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Bible Encyclopedias
Urim and Thummim

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Biblical References.

—Biblical Data:

Objects connected with the breastplate of the high priest, and used as a kind of divine oracle. Since the days of the Alexandrian translators of the Old Testament it has been asserted that mean "revelation and truth" (δήλωσις καὶ ἀλήθεια), or "lights and perfections" (φωτισμοὶ καὶ τελεότητες); the τελειότης καὶ διδαχή of Symmachus (Jerome, "perfectio et doctrina"; Field, "Hexapla" on Deuteronomy 33:8); and the φωτισμοί καὶ τελειώσεις of Aquila and Theodotion. The Vulgate has "doctrina [after Symmachus; Old Latin, "ostensio" or "demonstratio"] et veritas." There is, however, no foundation for such a view in the Bible itself. Exodus 28:13-30 describes the high-priestly ephod and the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim. It is called a "breastplate of judgment" ("ḥoshen ha-mishpaṭ"); it is four-square and double; and the twelve stones were not put inside the ḥoshen, but on the outside. It is related in Leviticus 8:7-8 that when, in compliance with the command in Exodus 29:1-37, Moses consecrated Aaron and his sons as priests, "He [Moses] put upon him [Aaron] the coat, and girded him with the girdle, and clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod upon him, and he girded him with the cunningly woven band [A. V. "curious girdle"] of the ephod, and bound it unto him therewith. And he put the breastplate upon him: and in the breastplate he put the Urim and the Thummim." Deuteronomy 33:8 (R. V.), in the blessing of Moses, reads: "And of Levi he said: Thy Thummim and thy Urim are with thy godly one, whom thou didst prove at Massah, with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah" (see Steuernagel, "Deuteronomium," p. 125, Göttingen, 1898; Bertholet, "Deuteronomium," p. 106, Freiburg, 1899; Driver, "Deuteronomy," in "International Critical Commentary," p. 398, New York, 1895; Baudissin, "Gesch. des Alttestamentlichen Priesterthums," p. 76). The most important passage is 1 Samuel 14:41, where Wellhausen and Driver have corrected the text, on the basis of the Septuagint, to read as follows: "And Saul said: Lord, God of Israel, why hast thou not answered thy servant this day? If this iniquity be in me or in Jonathan my son, Lord, God of Israel, give Urim; but if it be in thy people Israel, give Thummim. Then Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot; and the people escaped" (Driver, "Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Books of Samuel," p. 89, Oxford, 1890; Budde, "The Books of Samuel," in Polychrome Bible, p. 63; H. P. Smith, "The Books of Samuel," p. 122; Kirkpatrick, "The First Book of Samuel," in "The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges," 1891, p. 137).

1 Samuel 28:3-6 mentions three methods of divine communication: (1) the dream-oracle, of which frequent mention is made also in Assyrian and Babylonian literature; (2) the oracle by means of the Urim (here, undoubtedly, an abbreviation for "Urim and Thummim"); (3) the oracle by the word of the Prophets, found among all Semitic nations.

The only other mention of actual consultation of Yhwh by means of the Urim and Thummim found in the Old Testament is in Numbers 27:21. Eleazar was then high priest, and Moses was permitted by the Lord to address Him directly. But Joshua and his successors could speak to the Lord only through the mediation of the high priest and by means of the Urim and Thummim. It is quite probable that the age of Ezra and Nehemiah was no longer cognizant of the nature of the Urim and Thummim (Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65; see also I Macc. 4:46, 14:41). Post-exilic Israel had neither the sacred breastplate nor the Urim and Thummim. Ezra 2:63 tacitly contradicts the assertion of Josephus ("Ant." 3:8, § 9, end) that the Urim and Thummim first failed in the Maccabean era (B. Niese, "Flavii Josephi Opera," 1:202; see also Soṭah 9:12; Tosef., Soṭah, 13:2; Yer. Ḳid. 4:1; Ryle, "Ezra and Nehemiah," p. 32). Ecclus. (Sirach) 33:3 may possibly prove a knowledge of the tradition concerning the use of the Urim and Thummim; but it can not be inferred that answers were received at that time by means of them (V. Ryssel, in Kautzsch, "Apokryphen," p. 394).

