The Urim and the Thummim

“Thou shall put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart when he goeth in before the LORD; and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the LORD continually.” —Exodus 28:30

DOWN through the ages, God has used a variety of means to communicate with his people. At the beginning of mankind’s experience, his contact with man was often through dreams. Later he used the “Urim and the Thummim” as part of the Tabernacle arrangement, while the Jews were in the wilderness after they left Egypt. Still later, after they entered the Promised Land, prophets brought God’s Word to the people. Then God spoke directly to mankind through his Son. In the latter age, the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures have revealed his will to us.

What Was the Urim and Thummim?

Very little is known about the Urim and the Thummim. Both ancient and modern Biblical experts disagree among themselves about what they really were. Although the Old Testament gives many details about the fabrication of the Tabernacle, its furniture, the garments of the priests, and details of the ritual sacrifices, it is silent about the Urim and the Thummim. We know only that it was the method used by the high priest to discern God’s will.

Both words are simply the Anglicized form of two Hebrew words. Urim is the plural of Ur, a word meaning ‘light’ or ‘fire’. Thummim is the plural of Thumm, a word meaning ‘perfection’ or ‘completeness’. Experts disagree on whether the plural means there were more than one of each or if it is a form of emphasis. The Hebrew word Elohim, for example, is the plural of Eloh, but when used with the definite article means God (singular).

The Thummim is never mentioned in the Bible without reference also to the Urim, though in a few instances the Urim is mentioned without the Thummim. Clearly they were distinguishable from each other. They were placed in the pocket formed by the sides and bottom of the high priest’s breastplate—really a breastcloth made of gold, scarlet, purple, and fine linen. In some way, not described in scripture, God gave his answer to a question by these ‘lights’ and ‘perfections’.

One theory suggests that they were small, identical objects, perhaps smooth pebbles or stones brought down from Sinai by Moses after he communed with God. It may be significant that in no place is Moses commanded to make them. The suggestion is that when the high priest wanted to consult God to determine his will, he would go into the Tabernacle, pose the question, and then reach into the Breastplate of Judgment and, without knowing what it would be, withdraw one of the stones. Some characteristic of the stone, color perhaps, would indicate a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.

This sounds very much like drawing lots, and that is what it was, though in this case it was a very serious and formal procedure. The drawing of lots was a common way to reach decisions in Israel. This was true, for example, with the division of the Promised Land among the tribes. “The land shall be divided by lot … according to the lot shall the possession thereof be divided between many and few.” (Num. 26:55,56) “These are the names of the men which shall divide the land unto you: Eleazer the priest and Joshua, the son of Nun.”—Num. 34:17

Eleazer bore the Urim and Thummim within his breastplate and would communicate God’s choice to Joshua the leader of the people. Because the Urim and Thummim were used only for questions of the greatest import, the people knew the decision was the Lord’s and they accepted it. Joshua 18:11 is one account of land division: “The lot of the tribe of the children of Benjamin came up according to their families.” The verb ‘came up’ would be appropriate for a lot that was withdrawn upward as if out of a pocket.

The dividing of the land and the placement of the tribes was important. God did not locate Judah, for example, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea where they would have been exposed to the influence of the idolatrous coastal traders. He put Judah in the hill country. David was dips reared in the high sheep country free from corrupting influences that could have assailed him were Judah located in some other place.

Our Urim and Thummim

Most of us are eager to plan our future. We think we know what we will be when we become adults, or how we will make life’s major decisions. We usually try to take steps to see that our dreams become a reality. Too late we see that we did not really know what was right for us. To make decisions without consulting God would be like a high priest who considered the Urim and Thummim as nothing but useless weights around his neck.

How different it is when we let God decide. To this the Scriptures concur: “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.” (Ps. 16:6) “The lot is cast into the lap [Hebrew: the bosom], but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.” (Prov. 16:33) These are wonderful promises—nothing comes to the Lord’s people by chance. God directs our experiences if we reconcile ourselves to his will.

But leaving life’s choices to God is a matter of faith. After the Prophet Samuel died, the Philistines gathered themselves to battle against Israel. King Saul was afraid. He had lost his faith. “When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.” (I Sam. 28:6) If it was simply a matter of drawing out stones, why could Saul not obtain some kind of answer? Saul had already, at this juncture in time, slain the priests, making the consultation of the Urim and Thummim impossible. Even the Ark of the Covenant had been removed from the Tabernacle. All this was caused by Saul’s complete lack of faith. So desperate was Saul that he consulted a woman who had a “familiar spirit,” something that was directly contrary to the Lord’s instruction. He died the very next day.

