Scripture. The covenant of redemption refers to a supposed covenant made in eternity past between members of the Godhead related to how the Son of God would redeem mankind.

Proponents of both positions agree on fundamentals of the Christian faith and are orthodox. They believe God is triune, and that Jesus is the Son of God whose atoning death and resurrection are the only means by which a sinner can be saved. Nevertheless, these two approaches yield significantly different understandings of Scripture.

Dispensationalism believes that the Old Testament stands on its own. That is, while the New Testament sheds light on the Old Testament, it does not change the meaning of a given Old Testament passage. This is due to its emphasis on the historical-grammatical hermeneutic (interpreting the text while taking into account the cultural and historical background as well as the technical details of the language).

Covenant Theology emphasizes soteriology (study of salvation), endorsing a redemptive-historical hermeneutic, which means that all Scripture is read through a lens that sees God’s salvation of sinners as being the primary purpose of history. This leads its proponents to adopt New Testament priority—i.e., New Testament passages are used to interpret Old Testament texts in ways that were never intended by the original human authors.

These competing approaches make an enormous difference in how major themes in Scripture are understood. Perhaps the most noticeable difference surrounds the relationship between Israel and the church. Since Dispensationalists give equal priority to both testaments, they believe that Israel still holds a unique place in God’s plan because numerous prophecies about Israel have not been fulfilled yet. As such, Dispensationalists believe that these prophecies will be fulfilled in relation to the Second Coming and Millennial reign of Christ.

Covenantalists claim that God’s promised blessings for Israel should be transferred to the church because Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the church replaces or supersedes Israel. And now that Christ’s bride, the church, is here and the gospel has been sent out to all nations, it does not seem to make sense that the Lord would shift His focus back to just one nation. As a result, scores of Old Testament prophecies are spiritualized, such as the last several chapters of Ezekiel. New Testament prophecies that seem to be about Israel must also be reinterpreted to refer to the church. For example, the thousand-year period mentioned six times in Revelation 20 is not understood as a literal fulfillment of the Old Testament kingdom promises to Israel. Instead, covenantalists interpret it non-literally as either a spiritual kingdom or one that does not last for a millennium, or if they do interpret it as a literal millennium, then it is not specifically for Israel.

Another major difference between these two positions involves one’s understanding of the Old Testament Law. For Dispensationalists, the Mosaic Law was given to the people of Israel for a specific time and place. Hebrews 8:13 states that the Mosaic covenant has been made obsolete by the new covenant instituted by Christ. And since Dispensationalists do not conflate Israel and the Church, the Mosaic Law is not binding on Christians who are under “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). However, since covenantalists view all of the biblical covenants as being different aspects or expressions of the overarching covenant of grace, the Mosaic Law must still be in place for the church in some way. Typically, they divide the Mosaic Law into civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. With Christ’s sacrificial death, the ceremonial or sacrificial laws were set aside, but the civil and moral are still in effect, although they are sometimes adapted to fit one’s cultural setting. It must be stated that while these categories may be helpful in understanding the types of laws described in the Pentateuch, the Bible never divides the Mosaic law in such a way. Instead, the Mosaic law is always treated as a whole unit: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10, cf. Galatians 5:3).

I believe Dispensationalism is a far better system of interpretation, since the meaning of the text is viewed as residing in the text itself, rather than depending on one’s reinterpretation as seen through the lens of the New Testament, as is the case with Covenant Theology. Furthermore, Covenant Theology sees all of Scripture through the lens of two or three covenants that are never mentioned in Scripture (covenant of works and covenant of grace). Consistent with the Dispensational approach, the New Testament characters and authors interpreted the Old Testament in a contextual manner.3 Dispensationalism also allows the Old Testament prophecies about Israel’s future to be fulfilled in a manner consistent with other prophecies. Finally, whereas Covenant Theology views God’s redemption of fallen humans as the focus of history, Dispensationalism emphasizes that Christ’s atonement leads to a restoration of all creation. Thus, while both emphasize God’s glory, Covenant Theology tends to focus on man’s salvation and Dispensationalism calls attention to what God is doing to restore and renew all of His creation, including mankind.

  1. Michael J. Vlach, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths, Revised and Updated (Los Angeles, CA: Theological Studies Press, 2017), 50. 

  2. Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), 503. 

  3. Of the roughly 360 New Testament quotations or citations of Old Testament texts, Covenantalists often point to about five that they believe have been reinterpreted by the New Testament authors. Dispensationalists like Abner Chou (The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers) and Michael Vlach (The Old in the New) have shown how these examples have not been reinterpreted by New Testament authors. However, even if these few passages had been reinterpreted by New Testament authors, this would mean that less than 2% of the Old Testament citations in the New Testament have been reinterpreted. This is hardly a solid basis on which to build a hermeneutic in which one must reinterpret scores of passages. Furthermore, the writings of the New Testament were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Covenantalists certainly do not believe their writings are likewise inspired, so why adopt a hermeneutic that implies as much and that overrides the plain meaning of the text?