Answer "Yes" or "No."

The Urim and Thummim are implied, also, whereever in the earlier history of Israel mention is made of asking counsel of the Lord by means of the ephod (Joshua 9:14; Judges 1:1-2; 20:18 [rejected as a later gloss from ib. 1:1 by most commentators], 26-28; 1 Samuel 10:22; 14:3,18,36 et seq.; 22:10,13; 23:2,4,6,9-12; 28:6; 30:7 et seq.; 2 Samuel 2:1; 5:19,23 et seq.; 21:1. On the nature of the ephod see G. F. Moore, "Judges," 1895, pp. 380-399, where copious references and the literature are given; idem, "Ephod," in Cheyne and Black, "Encyc. Bibl."; and especially T. C. Foote, "The Ephod," in "Jour. Bib. Lit." [1902] 21:1-48). In all cases except 1 Samuel 10:22 and 2 Samuel 5:23 et seq., the answer is either "Yes" or "No." It has been suggested by Riehm and others that these two passages have undergone editorial changes. After the death of David no instance is mentioned in the Old Testament of consulting the Lord by means of the Urim and Thummim or the ephod. This desuetude is undoubtedly occasioned by the growing influence of the Old Testament prophecy.

The ancient, and most of the modern, explanations of these mysterious instruments through which Yhwh communicated His will to His chosen people identify them with (a) stones in the high priest's breastplate, (b) sacred dice, and (c) little images of Truth and Justice such as are found round the neck of the mummy of an Egyptian priest (see Muss-Arnolt, "The Urim and Thummim," in "Am. Jour. Semit. Lang." July, 1900, pp. 199-204). The "Tablets of Destiny" which occur in the Assyro-Babylonian account of Creation and otherwise figure in Assyro-Babylonian conceptions suggest the correct explanation of the Hebrew Urim and Thummim. One of the functions ascribed to the Babylonian seer was to deliver oracles and to consult the god, whose answer was either "Yes" or "No." Quite often the god sends to his people an "urtu," a command to do, or not to do, something. "Urtu" belongs to the samestem from which is derived "ertu," the "terminus technicus" for "oracle." The gods speak ("tamu, utammu") to the priest the oracle which they reveal; and the oracle is called "the mysterious word, revelation." Since God "at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past," not only unto the fathers by the Prophets, but to all mankind in ways which it is now almost impossible to trace precisely, it is quite possible that the mythological account of the Tablets of Destiny and the Old Testament Urim and Thummim, both shaping the destiny of king and nation, revert to the same fountainhead and origin. Notwithstanding the fragmentary account of Babylonian literature and the scanty report of Old Testament writers, some points common to both may yet be gathered.

Babylonian Accounts.

  1. According to Exodus 28:30 and Leviticus 8:8, the Urim and Thummim rested within the breastplate, that is, on the breast of the high priest; in the Babylonian account the Tablets of Destiny rested on the breast of their possessor. Only so long as they were resting on the breast of the god in the case of the one nation, and on the breast of the high priest in that of the other, were they efficacious.
  2. In the Babylonian accounts, only those gods who, in some way, were considered the messengers and mediators between the other gods and mankind were the lawful possessors of the Tablets of Destiny. In Israel the Urim and Thummim were entrusted by Yhwh to Moses, and through him to the high priest as the representative of Yhwh and as the mediator between God and the nation to whose decisions, through the Urim and Thummim, even kings bowed.
  3. There is, to be sure, in the Babylonian records no statement as to the exact number of the Tablets of Destiny. It is known that there were more than one; it may not be too hazardous to assume that there were only two, one lying on each breast: one revealing (or prognosticating ?) good fortune; the other, misfortune. The Old Testament accounts of the Urim and Thummim indicate that there were only two objects (lots ?).
  4. Marduk, after he had torn the Tablets of Destiny from the breast of his dead foe, sealed them with his own seal. There may be a reminiscence of this in Exodus 28:21. The use of twelve stones, one for each of the twelve tribes, in addition to the two lots (of stone), is perhaps of some significance in this connection.
  5. Marduk, bearing on his breast the Tablets of Destiny, presided at the annual assembly of the gods, where the fate was determined and the lot was cast for king and nation. It is the general opinion that the Urim and Thummim were consulted only in cases where the safety of king or nation was concerned.

