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Urim and Thummim
Lights and perfections
This term relates to the ancient Israelite practice of divining the will of God. The exact meaning and origin of the words are well-studied, but are not precisely known or agreed upon.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Urim (Hebrew: אוּרִים ʾŪrīm, “lights”) and the Thummim (Hebrew: תֻּמִּים Tummīm, meaning uncertain, possibly “perfections”) are elements of the hoshen, the breastplate worn by the High Priest attached to the ephod. They are connected with cleromancy (with divination by casting lots). Most scholars suspect that the phrase refers to a set of two objects used by the high priest to answer a question or reveal the will of God.
The Urim and the Thummim first appear in Exodus 28:30, where they are named for inclusion on the breastplate to be worn by Aaron in the holy place. Other books, especially 1 Samuel, describe their uses.
Urim (אוּרִים) traditionally has been taken to derive from a root meaning lights; these derivations are reflected in the Neqqudot of the Masoretic Text. In consequence, Urim and Thummim has traditionally been translated as “lights and perfections” (by Theodotion, for example), or, by taking the phrase allegorically, as meaning “revelation and truth”, or “doctrine and truth” (it appears in this form in the Vulgate, in the writing of St. Jerome, and in the Hexapla). The latter use was defended in modern Catholic interpretations by connecting Urim and Thummim from the roots ירה (to teach) and אׇמַן (be true).
Thummim (תוּמִים) is widely considered to be derived from the consonantal root ת.מ.ם (t-m-m), meaning innocent, Many scholars now believe that Urim (אוּרִים) simply derives from the Hebrew term אּרּרִים (Arrim), meaning “curses”, and thus that Urim and Thummim essentially means “cursed or faultless”, in reference to the deity’s judgment of an accused person; in other words, Urim and Thummim were used to answer the question “innocent or guilty”.
Assyriologist William Muss-Arnolt connected the singular forms—ur and tumm—with the Babylonian terms ūrtu and tamītu, meaning “oracle” and “command”, respectively. According to his theory the Hebrew words use a pluralis intensivus to enhance their apparent majesty, not to indicate the presence of more than one. Along these lines the urim and thummim are hypothesized to derive from the Tablets of Destiny (worn by Marduk on his breast according to Babylonian religion).
1 Samuel 14:41 is regarded by biblical scholars as key to understanding the Urim and Thummim; the passage describes an attempt to identify a sinner by repeatedly splitting the people into two groups and identifying which group contains the sinner. In the version of this passage in the Masoretic Text, it describes Saul and Jonathan being separated from the rest of the people, and lots being cast between them; the Septuagint version, however, states that Urim would indicate Saul and Jonathan, while Thummim would indicate the people. In the Septuagint, a previous verse uses a phrase which is usually translated as “inquired of God”, which is significant as the grammatical form of the Hebrew implies that the inquiry was performed by objects being manipulated; scholars view it as evident from these verses and versions that cleromancy was involved, and that Urim and Thummim were the names of the objects being cast.
The description of the clothing of the Hebrew high priest in the Book of Exodus portrays the Urim and Thummim as being put into the sacred breastplate, worn by the high priest over the Ephod. Where the biblical text elsewhere describes an Ephod being used, scholars presume that it is referring to use of the Urim and Thummim in conjunction with the Ephod, as this seems to be intimately connected with it; similarly where non-prophets are portrayed as asking God for guidance, and the advice is not described as given by visions, scholars think that Urim and Thummim were the medium implied. In all but two cases (1 Samuel 10:22 and 2 Samuel 5:23), the question is one which is effectively answered by a simple “yes” or “no”; a number of scholars believe that the two exceptions to this pattern, which give more complex answers, were originally also just sequences of “yes” or “no” questions, but became corrupted by later editing.
There is no description of the form of the Urim and Thummim in the passage describing the high priest’s vestments, and a number of scholars believe that the author of the passage, which textual scholars attribute to the priestly source, was not actually entirely aware of what they were either. Nevertheless, the passage does describe them as being put into the breastplate, which scholars think implies they were objects put into some sort of pouch within it, and then, while out of view, one (or one side, if the Urim and Thummim was a single object) was chosen by touch and withdrawn or thrown out; since the Urim and Thummim were put inside this pouch, they were presumably small and fairly flat, and were possibly tablets of wood or of bone. Considering the scholars’ conclusion that Urim essentially means “guilty” and Thummim essentially means “innocent”, this would imply that the purpose of the Urim and Thummim was an ordeal to confirm or refute suspected guilt; if the Urim was selected it meant guilt, while selection of the Thummim would mean innocence.
According to classical rabbinical literature, in order for the Urim and Thummim to give an answer, it was first necessary for the individual to stand facing the fully dressed high priest, and vocalise the question briefly and in a simple way, though it was not necessary for it to be loud enough for anyone else to hear it. Maimonides explains that the High Priest would stand facing the Ark of the Covenant with the inquirer behind him, facing the Priest’s back. After the inquirer asked his question, the Holy Spirit would immediately overcome the Priest and he would see the letters protruding in a prophetic vision. The Talmudic rabbis argued that Urim and Thummim were words written on the sacred breastplate. Most of the Talmudic rabbis, and Josephus, following the belief that Urim meant “lights”, argued that the rituals involving Urim and Thummim involved questions being answered by great rays of light shining out of certain jewels on the breastplate; each jewel was taken to represent different letters, and the sequence of lighting thus would spell out an answer (though there were 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and only 12 jewels on the breastplate); two Talmudic rabbis, however, argued that the jewels themselves moved in a way that made them stand out from the rest, or even moved themselves into groups to form words.
According to Islamic sources, there was a similar form of divination among the Arabs before the beginning of Islam. There, two arrow shafts (without heads or feathers), on one of which was written “command” and the other “prohibition” or similar, were kept in a container, and stored in the Kaaba at Mecca; whenever someone wished to know whether to get married, go on a journey, or to make some other similar decision, one of the Kaaba‘s guardians would randomly pull one of the arrow shafts out of the container, and the word written upon it was said to indicate the will of the god concerning the matter in question. Sometimes a third, blank, arrow shaft would be used, to represent the refusal of the deity to give an answer. This practice is called rhabdomancy, after the Greek roots rhabd- “rod” and -mancy (“divination”).