The Urim and Thummim: The Theocracy in Microcosm

by | Jan 18, 2024 | Poimenas

The Urim and Thummim: The Theocracy in Microcosm

Douglas D. Bookman


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book To Seek…to Do…and to Teach: Essays in Honor of Larry D. Pettegrew (Shepherds Press, 2022), which is available for purchase here



At Mt. Sinai, the family of Abraham became the nation of Israel. Thus from 1446 BC to 592 BC—from Moses to Ezekiel—Yahweh, the One God of the Universe, condescended to reign in the most real, physical, palpable, mundane sense as king over His covenant people, Israel. That unique and gracious period of immediate divine rule, denominated the “Theocracy,”[1] is stunningly and woefully underappreciated in the evangelical world today—stunningly because that historical reality so dominates and animates the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures, and woefully because a proper comprehension of that reality ramifies so instructively to all that is revealed in New Covenant literature.


One specific and important feature of the theocratic arrangement as defined and lived out in the Old Testament is the somewhat mysterious piece of Levitical equipment known as the Urim and Thummim.[2] Simply stated, the Urim and Thummim (hereafter: UT) was some sort of oracular device provided by God as an important accoutrement to His theocratic rule over the nation of Israel in order that, by means of the proper manipulation of those objects, Yahweh’s will might be made unmistakably known to the people in a moment of national crisis. Beyond that simple affirmation, the details concerning the identity, distinctiveness, and function of the Urim and Thummim become a bit difficult. Indeed, George Dosker avers:


There is a sphinx-like stolidity about … this subject, enshrouded in a mystery which centuries of continuous scrutiny and conjecture have failed to solve. Men of the foremost rank of scholarship have made it an object of searching investigation. Its very mystery has proved its attraction, and from time immemorial it has been a bone of contention.[3]


The suddenness with which the oracle intrudes upon the Scriptural narrative with no technical explanation of its origin, appearance, substance or design; the relative paucity of clear textual descriptions of the oracle in use; the close relationship which the UT bears to the more commonplace “sacred lot;” the insistence by many in the scholarly community that the UT was only a man-made device, virtually identical to and certainly borrowed from some divining apparatus extant in ancient contemporary cultures–all of these factors combine to make the investigation of this Old Testament oracular device a difficult and in some respects an ultimately frustrating exercise.


On the other hand, the case can be made that the data of the Old Testament, properly understood, do issue in a clear understanding of the character and purpose of the UT, and further that a proper comprehension of Yahweh’s government of the covenant nation of Israel during a significant portion of Old Testament history is significantly enhanced by a biblically-based comprehension of that unique oracular device.


It is the aspiration of this essay that a consideration of that oracle might serve to sharpen one’s understanding of and deepen one’s appreciation for the theocracy itself. Indeed, the specific proposition here is this: when the surprisingly abundant biblical data regarding the UT are gathered and synthesized, the design and use of that remarkable oracular device provided by King Yahweh to His covenant people stands as an instructive distillation and demonstration of the dynamics and the function of that theocratic arrangement—a window into the biblical concept of the kingdom of God which obtained on earth from Moses to Ezekiel, a microcosm of the theocracy.


The Theocracy Defined

In order to make the point that the theocratic arrangement is most succinctly on display when the UT is employed in the biblical narrative, it will be wise first of all to carefully define that theocratic arrangement as explicitly recorded in the Old Testament.


The theocracy is well defined as the “form of government under the sole, accessible Headship of God Himself,” who was “the Supreme Lawgiver in civil and religious affairs … and when difficult cases required it … the Divine Arbiter or Judge.” In sum, “the legislative, executive, and judicial power was vested in Him, and partially delegated to others to be exercised under a restricted form.”[4] Gleig emphasizes that in this arrangement, God “assumed not merely a religious, but a political, superiority, over the descendants of Abraham; He constituted Himself, in the strictest sense of the phrase, King of Israel, and the government of Israel became, in consequence, strictly and literally, a Theocracy.”[5] Again, Oehler summarizes the relationship: “In Him, as King, all political powers are united (their earthly bearers are only Jehovah’s organs); … As King, He is the Lawgiver and Judge of His people, … Legal and civil regulations are but an efflux of the divine will … as King, God is also the leader of His people’s army (comp. Num. xxiii.21); Israel forms the hosts of Jehovah, Ex. xii. 41 (כל־צבאות יהוה). He goes before them as leader in the combat, Num. x. 35; Israel’s battles are מלחמת יהוה [“the wars of Yahweh”], Num. 21:14.”[6]


That theocratic relationship, formed by Yahweh with Israel, was unique to human history.[7] Thus, the term should not be taken as descriptive of God’s perpetual rule over all creation; as Oehler insists, “The Old Testament idea of the divine kingship expresses, not God’s general relation of power toward the world (as being its creator and supporter), but the special relation of His government toward His elect people.”[8] Indeed, there has never been another people who knew God as their King in this immediate and actual sense (Deut 4:7). Peters makes this point carefully: “The simple fact is, that since the overthrow of the Hebrew Theocracy, God has not acted in the capacity of earthly Ruler, with a set form of government, for any nation or people on earth … the application of the word to any nation or people, or organization since then, is a perversion and prostitution of its plain meaning.”[9]


