Urim and Thummim

The Urim and Thummim were placed in the breastpiece of the high priest [1]. They were used in the casting of lots [2] and were only to be consulted by priests [3]. 1 Sam. 14:43 describes their operation as happilu, “thrown down”. The meaning of the terms and the nature of the objects are debated among scholars.

J. E. Hartley notes that the LXX and Vulgate translate Urim and Thummim as “teaching and truth” [4]. But he follows b. Yoma 37b in thinking the most likely translation is “lights” and “perfections”, respectively. He follows Snaith in speculating that the surface of each lot had a different color and could thus yield three combinations: two of the first color, two of the second color, or one of each color [5].

B. A. Levine thinks the word Thummim derives from a root meaning “to be complete, innocent” [6]. Logically, he says, the word Urim should mean the opposite of Thummim. On this basis it has been suggested that it derives from the root arar, “to curse” [7]. This interpretation is supported by 1 Sam. 14:41. In this passage, Saul asks God who the guilty party is that disobeyed his commands. He asks God to respond with Urim if he or his son Jonathan is guilty and to respond with Thummim if the people of Israel are guilty. From Saul’s perspective, the Thummim would declare his son’s innocence while the Urim would declare his guilt. Levine thinks the Urim and Thummim may have been fairly flat stones, similar to the puru used in Mesopotamia [8]. Such objects have been recovered in archaeological digs [9].

J. Milgrom thinks the phrase “inquire of the Lord” in certain passages refers to the use of the Urim and Thummim even when they are not mentioned by name. He notes that they appear to be able to answer more than just yes-or-no questions. They can select a tribe [10], select a city [11], indicate the hiding place of Saul [12], and give a military stratagem [13].


[1] Ex. 28:30; Lev. 8:8

[2] Num. 27:21; 1 Sam. 14:41; 28:6

[3] Deut. 33:8; Ezra 2:63; Neh. 7:65

[4] Hartley 1992, p. 112

[5] Hartley 1992, p. 112

[6] Levine 1989, p. 51

[7] Levine 1989, p. 51

[8] Levine 1989, p. 51

[9] Levine 1989, p. 51

[10] Judg. 1:1-2; 18:20

[11] 2 Sam. 2:1

[12] 1 Sam. 10:22

[13] 2 Sam. 5:23-24


Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992: 111-112.

Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989: 50-51.

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16. New York: Doubleday, 1991: 507-511.

Rooker, Mark, and Dennis R. Cole. Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Holman Reference, 2000: loc. 4123ff.

Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979: loc. 1843ff.


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