Sunday, July 24, 2011

Urim and Thummim: Pieces of the Earth

Viking rune stones. Anyone in Israel caught plying or availing the service of any of such defiling (Leviticus 19:31) and detestable (Deuteronomy 18:12) rituals will “be put to death” by stoning (Leviticus 20:27). Did God consider stoning the fitting method of execution for diviners because of the offense’s spiritual identification with the ground?

The story of the Israelite custom of lot casting may have had its origins from a mysterious pair of words that literally mean “lights” and “perfections” that seem to predate Moses. The Bible calls it the Urim and the Thummim, an aspect of the ancient Israelite civilization that we virtually know nothing about.

Whether they are objects, devices, or methods of scrying, the Scriptures are very sketchy in detailing what the Urim and the Thummim truly refer to. The two words are distinct in meaning yet may refer to a singular idea. In actual history, however, the terms are discretely represented as two stones with each word inscribed in Hebraic text on the surface. In the Bible, the words occur seven times, all in the Old Testament: five times, in which order the Urim is mentioned ahead of the Thummim; two times, the Urim appears without the Thummim (Numbers 27:21 and 1 Samuel 28:7); and once, the Thummim is cited ahead of the Urim (Deuteronomy 33:8).

The words first appear in Exodus 28:30 as a part of a holy directive to incorporate them in the High Priest’s breastpiece. In reading the context of the passage, we could be easily convinced that the Urim and the Thummim were stones, as many of today’s experts believe. Beginning in the seventeenth verse, the breastpiece was prescribed by God, through Moses, to be mounted with “four rows of precious stones” in the following order: ruby, topaz, and beryl for the first row; turquoise, sapphire, and emerald for the second; jacinth, agate, and amethyst for the third; and chrysolite, onyx, and jasper for the fourth (verses 17 to 19). They were to represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel, with each stone bearing an engraving of the name of one tribe (verse 21). God stipulated that the breastpiece be securely worn by the High Priest as he conducts his duties in a sacred chamber called “the Holy Place” (verse 29). God wanted to see the high priest bearing the “names of the sons of Israel over his heart…as a continuing memorial before the Lord.” By the end of this verse, the Urim and the Thummim are significantly mentioned to be “put…in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the Lord” (verse 30). Consequently:

“Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord.”

As the Twelve Tribes of Israel were ordered to be represented with gemstones, so we quickly conclude that the Urim and the Thummim were likewise symbolized. And because it was a “means of making decisions,” coupled with our understanding of simplified emblems that go in almost any method of divination, the Urim and the Thummim were portrayed as an ancient form of cleromancy. And because of the incorporation of this pair upon the vestment, the breastpiece became known as the “breastpiece of decision” (New International Version) or “breastpiece of judgment” (King James Version).


Judging by the Scriptures alone, it may not be entirely inaccurate to see the Urim and the Thummim as stones. In the last passage above, these were prescribed to be “put…in the breastpiece.” In Leviticus 8:8, Moses, while dressing up his brother Aaron as an initial part of his ordination as high priest, “put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece.” In the original Hebrew and Greek Septuagint renditions of 1 Samuel 14:41, King Saul employs the “stones” in divining an individual guilty of breaking faith, who later turns out to be his own son Jonathan:

“Why have you not answered your servant today? 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.”

Then proceeding to the latter part of the verse, regular translations plainly state that “Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot, and the men were cleared.” And finally the succeeding verse: “Saul said, ‘Cast the lot between me and Jonathan my son.’”

At least in this instance, the Urim and the Thummim were treated as sacred lots. The New Living Translation of the Bible follows this impression in dealing with the relics, as can be seen in Numbers 27:21, Deuteronomy 33:8, 1 Samuel 14:41 to 42, 28:6, Ezra 2:63, and Nehemiah 7:65.

In being sacred lots, therefore, the mode of consultation would naturally be in a yes-no format. This was the way David sought God’s specific guidance—twice, the second time for confirmation, which God graciously granted—in 1 Samuel 23 when he battled the Philistines:

Vetta/Gettyimages
“he inquired of the Lord, saying, ‘shall I go and attack these Philistines?’ The Lord answered him, ‘Go, attack the Philistines and save Keilah.’ Once again David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered him, ‘Go down to Keilah, for I am going to give the Philistines into your hand’” (verses 2 and 4).

In the same chapter, David made another inquiry, again twice: “’Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O Lord, God of Israel, tell your servant.’ And the Lord said, ‘He will.’ Again David asked, ‘Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?’ And the Lord said, ‘They will’” (verses 11 to 12).

Then in the thirtieth chapter, David consults the stones: “’Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?’ ‘Pursue them,’ he answered. ‘You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue’” (verse 8).

By the second chapter of Second Book of Samuel, there no longer was any doubt that David kept using the stones, this time for his coronation as king: “In the course of time, David inquired of the Lord. ‘Shall I go up to one of the towns of Judah?’ he asked. ‘The Lord said, ‘Go up’” (verse 1).

The passage following this is very intriguing in that God, through the stones, identified precisely where David was supposed to go, responding to David’s detailed question: “’Where shall I go?’ ‘To Hebron,’ the Lord answered.”

Another similar response is found back in 1 Samuel 10, when the leaders inquired where Saul was as he purposely hid himself in timidity during his coronation as king: “’Has the man come here yet?’ And the Lord said, ‘Yes, he has hidden himself among the baggages’” (verse 22).

In 2 Samuel 5: 23 to 25, God provides specific instructions on routing the Philistine army: “’Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the balsam trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, move quickly, because that will mean the Lord has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army.’”

It will, therefore, be entirely inaccurate to believe that the “stones” only responded to the yes-no mode. The information on how the accurate answers were ever gleaned may have been largely lost along with the stones, probably in one of the major destructions of Jerusalem, beginning with the Babylonian invasion in 586 B.C.

Gallo Images/Gettyimages
Any inquiry made to the Lord from the time of the institution of the high priesthood was mostly done through the use of the Urim and the Thummim. In most of the passages above, there was a priestly vestment that needed to be present in order for the Urim and the Thummim to be managed: the ephod. [There be more!]

1 comment:

  1. Precious pieces of information to know and understand. Thank you very much.

    ReplyDelete