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Urim and Thummim

URIM AND THUMMIM (ū'rĭm and thŭm'ĭm, Heb. hā’ûrîm wehatûmmîm, lights and perfections). Objects not specifically described, perhaps stones, placed in the breastplate of the high priest, which he wore when he went into the presence of the Lord and by which he ascertained the will of God in any important matter affecting the nation (Exod.28.30; Lev.8.8). It is uncertain what they were and what they looked like and how they were used. One theory is that they were used as the lot and cast like dice, the manner of their fall somehow revealing the Lord’s will (1Sam.10.19-1Sam.10.22; 1Sam.14.37-1Sam.14.42). Another theory is that they served as a symbol of the high priest’s authority to seek counsel of the Lord, God’s will being revealed to him through inner illumination.

They are first mentioned in Exod.28.30 with no explanation, showing that Israel was already familiar with them. They seemed to form a necessary part of the equipment of the high priest, for they were passed on from Aaron to Eleazer (Num.20.28). The last reference to them in Scripture is in Neh.7.65.

Their use.

The foregoing is based on the supposition that Eng. VSS are correct in their rendering of Exodus 28:30; viz. that the Urim and Thummim were placed in the breastplate of Judgment. The LXX, however, rendered, “you shall put upon the oracle of judgment the Urim and Thummim.” We find this understanding of the Heb. accepted by Josephus, and it has been a dominant Jewish interpretation. It involves identifying Urim and Thummim with the breastplate of judgment or its jewels. This has found support in the fact that neither in Exodus 28:30 nor in ch. 39 is there any command for their making or any record of their having been made. Samaritan, which obviously did not make the identification, tried to meet the argument by interpolating both passages in the required manner. It would, however, be entirely consistent with what we know of the cultic background of Israel, if the Urim and Thummim were precious oracle stones, which had come down from the Patriarchs, and which God was now officially incorporating into His people’s worship.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (though not receiving its final form until c. a.d. 650, it contains much pre-Mishnaic and even pre-Christian material) on Exodus 28:20, followed by Rashi and Nachmanides, considered that Urim and Thummim were some material on which the Tetragrammaton, the Sacred Name of God, had been engraved. But Josephus, linking them with the breastplate (Ant. III. viii. 9), considered they were capable of shining out to give divine guidance. This view was further developed in the Talmud. Many maintained that the letters of the tribal names engraved on the precious stones of the breastplate—they added the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and “the tribes of Jeshurun” to complete the alphabet—were illuminated in turn to give the divine pronouncement. Though a few modern Jewish scholars, e.g. J. H. Hertz, still favor the identification with the breastplate, though they have dropped the fanciful Talmudic trimmings, the majority have abandoned it. The divergencies in Jewish tradition itself, and the clear indications that the ancient VSS had no real tradition to guide them suggest that very little regard should be paid to these and similar fancy views.

One of the difficulties is uncertainty whether Urim and Thummim were used in certain cases, where lots were drawn or cast, e.g. were they used to discover Achan’s guilt (Josh 7:16ff.)? It is possible but by no means certain. It certainly seems clear that they were not used for the apportioning of the tribal portions (Josh 18:8ff.).

Their disappearance.

It is clear from Ezra 2:63 and parallels that the Urim and Thummim did not exist after the return from the Babylonian Exile. While Ben Sira mentioned their past existence with respect (45:10), he clearly considered that a man versed in the law would not feel their loss (33:3). This turning away from them is illustrated by 1 Maccabees 4:46, where the ultimate disposal of the polluted stones of the altar was referred to a prophet yet to come. In the Qumran MSS only one possible veiled reference to them has been found (1QH IV6). Though the Talmud has theoretical discussion about the use of the Urim and Thummim, there is clearly no expectation of their restoration. The statement is met more than once that they ceased after the death of the former prophets. This is normally understood as meaning the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, but in Sota 48b Rab Huna interprets them as “David, Samuel, and Solomon.” This minority view is supported by the OT evidence.