Thus the remarkable enthronement scene in Exod 40:34–38: King Yahweh, majestically manifested in the Glory-cloud which represents His very real and special covenant presence with Israel, takes up His regal place above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. In so doing He formally initiates His direct and genuine rule over a newly formed “holy nation” which He has made His “own possession” in order that this people might function as a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:5,6). Briggs summarizes, “As holy, the Israelites are the subjects of their holy King, and as priests they represent Him and mediate for Him with the nations.”[10]


Nor should the presence of human mediators of the rule of Yahweh be taken as an indication that the governing arrangement established at Sinai was anything less than a true theocracy. Given the majesty of King Yahweh and the essentially unapproachable character of His holiness, it was essential that He minister His daily rule of the nation through such mediators. As Peters observes, “the institution of such subordinate rulers is an integral part of a pure Theocracy, leaving the Supremacy untouched and fully acknowledged. The purest Theocracy, adapted to the government of nations, that reason can suggest, must necessarily, as a means of honoring the Supreme Ruler and advancing His authority, etc., have its subordinate rulers.”[11]


As part of the theocratic arrangement, King Yahweh provided a very special ministry of the Spirit by which those human mediators might be enabled to function as His personal representatives. The ruling arrangement developed in the course of the theocracy from leaders who were personally selected by Yahweh (Moses, Joshua, the Judges) to a series of kings who rose to leadership by reason of dynastic succession. But throughout the years when the Glory-cloud was resident in the tabernacle/temple, every individual in that succession of human leaders was obligated to acknowledge that he was in fact ruling only as the proxy of King Yahweh.


As to its duration, the theocracy is properly understood as formally beginning with the ratification ceremony of Exod 24:1–8;[12] that ceremony was the consequence of Israel’s acceptance of the covenant relationship initially offered them in Exod 19:3–6 and then reoffered (after more careful explication of the relationship) in 24:1–3.[13] Bush says that as a result of the series of events recorded in Exod 19–24,


… a peculiar constitution was adopted, familiarly known as the Theocracy; according to which God became the temporal king and supreme civil magistrate of the nation. Not that it was possible for Jehovah to sink his character of Lord and Master of the universe into his capacity as civil ruler of the Hebrews. He was still, as Creator and Judge, the God of each individual Israelite, as he is the God of each individual Christian; but he moreover sustained, both to every individual Israelite, and to the whole collective body of the Israelitish nation, the additional relation of temporal sovereign. In this character he solemnly proffered himself to the people at Mount Sinai, and in this character he was, with equal solemnity, accepted by their united voice.[14]


By the same token, the theocratic relationship was abandoned in 592 BC (Ezek 8:1)[15] when the Glory-cloud departed the temple in the final days before the Babylonians sacked the city of Jerusalem and carried Judah into captivity.[16] Feinberg summarizes the solemn scene depicted in Ezekiel 9–11:


Ezekiel set forth the fulfillment of the warning uttered by Moses (Deut 31:17) and later by Hosea (Hosea 9:12). God had determined to forsake His sanctuary. There are several steps in His action, showing the Lord’s great reluctance to abandon the abode of His own choosing. First He removed the cherub to the threshold of the temple (9:3); next, He lifted His throne over the temple’s threshold (10:1); with the cherubim remaining on the right side of the house (10:3), He mounted up and sat on the throne (10:4); finally, He and the cherubim, after lingering at the door of the east gate (10:18–19), left the house (11:22–23) and did not return until the time of 43:2 …. God was about to desert the temple, and soon there would be written over the entire structure, as well as their entire religious life, “Ichabod” (“the glory has departed”).[17]


To be sure, Yahweh’s covenant relationship with Israel did not terminate at the departure of the Glory-cloud; that relationship is eternal. Further, the covenant made at Mt Sinai was not abandoned; it is not until the coming of Messiah Jesus that that covenant “is ready to disappear” (Heb 8:13; Rom 10:4; Gal 3:19, 24).[18] It was specifically the personal, physical reign of Yahweh as King over Israel that was suspended just years before the Throne room was destroyed and Judah was carried into captivity. As Andrews states, “This departure of Jehovah from His temple and land … marked a change in His theocratic relation to His people–a change that continues even to this day. They did not cease to be His covenant people (Lev. 26:44). His purpose in them was still unfulfilled, His promises respecting the Messiah and His kingdom were not withdrawn, and He continued to accept their worship.”[19] But the relationship of immediate rule by a divine King who manifested His special presence via the Glory-cloud does come to an end at that point.[20] From that time forward until today, Yahweh would protect and guide His ever-recalcitrant covenant people providentially (mediately) rather than supernaturally (immediately).


The Urim and Thummim Defined and Characterized

A brief but somewhat comprehensive synthesis of what can be derived by careful exegesis of the biblical record concerning the UT and its role in biblical history is as follows.[21]


As above, the covenant ratified between Yahweh and Israel in Exod 19–24 constituted that nation a genuine theocracy. Yahweh took up His residence in the midst of His covenant people, surrounded Himself with all appropriate accouterments of royalty, and provided the elements of government necessary to His rule. One very important element of that ruling arrangement was a hierarchy of human officers: a family of priests who would perpetuate the extensive Law Code spoken by King Yahweh and oversee the worship demanded in that Law Code, and a succession of civil leaders who would administer that Law Code and lead the people in all of the day-by-day challenges of national life.


