WHAT WERE “URIM” AND “THUMMIM?”
by Shawn Brasseaux
What were “Urim” and “Thummim” and what was their purpose? It is a most excellent question that engages us to delve into a fascinating Bible study here. We will see what God’s Word says about these enigmatic objects.
The King James Bible uses the terms—“the Urim and the Thummim” (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8), “Urim” (Numbers 27:21; 1 Samuel 28:6), “thy Thummim and thy Urim” (Deuteronomy 33:8), and “Urim and Thummim” (Ezra 2:63 = Nehemiah 7:65). As you will notice, these objects are usually spoken of as a pair in Scripture. “Urim” (pronounced “yoo-riym”) is Hebrew for “lights” and “Thummim” (pronounced “too-miym”) means “perfections.” (We introduce these meanings now, but they will not make sense until later, so we forgo any further comments for now.)
First, “Urim and Thummim” played a very important role in the religious and political life of the nation Israel. In the latter half of the book of Exodus, God instructed Moses regarding the construction and operation of the Tabernacle, His dwelling-place among them. In the 28th chapter, JEHOVAH God specified as to how Israel’s priests were to be ordained and clothed when ministering to Him in His Tabernacle. In verse 30, we read: “And thou shalt 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.” When Moses installed Aaron his brother as Israel’s first high priest, Moses “put the breastplate upon [Aaron]: also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim” (Leviticus 8:8).
Numbers 27:21 reveals the purpose of “Urim:” “And [Joshua] shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of Urim before the LORD: at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation.” “Urim” was the method whereby the LORD’S will was sought and discerned (the name of such a device in pagan circles was an “oracle”). We read in 1 Samuel 28:6 how wicked and unbelieving King Saul attempted to contact the LORD by using “Urim,” and various means, to no avail: “And when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.” While not specified in 1 Samuel 14:36-42, Urim and/or Thummim may be implied when the Bible says, “Saul asked counsel of God…. Therefore Saul said unto the LORD God of Israel, Give a perfect lot…. And Saul said, Cast lots between me and Jonathan my son….”
David, when he used the ephod (priest’s clothing), asked for God’s will to be revealed to him regarding Saul, and David learned what God wanted him to know and do (1 Samuel 23:9-12; 1 Samuel 30:7-8).
Just before Moses died, he blessed the 12 tribes of Israel. He said of Levi, the priestly tribe, “Let thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one, whom thou didst prove at Massah, and with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah;” (Deuteronomy 33:8). “Thummim” and “Urim” were critical to the service of the priests, the leaders of Israel; hence, Moses affirmed they were to always be with Levi’s (priestly) descendants.
Post-Babylonian exile (circa 536 B.C.), when there was some confusion about the sons of a priest eating the most holy things, Ezra 2:63 says (cf. Nehemiah 7:65): “And the Tirshatha [Governor] said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim.” Again, “Urim and Thummim” were used to discern God’s will (if them eating the holy things was acceptable to God).
What we know of “Urim” and “Thummim” as far as Scripture is concerned is that they were instruments utilized to discover God’s will, especially in regards to seeking the wellbeing of Israel (guided by her priesthood and her kings). “Urim” and “Thummim” were used in the same manner that the apostles “cast lots” to discern Matthias as God’s replacement for Judas (Acts 1:24-26; cf. Proverbs 16:33). As an interesting little side-note, we repeat that “Urim” (pronounced “yoo-riym”) is Hebrew for “lights” and “Thummim” (pronounced “too-miym”) means “perfections.” Considering their names, the ancient Jews would use these objects to provide additional spiritual light, a more complete (“perfect”) understanding of God’s will, than they would not have had otherwise.
What “Urim” and “Thummim” were exactly and how were they used, we cannot be absolutely sure. Still, there are verses that lead me to conclude that “Urim” and “Thummim” were precious stones. According to the Bible, there were two onyx stones placed on the shoulders of the high priest’s ephod (Exodus 28:9-12)—one stone engraved with the names of six of the tribes of Israel, the other engraved with the names of the other six tribes. Additionally, each tribe was to have its own precious stone on the high priest’s breastplate (verses 15-21). When the priests’ clothes were actually made in Exodus chapter 39, “Urim” and “Thummim” are not mentioned by name. What are mentioned are the two onyx stones and 12 various precious stones (verses 6-14). Hence, it is highly likely that some of these stones (or maybe similar precious stones) were what the Holy Spirit meant when He utilized the terms “Urim” and “Thummim” (notice they are plural nouns).
How does understanding this topic impact us? God revealed His will by various means in time past: because there was an incomplete divine revelation, there was always more to learn from God. There were angelic visitations, visions, dreams, miracles, prophets, lots, and so on, to provide further instruction into the mind and will of God. Hebrews 1:1-2 comments: “ God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,  Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;” Now, we do not need angels, visions, dreams, miraculous demonstrations, circumstances, prayer closets, or even Urim and Thummim to know what God wants us to know or do. We have a completed Bible, a complete revelation from Almighty God (1 Corinthians 13:8-13; Ephesians 1:9-11). Will we read it? Or, most importantly, will we believe it?
2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”