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How Did the Urim and Thummim in the Bible Work?

There are several interesting theories, including revelation by light and letters.

When the Urim and Thummim are identified [in the Old Testament] with the gems of the breastpiece, light is often associated with them. 4QpIsa i 4–6 can be interpreted in this way. Josephus clearly links a miraculous light with the divine revelation. The oracular shining or dimming of a stone on the breastpiece is also found in subsequent Jewish and Samaritan tradition.


This is an excerpt from The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel by Cornelis Van Dam. Copyright © 1997 by Cornelis Van Dam. Published by Eisenbrauns. Used by permission of the publisher.

The book cover for "The Urim and Thummin: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel" by Cornelis Van Dam.

Urim and Thummim: Revelation by light and letters

Christian interpretation has also included the element of light, as witnessed for instance in the work of the Church Father John Chrysostom. Chrysostom seems to follow Josephus and his opinions are echoed in the seventeenth-century writing of John Gill, who considered the involvement of flashing light a real possibility.

As mentioned, the use of light in connection with a diamond on the high-priestly chest was posited by Epiphanius of Salamis in the fourth century. A similar suggestion is recorded in Augustine. These and related views were held by scholars as varied as Innocent III and John Calvin.

Interpretations involving light appear to be based on the understanding of urim as ‘light(s)’, whether or not it is legitimate to draw such a conclusion on the basis of (part of) the name of an oracular means. The view that letters protruded from the gems of the breastpiece has also been attested. These letters were either combined in the right manner by the high priest or already formed the reply.

Ramban suggested that certain letters of the breastplate lit up, and the lighted letters would then need to be arranged correctly by the high priest. The Zohar took this notion a step further, mentioning that the face of the high priest shone if the luminous letters conveyed a favorable message.

The interpretation of Urim and Thummim as shining protruding letters is also found in Christian interpretation, as seen in the work of Lund.

Again, the question to be faced later is whether there is evidence for these interpretations.

Learn more about scholarly approaches to the Urim and Thummim in the Bible.

Urim and Thummim: Revelation by Divine Inspiration

The idea that revelation by means of the Urim and Thummim involved divine inspiration is very old and widespread. An early objection to the notion that the letters of the breastpiece would stand out to form a reply was the retort that “no priest was inquired of who does not speak by means of the Holy Spirit and upon whom the Divine Presence does not rest.”

According to Num. Rab. 21:9, commenting on the division of land by lot, one method of receiving a reply from God was divine inspiration:

Miraculous events happened in connection with the lot. Eleazar the son of Aaron was invested with the Urim and Thummim, while the urn for the lots stood before Joshua. . . . Before ever the lot came up Eleazar would say, inspired by the Holy Spirit, “The lot of such-and-such a tribe is coming up and indicates that he shall receive his territory in such-and-such a place.” Joshua would put out his hand and the said lot would come up.

Midrash Rabbah on the Five Books of the Law and the Five Megilloth, with various commentaries(4 vols. in 2; Vilna: Romm, 1878).

We find a similar report, although in more detail, in b. B. Bat. 122a, where again the lot and the Urim and Thummim are differentiated. However, the whole procedure is summarized in the statement that the land “was only divided by [the direction] of the Urim and Tumim [sic], for it is said, According to the speaking of the lot.” In another context, y Yoma 7.3 mentions the tradition that the priest heard a voice (from God) that gave the answer.

According to Moses Maimonides or Rambam counsel was not sought from the Urim and Thummim in the Second Temple, for the ruah haqqodes was missing. The high priest was to speak by the ruah haqqodes (by looking at the breastpiece in a prophetic vision and seeing the message in the projected letters), but no counsel was sought from one upon whom the divine presence was not resting.

Not only is the idea of revelation by divine inspiration witnessed in ancient and medieval Jewish tradition, it is also found in conjunction with many of the other views of the Urim and Thummim that we have considered.

H. Thiersch, who denied that the Urim and Thummim existed as a material entity, proposed divine inspiration for the transmission of the oracle. For those who interpreted the Urim and Thummim in an allegorical or symbolic way, especially from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, inspiration appears to have been the most widely accepted mode of revelation.

