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Bible Encyclopedias
Urim and Thummim

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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In the Bible. These descriptive terms are applied to one of the methods of divination employed by the ancient Hebrews, which, it is now generally agreed, consisted in a species of sacred lot. Together with "dreams" and the prophetic oracle it formed the recognized channel by which divine communications were given (cf. I Sam. xxviii. 6). That some method of casting lots is denoted by the terms is evident from 1 Sam. xiv. 41 f. The Hebrew text in this passage, as emended by the LXX and in this form generally accepted, runs as follows: "And Saul said: ` O Jehovah, God of Israel, why dost Thou not answer Thy servant to-day? If this fault be in me or in Jonathan my son, give Urim, and if it be in Thy people Israel, give Thummim.' And the lot fell upon Saul and Jonathan, and the people escaped. And Saul said: ` Cast (the lot) between me and Jonathan my son, and on whomsoever Jehovah shall cause the lot to fall let him die.' So they cast (the lot) between him and Jonathan his son, and Jonathan was taken." From this illuminating passage it is clear (a) that by means of the Urim and Thummim the guilt or innocence of the suspected parties was determined; (b ) that this was effected by a series of categorical questions implying the simple alternative of "yes" or "no," or something positive or negative. A further inference (c ) from a comparison of I Sam. xiv. 41 f. with ver. 36 (Greek text) is that this method of casting the sacred lot was closely connected with divination by the ephod, and was the prerogative of the priests. This last point appears explicitly in the "Blessing of Moses" (Deut. xxxiii.), where the opening words of the Benediction on Levi run thus (text as emended by Ball, following LXX; P.S.B.A. 1896, 118 f.): "Give to Levi Thy Thummim, And Thy Urim to the man of Thy favour." Similar modes of divination were practised, it would seem, among the pre-Islamic Arabs. The following custom is cited by Professor G. F. Moore,' on the testimony of Moslem writers, as having been in vogue: "Two arrow shafts (without heads or feathers), on one of which was written ` Command,' on the other `Prohibition,' or words of similar purport, were placed in a receptacle, and according as one or the other of them was drawn out it was known whether the proposed enterprise was in accordance with the will of the god and destined to succeed or not" (cf. Prov. xvi. 33; Acts i. 26).

Regarding the form and material of the Urim and Thummim ' Encycl, Biblica, iv. (col. 5236), where further details are given.

no details are given in the Old Testament. They seem to have fallen into desuetude at a comparatively early period. No mention is made of their use in the historical books after the time of David and Solomon, though it is probable that such use is implied in passages where the ephod is mentioned (e.g. Hosea iii. 4). In the post-exilic Priestly Code (i.e. the bulk of the Levitical legislation of the Pentateuch), however, the Urim and Thummim figure as part of the equipment of the high priest (cf. Ex. xxviii. 30; Lev. viii. 8; Num. xxvii. 21). Here it is stated that they are kept in a square pouch which is worn upon the high priest's breast ("the breastplate of judgment"), and attached to the ephod. Thus the association of the Urim and Thummim with the ephod, which appears in the oldest narratives, is retained in the Priestly Code (P). It is doubtful, however, whether P had any clear notion as to what exactly the Urim and Thummim were. The priestly writer gives no directions as to how they were to be made. They were retained in his ideal legislation, apparently, because their use was already invested with the mystery of a long-vanished past, and they were regarded as having formed one of the most venerable adjuncts of the priesthood. That this method of divination was not in actual use after the Exile is shown by Neh. vii. 65 (Ezra ii. 63; 1 Esdras v. 40) where an important point affecting the priestly families is reserved "till there stood up a priest with Urim and Thummim." Later references (Ecclus. xlv. 10; in Josephus and the Talmud) prove that no real tradition survived on the subject. The identification of them with the jewels of the breastplate and on the shoulders of the high priest (which apparently has the authority of Josephus) is unwarranted; other ancient guesses are equally baseless. Nor has any satisfactory explanation of the names Urim and Thummim been proposed. As vocalized in the Massoretic Hebrew text the names = "Lights and perfection." But the Greek translators read the former orim and connected it with torah, " decision"; it would thus = "doctrine"; so Symmachus, cf. 1 Esd. v. 40, where "a high priest wearing Urim and Thummim" (R.V.) is given as "a high priest clothed in doctrine and truth" in A.V. Nor can the attempt of the American scholar Muss-Arnolt to explain them as cognate with the Babylonian Tablets of Destiny be pronounced successful. Perhaps the conjecture least open to objection is that which regards the terms Urim and Thummim as the names of two lots 2 (perhaps actually written on them) of opposite import. In this case the former of the two names might be derived from the root arar, " to curse"; the other from a root meaning "to be without fault." The one would thus signify "that a proposed action was satisfactory to God, the other that it provoked His wrath" (Professor G. F. Moore). But all such explanations are highly precarious.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. - For the older views, see Spencer, De leg. Hebr. nit. Diss. VII.; and a useful summary by Plumptre in Smith's Bib. Dict. For modern discussions, see the articles "Urim and Thummim" in the Bible dictionaries; the relevant sections in the treatises on archaeology; and W. Muss-Arnolt, The Urim and Thummim (reprinted from the American Journal of Semitic Languages, July 1900). (G. H. Bo.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Urim and Thummim'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​u/urim-and-thummim.html. 1910.
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