In order to enable the human civil leader to effectively fulfill his responsibility, Yahweh provided an oracle by which that leader could consult personally with Him. That oracle was known as the Urim and Thummim. Given the etymology[22] of the two terms, that title-phrase is best taken as a Hendiadys[23] intended to characterize the device as “perfect light.” [24] The plural form of the nouns is best taken as pluralis intensivus[25] representing majesty rather than number.[26] The UT was an important part of the pontificalia of the High Priest; specifically (if tentatively), it is best to regard the oracle as one with the twelve brilliant stones attached to the breastpiece of judgment.[27] Thus, the title assigned the oracle by Yahweh was twice significant: first, it was an appropriate title for twelve lustrous stones that sparkled before the eyes of an onlooker; second, the oracle was uniquely designed to communicate divine instruction as “perfect light” when the human leader was engulfed in confusion and despair.


The UT was included as an integral element of the theocratic governing arrangement in the initial design of the Levitical system (Exod 28:30; Lev 8:8), but it was never utilized during the life of Moses, evidently because God spoke with Moses face-to-face.[28] In the transition from Moses to Joshua, it was declared that Joshua (and his successors) would be allowed only a measure of Moses’ authority, and therefore the UT was identified as an essential element by which he would be equipped to fulfill his duties (Num 27:18–21).[29] There is no record of Joshua utilizing the UT, but there are narratives in which the use of that oracle may be inferred during the days of the Judges and during the reigns of Saul and of David.[30]


The UT is mentioned only seven times in the Old Testament.[31] The manner of the use of the oracle is legislated in Numbers 27:21, and on the basis of syntactical and ritual elements in that passage, the oracle can be confidently inferred in a number of other narrative contexts. [32] The testimony of those passages[33] is that, as above, the UT was capable of extended and specific propositional messages.[34] This reality is the primary corrective of the most basic misperception regarding the UT, viz. that the UT is to be regarded as identical to the “sacred lot.” [35] That lesser distinct oracle is employed on many occasions in the Old Testament to communicate timely and specific divine revelation (e.g. Josh 7—the discovery of Achan as the “sinner in the camp”). But it is clearly a binary oracle, able only to choose between stated alternatives. The UT should be regarded as distinct from the sacred lot in character and capability.[36]


In fact, the UT possessed greater capability than the sacred lot: by means of The UT Yahweh revealed specific, sometimes extended propositional messages effective to inform and to encourage the leader who had consulted Him. Furthermore, it can be confidently inferred, primarily from the fact the no attempt was ever made to counterfeit or distort revelation given through the UT, that those messages were definite and objective[37] and that they were vindicated as divine by means of some miraculous sign.[38] By reason of that remarkable capability, as well as the place of honor assigned the oracle in the dress of the High Priest, God intended that the UT be regarded with profound reverence. It was uniquely the possession of Yahweh (Deut 33:8), vouchsafed graciously to His people. To consult by means of the UT was to request an audience with King Yahweh, indeed, to appear “before the Lord.”[39]


In equipping Joshua and his successors with the UT, Yahweh gave instruction that the oracle was to be used in all of the demands of national life; it was designed to enable the human leader of the theocracy to guide the nation in all its affairs, its “going out and coming in” (Num 27:21), so that that nation would not be as sheep without a shepherd.[40] The UT was crafted to be suitable in times of peace or in times of war; indeed, the oracle was often consulted in the thick of battle as a source of divine counsel and encouragement.[41] However, the UT was not intended for any sort of personal or private use; it was to be employed only in the interest of a national crisis or question.[42] Further, inquiry was not to be made concerning any issue settled in the Mosaic law.[43] Any question which might be appropriately inquired about, but which might be answered by the more limited sacred (binary) lot, was not to be submitted to the UT; this included issues of legal adjudication.[44]


It was Yahweh’s intent that successive generations of human mediators of His rule would have access to the UT, and thus would be able to consult with Him in times of need. However, the UT was limited in that only the human leader could initiate a consultation with Yahweh;[45] there was no way intrinsic to the oracle by which Yahweh might summon that leader to the UT. In this way, the oracle made a spiritual demand upon the civil leader; to the extent that the human leader was anxious to know God’s mind and committed to obeying God’s word, the UT was a blessed provision. In the case of a rebellious leader who had determined to do what he pleased, the UT was vulnerable to neglect at best and contempt at worst.[46] This reality must be factored into the question of the demise of the UT.


There is no explicit record of the disappearance of the UT from the life of OT Israel.[47] But the narrative of the OT does provide a broad picture which is helpful in understanding the demise of that oracle. Specifically, it is instructive to trace David’s use and then his disuse of the UT in the OT record. He appeals to the UT several times before he is inaugurated king[48] and twice as king.[49] There are later incidents in which one would expect David to inquire by the UT,[50] but he almost certainly did not. The turning point seems to be his double sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah (2 Sam 11:1–12:23). The reality is that the UT would have been neither sufficient nor appropriate to accomplish what Yahweh needed to do in this situation. It was insufficient because consultation by means of that oracle was dependent upon human initiative; David was scurrying to hide his sin (cf. Ps 32) and thus was entirely disinclined to take the initiative and consult with God. The UT would have been inappropriate because it was designed to reveal information which was important to a given crisis but beyond human ken; David had no doubt concerning the attitude of Yahweh toward his sin and would have no reason to approach by the Urim.


