The lost meaning of ‘urim and thummim’: mysterious oracle of the Old Testament
The lost meaning of ‘urim and thummim’: mysterious oracle of the Old Testament

The lost meaning of ‘urim and thummim’: mysterious oracle of the Old Testament

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The lost meaning of ‘urim and Thummim’: mysterious oracle of the Old Testament
Geoff Ward
Geoff Ward


27 min read
Sep 3, 2018


From ancient astronauts to priestly divinatory practices and the Holy Grail — many theories try to explain the origin of these puzzling relics of the Israelites

Nobody knows exactly what the Ancient Hebrew urim and thummim were — the Bible does not tell us — or how they were used, or even if they were one or more objects.

Throughout history, there have been many theories about these mysterious, apparently material, items connected with the breastplate, or ephod, worn exclusively by Israelite high priests. They seem to have been stones, or a stone, used as a kind of divine oracle associated with divination and, perhaps in particular, cleromancy, the casting of lots; most scholars believe the urim and thummim (UT henceforth, excluding quotations) to have been objects associated with such divination, to the effect that academic discussion about them has largely ceased.

However, speculation in the wider sphere, both fascinating and fanciful, about these puzzling relics of ancient Israelite religious life, these fabulous ‘seer stones’, has continued. It includes their provenance in Ancient Egypt, and that they were the origin of the Holy Grail legends; they have been linked with ‘ancient astronauts’ and theories of advanced technologies existing in the far distant past; their lore has been espoused by the Mormon Church whose founder and prophet Joseph Smith is said to have consulted them; and there have even been people in recent times who claimed to possess them.

These are all issues we encounter in the strange story of the UT, along with the work of the Dutch author Cornelis Van Dam whose 1997 book on the UT was the first exhaustive study for more than 170 years, and remains the key scholarly text in the field.

We start, then, with the high priest’s ephod which was made of linen, and distinguished him from ordinary priests and lower clerics. It was tied round the neck with golden chains, covered the whole chest, and was decorated with 12 shiny gem-stones, set in gold, and bearing the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. Evidently, the UT were quite separate from these 12 stones and were kept in a square inside pocket or pouch of the ephod, so that the high priest could wear them against his chest whenever he entered the temple.

Classical texts maintain they were two sacred stones of onyx used to give an affirmative or negative response to an ‘inquiry of God’ — perhaps by means of reflected or absorbed light from a candle — and somehow related to the set of 12 coloured stones. Onyx is a form of quartz which is known for its piezo-electric properties — electric potential develops in the mineral under mechanical stress — which could account for perceived ‘charged’, vibrational or glowing properties. Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe, in their Mysteries of the Bible, speculate that the stones changed colour to reveal their messages, ‘bright and clear when all was well, cloudy or dull when there was a negative response to the question’ (Fanthorpe, 1999, p. 107).

In a lecture given in Milan in 1911, Rudolph Steiner (1861–1925), the Austrian academic whose ideas founded the spiritual philosophy of anthroposophy, envisaged urim as a symbol for morality, and thummim, for wisdom:

If a Hebrew priest wanted to discover whether a certain action was both good and wise, he made himself receptive to the forces of urim and thummim; the result was that a certain harmony between morality and intellectuality was induced. Magical effects were produced by means of these symbols and a magical link established with the spiritual world. Our task now is to achieve in future incarnations through inner development of the soul the effect that in earlier times was produced by means of these symbols. (Buddha and Christ: The Sphere of the Bodhisattvas).

Interestingly, the Book of Exodus tells us that the 12 gemstones on the ephod, positioned in four rows of three, were as follows: first row, sard (carnelian), topaz (more likely chrysoberyl), carbuncle (garnet); second row, emerald, sapphire, diamond; third row, ligure (amber), agate, amethyst; fourth row, beryl, onyx, jasper. These stones all have natural colour-changing qualities and/or quartz in their compositions.

Etymology is uncertain but, most commonly, urim is said to derive from the Hebrew for ‘light’ or ‘to give light’, and thummim for ‘completeness’, ‘perfection’, ‘faultless’ or ‘innocence’. So we have, in the intensive plural (singular words pluralised to enhance effect), ‘lights’ and ‘perfections’, or ‘revelation’ and ‘truth’, even perhaps ‘fire’ and ‘truth’. The motto of Yale University in the USA, ‘Light and Truth’, is taken from such translations of UT. Because the Hebrew words are plural, the objects or procedure could be referred to as urim-thummim, instead of ‘the’ UT.

