Urim and Thummim by Cornelis Van Dam

What were the Urim and Thummim?

The Urim and Thummim were a way of receiving revelation from God and apparently consisted of one or more objects of an unknown nature. This oracular means was entrusted to the high priest who kept it in his breastpiece (Exod 28:30; Lev 8:8). The Hebrew terms, ‘urim and tummim, have traditionally been understood to mean “light(s) and “perfection(s)” or “perfect light.” Sometimes this means of revelation is simply referred to as Urim (Num 27:21; 1Sam 28:6). It was used at critical moments when divine guidance was needed for God’s people.

Remarkably there is no record of the manufacture of the Urim and Thummim, unlike the high priestly clothing associated with it (Exod 28 and Exod 29), and it is characterized as belonging to God (Deut 33:8). Furthermore, the definite article preceding the first mention of the Urim and Thummim (Exod 28:30) could indicate that it was already a known entity in Israel.

Since the Urim and Thummim were kept in the high priestly breastpiece which was attached to the ephod, a simple reference to the ephod can indicate a reference to the Urim and Thummim (1Sam 23:9-12; 1Sam 30:7-8).

 How did they work?

There is general agreement that the expression “inquire of the LORD (or God)” indicates the use of the Urim and Thummim if no other means of revelation is mentioned (e.g., Judg 1:1; 1Sam 22:10; 2Sam 2:1). Three ancient understandings of how the divine answer was received can be mentioned. Variations of these interpretations continue into the present time.

First, the Urim and Thummim were often identified with the gems on the high priestly breastpiece. These gems or the letters engraved on them would miraculously light up to give the divine answer. The miraculous element would confirm that the message came from God. This view regards the meaning of the name “Urim and Thummim” as “perfect light” as the manner of its operation. It was “by Urim” (“light”) (Num 27:21; 1Sam 28:6) that revelation was given.

Second, answers were received with divine inspiration so that the high priest acted as a prophet. This method would make it possible for long, detailed answers to be easily received from God (e.g., 2Sam 5:17-25). In antiquity this method was combined with a miraculous light to authenticate that the prophetic message was indeed from God. This understanding or a variation of it is still defended today.

Third, the Urim and Thummim were considered a lot-oracle so that answers were received by casting the Urim and Thummim as lots. The ancient Greek translation of 1Sam 14:41 appears to identify the Urim and Thummim with casting lots. Most scholars today favor this understanding.

This oracular means could not be utilized in postexilic times (cf. Ezra 2:63; Neh 7:65). Indeed, there is no record of its use after the time of David. Revelation from God through the prophets replaced the use of the high priestly Urim and Thummim.

Cornelis Van Dam , "Urim and Thummim", n.p. [cited 15 Dec 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/urim-and-thummim

Contributors

van-dam-c

Cornelis Van Dam
Professor of Old Testament Emeritus, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary

Cornelis Van Dam is Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary where he taught from 1981-2011. A Festschrift, Living Waters from Ancient Springs (Pickwick, 2011) was offered on his retirement. It includes a bibliography of his writings up to 2011. He is also the author of The Deacon: Biblical Roots and the Ministry of Mercy Today (Reformation Heritage Books, 2016) and Hope and Comfort in the Book of Job (Premier, 2017).

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

Exod 28:30

30In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron's heart when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall be ... View more

Lev 8:8

8He placed the breastpiece on him, and in the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim.

Num 27:21

21But he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the decision of the Urim before the Lord; at his word they shall go out, and at his ... View more

1Sam 28:6

6When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.

Exod 28

Vestments for the Priesthood
1Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaro ... View more

Exod 29

The Ordination of the Priests
1Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests. Take one young bull and two rams ... View more

Deut 33:8

8And of Levi he said:
Give to Levi your Thummim,
and your Urim to your loyal one,
whom you tested at Massah,
with whom you contended at the waters of Meribah;

Exod 28:30

30In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron's heart when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall be ... View more

1Sam 23:9-12

9When David learned that Saul was plotting evil against him, he said to the priest Abiathar, “Bring the ephod here.”10David said, “O Lord, the God of Israel, yo ... View more

1Sam 30:7-8

7David said to the priest Abiathar son of Ahimelech, “Bring me the ephod.” So Abiathar brought the ephod to David.8David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I pursue t ... View more

Judg 1:1

Israel's Failure to Complete the Conquest of Canaan
1After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the C ... View more

1Sam 22:10

10he inquired of the Lord for him, gave him provisions, and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine.”

2Sam 2:1

David Anointed King of Judah
1After this David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” The Lord said to him, “Go up.” David said, ... View more

Num 27:21

21But he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the decision of the Urim before the Lord; at his word they shall go out, and at his ... View more

1Sam 28:6

6When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.

2Sam 5:17-25

Philistine Attack Repulsed
17When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, all the Philistines went up in search of David; but David ... View more

1Sam 14:41

41Then Saul said, “O Lord God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant today? If this guilt is in me or in my son Jonathan, O Lord God of Israel, give ... View more

Ezra 2:63

63the governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim.

Neh 7:65

65the governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until a priest with Urim and Thummim should come.

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