God’s overruling providences work for us only when we exercise faith in him. David had faith, and we read of times when he asked for the counsel of the Lord. This he did by going to the high priest who inquired by the Urim and Thummim. In I Samuel 23:9-12, for example, David consulted God through the agency of Abiathar, the priest and the ephod—the breastplate hung over the ephod. When David received God’s answer, he changed his plans accordingly.

Eventually the Urim and Thummim were lost. God’s will was then communicated through the prophets he reared up. The Prophet Samuel was one of the greatest. “Yea and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days.” (Acts 3:24) Samuel represents the start of the transition from the casting of lots to direct communication through a prophet.

Type and Antitype

The Tabernacle arrangement God gave to Israel contains many instructive lessons for God’s people today. The furniture, the rituals, and the sacrifices illustrate far more important lessons than the literal elements themselves. “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples [Greek: a ‘die’ or ‘model’—the margin of some Bibles says ‘types’].”—I Cor. 10:11

Because Christ is so frequently pictured in the Tabernacle, it is appropriate to look for him here. And indeed we do find him. “[He] was the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” Urim means light. (John 1:9) Being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him. Thummim means perfections. (Heb. 5:9) Speaking prophetically of Christ, Isaiah said, “He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation upon his head.” (Isa. 59:17) The one who wore the breastplate was the one who possessed the Urim and Thummim.

The Scriptures tell us that Christ shares what he has with his faithful followers, the church. Hence it is not surprising to read a similar thought from the pen of the Apostle Paul: “Let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.” (I Thess. 5:8) If we, like Christ our Lord and Master, have on the breastplate, we have a mechanism to commune with God. But this communion comes not by the casting of lots, but through the direct testimony of his Son. “When in former times God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in fragmentary and varied fashion through the prophets. But in this the final age he has spoken to us in the Son whom he has made heir to the whole universe, and through whom he creates all orders of existence.”—Heb. 1:1,2, New English Bible

Like the ancient Israelites, we need God’s guidance. When we come to a major decision in our lives we want to know the Lord’s will for us. Would that we could pull a stone out of a pocket to determine whether we should do something or not. Yet we do have daily guidance for all of life’s decisions because we have God’s Word. And we have the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit operating in our lives today, just as it operated when decisions were made by Urim and Thummim.

The high priest prayed and meditated before he sought God’s guidance. We also prepare ourselves through prayer, meditation, and study to receive God’s guidance. In full assurance of faith we cast our burdens on the one who will guide us into a knowledge of his will for us. The Urim and Thummim brought wisdom to the priest. Wisdom is ours also if we seek God in the proper way. Paul prayed that the saints and faithful brethren in Christ “might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, … increasing in the knowledge of God.”—Col. 1:2,9,10

Faith is critically important in our relationship with God. When Saul lost his faith, he lost the guidance of God, having destroyed the priests who used the Urim for God’s guidance. So if we lose our faith, the providences of the Lord will cease to work in our lives as well. We do well to echo the request of the apostles, “Lord, increase our faith.”—Luke 17:5

Levi was a special tribe in Israel. The priests came from this tribe and no Levite had an inheritance in the land. The Lord said that he was their inheritance. (Deut. 18:1,2) Levi pictures God’s antitypical priests and helpers, those who are “on the Lord’s side.” (Exod. 32:26) When Moses was about to die, he gave a special blessing to each tribe. This was his blessing upon Levi: “Let thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one … for they have observed thy word and kept thy covenant.” (Deut. 33:8,9) Truly this blessing has continued to be with those who seek to know God’s will in their lives.

May we continue to preach what we know to be God’s will, for Jesus said that the Gospel message, the good news, would be preached in all the world for a witness. (Matt. 24:14) When the work of this age has been completed, then “the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” (Rev. 22:17) At that time all the world will truly realize what God’s will has been, and will be for them.

Zion stands with hills surrounded
     Zion kept by power divine.
All her foes shall be confounded.
     Though the world in arms combine.
Happy Zion! What a favored lot is thine!
     Happy Zion! What a favored lot is thine!—Hymns of Dawn, #333

Dawn Bible Students Association
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