This is perhaps very important to David’s developing understanding of the dynamics of his office. As long as he was humbly trusting the Lord and striving to honor the name of the Ultimate Sovereign, the UT was a blessed accoutrement of his office, and he appealed to it often. But now he had committed a terrible sin. Certainly during the months when he was attempting to hide that sin, he would have been reluctant to approach God via the Urim for any reason. God’s response to this was to confront David by means of a prophet–a revelatory medium which allowed Him to take the initiative. This may be seen as an important turning point in David’s developing sense of his own role in the theocratic arrangement. Every indication is that after this incident, David’s personal communication with King Yahweh was through a prophet, and not through the UT.[51] In many circumstances in which David would have been much advantaged by appeal to the UT, there seems to be no impulse on his part to do that.[52]


In fact, the narrative is clear that the UT did disappear at the same time that the court prophets began to dominate the religious life of the covenant nation. But Israel did not simply choose one means of divine revelation over another; rather, by reason of neglect and wicked disinterest first of all in David’s life, it became expedient for Yahweh to employ a means of revelation which would work even in the face of such neglect or disinterest.


To make the same point from another perspective, God did not raise up prophecy in order to make the UT expendable.[53] That would be contrary to the genius of the prophetic office: the UT was part of the original Levitical economy (Exod 28:30; Deut 33:8). The prophets raised up by Yahweh to offer spiritual direction and correction to the kings of Israel would never have conceived of themselves as displacing or replacing any element of the Mosaic law; indeed, it was their unstinting focus to call Israel to faithfulness to that economy. In fact, God had worked through prophetic spokesmen since the beginning of fallen history (Luke 11:50–51; Jude 14).


In sum, the UT was the means by which the divinely appointed human leader of the theocracy might take the initiative and consult King Yahweh. That was a blessed provision, but it did demand that the human leader take the initiative. On that count, the UT was liable to neglect. As blessed as the UT was, it could be ignored if the human mediator of Yahweh’s rule was disinterested in a word from Him. The suggestion of the biblical narrative is that it was ignored by David, and for that reason it became necessary for God to seize the initiative; thus, prophets had completely displaced the UT by the end of David’s life. The demise of the Urim was not a matter of divine intent, but of human neglect.


Conclusion: The Urim and Thummim as a Microcosm of the Theocracy

As part of the original design of the theocratic arrangement—the blessed rule of Yahweh as King over His covenant people—He provided the Urim and Thummim as a means by which the human mediator of His rule might confidently and directly consult Him in any moment of national crisis or confusion. When employed, the Urim and Thummim functioned as a palpable and unmistakable reminder of the dynamics which King Yahweh expected to obtain in the theocracy. Indeed, there was perhaps no moment in the day-to-day life of Israel when the genius and structure of the theocratic arrangement was so graphically manifested as when inquiry was made via the Urim and Thummim. In that moment, the relationships crystallized almost visibly. The human king had to acknowledge that he was but the finite mediator of the rule of Yahweh; the priest gave tacit testimony that he was only the human instrument through whom King Yahweh communicated his mind to the nation; the people were brought face to face with their ultimate dependence upon their divine Ruler; and Yahweh God functioned immediately and powerfully as the sovereign King of His chosen nation, Israel. Thus does the design and use of that remarkable oracular device stand as an instructive distillation and demonstration of the dynamics and the function of that theocratic arrangement—a window into the biblical concept of the kingdom of God which obtained on earth from Moses to Ezekiel, a microcosm of the theocracy.



[1] G. F. Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. George E. Day (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1889), 199, who credits Josephus with inventing the term “theocracy,” defines it briefly as “the government of God,” and characterizes the concept as “the form of government in the commonwealth founded by Moses.”

[2] In most cases in this essay singular verbs and pronouns are used in connection with the Urim and Thummim when the reference is to the oracle itself. This is awkward given the form and the number of the terms (הָאוּרִים֙ וְהַתֻּמִּ֔ים—two plural nouns with a וְ). The rationale for that usage will be developed in the course of the essay.

[3] Henry Dosker, “Historical and Critical Notes: The Urim and Thummim,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 3 (October 1892): 717.

[4] George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 3 vols. (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1884; reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1972), 1:216 [emphasis original]. Cf. J. H. Kurtz, Manual of Sacred History, trans. Charles H. Schaeffer (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1855), 113, who states, “Theocracy is a government of the State by the immediate direction of God; Jehovah condescended to reign over Israel in the same direct manner in which an earthly king reigns over his people.”

[5] G. R. Gleig, The History of the Bible, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857), 1:218.

[6] Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1889), 200 [emphasis original]. Cf. Josephus Antiquities of the Jews (trans. Wm. Whiston) 4.8.41, who speaks of God as the “supreme commander” in Israel’s battles, “ordaining for a lieutenant under him, one that is of the greatest courage.”

[7] The character of the theocracy in Israel is not universally recognized as distinct. For instance, Roland de Vaux, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, trans. Damian McHugh (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1971), 154, describes that governing arrangement in some detail (which he takes as the tradition preserved by the “Deuteronomist editor”), but then insists that “there is nothing in all this which really sets Israel apart from her neighbors in the Ancient East.” He then surveys various contemporary cultures (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Babylon) in which the kings represented themselves as serving on behalf of their gods. The issue at this point, however, becomes presuppositional, and as such goes beyond the scope of this study. It will suffice to say that to the degree that one acknowledges the supernatural character of Israel’s religion and of the Old Testament record, he has the capacity to recognize and acknowledge the absolute qualitative distinction between the actual theocracy administered by the living God of Israel and the politically motivated and deliberately manipulative claims of pagan monarchs to rule in the name of their gods.