The positions that the Urim and Thummim were the twelve gems of the breastpiece or an inscription of the Name were also accompanied by the view that inspiration was involved. The same may be said for the view that the words urim and tummim were written on the breastplate.

The identification of the Urim and Thummim as gems or objects of special value has usually been accompanied by the idea that inspiration accounts for the high priest’s receipt of the message from God. Indeed, the occurrence of an extraordinary light has been linked to inspired prophecy, the light confirming the presence of the latter (thus Calvin in his homily on 1 Sam. 28:1–7, as quoted above.

It is also of interest to note that Abdias Widmarius (1591–1668) was not averse to the idea that revelation was received by prophetic inspiration or that “perhaps by some light and external signs they [the words of God] have been recommended.” The view that an audible voice was heard from God is also found in subsequent interpretation.

Crucial to evaluating the involvement of divine inspiration will be the nature of biblical evidence and whether it justifies such an interpretation.


Urim and Thummim: Revelation by lot

In this section, we are primarily concerned with interpretations that identify the Urim and Thummim with a lot oracle without any specific reference to a perceived analogous usage of the lot outside of Israel.

The idea that the Urim and Thummim was a lot is found in the LXX of 1 Sam. 14:41. This passage along with the following verse has been rendered:

Therefore Saul said, “O LORD God of Israel, why has thou not answered thy servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O LORD, God of Israel, give Urim; but if this guilt is in thy people Israel, give Thummim.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped. Then Saul said, “Cast the lot between me and my son Jonathan.” And Jonathan was taken.

1 Sam. 14:41 (RSV)

It is of great importance to this discussion to determine how the LXX of 1 Sam. 14:41 should be evaluated. The use of the lot is well attested in ancient Israel. It was employed for the division of the Promised Land (Josh. 14:1–2 and throughout Joshua 18, 19, 21) and for the designation of Saul as king (1 Sam. 10:20–21).

Should these instances be seen as examples of the use of the Urim and Thummim? All evidence pertaining to the character of the lot and the Urim and Thummim must be investigated in order to understand the place or identity of each.

Since the time that the Greek translation of 1 Samuel 14 appeared, the idea that the Urim and Thummim should be considered a form of lot has enjoyed support from various quarters.

Hugo of St. Victor affirmed:

On this account, the lots which were consulted in antiquity for the indication of truth were called Urim Thummim [sic]. They were signs inscribed with different letters. When they were cast it was shown by a combination of the letters visible from above, by a true indication, what ought to be done or evaded.

Hugo of St. Victor, Annot. elucid. in Pent. 8 (PL, CLXXV, 72).

Benedictus Arias, called Montanus (1527–98), may have considered the Urim and Thummim to be lots. He judged that the Urim and Thummim were given to Moses by divine agency and were stored in the double breastpiece. They were taken out when a divine reply was sought.

It is not completely clear how he conceived such a reply to have been sought and given. Concerning the breastpiece of judgment he writes that by its use “the divine lots were drawn and the definite right of asking for oracles was administered.” This could indicate either that lots were preliminarily to make sure that the Urim and Thummim could be used, or that the Urim and Thummim were used as lots.

Johann David Michaelis (1717–69) pictured the Urim and Thummim as three ancient stones (kept in the breastpiece), of which the one gave a positive, the other a negative, and the third no response. One stone could be drawn, thus providing the answer. He considered this lot to be pre-Mosaic in origin.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the identity of the Urim and Thummim with some sort of lot casting continued to be defended on the basis of the LXX of 1 Sam. 14:41 and also Prov. 16:33 and 18:18. Influential scholars who supported this theory include:

  • Wilhelm Gesenius (1786–1842)
  • Heinrich Ewald (1803–75)
  • S. R. Driver (1846–1914)
  • W. Robertson Smith (1846–94)
  • A. H. McNeile (1871–1933)
  • I. Benzinger (1865–1935)
  • D. N. Freedman (1922–[2008])
  • and others.

Not surprisingly, this was the view that was often promoted in widely used multivolume works.

