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Bible Encyclopedias
Urim and Thummim

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

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ū´rim and thum´im ( והתּמּים האוּרים , hā - 'ūrı̄m weha - tummı̄m (article omitted in Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65 ); perhaps "light and perfection," as intensive plurals):

1. Definition:

Articles not specifically described, placed in (next to, or on (Hebrew 'el ; Septuagint epı́ ; Samaritan-Hebrew ‛al )) the high priest's breastplate, called the "breast-plate of decision" (English Versions of the Bible, "judgment"). ( Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8 ). Their possession was one of the greatest distinctions conferred upon the priestly family (Deuteronomy 33:8; Ecclesiasticus 45:10), and seems to have been connected with the function of the priests as the mouthpiece of Yahweh, as well as with the ceremonial side of the service (Exodus 28:30; compare Arabic kahı̄n , "soothsayer").

2. Use in the Old Testament:

Through their use, the nature of which is a matter of conjecture, the divine will was sought in national crises, and apparently the future foretold, guilt or innocence established, and, according to one theory, land divided ( Bābhā' Bathrā' 122a; Sanhedrin 16a). Thus, Joshua was to stand before Eleazar who was to inquire for him after the judgment (decision) of the Urim ( Numbers 27:21 ). It seems that this means was employed by Joshua in the matter of Achan (Joshua 7:14 , Joshua 7:18 ) and overlooked in the matter of the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:14 ). Though not specifically mentioned, the same means is in all probability referred to in the accounts of the Israelites consulting Yahweh after the death of Joshua in their warfare (Judges 1:1 , Judges 1:2; Judges 20:18 , Judges 20:26-28 ). The Danites in their migration ask counsel of a priest, perhaps in a similar manner (Judges 18:5 , Judges 18:7 ). It is not impossible that even the prophet Samuel was assisted by the Urim in the selection of a king (1 Samuel 10:20-22 ). During Saul's war with the Philistines, he made inquiry of God with the aid of the priest (1 Samuel 14:36 , 1 Samuel 14:37 ), Ahijah, the son of Ahitub, who at that time wore the ephod (1 Samuel 14:3 ). Although on two important occasions Yahweh refused to answer Saul through the Urim (1 Samuel 14:37; 1 Samuel 28:6 ), it appears (from the Septuagint version of 1 Samuel 14:41; see below) that he Used the Urim and Thummim successfully in ascertaining the cause of the divine displeasure. The accusation of Doeg and the answer of the high priest (1 Samuel 22:10 , 1 Samuel 22:13 , 1 Samuel 22:15 ) suggest that David began to inquire of Yahweh through the priesthood, even while he was an officer of Saul. After the massacre of the priests in Nob, Abiathar fled to the camp of David (1 Samuel 22:20 ), taking with him the ephod (including apparently the Urim and Thummim, 1 Samuel 23:6 ) which David used frequently during his wanderings (1 Samuel 23:2-4 , 1 Samuel 23:9-12; 1 Samuel 30:7 , 1 Samuel 30:8 ), and also after the death of Saul (2 Samuel 2:1; 2 Samuel 5:19 , 2 Samuel 5:23; 2 Samuel 21:1 ). After the days of David, prophecy was in the ascendancy, and, accordingly, we find no clear record of the use of the Urim and Thummim in the days of the later kings (compare, however, Hosea 3:4; Ecclesiasticus 33:3). Still, in post-exilic times we find the difficult question of the ancestral right of certain priests to eat of the most holy things reserved till there would stand up a priest with Urim and with Thummim (Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65; 1 Esdras 5:40; Ṣōtāh 48b).

3. Older (Traditional) Views:

Though Josephus sets the date for the obsolescence of the Urim and Thummim at 200 years before his time, in the days of John Hyrcanus ( Ant. , III, viii, 9), the Talmud reckons the Urim and Thummim among the things lacking in the second Temple ( Ṣōtāh 9 10; Yōmā' 21b; Yeru Ḳid . 65b). Both Josephus and the Talmud identify the Urim and Thummim with the stones of the breastplate. The former simply states that the stones shone whenever the shekhı̄nāh was present at a sacrifice or when the army proceeded to battle.

"God declared beforehand by those twelve stones which the high priest bare on his breast, and which were inserted into his breastplate, when they should be victorious in battle; for so great a splendor shone forth from them before the army began to march, that all the people were sensible of God's being present for their assistance" ( Ant. , III, viii, 9).

The Talmudic explanation suggests that by the illumination of certain letters the divine will was revealed, and that in order to have a complete alphabet, in addition to the names of the tribes, the breastplate bore the names of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. and the words shibhṭē yeshūrun . A later scholar even suggests that the letters moved from their places to form words ( Yōmā' 73a,b). Characteristically enough the Talmud prescribes rules and suggestions for the consultation of the non-existing Urim and Thummim: that the one asking must be a man of public importance, that the question must pertain to the public weal; that the priest must face the shekhı̄nāh (west); that one question be asked at a time, and so forth (same place).

