Urim and Thummim

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URIM AND THUMMIM (Heb. אוּרִים וְתֻמִּים), a priestly device for obtaining oracles. On the high priest's *ephod (an apron-like garment) lay a breastpiece (חֹשֶׁן) – a pouch inlaid with 12 precious stones engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel – that held the Urim and Thummim (Ex. 28:15–30; Lev. 8:8). By means of the Urim, the priest inquired of yhwh on behalf of the ruler (Num. 27:21; cf. Yoma 7:5, "only for the king, the high court, or someone serving a need of the community"); they were one of the three legitimate means of obtaining oracles in early Israel (Urim, dreams, prophets; i Sam. 28:6). Owing to the oracular character of the Urim, the breastpiece is called "the breastpiece of decision" (חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט). (The concept evokes "the Tablets of Destiny" in Babylonian mythology – the symbol of supreme authority that lay on the breast of the chief god; Pritchard, Texts, 63, 67, 111.) The right to work this oracle was reserved for the levitical priests (Deut. 33:8).

Occasionally the term ephod is used with reference to the Urim-oracle associated with it (i Sam. 14:3, 18 [according to lxx]; 23:6, 9; 30:7). The latest period for which there is evidence of use of the ephod-Urim is that of David (but cf. Hos. 3:4); subsequently, oracles are conveyed exclusively by prophets. In postexilic times, when the Urim oracle was extinct, difficult questions were reserved "until a priest would appear with Urim and Thummim" (Ezra 2:63; Neh. 7:65; cf. Sot. 9:12: "After the former (i.e., pre-exilic) prophets died, the Urim and Thummim became extinct"; and Josephus (Ant. 3:218), who avers that the oracle ceased 200 years before his time).

There is no biblical information on the appearance of the Urim, the material out of which they were made (the Samaritan text of Ex. 28:30; 39:21 adds a command to manufacture the Urim and tells of its execution), or the technique of their use. The most illuminating passage is the Greek of i Samuel 14:41, whose underlying Hebrew is mutilated in the received texts: הָבָה תָמִים, conventionally rendered "Give a perfect answer":

Saul said: "O yhwh God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If the guilt be in me or in my son Jonathan. O yhwh God of Israel, give Urim (הָבָה אוּרִים). But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim (הָבָה תֻמִּים)."

(For a defense of the received Hebrew, however, see M. Tsevat. in Sefer Segal (1955), 78–84.)

From the use of the verbs hippil and nilkad in connection with the Urim (verses 41–42), it appears that they were a kind of lot ((marked) stones or sticks?), since these verbs occur in connection with the casting of lots (Isa. 34:17; i Sam. 10:20). They were suitable for indicating which of two alternatives was right; hence inquiries to be decided by them were designed to elicit "yes" or "no" answers (i Sam. 23:10–12;30:8).

The etymology of the terms is obscure. From the Greek passage adduced above, it seems that the two terms are the names of two objects. Hence the conjecture that Urim derives from ʾ arar, "curse," and Thummim from tammam, "be whole," indicating negation and affirmation respectively. Tradition has connected the first term with light (ʾ or) or instruction (Aram. ʾ oraita). Thus both Greek δήλωσις καὶ ʾ αλήθεια, "declaration/revelation and truth," and Vulgate doctrina et veritas, "teaching and truth," treat the pair as a hendiadys meaning true instruction – with reference to the oracle. (An apparent derivative with this meaning is the novel coinage אורתום, found in the Qumran Thanksgiving Psalms Scroll with reference to divine illumination (4:6, 23; 18:29; see J. Licht's commentary to 4:6)). A talmudic interpretation finds an allusion to the unequivocalness of the oracle in two words: "They cause their message to be lucid [מאירין]… and carried out [משלימין]" (Yoma 73b).

The earliest speculation on the technique of the oracle is reflected in Josephus (Ant. 3:217), who states that victory was forecast by the shining of the stones in the breastpiece. The talmudists fancied that the oracle was spelled out by the miraculous protruding of letters out of the tribal names engraved on the stones (Yoma 73b; Maim. Yad, Kele ha-Mikdash, 10:11). Rashi takes account of the separate existence of the Urim by making them a document bearing the tetragrammaton, whose presence inside the breastpiece insured the clarity and perfection of the oracle (comment to Ex. 28:30 and Yoma 73a; cf. Samuel b. Meir, who calls the Urim a kind of conjuration by divine names). Naḥmanides (at Ex. 28:30) combines the various strands of interpretation: the Urim was a text bearing divine names placed inside the breastpiece, by virtue of which various letters out of the tribes' names lit up; the Thummim were other divine names by whose virtue the priest was able to combine the letters perfectly into the divine message.

