Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Urim and Thummim: The Hands that Hold

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The One Who Wore the Ephod Wielded the Lots

In the Bible, the high priest donned several ordained garment pieces, and one of these was the ephod. According to Exodus 28, the ephod was generally a linen mantel which the priest wore over him like a shirt, worked with “gold, blue, purple and scarlet yarn” (verse 6); had two shoulder pieces to ensure proper fitting (verse 7); and a waistband—two strips of the same fabric of the mantel extending somewhere from the lower corners of either the front flap or the back flap of the garment (verse 8). In all, the ephod was a single piece of no separate accessories (ibid).

Then the ninth verse features an important element that made the ephod an indispensable symbol of service. God orders two “memorial stones” (verse 12) of onyx (verse 9) bearing “names of the sons of Israel” on both.

“In the order of birth—six names on one stone and the remaining six on the other” (verses 9 to 10).

God deeply involves Himself in planning the intricate elegance of these pieces, in verse 11, and orders them to be fastened upon the shoulder pieces (verse 12) by “two braided chains of pure gold, like a rope” (verse 14).

Some experts believe that these memorial stones of onyx were the Urim and the Thummim. In certain passages above, the ephod, not the breastpiece, was present when an inquiry was made to the Lord.

In 1 Samuel 14:18 and 19 and verses 36 to 42, it was a king stipulating the method of the emblems. In referring to Exodus 28:30, however, the handling of the pair was solely ascribed to the high priest—“Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites…” and note the closing phrase, “before the Lord.” Saul met the “before-the-Lord” part, for he “prayed to the Lord, the God of Israel” (1 Samuel 14:41); and though there is no explicit indication, he undoubtedly allowed the acting high priest Ahijah (in verse 3, he was wearing an ephod, a high priestly garment) to manipulate the lot. The involvement of King Saul, nevertheless, dominated the implementation. Was this legit?

During the time of Joshua’s commission as Moses’ successor, Eleazar the high priest was given the complete freedom to “obtain decisions” for Joshua “by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord” (Numbers 27:21). The God Himself provided this sanction on the sacred divining method:

“This is how Joshua and the rest of the community of Israel will determine everything they should do” (New Living Translation).

The most important element of officiating the Urim and the Thummim is that it must be presided over by the high priest, like a judge today chairing over a courtroom. Back then, an individual with a query came before the high priest and briefly expressed his concern. The high priest then turned to God, whose presence by that time manifested in the form of a radiant light, known in Hebrew as the Shekinah, or the manifest glory of God’s presence. In this presence, with the Urim and the Thummim in his possession, he presented the problem to God and gained His answer through the sacred lots. Needless to say, the one inquiring had to meet the high priest in a non-sanctified location, like the Tabernacle courtyard, where the clergy and the common people converged. After this, the high priest withdrew into a secluded chamber to cast the lots. This was on account of the Shekinah. Although God revealed Himself through this theophany for all the Israelites to behold, no one, but the high priest or Moses, was allowed to approach the Shekinah in the dread of instantaneous death.

Yet in the incident with Saul’s rash vow in 1 Samuel 14:41 to 42, the proceeding was successful in spite of his involvement. An explanation for this takes us back to the third chapter of 1 Samuel where God loses respect for Eli the high priest (verses 11 to 14). After his death, God diminishes the role of the high priest. An evidence of this is presented in 10:9 to 27 and 11:12 to 15, during Saul’s inauguration as king when it was the Prophet Samuel who inducted him and not the high priest. By this time, the last known high priest was Eli who had by then died, thus explaining why there was no high priest present in Saul’s initiation rites. It was very much unlike in Numbers 27:21 where the Prophet Moses and Aaron the high priest had their roles in installing Joshua as Israel’s leader. In the relegation of the role of the high priest, the stewardship of the Urim and the Thummim passed to a lower priest delegated in wearing the ephod.

The Role of the Lots Was to Bring God Closer to His People

Known not to anyone in the kingdom, there was a bigger plan unfolding that came with the dismantling of the high priesthood, the institution of the Israelite monarchial system, and the deputation regarding the Urim and the Thummim. It was a plan of God to bring Him closer to His people. From the time God created man, it has been His expressed desire to commune with someone who bears His image and His likeness (Genesis 1:26). From the time He created Adam, He proceeded to create a house with Adam as its head. Now that house has grown into a nation, a nation which He named Israel. And through the ages, God had been gradually advancing His desire to dwell among His people. From Israel’s wandering days, God said:

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“Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).