It has been surmised by some scholars that the objects may have had a two-fold divinatory purpose in trial ordeals, such as that urim served to bring to light the guilt of an accused person, while thummim established innocence. Indeed, if urim meant light, then thummim could mean the opposite, darkness, as the Hebrew root ‘tm’ indicates a closing up, or a concealing.
Greek translators read urim as ‘orim’ and connected it with the Torah, rendering the word as ‘doctrine’, so that, for example, according to Symmachus the Ebionite, the second century Jewish author of one of the Greek versions of the Old Testament, ‘a high priest wearing urim and thummim’ is given as ‘a high priest clothed in doctrine and truth’
(1 Esd., v40).

Another conjecture is that the terms UT represented two lots of opposite significance, the two names having been derived from the root arar, ‘ to curse’, and the other from a root meaning ‘to be without fault’. The historian of religions, Professor George Foot Moore, of Harvard University, suggests that one would thus signify ‘that a proposed action was satisfactory to God, the other that it provoked his wrath’.

Exodus first Biblical passage to mention UT

In the 28th chapter of Exodus, God tells Moses how to make the breastplate, ‘with cunning work’, along with other holy garments for Moses’ brother Aaron to wear as a priest, and how two onyx stones should be engraved with ‘the names of the children of Israel’, six of the tribes on one and six on the other, and worn on Aaron’s shoulders ‘for a memorial’. The Lord then tells Moses:

Aaron shall carry the name of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before the Lord at all times. Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord at all times. (Exodus 28:29–30).

The fact that Exodus does not explain how the UT are made, or even describes them, implies prior existence — that these things were already known and so did not need to be repeated — and that the UT actually predated Moses. Exodus is the first of the Biblical passages to mention the UT, and they are referred to on only five other occasions in the Old Testament. The chronologically earliest passage mentioning them, according to textual scholars, is in the Book of Hosea where it is implied, by reference to the ephod, that they were fundamental elements in the popular form of the Israelite religion in the eighth century BC. Consulting them was said to be allowed for determining territorial boundaries, and was said to be required, in addition to permission from the king or a prophet, if there was an intention to expand Jerusalem or the Temple there.

A reference to the UT in terms of the establishment of guilt is found in the Book of Samuel:

Therefore Saul said, ‘O Lord God of Israel, why have you not answered your servant this day? If this guilt is in me or in Jonathan my son, O Lord, God of Israel, give Urim. But if this guilt is in your people Israel, give Thummim.’ Then Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot; and the people escaped. (1 Samuel 14:41).

Apparently, the only other mention found in the Old Testament of actual consultation of Yahweh by means of the UT is at Numbers 27:21. Eleazar was then high priest, and Moses was permitted by the Lord to address him directly. But Joshua and his successors could speak to the Lord only through the mediation of the high priest and by means of the UT. No actual description of the UT is found in the Old Testament, but they are mentioned as being familiar both to Moses and to the people — an inheritance from the time of their ancestors. Whenever Moses speaks to each of the tribes of Israel he praises the house of Levy, because he has ‘received urim and thummim’, which was proof of him being in God’s favour (Deuteronomy 33:8).

The UT and their divine energy were of major significance throughout the history of Israel until they were somehow misplaced during the exodus from Israel into exile. This was felt as a deep loss and, on the Israelites’ return from exile and the reconstruction of the Temple, the question was asked if the high priest was able to carry out his service without the UT, as they were divine instruments through which revelation might be received.

They also met the most fundamental human needs, as David suggests symbolically in Psalm 43: the eternal high priest with his UT is needed to find solutions for the worries and preoccupations of people’s daily lives as well as to lead them to God’s ‘holy hill’.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the ancient, and most of the modern, explanations of these instruments, through which Yahweh communicated with his chosen people, are either stones, sacred dice, or little images of Truth and Justice, such as are found round the neck of the mummy of an Egyptian priest (W Muss-Arnolt, 1900). The ‘Tablets of Destiny’, mentioned in the Assyro-Babylonian account of Creation and elsewhere in Assyro-Babylonian conceptions, suggest another explanation of the UT.