[8] Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, 199. The term is sometimes used too broadly, as for any situation in which God rules. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 217, insists that “the word is abundantly perverted; Romanists apply it to their church; Protestants, to the Christian Church; Unbelievers, to priestly rule; writers, to Christian states, … thus violating the fundamental and essential idea involved in its meaning.” He then affirms, “The Theocracy is something then very different from the Divine Sovereignty, and must not be confounded with the same” [emphasis his].

[9] Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 1:217, [emphasis original].

[10] Charles Augustus Briggs, Messianic Prophecy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889), 102.

[11] Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 1:217 [emphasis original].

[12] Tracing the narrative: immediately after the covenant was ratified at Mt. Sinai (Exod 24:3–8), the newly accepted King Yahweh called Moses to the mountain and instructed him as to how His Throneroom (i.e., the Tabernacle) was to be constructed. Once the people completed that work, the Glory-Cloud (i.e., the brilliant physical manifestation of the royal presence of King Yahweh) lifted up off of the mountain and took up His (better than “its”) residence on the throne (i.e., the Ark of the Covenant) in the Holy of Holies (Ex 40:33b–38). That scene is in fact the official enthronement of King Yahweh.

[13] Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, 199, corrects those who regard the theocracy as antedating Mt. Sinai: “The patriarchs called Him Lord and Shepherd, and it is not until He has formed a people for Himself by bringing Israel up out of Egypt that He is called, Ex. xv. 18, ‘He who is King for ever and ever.’ But the real beginning of His kingly rule was on that day on which He bound the tribes of Israel into a community by the promulgation of the law and the forming of a legal covenant: ‘Then He became King in Jeshurun,’ Deut. xxxiii.5” [emphasis original].

[14] George Bush, Exodus, 2 vols. in one, (New York: Newman & Ivison, 1852; reprint, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1981), 2:3 [emphasis original]. See also his discussion of the appropriateness of the tabernacle prominently placed in the center of the nation, “where the pavilions of all kings and chiefs were usually erected” (2:6). Cf. Num 23:21; Isa 41:21; 43:15; 44:6; Ps 44:4[5]; 68:24[25].

[15] Charles H. Dyer, “Ezekiel,” Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1242. Ezekiel 8–11 constitute a single vision, and the date of the vision is given in 8:1. For a reaction to critical discussions of the date, see Hobart E. Freeman, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), 299–302.

[16] Ezekiel traces the reluctant departure of the Glory-Cloud (9:3; 10:18–19; 11; 22–23), thus signaling not the termination or final abandonment of God’s physical, mundane rule on earth, but the suspension of that rule until the day when Messiah Jesus sits on David’s throne in Jerusalem. Cf. the explicit promise of coming restoration of the kingdom in the moments just before the Cloud ascends to heaven (Ezek 11:17–20), as well as the apostles’ question concerning the timing of that coming restoration which was asked immediately before Jesus’ ascension and which was answered by Jesus without any hint of question concerning the validity of their concept of a coming restoration of a physical kingdom of God on earth.

[17] Charles Lee Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 61.

[18] It is the persuasion of this researcher that the book of Esther is intended to teach Israel how Yahweh would administer His rule in the days following the dissolution of the theocracy proper: via providential oversight rather than direct supernatural intervention. Thus, after the departure of the Glory-Cloud, God continues to send prophets according to His will, but there are no miraculous interventions on the part of the nation (compare the deliverance from Egypt with the return from Babylon) and God is not available for oracular consultation.

[19] Samuel J. Andrews, God’s Revelations of Himself to Men (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1886), 112–13. Andrews goes on to acknowledge this; he states that after the event seen in vision by Ezekiel, “[God] Himself was no more reigning at Jerusalem; the Visible Glory no more dwelt between the cherubim; the Ark was not in the Most Holy Place; the holy fire no longer burned upon the brazen altar; there was no response by Urim and Thummim.”

[20] Cf. McClain, Greatness of the Kingdom (Chicago: Moody Press, 1959), 126, who says that “the Mediatorial Kingdom of Israel was officially terminated by the departure of the Shekinah-Glory.” He relates this to Jeremiah’s pronouncement of doom upon the Solomonic line in Jer 22:29–30. “Since the kingdom of the Old Testament was finished, in the mind of the prophet there could be no king in Jerusalem until the kingdom would be re-established in Millennial glory.”

[21] The author wrote his PhD dissertation on the UT at Dallas Theological Seminary with Dr. Eugene Merrill as his first reader (The Urim and Thummim in Relation to the Old Testament Theocracy, August 2001, unpublished). These paragraphs were written to summarize the conclusions of that study. Many of those conclusions involved issues much debated. The reasoning and arguments supporting the conclusions summarized here can only be occasionally and briefly defended by means of footnotes in this essay; the reader is welcome to consult the dissertation to ponder any of those arguments and assess the validity of the conclusions. Specific issues that are most strongly and seminally debated include: 1) Was the UT a binary lot, and thus identical to the “sacred lot”? 2) the specific identity of the UT (i.e., the 12 stones—??). 3) the LXX reading of 1 Sam 14:41—if legitimate, proves the UT was in fact one with the sacred lot. 4) When and why did the UT cease to be used?