It is difficult to tell just how much, if anything, of a lingering tradition is reflected in the view that the Urim and Thummim and stones of the breast-plate were identical. In the absence of other ancient clues, however, it is not safe to reject even the guesses of the Jews of the second temple in favor of our own. We do not even know the meaning of the word ḥōshen , so confidently translated "pouch" or "receptacle" by opponents of the older view, without any basis whatever. On the other hand the theory of identification was widespread. Even Philo leans toward it in his De Monarchia , although in his Vita Mosis (iii) he seems to have in mind two small symbols representing Light and Truth embroidered on the cloth of the ḥōshen or hung round the neck of the high priest, similar to the Egyptian symbol of justice. Another very old view is that the Urim and Thummim consisted of a writing containing the Ineffable Name (Pseudo-Jonathan on Exodus 28:20; compare Rashi and Nachmanides at the place).

4. Recent (Critical) Views:

The view most generally held today is that the Urim and Thummim were two sacred lots, one indicating an affirmative or favorable answer, the other a negative or unfavorable answer (Michaelis, Ewald, Wellhausen, Robertson Smith, Driver, G. F. Moore, Kennedy, Muss-Arnolt). The chief support of this view is found, not in the Massoretic Text, but in the reconstruction by Wellhausen and Driver of 1 Samuel 14:41 ff on the basis of the Septuagint: "If this fault be in me or in Jonathan, my son, give Urim ( dós dḗlous ), and if it be in thy people Israel, give Thummim (dós hosiótēta )." The following sentence clearly suggests the casting of lots, possibly lots on which the names of Saul and Jonathan were written, and "Jonathan" was taken. Efforts have been made to support the view that the Urim and Thummim themselves were sacred lots on the basis of analogous customs among other peoples (e.g. pre-Islamic Arabs (Moore in EB ) andBabylonians (W. Muss-Arnolt in Jewish Encyclopedia and AJSL , July, 1900)). It must be borne in mind, however, that whatever the lot-theory has to recommend it, it is inconsistent not only with the post-Biblical traditions, but also with the Biblical data. For those who are not inclined to give much weight to the passages connecting the Urim and Thummim with the high priest's apparel (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8 , both "P"), there is of course no difficulty in dissociating the two, in spite of the fact that for the use of this system of divination the one thing necessary in the historical passages on which they rely seems to be the ephod. Still, if we are to think of two lots, one called and possibly marked "Urim" and the other "Thummim," it is difficult to get any meaning from the statement (1 Samuel 14:37; 1 Samuel 28:6 ) that Yahweh did not answer Saul on certain occasions, unless indeed we surmise for the occasion the existence of a third nameless blank lot. A more serious difficulty arises from the fact that the answers ascribed to the Urim and Thummim are not always the equivalent of "yes" or "no" (compare Judges 1:2; Judges 20:18; 1 Samuel 22:10; 2 Samuel 5:23; 2 Samuel 21:1 ), even if we omit from consideration the instances where an individual is apparently pointed out from all Israel (compare the instances of the detection of Achan and the selection of Saul with that of Jonathan, above).

5. Etymology:

If we turn to etymology for assistance, we are not only on uncertain ground, but when Babylonian and other foreign words are brought in to bolster up a theory abput anything so little understood as the Urim and Thummim, we are on dangerous ground. Thus, Muss-Arnolt is ready with Babylonian words ( urtu , "command," and tamı̄tu , "oracular decision"); others suggest tmē , the Egyptian image of justice; still others connect Urim with 'ārar , to curse," in order to make it an antonym of tummı̄m , "faultlessness." It is generally admitted, however, that, as pointed in the Massoretic Text, the words mean "light" and "perfection," on the basis of which the Talmud ( Yōmā' 73b) as well as most of the Greek versions translated them ( dḗlōsis kaı́ alḗtheia ; phōtismoı́ kaı́ teleiótētes ), although Symmachus in one place ( Deuteronomy 33:8 ), who is followed by the Vulgate, connects Urim with the word Tōrāh and understands it to mean "doctrine" (teleiótēs kaı́ didachḗ ). Though loth to add to the already overburdened list of conjectures about these words, it appears to the present writer that if Urim and Thummim are antonyms, and Urim means "light," it is by no means difficult to connect Thummim with darkness, inasmuch as there is a host of Hebrew stems based on the root -tm , all indicating concealing, closing up, and even darkness (compare אטם , חטם , חתם , עתם , טמה , טמן ( see Job 40:13 ), סתם and תמם even and cognate Arabic words in BDB ). This explanation would make Urim and Thummim mean "illuminated" and "dark" (compare Caster in Hastings, ERE , IV, 813), and, while fitting well with the ancient theories or traditions, would not be excluded by the recent theory of lots of opposite purport.

Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Urim and Thummim'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​isb/​u/urim-and-thummim.html. 1915.
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