One of the functions ascribed to the Babylonian seer was to deliver oracles and to consult the god, whose answer was either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Quite often the god sent to his people an urtu, a command to do or not to do something. UT then correspond to the Babylonian urtu and tamitu, the latter being a synonym of piristu, meaning ‘oracle, oracular decision (of the gods)’. It has been thought possible that the mythological account of the Tablets of Destiny, which rested side by side on the breast of a god or possibly a king, and the Old Testament UT, both shaping the destiny of king and nation, revert to the same source.

The oracle was consulted after the high priest had donned his garments, and the person for whom he sought an answer stood facing him. It was necessary that the question should be brief and that it should be pronounced, but not aloud, while the answer was a repetition of the query, either in the affirmative or in the negative. Only one question might be asked at a time; if more than one were put, the first alone received a reply. M L Rossvally describes how the priest would look into his breastplate, ‘and on perceiving some letters on the stone of the same glistening, he, by combining them together, obtained the answer’ (Rossvally, 1887, p. 5).

Similar modes of divination were practised, it would seem, among pre-Islamic Arabs. Prof Moore, on the testimony of Moslem writers, reports how two arrow shafts, without heads or feathers — in other words, rods — on one of which was written `command’ and on the other ‘prohibition’, or similar, were placed in a receptacle and, according to which one was drawn out; ‘it was known whether the proposed enterprise was in accordance with the will of the god and destined to succeed or not’. Parallels have also been drawn with the practice of psephomancy (divination by marked stones or pebbles drawn from a container) in Mesopotamia (Horowitz and Hurowitz).

Suggestion UT originated in Ancient Egypt

The Fanthorpes, contradicting the traditional view of scholars, suggest that the UT originated in Ancient Egypt, due to their connection with Moses who was adopted by Egyptians as a child. An Egyptian priestly judge would wear a small image personifying Aletheia, or Truth, suspended on a gold chain about his neck. It was a permanent reminder of his duties to be fair and impartial in his judgements. When Alexandrian Jews involved in the creation of the Septuagint — the Koine (common language) Greek version of the Hebrew Bible — translated thummim as Aletheia, they might have been asserting their belief that it was akin to the Truth image worn by the judges. Some judges are depicted wearing an image of Thmei, the representative of Themis, standing for both truth and justice, and there is ‘a small but significant connection between the words Thmei and thummim’ (Fanthorpe, 1999, p. 109). Thme means ‘truth’ in Hebrew.

Gerald Massey (1828–1907) records a statement attibuted to Rameses III that he made a breastplate, or uta, for the god Ptah inlaid with precious stones, uta denoting the symbolic eye, and meaning ‘to speak’, ‘give forth a voice’, similar to the oracle of the UT (Massey, 2007, p. 69).

The British researcher and author Ralph Ellis also thinks the UT can be linked to Ancient Egypt and, in particular, to the crook and flail — the pharaonic symbols of office — as derivatives of rods used as divine symbols through which God communicated with the tribes of Israel. The UT were important symbols of Israelite office, says Ellis: ‘But another important symbol of Israelite power now seems to consist of blue rods with white stripes, which may have been similar to the Egyptian crook and flail. So, were the prime pharaonic symbols of office in ancient Egypt, the crook and the flail, known as the urim and thummim?’ (Ellis 2001, p. 92).

Ellis turns to the question of the onyx stones engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel (six names on each). The sacred rods of the Israelites also had the names of the tribes engraved upon them, so it would appear that the artifacts had similar symbolism. Further, as Josephus, the first century Romano-Jewish historian, declares that the symbolism of the stones was connected to the Zodiac, then it could be that the sacred rods had astrological symbolism, too. Thus both the stones and the rods were engraved with the Zodiac, and both were said to be stripy in appearance. Ellis adds that the crook and the flail, the pharaonic symbols of office, might also have been related to the signs of the Zodiac .

It is unlikely that the UT were the two shoulder stones, he says, these being mentioned only in the context of being fastened to the shoulders and never in regard to the breastplate. If the UT were really in the breastplate, it is unlikely that they were the crook and flail, but if they were simply ‘upon Aaron’s heart’, then they easily could have been.

