What Were the Urim and Thummim?
James Scott Trimm
In the Tanak we read of the mysterious objects known in Scripture simply as "the Urim and Thummim"
And you shall put in the breastplate of judgment, the Urim and the Thummim, and
they shall be upon Aharon's heart when he goes in before YHWH. And Aharon shall bear
the judgment of the children of Yisra’el upon his heart before YHWH continually.
(Ex. 28:30 HRV)
And he placed the breastplate upon him; and in the breastplate he put the Urim and the Thummim.
(Lev. 8:8 HRV)
And he shall stand before El’azar the cohen, who shall inquire for him by the
judgment of the Urim before YHWH. At his word shall they go out, and at his word they
shall come in: both he, and all the children of Yisra’el with him, even all the assembly.
(Num. 27:21 HRV)
8 And of Levi he said, Your Thummim and Your Urim be with Your Set-Apart-One,
whom You did prove at Massah; with whom You did strive at the waters of M’rivah:
9 Who said of his father and of his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he
acknowledge his brothers, nor knew he his own children: for they have observed Your
word, and keep Your covenant.
10 They shall teach Ya’akov Your ordinances, and Yisra’el Your Torah; they shall put
incense before You, and whole burnt-offering upon Your altar.
11 Bless YHWH, his substance, and accept the work of his hands: smite through the
loins of them that rise up against him, and of them that hate him, that they rise not again.
(Deut. 33:8 HRV)
And when Sha’ul inquired of YHWH, YHWH answered him not: neither by dreams,
nor by Urim, nor by prophets.
(1Sam. 28:6 HRV)
62 These sought their register--that is, the genealogy, but it was not found: therefore
were they deemed polluted, and put from the priesthood.
63 And the Tirshata said unto them, That they should not eat of the Most-Set-Apart
things, till there stood up a cohen, with Urim and with Thummim.
(Ezra 2:62-63 HRV)
64 These sought their register, that is, the genealogy: but it was not found. Therefore
were they deemed polluted, and put from the priesthood.
65 And the Tirshata said unto them, That they should not eat of the Most-Set-Apart
things, till there stood up a cohen, with Urim and Thummim.
(Nehemiah 7:64-65 HRV)
Scripture does not tell us exactly what the Urim and Thummim were or how they worked.
The Urim and Thummim were instruments the High Priest used to consult the will of Elohim (Ex. 28:30; Lev. 8:8; Num. 27:21; Deut. 33:8; 1Sam. 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Neh. 7:65). The word "Urim" means "lights" while the word "Thummim" (Tummim) means "perfections".)
The Greek version of the Apocryphal book 1Esdras has "Doctrine/Manifestation and Truth" (1Esdras 5:40) in the place where the parallels in Ezra and Nehemiah have "Urim and Thumim" (Ezra 2:63; Neh. 7:65). (A footnote in the original 1611 text of the KJV indicates that the now lost, original Hebrew of 1Esdras had "Urim and Thumim" in this passage as well.)
The Targum Jonathan to the Torah explains the Urim and the Tummim this way:
And you shall put into the breastplate the Urim,
which illuminate their words and make manifest
the hidden things of the House of Israel,
and the Tumim [sic] which perfect their deeds.
(Targum Psuedo-Jonathan on Exod. 28:30)
The Babylonian Talmud says:
Why are they called "Urim and Thummim"
"Urim" because they made their words enlightening.
"Thummim" because they fulfill their words."
The first century Jew Philo of Alexandria ties the Urim and Thummim to language saying:
(119) "And you shall put manifestation and truth (the Urim and the Thummim), in the oracle of judgment, and it shall be on the breast of Aaron when he comes into the holy place before the Lord” (Ex. 28:30). Now by the oracle is here meant the organs of speech which exist in us, which is in fact the power of language. Now language is either inconsiderate, and such as will not stand examination, or else it is judicious and well approved, and it brings us to form a notion of discreet speech. For Moses here speaks not of a random spurious oracle, but of the oracle of the judgment, which is equivalent to saying, a well-judged and carefully examined oracle; (120) and of this well approved kind of language he says that there are two supreme virtues, namely, distinctness and truth, and he says well. For it is language which has in the first place enabled one man to make affairs plain and evident to his neighbour, when without it we should not be able to give any intimation of the impression produced on our soul by outward circumstances, nor to show of what kind they are.