This is not to be deduced from their nonmention under the monarchy, for the OT is not given to stressing the everyday. More important is the increasing stress on prophetic oracles. Even more significant is Abijah’s failure to mention them in 2 Chronicles 13:8-12, when he recounted Judah’s privileges; indeed, in spite of its stress on the Aaronic priesthood, Chronicles, a postexilic work, nowhere mentions them. Even in the later stages of David’s reign there is no probable reference to them, where it might be expected.

The reason for their dropping out of favor may be indicated by a comparison of 1 Samuel 23:6-12 with 28:6. The importance of the ephod (23:6) was simply that it was obviously the high-priestly one, by the help of which David could ascertain God’s will (vv. 10f.). The Targum interprets rightly by “the ephod” (so NEB). Its oracular power came from the Urim and Thummim. The ephod was still with David, when Saul had marched to his death at Gilboa (1 Sam 30:7). How then had Saul been able to consult the Urim and Thummim (1 Sam 28:6)? It is reasonable to assume that either because of the multiplying of sanctuaries, or possibly to satisfy Saul’s demands, the original oracular objects had been counterfeited. When this became plain, it reinforced certain already existing tendencies and doubts. The more spiritually minded must have increasingly come to realize that the discovery of God’s will was not something as automatic as the use of the Urim and Thummim might suggest. For those living at a distance from the central sanctuary such a method was linked with much inconvenience and could even be impossible. Without the presence of Abiathar with the ephod David would have been excluded from this form of divine guidance. Possibly even more influential must have been the realization that, granted priests like Eli’s sons, there could be no guarantee that the Urim and Thummim would not be manipulated; in any case they were available only to the rich and influential.

Their spiritual significance.

Jesus Ben Sira showed real spiritual understanding, when he placed knowledge of the law on the same level as, or on a higher level than, Urim and Thummim (33:3), even though he regarded them as a divine gift (cf. 45:10). This was also the reason why the rabbis were not really interested in them. For the Christian, with his knowledge of the indwelling Holy Spirit, this feeling will be even stronger. But if, even in the Christian dispensation, God is prepared to give the person just beginning his Christian life guidance by methods which may seem strange to those who know His will better, how much more to Israel in the days of its spiritual childhood. It was more important that they should discover God’s will than that the spiritually more advanced should approve it. Note that it is never suggested that Moses had to make use of them. This is the most likely reason why we are told so little about them.


Older views will be found in Buxtorf, “Historia Urim et Thummim,” in Ugolini, “Thesaurus,” Vol. XII. Important are Muss-Arnolt in Jew Enc and Gaster in HERE. Recent suggestions may be found in R. deVaux, Ancient Israel (1961); Lindblom, “Lot-Casting in the Old Testament” in Vet Test, Vol. XII (1962), p. 164 seq. and E. Robertson, “The Urim and Thummim; What were they?” in Vet Test, Vol. XIV (1964), 67 seq.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

and thum’-im (ha-’urim weha-tummim (article omitted in Ezr 2:63; Ne 7:65); perhaps "light and perfection," as intensive plurals):

1. Definition:

Articles not specifically described, placed in (next to, or on (Hebrew ’el; Septuagint epi; Samaritan-Hebrew `al)) the high priest’s breastplate, called the "breast-plate of decision" (English Versions of the Bible, "judgment"). (Ex 28:30; Le 8:8). Their possession was one of the greatest distinctions conferred upon the priestly family (De 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 (Ex 28:30; compare Arabic kahin, "soothsayer").

2. Use in the Old Testament:

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 (Sotah 9 10; Yoma’ 21b; Yeru Qid. 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 shekhinah 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 shibhTe yeshurun. A later scholar even suggests that the letters moved from their places to form words (Yoma’ 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 shekhinah (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 choshen, 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 choshen 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 Ex 28:20; compare Rashi and Nachmanides at the place).

4. Recent (Critical) Views:

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 tamitu, "oracular decision"); others suggest tme, the Egyptian image of justice; still others connect Urim with ’arar, to curse," in order to make it an antonym of tummim, "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 (Yoma’ 73b) as well as most of the Greek versions translated them (delosis kai aletheia; photismoi kai teleiotetes), although Symmachus in one place (De 33:8), who is followed by the Vulgate, connects Urim with the word Torah and understands it to mean "doctrine" (teleiotes kai didache). 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 ... (see Job 40:13), ... and 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.