Ellis quotes from Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews: ‘There were two sardonyx upon the ephod at the shoulders to fasten it in the nature of buttons, having each end running to the sardonyes of gold that they might be buttoned to them.’ Ellis infers from this that there were actually two types of sardonyx, one pair being in the form of buttons and the other pair being ‘sardonyxes of gold’. He adds: ‘Onyx has nothing to do with gold, it is simply a striped stone, so the term “sardonyxes of gold” probably refers to “stripes of gold”. So was this a reference to the gold filigree that hung from the shoulder stones, or was it a reference to the gold-striped urim and thummim, the gold-striped royal symbols of the crook and flail?’

Josephus says the UT finally ceased to function 200 years before he wrote the Antiquities, that is to say, about 104BC. This was because God was ‘displeased at the transgression of his law’ (Ant. 3: 163, 216–218).

Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophical Glossary also claims Egypt as the provenance of the UT, and that they symbolized the two Truths, the figures of Ra and Thmei being engraved on the breastplate of the Hierophant — one who interprets sacred mysteries and arcane principles — and worn by him during the initiation ceremonies.

Modern Rabbins and Hebraists may well pretend they do not know the joint purposes of the thummim and the urim, but the Kabbalists do and likewise the Occultists. They were the instruments of magic divination and oracular communication — theurgic and astrological. This is shown in the following well-known facts: (1) upon each of the twelve precious stones was engraved the name of one of the twelve sons of Jacob, each of these ‘sons’ personating one of the signs of the Zodiac; (2) both were oracular images, like the teraphim [ancestor figurines or household idols], and uttered oracles by a voice, and both were agents for hypnotisation and throwing the priests who wore them into an ecstatic condition. The urim and thummim were not original with the Hebrews, but had been borrowed, like most of their other religious rites, from the Egyptians, with whom the mystic scarabæus, worn on the breast by the Hierophants, had the same functions. They were thus purely heathen and magical modes of divination … (The Theosophical Glossary).

Adherents of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon and Latter Day Saints movement, believed that he had gained access to the UT and had been able to use them properly and effectively. Mormons believe that Smith’s UT were functionally identical to the Biblical UT. As they were were mutually supportive devices, it is not too surprsing that the Morman tradition came to portray them as a single object: the urim-thummim.

Smith is said to have used the medium of UT, also called Interpreters, to translate the Book of Mormon from the Golden Plates, artefacts he claimed to have discovered in 1823 buried on a hill near his home in Manchester, New York, after being directed to the spot by an angel. He described the Interpreters as a pair of stones fastened to a breastplate and later referred to these as the UT (Mormons accept all this as a matter of faith).

In July 1835, while living in Kirtland, Ohio, Smith bought, on behalf of the Mormon Church, for £2,400, four Egyptian mummies and papyri from Michael H Chandler, a travelling entrepreneur from Pennsylvania. Chandler had acquired 11 mummies in 1833 and sold the other seven in the eastern US. Soon after his purchase, Smith announced that the papyri contained some writings of the patriarchs Abraham and Joseph, both of whom had lived in Egypt, according to the Book of Genesis.

Certain Egyptologists say the writings of Abraham acquired by Smith can be dated to the early Christian era. Some Abrahamic literature does indeed have links with Egypt, for example, the Testament of Abraham, probably first written in Greek, almost certainly derives from there. According to H Donl Peterson, writing at Wikipedia’s Book of Abraham page, substituting a biblical figure such as Abraham in Egyptian hieroglyphic scenes is a Jewish technique known from the Hellenistic period, and thus it is not surprising that Egyptian texts are somehow linked to the appearance of the Book of Abraham. In the third chapter, Abraham describes visions he received through the UT of the heavens and life before the Earth was formed, of the pre-mortal spirits of people, and the council in heaven wherein the gods planned the creation of the Earth and humankind.

Nowhere does the Bible state that Abraham had the UT. But according to John A Tvedtnes, of the University of Utah, and a senior resident scholar with the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts at Brigham Young University, the Book of Abraham says Abraham ‘saw the stars’ — in other words, gained knowledge of astrology — by means of the UT, and that he was apparently much sought after for this knowledge. In Abraham 1:2, 4, it is said that Abraham sought the power of the priesthood, and that two stones associated with that power were given to him by God. The Talmud supports the idea that Abraham possessed a miraculous stone and an ‘astrological instrument’, says Tvedtnes, and elsewhere it is stated that a precious stone hung from Abraham’s neck which brought immediate healing to anyone who looked on it.

