What is known about the biblical "Urim and Thummim"?


The first time that the Bible mentions “Urim and Thummim” is in Exodus 28:30, in connection with the garments for the high priest; especially, the “ephod” and the “breastplate of judgment.” The breastplate was to be placed on the ephod (Exodus 28:28), and verse 30 reads: “And you shall put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD.” A similar statement can be found in Leviticus 8:8.

In Numbers 27:21, only the Urim is mentioned [but it has been understood that it included the Thummim as well–“Urim” is used here as a summary term for both]. On this occasion, God asked Moses to transfer some of his authority to Joshua. Verse 21 reads: “He [Joshua] shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire before the LORD for him by the judgment of the Urim–at his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in…”

When the high priest was to inquire for the civil leader of God’s people, he was to be dressed in his official garments, containing the Urim and the Thummim.

In Deuteronomy 33:8, the Urim and the Thummim are mentioned in reverse order [showing that both were equally important], relating to the blessing with which “Moses, the man of God,” blessed Levi: “And of Levi he said: ‘Let Your Thummim and Your Urim be with Your holy one [Lit., Your pious man]…'” In other words, God decreed that the Urim and the Thummim should be with the Levites; in particular, based on Exodus 28:30 and Numbers 27:21, with the high priest who had to be from the tribe of Levi.

In 1 Samuel 28:6, only the Urim is mentioned [but by implication, it included the Thummim]: “And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets.” We see here that somewhat of a distinction is made between dreams and prophets, and the Urim. At the same time, some kind of prophetic revelation was involved when using the Urim and the Thummim–but it occurred through the high priest, not through dreams or prophets.

We find another direct reference to both the Urim and the Thummim in the book of Ezra, describing the time after the destruction of the first temple and before the erection and completion of the second temple. The names of several of the Jews who had returned from Babylon were not found in the registry of priests, and we read in Ezra 2:62-63:

“These sought their listing among those who were registered by genealogy, but they were not found; therefore they were excluded from the priesthood as defiled. And the governor said to them that they should not eat of the most holy things till a priest could consult with the Urim and Thummim.” We find a repetition of this passage in Nehemiah 7:64-65. These passages might imply that at that time, no priest was able to reveal God’s Will through the Urim and the Thummim.

We might also note that the Septuagint refers to the Urim and the Thummim in its translation of 1 Samuel 14:41: “Then Saul said, ‘O Lord, God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If the guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O Lord, God of Israel, give Urim; and if you indicate that it is in the people of Israel, give Thummim.’ And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped.”

However, this text is highly suspect. The New King James Bible, which is based on the Masoretic Text, simply states: “Therefore Saul said to the LORD God of Israel, ‘Give a perfect lot.’ So Saul and Jonathan were taken, but the people escaped.”

On the other hand, there IS general agreement that the previous inquiry of God (compare verses 36-37) through the high priest Ahijah, who was wearing the ephod (compare verse 3), did occur with the help of the Urim and the Thummim. Considering the close connection between the high priest’s ephod and the Urim and Thummim, it is reasonable to conclude that Saul’s inquiry involved the use of the Urim and the Thummim. But apparently, verse 41 does not refer to such kind of inquiry, but strictly and only to the casting of lots, as God had not answered Saul before through the Urim and the Thummim.

Another indirect reference to the Urim and the Thummim can be found in 1 Samuel 23:6, 9-12, when David inquired of the LORD after the high priest Abiathar arrived with the ephod (verse 6). David specifically asked for the ephod to be brought to him (verse 9).

A similar episode is described in 1 Samuel 30:7-8. In this case, the inquiry resulted not only in a specific answer to a specific question, but in additional statements from the LORD, showing that the use of the Urim and the Thummim might have involved more than (just) the casting of lots.

It is true, however, that most believe that the Urim and Thummim was a “lot” oracle, but this concept is not without problems, as we have seen. Realizing the uncertainties, the Good News Bible includes the following annotation to the description of the Urim and the Thummim: “Two objects used by the priest to determine God’s will; it is not known precisely how they are used.”

We are not told in Scripture what, exactly, the Urim and Thummim were, nor how they were used, but we are told that they were in existence at the time of Moses; that they were known at the time of Saul and apparently David; and that they were referred to in some way at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Since the Bible does not describe the nature of the Urim and the Thummim, nor their physical appearance, there have been many speculative attempts to visualize and identify them.

Flavius Josephus seemed to describe the Urim and the Thummim as the twelve stones or gems of the breastplate on the ephod of the high priest (arranged in rows and engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel), and possibly also with two sardonyx stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, saying that light flashed from them to show the presence of God. He also wrote that when the light ceased flashing, God showed His displeasure.

Another Jewish tradition has it that when one stone on the breastplate did not shine, while the others were, this phenomenon identified the guilty tribe.

When attempts are made to translate the terms “Urim” and “Thummim,” the most common renditions are “revelation and truth,” “manifestations and truth,” and “lights and perfections.” The Jerusalem Talmud writes: “Urim… illuminated Israel and Thummim… perfected the way before them.” Luther referred to them as “light and fullness,” or “light and justice.”

There is no consensus as to when God ceased to reveal His Will through the Urim and the Thummim. Josephus stated that their cessation took place about 105 B.C. The Mishna stated that the cessation took place when the first prophets died. Some refer to the first prophets as David, Samuel and Solomon, others as all the prophets except Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, saying that the cessation took place when the first temple was destroyed. Others stated that the cessation took place when the second temple was destroyed, in 70 A.D. However, many commentaries state that the Urim and Thummim were missing in the second temple.

In John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, the following comments are made regarding Haggai 2:9:

“The Jews… themselves [say] there were several things wanting in the latter [temple] which were in the former [temple], as the ‘ark’, the ‘Urim’ and ‘Thummim’, the ‘fire’ from heaven, the ‘Shechinah’ (or, as in some books, the anointing oil, and, in others, the cherubim), and the ‘Holy Ghost’: by one of their writers…, they are reckoned in this order, the ark, the mercy seat, and cherubim, one; the Shechinah or divine Majesty, the second; the Holy Ghost, which is prophecy, the third; Urim and Thummim the fourth: and the fire from heaven the fifth…”

Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible adds:

“Those five things, the absence whereof they felt, were connected with their atoning worhip or God’s presence among them; ‘the ark with the mercy-seat and the cherubim, the Urim and Tummin, the fire from heaven, the Shechinah, the Holy Spirit.'”

Similarily Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible:

“…the Jews [say] that several of the divine glories of the first temple were wanting in this [second temple] – the ark, the urim and thummim, the fire from heaven, and the Schechinah…”

The connection between the Urim and the Thummim and the existence of the temple, and their cessation with the destruction of the (first or second) temple, could be meaningful.

In his remarkable work, “The Urim and Thummim,” Cornelis van Dam informs us on page 101 that “in medieval Judaism the messianic expectation was great. The [Urim and Thummim] were not forgotten in this context. It is noteworthy that they formed part of the vision for the restored temple, and the implication was that the [Urim and Thummim] would once again function… among Protestants it was often stressed (not only in the sixteenth but also in the seventeenth century) that the [Urim and Thummim] pointed at the Messiah.”

As there are currently attempts underway to prepare for the construction of the third temple and the beginning of sacrifices in Jerusalem prior to the coming of the Messiah, it will be interesting to see whether at the same time the Jews will also initiate the use of the Urim and the Thummim through a high priest from the tribe of Levi.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

©2024 Church of the Eternal God