Much of the history of Judaism revolves around protocol and divine laws, provided by the Hebrew god for his chosen people. The Bible contains entire books which revolve around appropriate behaviors and manners in which to worship God, centered for much of the text around the great Temple in Jerusalem.
However, the passage of time has made much of what was then well-known obscure to the modern reader. While many of the ascribed behaviors are still clear, aspects at the ceremonial heart of Judaism are often unclear, and this is never more so than with the treasures of the “House of God”.
One of the most interesting of these mysterious items is what is known as the “Urim and Thummim” which has been tentatively translated to mean the “lights” and “perfections”. These two words refer to something at the heart of Hebrew ritual, something which apparently allowed for communication with God himself.
What, therefore, was the Urim and Thummim?
What Do We Know?
We can be certain that the Urim and Thummim were tangible objects. They were associated with the “hoshen”, the traditional vestment worn by the high priest of the Temple of Jerusalem, and here we are on firmer ground.
We have a detailed description of the hoshen, a breastplate consisting of precious gems in a grid which the priest wore on ceremonial occasions. It seems that the Urim and Thummim, whatever they were, were used to ask questions of God through interacting with this breastplate.
Most historic scripts and scholars suspect that the phrase refers to a set of two objects that are used by the high priest, who would place them into a pouch within the hoshen. Once placed within the pouch they would either answer a question set by the priest, or more obscurely reveal the will of God.
As a concept they first appear very early in the Bible, in the Book of Exodus. There, they are already associated with the sacred breastplate that has to be worn by Aaron in the holy place, with which they must interact.
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But perhaps the Biblical Book of Samuel provides the modern reader with the most clues as to how they function. Here, we find a passage that describes an attempt to identify a sinner within a group of innocent people using the mysterious objects.
The high priest repeatedly divides the people into two groups and then asks the Urim and Thummim which of the two groups the sinner is in. Thus, the pool of guilty candidates can be winnowed down until finally the wrongdoer is identified.
This tells us several revealing things about the operation of these objects. Firstly, they can only be asked questions with a binary answer, and so are limited in their operation. Secondly, it is the placing of the objects in the breastplate which provides the answer.
Thirdly, and most tellingly, they are able to reveal the truth about material things to the congregation, as interpreted by the high priest. This appears therefore to be a form of what is called “cleromancy” where the manipulation of the objects, as interpreted by one with hidden knowledge, can provide answers.
But a description of the objects themselves is wholly absent from the Bible. It seems plausible that the compilers of the Bible themselves did not know what they were, only their significance.
Answers From God
Different versions of this event appear in different texts, suggesting that the operation of Urim and Thummim was familiar as only the details of the test as it happened vary. In another version of the passage it is Saul and Jonathan have been separated from the rest of the people.
In this version there is a distinction between Urim and Thummim which clearly indicates that they are two different objects. The text of the Septuagint states that Urim would indicate Saul and Jonathan, whereas Thummim, would indicate the people.
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A verse directly previous to this explanation uses the phrase that means “inquired of God” which indicates that these items, and the ritual associated with them, opened a direct line of communication with God himself. Whether God was bothered with the interruptions was not recorded, however the process by which communication was established has also been recorded in detail.
The priest would stand in front of the congregation and ask his question in a clear voice which all could hear. He would also place the Urim and Thummim in his breastplate, and then fall into a swoon as he received his reply: God had provided him with an answer, which he would then share with those present.
A Roll of the Dice?
The Urim and Thummim were often identified with the gems on the breastplate, which are recorded as having letter engraved on them. It was said that these would miraculously light up to give the divine answer on being asked, hence maybe the putative translation of “perfect light” for the otherwise mysterious words.
But there are other possibilities as to the translation, which may shed a more practical aspect on the use of these objects. It could be that the word “Urim” is associated with guilt, whereas Thummim was associated with innocence (hence “perfection”).
By now it should be clear that another, more immediately useful application of the procedure can be found that fits all the available facts: Urim and Thummim were used to draw lots. The two items were placed in a pouch and then whichever was drawn would decide the matter, similar to tossing a coin or the roll of a die.
The Bible even goes so far as to offer explicit support for this assumption. Chapter 14 of the First book of Samuel, in the ancient Greek translation, refers directly to Urim and Thummim as like drawing lots. Most scholars and historians in the present day lend their support to this understanding.
So, it would seem that what the objects were is somewhat beside the point. Both the Urim and the Thummim were small, similar objects, perhaps made of wood and bone, to be put inside the pouch.
Whichever was drawn would decide your fate. It was that simple: God had spoken.
Top Image: The high priest of the Temple of Jerusalem wearing the distinctive hoshen breastplate. Source: Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.
By Bipin Dimri