Jewish tradition holds that Abraham possessed glowing gems and pearls, reminding us that ancient texts also describe the urim and thummim as glowing stones. The early Jewish texts that discuss Abraham’s possession of miraculous stones had not yet been translated into English in Joseph Smith’s day, and are hence valuable evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.
(Tvedtnes, 2006)

Although it is not known the manner in which the UT were used in the translation of the Book of Mormon, church members are promised that the gift given to Joseph Smith to allow him to receive revelation and translate scripture will be given to all who live worthily, and then ‘things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known’ (The Doctrines and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 130:10).
Some Mormon theologians, such as Daniel Rona, also a tour guide in Israel, suggest that the six-pointed Star of David, which symbolises the 12 tribes of Israel, was actually modeled after the UT, although this is not official doctrine of the church.

Spencer W Kimball, the 12th President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, wrote that one could only surmise how ‘this precious instrument’, the UT, operated, but it seemed to be ‘infinitely superior to any mechanism ever dreamed of yet by researchers. It would seem to be a receiving set, or instrument’.

In a short period, man has so improved his communication techniques as to hear voices around the world. A few years ago, even with earphones, we could decode only part of the static over the newborn radio. Our first television pictures were very local and very amateurish. Today, we see in our homes a fight in Madison Square Garden, a football game in the Cotton Bowl, the Tabernacle Choir in Chicago, an astronaut on his way to the moon. Is it hard to believe that, with such accomplishments by puny man, Omnipotent God has precision instruments with which to enlarge the knowledge of those who have the skill to use them? Is it difficult to believe that the urim and thummim could be such a precision instrument to transmit messages from God to his supreme creation — man? … Would it be so difficult for Moses or Enoch or Abraham or Joseph to see a colorful, accurate, moving picture of all things past and present, and even future? (1972, pp. 52–53)

Christian O’Brien (1985, pp. 206–07), has a particularly provocative explanation of such ‘instruments of decision’ carried in the breastpiece of the ephod — that they were two-way radio devices for communicating with Yahweh in an aerial craft. By the time of Saul, says O’Brien, the terms UT had become so debased that they were used for the casting of lots; they were pressed into use as an oracle in the absence of Yahweh, and our tossing of ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ is possibly a relic of this ancient practice. The important point is that Hebrew priests used UT as a symbolic method of communicating with Yahweh, even as dried yarrow stalks, in combination with the I Ching, were used by the Chinese.

At the time of Saul, they may have been small sticks, pebbles or dice (all of these have been suggested) with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ connotations, which were picked out, at random, from the pocket of the ephod. The practice may have been a tribal memory of a more technical method used by Aaron for communication with Yahweh, the instruments of which were no longer available.

As there is no satisfactory interpretation of UT to be had from Hebrew etymology, says O’Brien, there is a case for referring back to the Sumerian syllabic equivalents. His tentative analysis is as follows:

HEBREW: urim or u’rim
SUMERIAN: u = ‘height’: rim = ‘reduce’ or ‘shorten’.

HEBREW: thummim or thum’min
SUMERIAN: tum = ‘bring’: min = ‘Shamash’ or ‘20’.

From this analysis, in Sumerian, u-rim could have meant ‘height-reducer’ or ‘distance-shortener’; similarly, tum-min could have meant ‘Shamash (or Yahweh)-bringer’. As an ‘unsubstantiated speculation’, the UT might have been small, technical devices for effecting communication, at a distance, between Aaron and Yahweh.

Despite the speculative nature of the evidence, we find that we cannot meet our local volunteer firemen about their everyday jobs, with their small ‘bleeper’ radios stuck into their breast pockets without recalling the problem of the urim and the thummim. The comparison appears to be so complete. The firemen with large breast-pockets in their overalls and Aaron in his ephod with the bag of the breastpiece on his chest — each with a device 3,000 years apart.
(O’Brien, p. 207).

Some supporters of the ancient astronauts theory, which proposes that technologically advanced extraterrestrials visited Earth in the distant past, have claimed evidence for such contact in the traditional rabbinical descriptions of the UT as communicating messages by glowing. The psychic Edgar Cayce (1877–1945) drew a parallel between the UT and electromagnetic cells used for communications. It’s only a small step from here to envisage the UT as the counterpart of today’s internet telephone services — a Biblical forerunner of Skype, say — brought to Earth by these extraterrestrials more than 3,000 years ago.

