The Urim and Thummim in Ancient Israel

Sacred Biblical objects or interfaces, through which mortals seek to ascertain divine will, take on a variety of forms. Numbers 5:16-31, for example, conveys in detail a ritual for determining whether or not a wife, accused of being unfaithful, can indeed be proven guilty. This ritual involves burnt offerings, writing curses on a scroll, infusing dust from the tabernacle floor into water, and imbibing the admixture. The Urim and Thummim, however, is both less elaborate and more mysterious.

Absolute knowledge pertaining to the Urim and Thummim is scarce. The Hebrew name Urim and Thummim, signifying either innocent and guilty or lights and perfections or revelation and truth, has no definitive meaning. According to the Yoma of the Talmud, which documents the responsibilities and regalia of the high priest, Urim is referred to as lights “because they made their words enlightening.” Thummim is referred to as truth “because they fulfill their words.”

The Torah fails to articulately describe the Urim and Thummim. In Exodus, the device is simply listed as one accessory of the high priest’s many accouterments. An ambiguous or assumed object inserted into the breast piece, or Hoshen.

Exodus 28:29-30

Whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breast piece of decision as a continuing memorial before the Lord. Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breast piece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the Lord. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord.

Jewish High Priest Watercolor SketchThe Hoshen, as described in Exodus, bears “twelve stones, one for each of the names of the sons of Israel, each engraved like a seal with the name of one of the twelve tribes.” This breast piece, containing the Urim and Thummim, rests on the ephod, a holy apron-like garment. Their placement within the breast piece is likened to the placement of the tablets in the Ark. Just as the tablets in the Ark facilitate God’s Law, the message of God’s intentions, so too does the Urim and Thummim in the breast piece assist in clarifying God’s will in situations requiring elevated discernment.

Any further details regarding the components of the Urim and Thummim or its visual arrangement have been gathered via inference from other Biblical sources or expanded on in rabbinical commentaries. These inferences are the subject of debate and not consensus. Are the Urim and Thummim two separate objects despite being frequently referred to simply as “Urim”? Are they marked stones or bones or sticks? Are they mechanically compatible with the ephod, or is this connection an embellishment? Delving into supplemental literature will clarify such elicitations.

The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus relays two additional pieces of information. First, that the Urim and Thummim radiated light when in operation. Second, that the twelve stones were not exterior to but instead inserted into the Hoshen breastplate. The Talmud [Yoma 73b] asserts that the names of the twelve tribes were inscribed on the Urim and Thummim. Also inscribed were – in order to manifest each letter of the alphabet – the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the word tribes. According to the Talmud: “the answer always came through the letters which stood in relief.”

Unlike other divinatory processes such as the one imparted in Numbers 5, there exists scant and, on occasion, conflicting details regarding how exactly the Urim and Thummim functioned. It’s manner, nevertheless, elaborated on in rabbinical literature, becomes more and more conventionalized with time. 1 Samuel 14:41 depicts the mechanism as a binary: “If the fault is in me or my son Jonathan, respond with Urim, but if the men of Israel are at fault, respond with Thummim.” Whereas in other instances the Urim and Thummim’s employment seems more interpretative and abstract.

Numbers 27:21

He [Joshua] is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.

Ezra 2:62-63

These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor ordered them not to eat any of the most sacred food until there was a priest ministering with the Urim and Thummim.

Urim-and-Thummim-Cornelius-Van-Dam-CoverCornelius Van Dam’s The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel is a profound repository for all Urim and Thummim-related research. One of the most explicit claims levied in Van Dam’s book emerges from the scholarship of Friedrich Jakob Züllig, who contends:

“In order to receive the revelation, the high priest took the diamonds [diamond dice engraved with names, i.e. the Urim and Thummim] and cast on a table or preferably the ark. From the way they were arranged after being cast, the high priest could deduce the answer according to traditional rules known to the high priest.”

Discounting its mechanics, the Urim and Thummim is consistently associated with a king’s or a high-ranking religious official’s responsibility to arbitrate over and resolve dilemmas. Due to the physical nature of the object in conjunction with its circumstance of use, it might be safe to assume that the Urim and Thummim, at the very least, was intended to remind the individual in power as to the identity of those he was responsible for, and pinpoint that person relative both to the twelve tribes and to God: “Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord.” The Urim and Thummim was meant to model an orientation wherein God, the interpreter of God’s will, and God’s people were correctly positioned respective to one another. Nachmanides, a thirteenth century Sephardic rabbi, was much more specific with regard to its mode of operation:

“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.” [courtesy of the Jewish Virtual Library]

The Urim and Thummim intrigues those supporting The Chamberlain Key project because it could represent an encryption/decryption device analogous to our modern computational methods, albeit utilized by first millennium BCE Hebrew peoples.

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