[22] Cyclopædia of Biblical Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, ed. John M’Clintock and James Strong (1881, n. p., reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), s.v. “Urim and Thummim,” which states that “Hebrew scholars, with hardly an exception” have seen in Urim “the plural of אוּר (ûr, light or fire),” and then speaks of “a consensus as to the derivation [of Thummim] from תֹּם (tôm, perfection, completeness).”

[23] I.e., the expression of a single idea by two words connected with “and,” e.g., nice and warm for nicely warm.

[24] M. Kalisch, Commentary on the Old Testament: Exodus (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855), 544 states that the two nouns are best “taken as one notion: ‘the perfectly shining gems,’ so that both words form a Hendiadys.” He finds evidence of this in the fact that Urim is twice used alone for the oracle (Num 27:21; 1 Sam 28:6), indicating that there was only one entity involved. Further, he suggests that where the order is reversed (Deut 33:8), the purpose is to emphasize the perfection (“the shining perfections”) rather than the light (“the perfectly shining”). Some have objected to reading the phrase as hendiadys because “in the two key verses, Exod 28:30 and Lev 8:8, both the article and sign of the direct object (eeth) are used with both names as if they did refer to two separate items” (Leon Wood, “Urim and Thummim,” Theolog (Winter 1964): 26). But two articular nouns each with the sign of the direct object are read as a hendiadys in other places. For example, Jeremiah was told to compose a second scroll after the king burned “the roll and the words,” or “the roll that contained the words.” Further, In Exod 28:30 the UT is “reduced to a single denominator of mišpt = oracle (oracular means): ‘So shall Aaron bear the oracle (mišpt) of the Israelites upon his heart constantly before the Lord,’ indicating that the two nouns refer to one item” (C. Houtman, “The Urim and Thummim: A New Suggestion,” VT 40 [1990] 230).

[25] A.R.S. Kennedy, “Urim and Thummim,” in Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1902: “The words are to be understood as intensive plurals, and rendered, on this hypothesis, ‘Light and Perfection (or Innocence),’ rather than … ‘the Lights and the Perfections.’”

[26] Anne Marie Kitz, “The Plural Form of Urîm and Thummîm,” JBL 11/63 (1997): 401–2. Although she rejects reading the plurals as intensive, she acknowledges that to regard the plurals as pluralis intensivus “provides the required complementary pairing of terms that automatically supports the definition of hendiadys.”

[27] The strongest argument: after the 12 stones are described in detail, Moses is told to put “the Urim and Thummim” into the חשן/breastpiece. The UT has not been heard of before unless that oracle is one with the stones just described. Further, the title “brilliant perfection” is apt characterization of the gems just described.

[28] David Baron, The Ancient Scriptures and the Modern Jew (London: Morgan & Scott, 1901), 283, says, “There was no need of instruction by the Urim and Thummim all the days of Moses, with whom the Lord spoke in an audible voice, out of the Most Holy. This oracle, therefore, was intended for the future after the death of Moses.” Compare Exod 33:7–11, which records the time when, after the sin of the nation at Mt. Sinai, God moved into a tent which Moses pitched outside the camp, where he “used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to a friend” (33:11).

[29] Num 27:18–21. “A portion of Moses’ authority was to be bestowed … The מִן (of) in v. 20 is partitive, as in Gen. 4:4, etc. The eminence and authority of Moses were not to be entirely transferred to Joshua, for they were bound up with his own person alone (cf. Num. 12:6–8), but only so much of it as he needed for the discharge of the duties of his office. Joshua was to be neither the lawgiver nor the absolute governor of Israel, but to be placed under the judgment of the Urim, with which Eleazar was entrusted, so far as the supreme decision of the affairs of Israel was concerned.” Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 800. Cf. R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, vol. 3B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 469: “A portion of Moses’ authority was to be bestowed immediately so that the transition would be smooth, and the obedient consent of the people would be harmonious. Unlike Moses, who enjoyed direct access to Yahweh in seeking his will, Joshua’s authority was complemented by Eleazar, who would assist in decision making by inquiring of the Lord via the Urim.”

[30] See below for explanation as to how such uses may be confidently inferred in various narratives.

[31] Exod 28:30—abruptly mentioned as to be inserted into the priestly vestments; Lev 8:7–8—at his inauguration as High Priest, Aaron is outfitted with the UT; Num 27:21—Joshua succeeds Moses but with lesser dignity as he shares authority with the high priest who can utilize the UT to consult with King Yahweh; Deut 33:8—Moses confers upon the tribe of Levi “Your (i.e., Yahweh’s) Thummim and Your Urim” (here the two terms are reversed), emphasizing that the oracle is a gift of God; 1 Sam 28:6—the Lord would not answer King Saul “either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets” (Urim used alone here for the oracle); Ezra 2:63 and Neh 7:65—twice the leaders of the Restoration community despaired of making a difficult decision until “a priest could consult with the Urim and Thummim,” indicating that by the period of the Restoration the UT was gone but not forgotten.