[Moshe Greenberg]

In the Aggadah

To the names of the 12 tribes engraved on the breastpiece were added those of the three Patriarchs, together with the word shevet ("tribe") so as to encompass the whole alphabet (Yoma 73b). Interpreting Urim to mean "those whose words give light" and Thummim as "those whose words are fulfilled," the rabbis explain that the oracle was effected by rays of light shining on the letters, or protruding from them and forming themselves into groups (Yoma 73b), so that the high priest could read them. Only priests speaking by means of the holy spirit and upon whom the Shekhinah rested could invoke them. The inquirer had his face directed toward the high priest, who directed himself to the Shekhinah. One did not inquire either in a loud voice or silently in his heart, but like Hannah, who muttered her prayer (i Sam 1:13). Only one question was to be put at a time, and if two were asked, only the first was answered. However, if the occasion required two questions, both were answered. Unlike the decrees of a prophet, those of the Urim and Thummim could not be revoked. Only a king or a head of the Sanhedrin could inquire from the Urim and Thummim (Yoma 73a–b). The division of the land was effected by means of the Urim and Thummim (rb 122a). Saul and David consulted them (Mid. Ps. 27:2). The Urim and Thummim ceased to give oracular answers immediately after the death of the first prophets (Sot. 9:12), i.e., the destruction of the First Temple (Sot. 48b). However according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Sot. 9:14, 24b), the "first prophets" refers to Samuel and David and according to this view the Urim and Thummim did not function in the First Temple period either.


N.H. Tur-Sinai, Ha-Lashon ve-ha-Sefer, 3 (1956), 103–13; De Vaux, Anc Isr, 349–53; A. Cody, A History of the Old Testament Priesthood (1969); E. Robertson, in: vt, 14 (1964), 1–6. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 3 (1911), 172–3; 4 (1913), 75–76; 6 (1928), 69–70; Guttmann, Mafte ʿaḥ, s.v.

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(Heb. 'ûrîm w etummîm, meaning uncertain). According to Ex 28.30 and Lv 8.8, the Urim and Thummim are two objects in the "breastpiece of decision" of the high priest used to ascertain God's decision. Aaron was to wear them in his breastpiece whenever he entered Yahweh's presence as a symbol of His decisions in favor of the Israelites (Ex 28.2930). In 1 Sm 23.612 and 30.78 the ephod is described as an oracular tool and may have contained the Urim and Thummim. By restoring the Hebrew of 1 Sm 14.41 from the LXX, Old Latin and Vulgate, we have "If I or my son, Jonathan, are guilty of this sin, O Yahweh, God of Israel, give Urim; if your people Israel is guilty, give Thummim," as an example of their use. According to Dt 33.8,10 the tribe of Levi was entrusted with the divine decisions of the Thummim and Urim. Mention is made of the Urim, without Thummim but with other oracular means in 1 Sm 28.6: Yahweh did not answer Saul either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. After the Babylonian Exile, the two oracular words appear in Ezr 2.63, which, translated literally, says: "and His Excellency forbade them to eat sacred food until a priest arose for the Urim and Thummim," meaning that the spurious priests could not act as priests until a high priest who had charge of the sacred lots was reinstalled and gave a decision on their case.

From the Biblical evidence we do not know clearly what these two objects were and how they operated. However, they appear to have been some sort of lots that could be distinguished only when fully seen. Perhaps the 'ûrîm was inscribed with 'ālep, the tummîm with tāw, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. One would mean "yes," and the other "no," and an affirmative or a negative answer could thus be given to a properly formulated question, for instance: "Shall I go and smite the Philistines?" (1 Sm 23.2); "Shall I pursue after these robbers, and shall I overtake them, or not?" (1 Sm 30.8; see also 23.12; 2 Sm 2.1; 5.19). These questions could be answered by a simple showing of either the Urim or the Thummim, much like the arrow divination of Ez 21.2627. If, however, both objects came out together after being shaken, then, Yahweh's decision was withheld (1 Sm 28.6).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York 1963) 252021. r. devaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 349353.

[j. e. steinmueller]

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Urim and Thummim

Literally "lights and perfections," a means of divination employed by the ancient Hebrews. The objects were placed on a breastplate, which bore the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, that was worn over the heart of the high priest when he went before the Lord (Ex. 28:30). It was believed to consist of a species of casting lots.

The use of Urim and Thummim was not for determining questions concerning individuals, only for questions of national import. Answers were usually given in a brief fashion, yes or no, or the designation of one tribe out of the twelve. There is no mention of the Urim and Thummim after the time of King David. Their form and method of use is uncertain, but from passages in the Hebrew Bible, it seems probable that they were used somewhat like dice to cast lots (I Sam. 10:19-22 and 14:37-42).

The Urim and Thummin reappeared in the nineteenth century in the form of two divining stones possessed by Joseph Smith, Jr., prophet and founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose followers are commonly called Mormons. Smith used the stones to "translate" the Book of Mormon from what was claimed to be golden tablets with writing in a reformed Egyptian text.

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Urim and Thummim. A priestly device for telling oracles in the ancient Israelite religion. The high priest wore the Urim and Thummim on his breastplate. It was used for questioning God on behalf of the ruler (Numbers 27. 21) and it seems to have given a ‘yes-or-no’ answer (1 Samuel 23. 10–12). The underlying meaning of the two words is not known.

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Urim and Thummim two objects of a now unknown nature, possibly used for divination, worn on the breastplate of a Jewish high priest. They are first mentioned in the Bible at Exodus 28:30, and the role of Urim is hinted at in Numbers 27:21 and I Samuel 28:6.

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