The terms "Urim" and "Thummim" have traditionally been understood as "light(s)" and "perfection(s)" or as "perfect light." The Urim and Thummim were a means of revelation entrusted to the high priest. No description of them is given. This oracular means apparently consisted of a material object or objects since it was physically stored in the breastpiece of the high priest ( Exod 28:30 ; Lev 8:8 ). Most scholars today think that the Urim and Thummim were a lot oracle, but this is by no means certain.
Besides being mentioned by their full name ( Exod 28:30 ; Lev 8:8 ; Ezra 2:63 ; Neh 7:65 ; in reverse order with possessives, Deut 33:8 ), the Urim and Thummim could also be referred to by Urim alone ( Num 27:21 ; 1 Sam 28:6 ). Sometimes the mention of the ephod (on which the breastpiece housing the Urim and Thummim were fastened) includes a reference to the Urim and Thummim ( 1 Sam 23:9-12 ; 30:7-8 ). Also the verb "inquire of" followed by "the Lord" or "God" when no means of revelation is specified refers to a usage of the Urim and Thummim.
The Urim and Thummim were used at critical moments in the history of God's people when special divine guidance was needed. The civil leader was expected to make use of this means for all important matters for which he needed direction. Although referred to in ezr 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65, there is no convincing evidence that the Urim and Thummim were used after the time of David.
The reason for the demise of the Urim and Thummim is not explicitly given. Since the Urim and Thummim, in whatever way they functioned, were a physical means of revelation, it appears that God was taking his people away from the easy certainty inherent in a mechanical means of revelation to the more consistent use of prophecy and the Word alone. This would require the more difficult application of the norms for true and false prophecy ( Deut 13:1-4 ; 18:20-22 ) and thus necessitate a faithful teaching priesthood ( Deut 33:10 ; Mal 2:7 ).
Although the lot theory has wide support today, there are significant difficulties with so identifying the Urim and Thummim. It is questionable whether the key evidence, the Greek text of 1 Samuel 14:41, is really to be preferred over the Hebrew text. Also, the vocabulary of lot casting is not used, and the answers contain more information than the casting of lots could yield ( eg 1:1 5:23-24 ). This last point suggests the involvement of prophecy and the divine inspiration of the high priest in giving revelation. It can also be noted that the use of the actual object(s) constituting the Urim and Thummim appears to have been self-authenticating. Even in extremely difficult circumstances, the guidance of the Urim and Thummim is followed ( Jud 20:18-28 ). It could be theorized that a perfect light that miraculously shone from the gem(s) constituting the Urim and Thummim (which belonged to God, Deut 33:8 ) gave the needed authentication to the actual answer spoken by the high priest under divine inspiration. In this way the judgment of the Urim, the light, may have been given ( Nu 27:21 ). Such authentication would not have been out of place in Old Testament times when special signs were provided more often.
Cornelis Van Dam
Bibliography. C. Van Dam, ISBE, 4:957-59.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Urim and Thummim'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".