In Israel the development of a strict monotheism necessarily modified the conception of the Urim and Thummim. No description of them is found in the Old Testament; they are mentioned as something familiar both to Moses and to the people—an inheritance received from the time of their ancestors. The very fact that the Old Testament assumes that Moses and the people were acquainted with the nature of the Urim and Thummim confirms the view that the latter were naturally connected with the functions of the high priest as the mediator between Yhwh and His people.

Etymology of the Words.

The etymology of and , suggested by Zimmern and others, supports the explanation given here. The so-called plural ending of the wo words expresses the "pluralis intensivus," plurals only in form, but not in meaning. "Urim" may be connected not with = "curse, put under the ban," as Schwally and others have held, but with the Babylonian "u'uru," the infinitive of the "pi'el" of "a'aru," from which are derived also the nouns "urtu" = "command, order, decision" (usually of the gods) and "tertu" (originally with the same meaning). These words occur frequently in Assyro-Babylonian literature in sentences analogous in form to those in which "Urim and Thummim" are used in the Old Testament. The plural ("fires") has no doubt had some influence in shaping the analogous form = "urtu." the present writer connects with the Assyrian "tamu," pi'el "tummu," verbal forms also belonging to the oracular language. "Urim and Thummim" correspond, then, to the Babylonian "urtu" and "tamitu," the latter a synonym of "piristu" = "oracle, oracular decision [of the gods]." That the original meaning of the two words and their significance were known even at the time when the Old Testament records, in which they are mentioned, were written is exceedingly doubtful; that they were not known either to the Greek translators or to the early Masorites is practically certain.

  • In addition to works and articles mentioned in the body of the article, Buxtorf, Historia Urim et Thummim, in his Exercitationes, pp. 267 et seq., and in Ugolini, Thesaurus, vol.;
  • Spencer, De Legibus Hebrœorum Ritualibus, 1685;
  • Ludwig Diestel, Gesch. des Alten Testamentes in der Christlichen Kirche, Jena, 1869;
  • idem, Urim, in Herzog-Haupt, Real-Encyc. 16:746 et seq., revised for 2d ed., 16:226 et seq., by Kautzsch;
  • Bähr, Symbolik, 2:134-141;
  • W. Robertson Smith, The Old Testament in the Jewish Church, 2d ed., p. 292, London, 1895;
  • Baudissin, Die Geschichte des Alttestamentlichen Priesterthums Untersucht, 1889, pp. 26, 27, 140, 141;
  • Benzinger, Arch. 1894, pp. 382, 407, 408;
  • Winer, B. R. 3d ed., 2:643-648;
  • Wittichen, in Schenkel's Bibel-Lexikon (1869), 2:403;
  • Steiner, ib. (1875) 5:851-853;
  • G. Klaiber, Das Priesterliche Orakel der Israeliten, Stuttgart, 1865;
  • Riehm, Handwörterbuch, 2d ed., 1:914-918;
  • Stade, Geschichte, 2d ed., 1:156,471-473,505-506,517-518. Additional literature is found in Knobel, Der Prophetismus der Hebräer, 1:5, No. 2;
  • Hancock, The Urim and the Thummim, in Old Testament Student, March, 1884, 3:252-256 (is quite unsatisfactory);
  • Dosker, The Urim and Thummim, in Presbyterian and Reformed Review, Oct., 1892, pp. 717-736;and in
  • T. Witton Davies, Magic, Divination, and Demonology, 1898. A very convenient summary is given by Kirkpatrick in The First Book of Samuel, pp. 217, 218, to which may be added the article Urim and Thummim, in Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, 3:1600-1606, London, 1893;
  • A. R. S. Kennedy, Urim and Thummim, in Hastings, Dict. Bible, 4:835-841, New York, 1902;
  • and Paul Haupt, Babylonian Elements in the Levitical Ritual, in Jour. Bib. Lit. 1900, 19:58,72 et seq.