Then, again in 29:45 to 46, after promising the Tent of Meeting, the altar of sacrifice, and Aaron and his children to serve as priests: “Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” In blessing the tribes, Moses sang: “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders” (33:12).


God Himself described the mode of how He resided during the desert wandering days in 2 Samuel 6:6 and 7:

“I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Whenever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers who I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

But even before the Hebrews left Egypt, long before Jacob ever entered Egypt, “God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said…’Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt…. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again’” (Genesis 46:2, 3, and 4). It was not by accident or against the will of God that Israel floundered into Egypt; God Himself went with Israel into the Land of Ra. Four hundred years later, God was with the Israelite nation when they emerged from Egyptian bondage, leading the way:

“See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites,Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.” (Exodus 23:20, 23).

Now make no mistake that the “angel” mentioned here was no ordinary member of the heavenly army but Jesus Christ pre-incarnate Himself. In the Old Testament, the term “angel” was used for a heavenly being that appeared in the likeness of a man. Keep in mind that no angel is entitled to or even deserves worship; the angel in this passage, however, does:

“Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you.”

God’s strict and lavish endorsement of this angel can be found in the New Testament when Jesus emerged from the waters of baptism with the sight of heaven opening, the Spirit of God descending like a dove and shining over Him with a heavenly voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16 to 17; Mark 1:10 to 12; Luke 3:22; John 1:32 to 34). Another revealing proclamation was during the night of Jesus’ transfiguration when God says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”(Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35)

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And with Jesus in the picture, a prophecy made hundreds of years before Him called Him “Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

Now the Urim and the Thummim were devices used to know the will of God, and any individual in need of consultation came to the high priest as sanctioned by God, in Numbers 27:21:

“This is how Joshua and the rest of the community of Israel will determine everything they should do” (New Living Translation).

But there was the problem: it was only the Joshuas of the Israelite community availing of the opportunity to consult. With only the high-profile figures of the nation approaching the Urim and the Thummim, it seemed like the system was bordered by an exclusive clientele. And because God chose to be a part of the community, He was not about to distance “the rest of the community of Israel” from His will behind layers of leadership and a possible labyrinth of little laws that may evolve. The One True Head of the Israelite Theocracy had to clip away some red tape. And one of the primary tasks in leadership streamlining is to pinpoint obsolete, nonfunctioning, or malfunctioning agencies and policies that cannot be saved and are considered dead weights in the system. God did not have to look far.

The Dismantling of the High Priesthood

For two hundred years since its institution, the high priesthood had been stained with abuse. Its very first priest was guilty of establishing a short-lived Cult of the Golden Calf right at the foot of Mount Sinai even while the summit was obscured by menacing black clouds laced with thunder and lightning that cloaked the conference between God and Moses. Aaron knew that God and his brother were up there; neither was it a mystery to the entire Israelite community. They just were not sure whether the only human in that convention was still alive!

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him’” (Exodus 32:1).

God and Aaron

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God had special plans for Aaron. Aaron was gifted with a special charisma of eloquence worthy of leadership position. During the last days of the Hebrew’s Egyptian bondage, Aaron was with Moses giving his younger brother a boost in expressing God’s command to the Pharaoh:

“…your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your
brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country”
(7:1 to 2).

We never find any account of Aaron protesting or revising God’s words. He was true to his task of being the divine mouthpiece, the “prophet.” Because of this, God never forgot Aaron. On the third month after leaving Egypt (Exodus 19:1), as they beheld trembling at the spectacular sight of God’s majesty descending on the peak of Mount Sinai, God commanded Moses: “God down and bring Aaron up with you” (verse 24). Though Moses alone approached God in all His glory (24:2), Aaron, his sons, and the seventy elders of Israel were also privileged to behold God (verses 9 and 10). They even noted the ground He stood on transform into a “pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself” (verse 10). What joy must have it been for these personalities to have not only stood in the overpowering presence of the Almighty God, who “did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites,” but also eat and drink (verse 11)—for six days (verse 15)! On the seventh day, the Lord “called to Moses from within the cloud” (ibid.) to hand the “tablets of stone, with the law and commands [God had] written for [the Israelites’] instruction” (verse 12).  Moses, in his absence, entrusted community leadership to “Aaron and Hur” (verse 14).

But to think that all the wonder and amazement witnessed in fear and trembling will have its in-stopping effect is to underestimate the enslaving influence of sin over the human flesh. Forty days and forty nights without Moses drained all the respect for the God of Sinai. And Aaron, being a leader who was supposed to use his God-given eloquence and authority to bring the community to its spiritual senses, well, here’s what happened—exactly:

“Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be festival to the Lord.’ So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry” (32:2 to 6).