XVI. On which account we have been compelled to have recourse to such signs as are given by the voices, that is nouns and verbs, which ought by all means to be universally known, in order that our neighbours might clearly and evidently comprehend our meaning; and, in the next place, to utter them at all times with truth. (121) For of what advantage would it be to make our assertions clear and distinct, but nevertheless false? For it follows inevitably that if this were allowed the hearer would be deceived, and would reap the greatest possible injury with ignorance and delusion. For what would be the advantage of my speaking to a boy distinctly and clearly, and telling him, when I show him the letter A, that it is G, or that the letter E is O? Or what would be the good of a musician pointing out to a pupil whom comes to him to learn the rudiments of his art that the harmonic scale was the chromatic; or the chromatic, the diatonic; or that the highest string was the middle one; or that conjoined sounds were separated; or that the highest tone in the tetrachord scale was a supernumerary note? (122) No doubt, a man who said this might speak clearly and distinctly, but he would not be speaking truly, but by such assertions he would be implanting wickedness in language. But when he joins both distinctness and truth, then he makes his language profitable to him who is seeking information, employing both its virtues, which in fact are nearly the only ones of which language is capable.
(Philo; Allegoricall Interpretations III, 119-122)
The Zohar says:
The term "Urim" signifies the luminous speculum, which consisted of the engravur of the divine Name written in the forty two letters by which the world was created, whereas the Thummim consisted of the nonluminous speculum, composed of the divine Name manifest in twenty two letters. ...we read, "In the beginning Elohim created the
(ET) heaven and the (ET) earth" (Gen. 1:1), where the particle ET (spelled Alef-Tav) is a summary of the twenty-two
letters by which the land is nourished.
Elsewhere the Zohar tells us that the Urim and Thummim were connected to the “permutations” or “combinations” of letters with which Elohim created the world, and by which Bezalel and Moses created the Tabernacle and its furnishings:
Observe that the world has been made and established by an engraving of forty-two letters, all of which are the adornment of the Divine Name. These letters combined and soared aloft and dived downwards, forming themselves into crowns in the four directions of the world, so that it might endure. They then went forth and created the upper world and the lower, the world of unification and the world of division. … These forty-two letters thus constitute the supernal mystical principle; by them were created the upper and the lower worlds, and they indeed constitute the basis and recondite significance of all the worlds. Thus is explained the verse, “The secret of the Lord is to them that fear him; and his covenant to make them know it”, the first part alluding to the undisclosed engraven letters, whereas the latter speaks of the revealed. Now, it is written: “And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim” (Ex. 28:30). The term “Urim” (lit. Iight, illumination) signifies the luminous speculum, which consisted of the engravure of the Divine Name composed of forty-two letters by which the world was created; whereas the Thummim consisted of the non-luminous speculum made of the Divine Name as manifested in the twenty-two letters. The combination of the two is thus called Urim and Thummim. … Thus we read, “In the beginning God created the (eth) heaven and the (eth) earth” (Gen. I, 1), where the particle eth (consisting of Aleph and Tau) is a summary of the twenty-two letters by which the earth is nourished. Now, the same letters were the instruments used in the building of the Tabernacle. This work was carried out by Bezalel for the reason that, as his very name (Bezel-EI = "in the shadow of El") implies, he had a knowledge of the various permutations of the letters, by the power of which heaven and earth were created. Without such knowledge Bezalel could not have accomplished the work of the Tabernacle; for, inasmuch as the celestial Tabernacle was made in all its parts by the mystical power of those letters, the lower Tabernacle could only be prepared by the power of the same letters. Bezalel was skilled in the various permutations of the Divine Name, and for each several part he employed the appropriate permutation of the letters. But when it came to the rearing up of the Tabernacle it was beyond his power, for the reason that the disposition of those letter-groups was entrusted to Moses alone, and hence it was by Moses that the Tabernacle was erected. So Scripture says: “And Moses reared up... and [he] laid... and put in...” (Ex. 40:18) Moses, but not Bezalel.’
For moreore about these permutations of letters click here
Now there is an amazing yet mysterious fragmentary document found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (1Q29; 4Q376) which seems to give a detailed description of the manner in which the Urim and Thummim actually functioned. Unfortunately only tantalizing fragments survive, but these fragments speak of “tongues of fire” coming from the stones, and say “the Priest shall interpret”.
The Urim and the Thummim were therefore anciently connected with the gifts of tongues and interpretations of tongues. (For more inf on the Gift of Tongues see my recent blog on the topic by clicking HERE)
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