In concord with this idea of ancient advanced technology, Laurence Gardner suggested that the UT were laser and levitation devices, synonymous with the schamir (‘lightning stone’) and schethiya (‘stone of perfection’) of the Talmud, a key text in mainstream Judaism which records rabbinic discussions of Jewish customs and history, philosophy, ethics and law. Judges 20:27–28 explains that standing before the Ark of the Covenant was considered to be standing before God. The Ark, which had mystical powers and was a symbol of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, was a container for the tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. It was kept in the inner shrine of the Tabernacle — the portable dwelling place, according to the Old Testament, of the divine presence from the time of the Exodus from Egypt until the conquering of Canaan. In a later tradition (Hebrews 9:4), the Ark also held Aaron’s rod, preserved there as a relic of the original Aaronic priesthood.

Since the UT had to be present for the Ark to convey the word of God, some have suggested they resembled dice or lots, but the key attribute of the urim, when in the presence of the Ark, was its radiating light, how it emitted ‘a spear of light that could cut through stone with precision’. Gardner suggests the urim was a ‘ruby laser’ — a ruby being conspicuous by its absence from the 12 gemstones on the breastplate of the ephod — and that ‘all it would have needed to become operative was a connective power supply’ (p. 36), this being found in the Ark which actually comprised a form of electrical battery, or aron, a ‘collecting’ or ‘gathering’ box. The thummim-schethiya, meanwhile, had levitation attributes, according to the Kabballah.

The graphic symbol for wisdom which had remained constant from the earliest times in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) was the emblem of the Sumerian god Enki, Lord of the Sacred Eye: a serpent spiralling around a central rod or stem. When the world’s supposedly first ruby laser was perfected in the 1960s, it precisely resembled a serpent coiled around a central stem (Gardner, 2003).

In a 1968 sermon, The Oracles of God: the Urim and the Thummim, which can be found on the internet, Dr Wesley A Swift envisaged the high priest placing his hand over the thummim, ‘and instantly, into his physical body, would flow a wave of spiritual consciousness, and he would know the exact thing which the Most High wanted to tell the House of Israel. He would hear it as though you would listen to a telephone. And as one would send a telephone message into your consciousness, into the spiritual consciousness of the high priest, came the wisdom and knowledge out of the Light of Yahweh from the presence of the Most High into the urim and into the thummim’.

Dr Swift, who died in 1970, was a former Californian Methodist minister who founded the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and became involved with extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic groups, including the Klu Klux Klan. His sermon is mentioned here only because it exemplifies the kind of evangelical fervour that can envelop the UT.

It has even been claimed that the legend of the Holy Grail derives from the UT. In The Ancient Secret (1953), Flavia Anderson claims the Grail was a round ball of glass filled with water held in a tree-like stand, and that these two objects combined were the UT, and that they were used to light fires from sunrays. Man has revered light in religion, she says, as well as fire made from direct sunlight by means of a crystal or glass ball or similar, and that this was long thought to be holy in some way. She shows how many metaphors for light and rays of light, such as the spear and the sword, appear time and again in Arthurian legend, and that the Grail is often depicted as a stone, with many references to a Grail tree.

Gwen Shaw, president and founder of the End-Time Handmaidens, wistfully presumed that the UT would be recovered for use in the ‘end-time’, through which we are now said to be living, to give guidance to God’s people. But nowhere in Scripture is it even remotely suggested that the UT will reappear at any time in history.

In 1995, Urim and Thummim software appeared on the market based on a Kabbalistic book of the same name and designed to help people find answers to questions and problems arising in their daily lives.

Miraculous light verified a message from God

Now I turn to Dr Cornelis Van Dam’s erudite work, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel, published in 1997, and regarded as the most extensive analysis and historical investigation of the UT ever undertaken. I have left consideration of it until last partly because it will be a useful way to sum up, and also because, to Van Dam, the weight of evidence indicates that the UT, as actually used in ancient Israel as a means of receiving revelation from God, comprised a single object, not two or more.