E. G. H.
W. M.-A.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

Tradition is unanimous in stating that the use of the Urim and Thummim ceased with the destruction of the First Temple, or, in other words, with the death of the Older Prophets; and they were among the five things lacking in the Second Temple (Soṭah 9:10 [= 48b]; Yoma 21b; Yer. Ḳid. 65b). Josephus states ("Ant." 3:8, § 9) that "this oracle had been silent" for 200 years before his time, or from the daysof John Hyrcanus. The teachers of the Talmud, however, if their own statements may be believed, had never seen the Urim and Thummim, and regarded them as the "great and holy name of God" written on the breastplate of the high priest (Targ. pseudo-Jonathan to Exodus 28:30); and they etymologize "Urim" as "those whose words give light," while "Thummim" is explained as "those whose words are fulfilled" (ib.; Yoma 73b; Yer. Yoma 44c).

Mode of Consultation.

The oracle was consulted in the following manner: The high priest donned his eight garments, and the person for whom he sought an answer stood facing him, while he himself turned toward God (e., the SHEKINAH). It was necessary that the question should be brief and that it should be pronounced, but not aloud; while the answer was a repetition of the query, either in the affirmative or in the negative. Only one question might be asked at a time; if more than one were put, the first alone received a reply. The answer was given by the letters of the names of the tribes which were engraved upon the high priest's breastplate (Yoma 73a, b; Yer. Yoma 44c; Sifre, Num. 141). If the question was not distinctly worded, the reply might be misunderstood, as in Judges 20:18 et seq. (Sheb. 35b; Yoma 73b). A decision by the oracle might be demanded only by the king, or by the chief of the highest court, or by a prominent man within the community, such as a general of the army, and it might be sought only for the common weal (Yoma 7, end, 73a: "one anointed for war"; Targ. pseudo-Jonathan to Exodus 28:30: "in case of need"). According to Targ. pseudo-Jonathan to Exodus 28, the breastplate was used to proclaim victory in battle. It was necessary that the high priest who questioned the oracle should be a man upon whom the Shekinah rested (Yoma 73b).

The characteristic feature of the Shekinah was radiance; and Josephus, who believed that God was present at every sacrifice, even when offered by Gentiles, states that the oracles were revealed through rays of light:

Relation to the Shekinah.

("Ant." 3:8, § 9, Whiston's transl.).

"But as to those stones, which we told you before, the high priest bare on his shoulders . . . the one of them shined out when God was present at their sacrifices . . . bright rays darting out thence; and being seen even by those that were most remote; which splendor yet was not before natural to the stone. . . . Yet will I mention what is still more wonderful than this; for 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. Whence it came to pass that those Greeks who had a veneration for our laws, because they could not possibly contradict this, called that breastplate the Oracle"

The Talmudic concept seems to have been identical with the view of Josephus, holding that the reply of the Urim and Thummim was conveyed by rays of light. Two scholars of the third century, however, who had lost the vividness of the earlier concept, gave the explanation that those stones of the breastplate which contained the answer of the oracle either stood out from the others or formed themselves into groups (Yoma 73b).

The division of the country was made according to the Urim and Thummim, since the high priest, "filled with the Holy Spirit," proclaimed the tribe to which each division should belong. After this, lots were drawn from two urns, one containing the name of the tribe and the other that of the territory, and these were found to harmonize with the high priest's announcement (B. B. 122a; Sanh. 16a; comp. Yer. Yoma 41b, below). To enlarge the Holy City or the Temple court the orders of the king, of a prophet, and of the Urim and Thummim were necessary (Sheb. 2, 3, 16a; Yer. Sheb. 33d, below). In Yer. Sanh. 19b the question is propounded why the Urim and Thummim are needed when a prophet is present.

  • Winer, B. R. 2:644-645;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T. 1:1002-1004;
  • Herzog-Plitt, Real-Encyc. 16:226-233;
  • Hastings, Dict. Bible, 4:840-841;
  • M. Duschak, Josephus Flavius und die Tradition, pp. 5-7, Vienna, 1864.
W. B.
L. B.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Urim and Thummim'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​u/urim-and-thummim.html. 1901.
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