Thursday, December 1, 2011

Israel’s Ouija Board? (Leviticus 8:8)

Who wore the Urim and Thummin? The high priest (Leviticus 8:8)

Among the description of the high priest’s vestments are esoteric items called the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:27; Deuteronomy 33:8; I Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65). Stored in the high priest’s breastplate, these two items, presumably stones, were a means of revelation in ancient Israel that could be labeled divination or more specifically, cleromancy.

You shall put in the breastpiece of judgment the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be over Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD; and Aaron shall carry the judgment of the sons of Israel over his heart before the LORD continually. (Exodus 28:30 NASB)
In all major translations, even paraphrases like The Message, Urim and Thummim are left untranslated. They were unique items with no exact modern equivalent. Little is said of the Urim and Thummim and no description is provided. This indicates that either its properties were assumed or unknown even by the Biblical writers. Peter Enns (b. 1961) surmises that “the Urim and Thummim must have predated Moses. The people must have known what they were and how they were to be used, since they simply appear...without any explanation (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 531).”

Though their etymology is uncertain, based upon their consonantal roots, Urim and Thummim have traditionally been understood as lights and perfections. In cases of guilt or innocence, Urim would represent guilt and Thummim innocense. Though they represent two separate words, they have a singular distinct meaning as one’s meaning is attached to the other, like a yin-yang. A yin can only be a yin if there is an equivalent yang.

It has been speculated that the Urim and Thummim were a divinely authorized game of chance which utilized a binary system. The phenomena would equate to a divinely endorsed coin flip. It would also function much like a Magic 8 Ball with the priest formulating questions whose answers would be limited to a scripted number of responses. An incident in which Jonathan is exposed for violating his father’s foolish oath is seen as a case study of the Urim and Thummim (I Samuel 14:40-42). Though the Urim and Thummim are not mentioned by name in the text, a binary system using stones was implemented to reduce suspects.

An alternate theory from Talmudic rabbis and corroborated by Josephus (37-100) follows the belief that Urim meant lights. This theory espouses that rays of light reflected off jewels on the breastplate, each corresponding to different letters. The sequence would spell out an answer like a modern-day Ouija board.

Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) summarizes, “We have no indication from biblical material that allows us to sort among these options and understand what the Urim and Thummim looked like and how they were employed physically. What we do know is that God sometimes chose to reveal his will in this manner rather than speaking directly to the people (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 612).”

How do you determine God’s will when you do not know it? What is the modern equivalent of the Urim and Thummim? Have you ever used a game of chance to make a decision? What are the limitations of such a system?

Any binary system limits God’s options to those inputted by a human. A human’s options could all be inappropriate - “Should I murder person A or person B?” The system is only as good as the person inputting questions which may be why only the high priest was equipped with the objects.

Despite being an officially licensed product for determining God’s will, the Urim and Thummim are seldom mentioned in the Bible. Though they are referenced seven times (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:27; Deuteronomy 33:8; I Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65), there is no explicit Biblical instance where the Urim and Thummim were used to determine God’s will. They are like the bat repellant in Batman’s utility belt - it is at his disposal but it is almost never used. It appears functionally, the Urim and Thummim were ornamental in nature.

Why do you think the Urim and Thummim were used so infrequently? Were they perceived as a last alternative resort, an act of desperation?

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