According to my theory and interpretation of the biblical evidence respecting the identity of the UT, the UT probably consisted of a single gem, and the name can best be understood as ‘perfect light’. A miraculous light verified that the message given by the high priest was indeed from God. Teraphim may have involved light divination and thus have been an attractive surrogate UT (and an analogous ancient Near Eastern divinatory method). (1997, p230).

Van Dam’s exhaustive study was the first since 1824, in which year there were two works on the subject published in Germany, and he investigates painstakingly all the Biblical data. His book is a revision of a doctoral dissertation submitted to the Theologische Universiteit in Kampen, the Netherlands, in 1986. With careful analysis, Van Dam, of the Theological Colleges of the Canadian Reformed Churches, traces the use of the UT from the time of Joshua to the early monarchy under David and describes their apparent disappearance by the time of the ‘classical’ prophets, when a shift to primarily verbal oracles occurs at a time of ‘priestly unfaithfulness’ and a new-found preference for professional counsellors (p. 254–55).

Crucially, Van Dam rejects any connections between the UT and Ancient Egypt (pp. 71–80). The purposes of the UT and the pendant of Truth were completely different, he says. Whereas the former had a role in receiving revelation from Yahweh, there is no evidence that the latter was ever used as a means of divination. As to ephod-like garments worn by Egyptian high priests, despite similarities in ornamentation, they fulfilled neither mediatory nor divinatory roles. Similarly, Van Dam says there is no evidence to suggest the Assyro-Babylonian Tablet of Destinies could be compared to or identified with the UT (pp. 46–63). The point in possessing the Tablet of Destinies was having and exercising power and supremacy, not to offer inspiration or illumination, nor mediation between the gods and the people.

Van Dam begins by considering whether the UT was a divine force or a physical entity, and concludes that the nature of the priestly divinatory device was physical, the basis for this claim being drawn from Exodus 28:30. He argues that the UT was a physical object, and departs from the popular theory about lots, not least because of Yahweh’s prohibition of divination. This stems from Van Dam’s interpretation of the word el in Exodus 28:30 and Leviticus 8:8 as meaning ‘in’ or ‘into’. These passages refer to placing the UT ‘in’ or ‘into’ the hōšen, which was fastened to the ephod, and which Van Dam translates as the breastpiece, concluding that only physical objects could be used in such a way (pp. 156–60).

Because of the preciousness of the object and its ability to reflect light, Van Dam imagines an item resembling a gem which would shine to signal a message from Yahweh (p. 224). The high priest would take the object out of the hōšen, and a light reflected in it would signal that Yahweh was imparting a revelation. As little detail is provided by Biblical authors, Van Dam supports his interpretation by saying it reflects the primacy of revealing messages from Yahweh through words versus objects, it fits into the time period when signs were frequently a means of revelation, and it reflects the tradition of associating the UT with light. Thus the UT involved real physical light and lighting for the high priest literally to see with his eyes, which was the early Christian understanding of how the UT worked.

In arguing against the lot theory, Van Dam says that, conceived as a lot oracle, the UT are generally thought to be one or more objects capable of giving a positive or negative response, or simply no answer. Van Dam mentions the idea that when two stones or sticks are thought of, one is called urim and the other thummim, or one is black and the other white, an answer being determined by the item taken out of the hōšen first. But with only three answers possible — yes, no or no answer — he asks: ‘How does such a response capability fit the use of the UT as a high-priestly means of revelation?’ (p. 204). In other words, the idea of UT as merely a form of lot is far too limiting.

Van Dam also notes that ‘prophecy must have been involved in one form or another in revelation involving the UT’. Considering the evidence available concerning the UT, ‘there was something very lively and direct about receiving revelation through the UT in contrast to the revelation of God’s will by a dead lot … there was live, verbal communication, which was impossible with the lot’ (p. 216).

Incredibly, a decade after Van Dam’s book was published, one Dallas E James, of Seattle, Washington, actually claimed to be in possession of the UT, in this case a flat, oval jasper stone, which was ‘the Christ Stone of Scripture also known in ancient Israel as the urim-thummim’ (James, 2007). James’s stone had a gold base on which stood a couchant lion, a serpent and a tree, allegedly fitting a description in Zechariah 3:9.