The dominance of the lot theory today is well known. One need only consult standard works such as lexicons, theological dictionaries, and encyclopedias to find preference for this view.

Where reasons are given, the LXX of 1 Sam. 14:41 is usually referred to. The fact that the lot theory became the most widely accepted explanation of the Urim and Thummim in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries does not mean that there was or is any unanimity about it. There is a wide spectrum of views about the kind and number of objects used and the manner in which the lots were cast and the answer received.

So popular is the lot theory that it has even been introduced into the translations of (or notes on) urim and tummim in a few recent Bible translations. The 1980 ecumenical German translations (BE) translates the terms urim and tummim with the explanatory additions ‘lots’ (‘die Lose Urim and Thummim’) in Exod. 28:30 and Lev. 8:8.

In Ezra 2:63 these terms, prefixed by le, are rendered fur den Losenentscheid mit Urim und Tummim’ (but not so in Neh. 7:65 where the phrase in question is translated ‘mit den Urim and Tummim’ without any reference to lots). The term urim occurring by itself in Num. 27:21 is rendered ‘das Urim-Orakel’ but in 1 Sam. 28:6 is translated ‘die Losorakel’ without any mention of urim as such. In Exodus 28 and elsewhere hosen is rendered ‘Lostasche’.

Other translations introduced the lot theory in notes to the translation. La Bible de Jerusalem (JB) published in 1956 identifies the Urim and Thummim as a lot oracle in notes on Exod. 28:6, 1 Sam. 14:41, and Ezra 2:63. In 1 Sam. 28:6 it translates ba urim by “par les oracles.” The French translation directed by E. Dhorme (BDh) and published in 1956 and 1959 also speaks of the Urim and Thummim in terms of a lot oracle in notes on Exod. 28:30, 1 Sam. 14:41, and Ezra 2:63.

The note on Ezra 2:63 says that the origin and the exact meaning and method of the Urim and Thummim is obscure. Traduction oecumenique de la Bible (TOB), published in 1976, has a note on Exod. 28:30 and Ezra 2:63 indicated that the Urim and Thummim were a lot oracle. The New American Bible (NAB), released in 1970, does the same in notes on Exod. 28:30 and 1 Sam. 14:41. The Dutch Willibrord Vertaling (WV), published in 19875, also explains the Urim and Thummim as lots in a note on Exod. 28:30.

Noteworthy within this context is the relative restraint exercised by the Good News Bible translation (GNB). In virtually all passages where the Urim and Thummim occur, a note is added that reads: “Two objects used by the priest to determine God’s will; it is not known precisely how they are used.” (In the note on 1 Sam. 14:41, the term ‘stones’ is used, rather than ‘objects’.)


The Urim and Thummim As Two Means of Revelation

A novel view of the Urim and Thummim involves splitting them into two separate means of inquiring of Yahweh that they were never used together.

There are variations of this hypothesis. H. E. Dosker in 1892 suggested that the words urim and tummim indicated two distant phases of the oracle. The former were for guidance, instruction, and information desired from Yahweh and the latter for the settlement and final adjudication of criminal cases. (Dosker posited this within the larger context of his understanding that the Urim and Thummim were simply one of several steps in the development of the mode of intercourse between God and his people.)

J. Schoneveld in 1948 expressed similar sentiments and summarized his thoughts thus: the Urim was (or were) consulted to answer the questions about what is going to happen and the Thummim when a judicial matter was involved. Used together the two terms designated the complete name of the high-priestly oracle.

In 1969 Johann Maier, within the context of his radical reconstruction of the history of the covenant idea, postulated that strictly speaking only the Urim was an oracular means. The Thummim were legal decisions, originally designating decisions of royal pacts. With dynastic succession established in Judah, the Thummim for the most part referred to the stipulations governing relations between God, the King, and the nation.


This is an excerpt from The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel by Cornelis Van Dam. Copyright © 1997 by Cornelis Van Dam. Published by Eisenbrauns. Used by permission of the publisher.

Read the book for the rest of the story.


Further reading

Urim and Thummim in the Bible resources

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