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Except for the golden idol and the debauchery implied in the passage, the Israelites could have chosen to party instead of cowering in the presence of God while He stood in a pillar of dark cloud with pealing thunder and flashing lightning. As long as they were within limits from the mountain, they could have eaten and drunk as the contingent of leaders called forth by the Lord. It could have been wonderful to have matched the noise of the heavenly clash with the sound of rejoicing from the Israelite camp—of which they were capable to produce! In verse 17, Joshua, from far up the Sinai Mount, could hear the strain of singing from the Israelite camp that he almost mistook for reverberations of war, either of victory or defeat (verse 18).

Moses descends from Sinai, catches the people in the act, automatically gets ticked off and not only breaks the tablets of God’s law in his hands but takes the community calf of gold, burns it, grinds it to powder, creates a solution out of it, has all the people drink it, and then confronts Aaron. Aaron’s defense proved nothing more than ridiculous:

“’Do not be angry, my lord,’ Aaron answered. ‘ You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’” (verses 22 to 24).

 And this was the man who would later be entrusted the Urim and the Thummim (28:30). Why he nevertheless goes on to become Israel’s first Mosaic high priest can only be explained in the light of God’s mercy.

The Troubled Priesthood

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The high priesthood, and its lower hierarchy as well, had its shortcomings, shortcomings that were nevertheless understood by God and were worked around by specific regulations He imposed in the Law given to Moses. All that was therefore needed was a willing heart, seasoned and disciplined in His fear, to carry out these regulations with the strictest care in the desire of God to dwell with His people. But alas, flesh is flesh, and the Apostle Paul’s remark regarding the corruption of the carnal human will always be true to its plainest:

“I know nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep doing” (Romans 7:18-19).

But the Apostle’s dissertation does not end there. In the last verse of the seventh chapter of Romans, he could not just wait to burst out in praise: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And as if in continuation in another epistle, he states: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). What the Apostle was pointing out was the trust God has continued to lavish on His earthly children—the salvation provided by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in Hebrews 4:14, he proclaims Jesus as our “great high priest,” One who is “not…unable to sympathize with our weaknesses [which includes the limitation of our corruption], but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet without sin” (verse 14 to 15).

This is the reason why God was so strict in upholding the Old Testament high priesthood. This is why God never tolerated the willful sins of Nadab and Abihu by consuming them with fire out of His Presence (Leviticus 10:1 to 2). God held great respect for the high priesthood, and expected His chosen servants to honor it with the same, for it symbolized the flawless service Jesus Christ would give His life to. Sadly, the high priesthood would not live up to God’s expectation and He would dismantle it after Eli. Eli failed to discipline his sons who, like Nadab and Abihu, corrupted their Tabernacle duties (1 Samuel 2:22 to 25). Because of this, an unnamed prophet proclaimed the Lord’s judgment that ends the earthly high priesthood:

“I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your family line and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, in your family line there will never be an old man. Every one of you that I do not cut off from my altar will be spared only to blind your eyes with tears and to grieve your heart, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life” (1 Samuel 2:31 to 33).
The priests of Nob under the murderous hand of Doeg the Edomite under Saul's sanction.
In 1 Samuel 4:11, Eli’s sons were slain in battle and the Ark of the Covenant they brought was carried away by the Philistines. In 22:18 to 19, the priests who dwelt in the town of Nob were slain by Doeg the Edomite, as ordered by King Saul. And its only survivor, Abiathar, who served faithfully under David’s command (1 Samuel 23:6, 9-12), was finally removed from the priesthood by the newly installed King Solomon for choosing to support David’s usurping son Adonijah (1 Kings 2:26 to 27). In the New Testament, the priesthood was so corrupt that its existence was completely spiritually inconsequential.


There was only one word to describe the New Testament temple priesthood: dead. Jesus would call them “wicked and adulterous” (Matthew 16:4) in their face. He would even deride them in their fraud when He taught the disciples to “be careful” and “be on…guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (verse 6). Jesus, in truth, had a good time slapping them with their own stupidity with such phrases as “you are in error because you do not know the Scriptures” (22:29) and “have you not read what God said to you” (verse 31). In His time, the high priesthood was shared and swapped  between to known men of a single family named Annas (Luke 3:2) and Caiaphas (John 18:13 and 24). Their priesthood was no spiritual force but one political party made fat in Roman cronyism.

[Gotta put on the breaks here for a while, folks. Believe me: THERE'S MORE! But not that more, but more nonetheless!]

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