Quoting both Van Dam and Flavia Anderson, James also claimed the stone was ‘the Holy Grail of legends’, and that, following its possession by the Knights Templar, it had been brought to Canada by a mysterious secret society of Grail guardians in the 17th century where it eventually came into James’s family because of its French Huguenot bloodline. ‘My view is that this object is either the actual UT or is a surrogate,’ James says, hedging the bets.

Another decade on, and an American documentary film, Urim and Thummim, directed by Dub Cornett and Jacob Young, shown at the 10th San Francisco Independent Film Festival in 2008, told the apparently true story of a Kentucky man, Todd Walker, who bought an item of bric-a-brac resembling an incense burner in a Goodwill store in Nashville for 69 cents and came to believe sincerely that it was the UT. Allegedly, Walker and others had strange visions after handling the object, and Walker consulted theologians, an archaeologist and a psychoanalyst about it.

These two bizarre cases, whether the result of severe delusions or elaborate hoaxes, for they surely must be one or the other, nevertheless prove how the mystery of the UT continues to exert its force on the imagination, whether religious or secular, scholarly or scurrilous, and how the effects sometimes can be extreme.

Interestingly, Van Dam says that although God used the UT for a wide variety of issues of national importance, the initiative for the revelation had to come from the people. With the UT, the burden of responsibility for revelation lay not with God but with the civil leader who was expected to initiate the process by going to the high priest and inquiring of God about the issue at hand (Numbers 27:21).

‘In a very real sense, therefore, the guidance that God gave through the UT was dependent on human participation … the blessing of God’s guidance and rule of his people through the UT could only be received through obedient use’ (p. 262), and, ‘in light of this situation, the fact that Yahweh did make use of an official physical oracle means the giving of his revelation could be interpreted as an accommodation by God to the weakness and limitations inherent in fallen humanity, commensurate with the age in which his people lived’ (p. 271).

Likewise, in our troubled times, the ‘initiative for revelation’ must come from the people if a better world is to be made.

Should kings and nations from thy mouth consult,
Thy counsel would be as the oracle
Urim and Thummim, those oraculous gems
On Aaron’s breast, or tongue of Seers old
Infallible …
Paradise Regained, John Milton (1608–74)


Anderson, Flavia, The Ancient Secret: In Search of the Holy Grail (London: Gollancz, 1953)

Blavatsky, H. P., The Theosophical Glossary []

Ellis, Ralph, Tempest and Exodus (Edfu Books, 2001)
Fanthorpe, Lionel and Patricia, Mysteries of the Bible (Hounslow Press, 1999)
Gardner, Laurence, Lost Secrets of the Sacred Ark (London: HarperCollins, 2003)
Gardner, Laurence, The Origin of God (Brockenhurst UK: Dash House, 2010)
Golden Age Project []

Horowitz, Wayne, and Victor Hurowitz, UT in Light of a Psephomancy Ritual from Assur (LKA 137), The Jewish Theological Seminary [[

James, Dallas E., Urim Thummim, Bible Prophet, 2007 []

Jewish Encyclopedia
Muss-Arnolt, W., ‘The Urim and Thummim’, American Journal of Semitic Languages, July, 1900, pp. 199–204

Kimball, Spencer W., Faith Precedes the Miracle (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1972)

Massey, Gerald, A Book of the Beginnings, Vol. 2 (Cosimo, 2007)

MormonThink, The Rod of Aaron []

O’Brien, Christian, and Joy O’Brien, The Genius of the Few: The Story of Those Who Founded the Garden in Eden, 2nd revised edition (Patrick Foundation/Golden Age Project, 1999)

Rossvally, M. L., UT and Extracts from the Talmud (Leeds: Teanby & Marshall, 1887)


Steiner, Rudolf, Buddha and Christ: The Sphere of the Bodhisattvas, aka, Moses and Christ, or The Coming of Christ (London: The Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain) []

Swift, Dr. Wesley A., Oracles of God: The Urim and the Thummim, Israel Elect of Zion []

Tvedtnes, John A., Abraham and the Urim and Thummim, Seerstone Blogspot, 2006


Van Dam, Cornelis, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1997)

Bible Old Testament
Ancient Astronauts


Geoff Ward
Written by Geoff Ward
Writer, poet, tutor and mentor in literature and creative writing (MA and BA Hons degrees in English literature), book editor, journalist and musician.


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