[32] There are two criteria which are virtually universally acknowledged as a legitimate basis for inferring the use of the UT in passages where it is not explicitly mentioned: (1) the verb שָׁאַל with the preposition בְּ and the name of God (either אלֹהִ֑ים or יְהוָ֑ה), and no other means of revelation specifically mentioned in the passage (cf. Cornelis Van Dam, “Urim and Thummim,” ISBE, 1982, 4:957); and/or (2) the presence of the ephod, and usually the high priest, in a narrative clearly involving inquiry. Cf. W. Muss-Arnolt, “The Urim and Thummim,” in AJSL 16 (1900):198, who states that the Urim and Thummim “are implied, also, wherever in the earlier history of Israel mention is made of asking counsel of the Lord (= Yahweh) by means of the ephod”).

[33] In the dissertation, 9 passages are identified as involving the UT on the basis of the criteria above: Judg 1:1, 2; Judg 20:18, 23, 26–28; 1 Sam 10:22; 1 Sam 14:18, 19; 1 Sam 14:36, 37; 1 Sam 23:2, 4, 9–12; 1 Sam 30:7, 8; 2 Sam 2:1; 2 Sam 5:19, 23. Each is mined specifically for what may be gleaned about the UT from its use in the historical narrative at stake.

[34] The specific issue at stake: was the UT a binary lot (i.e., one with the sacred lot) or was it a distinctively sophisticate oracle, capable of communicating revelation via specific and sometimes extended propositional statements? The conclusion drawn: in every single case where the UT is part of a biblical narrative, there is some explicit element of the drama which, if the narrative is regarded as historically factual even with regard to details, makes it impossible to conclude that a physically manipulated binary lot (i.e., the sacred lot) could have provided the answer recorded in the narrative.

[35] That this was so was universally conceived until the seminal work by Cornelis Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel, Eisenbrauns, 1997.

[36] A textual variant in 1 Samuel 14:41 is pivotally important to this issue: if the expansive LXX reading of the passage is accepted, the question is settled that the UT was simply a binary lot—contra extensive evidence to the contrary. Twenty-seven pages were given to this specific issue in the dissertation. The conclusion: the Septuagintal text of that verse should be taken as a scribal addition, and the inference which that expanded text world force—that the UT was only a binary lot—should be rejected. Cf. Keil, Samuel, 124, who rejects the LXX expansion precisely because the lot-casting verbs in 14:38–42 are never used of the Urim, and because passages in which the oracle yielded more than a binary response “show most unmistakably that the divine oracle of the Urim and Thummim did not consist merely in a sacred lot.”

[37] Cf. Strong who, on the basis of these considerations, states, “it was necessary that in some way this guidance should be made definite and objective” (James Strong, The Tabernacle of Israel: Its Structure and Symbolism (Providence, RI: Harris, Jones, 1888; reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1987), 111.

[38] The evidence: in the course of the theocracy there was rampant corruption and manipulation by wicked leaders, both kings and priests, and every sort of deceitful strategy was used to counterfeit God’s word to the people. But the UT is never employed in any such a ploy (Hengstenberg, History of the Kingdom of God under the Old Testament [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1871] 365: “In all history there is no instance of an attempt to make it subservient to self-interest and priestly assumption.”). Further, nowhere in the OT is the priestly family warned against employing the oracle for self-serving purposes or against falsifying the message communicated via the oracle, and nowhere is the nation cautioned to test the integrity of a message communicated via the Urim and Thummim. Finally, there is no recorded impulse to reject or question the message communicated via the Urim, even in circumstances which might reasonably produce such skepticism. The necessary inference: there must have been something about the giving of revelation via the UT which was essentially non-counterfeitable. In addition, that such a supernatural authenticating sign was involved in consulting via the UT is the universal remembrance of Jewish sage (usually, some sort of preternatural light). And finally, one very standard and necessary element of God’s revelation to men is some sort of vindicating non-counterfeitable sign (Exod 4:1–5; Ac 2:22; Heb 2:3–4). Cf. Cornelis Van Dam, ISBE, 4:958, who acknowledges that the only way to make sense of the biblical record is to assume that answers communicated by the Urim “must have been authenticated in some way.”

[39] This is the significance of the instruction in Num 27:17–21, the leader of the theocracy shall inquire before the Lord” (לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה). That qualifying phrase is taken by some to mean inquiry could only happen at the tabernacle/temple (Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, AB, 508: “The text clearly indicates that … the high priest may only use the Urim and Thummim lipnê-Yahweh, ‘before the Lord’, in other words, inside the shrine”), but this is clearly mistaken. First, the phrase is often used of the spirit demanded in those involved in events which do not take place in the vicinity of the tabernacle (Gen 10:9; 18:22; 27:7; Exod 6:12, 30; 2 Chron 27:6; 31:20; Jer 36:7; et al.). Second, in most of the cases where the UT can be inferred as entering the OT narrative, the event does not happen in the vicinity of the tabernacle. In short, the demand that the inquiry be done “before the Lord” speaks not to location but to attitude.

[40] Cf. Bush, Exodus, 162. He describes the oracle as “essentially connected with the theocratic government of the Hebrews.” There are strong indications that the UT was used frequently during the decades before it was wickedly abandoned by the leadership of the nation (see below). For instance, when accosted for inquiring on behalf of David as he fled from Saul, Ahimelech responds, “Did I begin (הַחִלֹּ֛תִי, “Beginning ללַהָ, first [in a series], Donald J. Wiseman, TWOT, s.v., 661) to inquire of God for him today?”, and then answers his own question with, “Far be it from me.” The necessary implication: it was common for David to so consult during the days of King Saul (David having received the enabling “theocratic anointing” of the Holy Spirit, 1 Sam 16:13).

[41] Perhaps the most stunning instance of the UT’s role in directing Israel in warfare is Judg 20. The leaders of the 11-tribe coalition making war against Benjamin are given battle instructions by Yahweh via the UT (20:18), but when they follow that instruction they are roundly defeated (20:21). But they inquired again (20:23), obeyed once again, and were defeated once again (20:25). And then the people wept, inquired a third time, and God gave them the victory. The remarkable feature of this narrative is the unshakeable persuasion, undiminished by the fact that they had followed the counsel of the UT and suffered two awful defeats which cost 40,000 lives, that Yahweh was speaking through the UT.

[42] The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Henry Snyder Gehman (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), s.v. “Urim and Thummim,” states that the Urim “was not adopted for inquiring the divine will concerning private individuals or private matters, but was employed only in behalf of the nation; hence the required place for the Urim and Thummim was in the breastpiece of judgment, which bore the names of the 12 tribes of Israel on 12 precious stones.”

[43] E. W. Hengstenberg, History of the Kingdom of God under the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1871), 1:364. insists, “All cases which appear in the history show that it was customary to consult the Urim and Thummim only when there was no other resource, where ordinary knowledge did not suffice; not in questions of faith and justice, when they were referred to ‘the law and the testimony.’”

[44] There is much confusion in this regard, almost entirely because of the mistaken identity of the UT with the “sacred lot” which was used again and again to determine judicial guilt or innocence. This researcher was able to find only one student of the Urim who does not make legal adjudication a primary element of the divinely intended function of the oracle. J. Muehleisen Arnold, “Priest,” in Fairbairn’s Imperial Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 6 vols. (1891; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 5:298, states that there is not on record “one example in which the Urim and Thummim were exercised to decide a case of jurisprudence.”

[45] Mendelsohn defines the Urim and Thummim as “oracular media by which the will of God in relation to particular problems was ascertained,” and acknowledges that in the nature of the case “the initiator in this process was man” (Isaac Mendelsohn, “Urim and Thummim,” in IDB, 4:739). Indeed, there is no legislation which designates a specific time or season when the human mediator of theocratic rule was obligated to consult with Yahweh. The oracle was provided as means by which the human mediator might, as he sensed the need and had a mind to do so, appeal directly to Yahweh.

[46] This reality—that by the nature of the case the human mediator of Yahweh’s rule had to take the initiative in inquiry by the UT—is the more cogent during the monarchy. Earlier in the theocracy King Yahweh “hand-picked” the man who would mediate His rule (Moses, Joshua, the Judges); now men would step into that role simply because of royal succession. The probability that entirely ignoble and apostate individuals would occupy the role of vice-regent under King Yahweh made it the more expedient that Yahweh provide a means by which He could forcibly and unremittingly confront those wicked viceroys. Thus the dominant and dramatic role played by “court prophets” throughout the monarchy.

[47] That is, there is no passage in which Yahweh rescinds the instruction of Num 27:17–21 concerning the role intended for that oracle in the theocratic governing arrangement; there is no moment when a prophetic spokesman announces the rejection of the oracle or warns against its use; and there is no discussion or intimation of the superior merits of the prophetic office, and thus of the greater wisdom of appeal to the prophet rather than to the Urim. To that degree, the record is silent concerning the demise of the UT.

[48] 1 Sam 22:10, 13—regarding the slaughter at Nob; 1 Sam 23:2, 4, 9–12—3 times as to whether Keilah would give him up to Saul; 1 Sam 30: 7, 8—whether to pursue the Amalekites who had sacked Ziklag.

[49] 2 Sam 2:1—where to establish his capital in Judah; 2 Sam 5:19, 23–24—regarding the attack of the Philistines in the Valley or Rephaim—this being the last unmistakable reference to the UT in the life of David.

[50] E.g., regarding the Ammonite Wars (2 Sam 10:1–19), and after a 3-year famine (2 Sam 21:1–14).

[51] E.g., Yahweh “sent word through Nathan the prophet” as to the name of David’s second son by Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:25).

[52] Especially the rebellion of Absalom (2 Sam 15–18). Specifically, David sent Abiathar and Zadok back to Jerusalem to relay to him secret information concerning the plans of Absalom, thus providing David with a very important strategic advantage, but this is what the UT had done for David in earlier years (1 Sam 23:1–12). Again, David was concerned because Absalom was helped by the counsel of Ahithophel (2 Sam 16:23), whereas in earlier years he had the immediate and certain counsel of King Yahweh available via the UT.

[53] This is the explanation most often offered for the demise of the UT. For instance, Mendelsohn suggests that “the rise of prophecy, the new medium through which the word of God was communicated to the people and the kings, made the use of the Urim and Thummim unnecessary” (I. Mendelsohn, “Urim and Thummim,” in IDB, 4:740).

Dr. Doug Bookman is Professor of Old/New Testament and Bible Exposition at Shepherds Theological Seminary. Throughout the years, he has taught at various colleges and seminaries, and has served as pastor and interim pastor at local churches. Much of his ministry in the last decade has focused on both Israel and the life of Christ. He enjoys leading numerous study trips to Israel, which includes an annual trip specifically designed for the STS students.

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