Cornelis Van Dam on the Urim and Thummim

Dr. Cornelis Van Dam of the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches has written a fascinating book on a generally neglected topic of Biblical scholarship: the Urim and Thummim. His book, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1997) was the first major work on this topic in many years and represents a major advance in scholarship. Now, this handsome hardbound book of nearly 300 pages is available for next to nothing during an incredible August sale at Eisenbrauns. The list price is $42.50, but the sale price is only $8.50. I don’t normally endorse commercial services here, but I will point out that I received a boxful of amazing books on biblical and Near Eastern scholarship for the normal price of one or two books of this genre. So why are you waiting?? Thanks to Mike Parker for the alert on this sale.

Several LDS folks have already reviewed or mentioned Van Dam’s brilliant tome. The most detail is in Kerry Shirts’ review. FARMS discusses a few parts of Van Dam’s work in “Teraphim and the Urim and Thummim” by Matthew Roper. I’ll share a couple highlights I’ve picked up so far.

Van Dam begins by noting that scholarship on the Urim and Thummim had become rather silent since a sort of consensus had been reached that the Urim and Thummim was probably lots (e.g., systems such as two or more sticks that could be randomly selected to reveal a yes/no answer), which I notice is the primary view advocated in the Wikipedia entry on Urim and Thummim. Surprisingly, Van Dam is not even cited on Wikipedia (as viewed Aug. 9, 2008).

Van Dam humbly observes that there is yet more to add to the discussions of the past, and then offers a mountain of new insights about this mysterious device used by ancient priests in Israel. He begins with a survey of past commentary and scholarship, which tends to argue that the device was primarily allegorical or symbolic, not a means of revelation. From medieval days on, “the preponderance of allegorical exposition meant that there was often very little attention given to the exact (physical) identity of the UT” (p. 12). Though allegorical interpretations of scripture generally fell out of favor with the Reformation, the Urim and Thummim continued to be viewed largely as symbolic. “Between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, a significant number of scholar continued to regard the UT, not as a specific means of revelation, but as a symbol. Usually the UT were considered symbolic of the presence of God and/or the illumination and veracity of the revelation (which was considered to have been given through inspiration to the high priest)” (p. 14).

Some sources, though, treated the Urim and Thummim as real physical objects. A very old tradition equated it with stones on the breastplate or ephod of ancient Israelite priests. Van Dam observes, however, that an “obvious advantage of considering the UT to be one or two gems that were distinguished from the breastpiece is that justice is done to the differentiation made between the two in Exod 28:30 and Lev 8:8” (p. 29).

Van Dam cites documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls which link the Urim and Thummim to stones that give light. One document, 4Q375, has text with the following translation:

for the Urim

[… the stone when …]

they shall give light to the and he/it (i.e., ‘the priest’ or ‘the cloud’) shall go forth together with it(?) with flashes of fire, then the left hand stone which is on the his left hand

side shall shine forth to the eyes of all the assembly until the priest finishes speaking….

Van Dam states that this is a reference to “the flashing of the two engraved stones on the shoulderpieces of the ephod of the high priest” (p. 17). Some writers between the seveneteenth and nineteenth centuries held that the Urim and Thummim were the twelve gems on the breastplate of the priest, and that prophetic inspiration was the mode of revelation.

Van Dam ably argues against the lot theory, advocating instead that the Urim and Thummim was associated with prophecy and revelation more generally, not merely using lots to get yes/no answers or to choose between two or more possibilities. If he is correct, “then we are bringing together two elements that generally have been carefully separated in biblical scholarship, namely, priesthood and prophecy. This separation, begun in the early nineteenth century, has been characteristic of the last hundred years or so, precisely when the lot theory was in vogue.”

Van Dam discusses traditions in the Babylonian Talmud in which revelation was received through the Urim and Thummim (here identified with the gems of the high-priestly breastpiece) via letters engraved on the stones. “One tradition thought the letters that formed the reply stood out while the priest presumably made up the right combination, whereas the other argued that the letters combined for form the words of the response” (p. 20).

The concept of the Urim and Thummim providing revelation associated with visible light and particular with written text is one of much interest to Latter-day Saints. This concept is linked to the ancient tradition that the Urim and Thummim were engraved with the divine Name. The earliest reference to this, according to Van Dam (p. 23), is Targum Pseudo Jonathan on Exodus 28:30:

And you shall put into the breastplate the Urim, which illuminate their words and make manifest the hidden things of the House of Israeal, and the Tumim [sic] which perfect their deeds, for te High Priest who seeks instruction from the Lord through them. Because in them is engraved and exposed the great and holy Name by which the three hundred and ten worlds were created….

Bede also speculated that the Urim and Thummim may have been “simply placed with a secret name” on the breastpiece. Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (1194-ca. 1270) said that the Urim and Thummim had an inscription of the holy names of God and were given by God to Moses. Van Dam explains the operation, according to ben Nahman (p. 24):

[W]hen the priest fixed his thoughts on the divine names in the Urim, some letters engraved upon the stones of the breastpiece would light up before the eyes of the priest who inquired of their judgment. Not yet knowing he correct arrangement of the letters to form the response, the priest would fix his thought on the divine names in the Thummim, and his heart was made perfect so that he could understand the meaning of the letters that had lit up.

This sounds somewhat similar to Doctrine and Covenants Section 9, where we learn that the divine gift of translating the Book of Mormon required more than simply looking into the Urim and Thummim, but serious mental effort to understand, receiving revelation through heart and mind. And of course, this process required the mortal to be pure and close to God.

Van Dam makes particular note of the associations of the Urim and Thummim with light (e.g., pp. 132-139), noting that the words may well mean something like “light and perfection” or even “perfect light” (p. 224). Various ancient sources refer to light emanating from the Urim and Thummim as playing a key role in the revelatory process. Van Dam finds evidence suggesting the theory (admittedly speculative, according to Van Dam) that the Urim and Thummim might have been a gemstone (pp. 224-226), perhaps just a single object, though it may have been more than one object.

Recognizing the strong associations between the Urim and Thummim and revelatory light and truth, Van Dam suggests that some biblical passages that mention light and truth may implicitly be references to the Urim and Thummim (pp. 225-226).

He also points that the rise of rationalism since the 17th century led to the falling out of favor of the theory that supernatural light was involved in its use.

Van Dam’s exposition will be of interest to students of LDS religion, for Joseph Smith’s references to the Urim and Thummim are strongly supported by scholarship on the ancient understanding of these tools. Joseph Smith taught that these were divine tools which provided light that allowed one to see things as part of the revelatory experience. The Urim and Thummim could help him translate text, receive revelations and answers to questions. It involved a stone or stones which could provide revelatory light. And references in the LDS scriptures to seer stones, Gazelem, the glowing stones in Ether 3, and the Urim and Thummim that the saints will receive in the Celestial Kingdom all appear to fit surprisingly well in the context of modern scholarship about ancient biblical views on the mysterious Urim and Thummim. Not bad for young Joseph Smith if he were making all this up at a time when it would have been safer to not mention the Urim and Thummim at all or treat them as allegorical. But, yes, he could have theoretically obtained information from several sources suggesting that they were stones or jewels. One source is Josephus. There was also a sermon given in New York in 1800 by John Stafford on the Urim and Thummim teaching that they were two jewels (you can read this at Google Books: “The Urim and Thummim,” delivered before Hiram Lodge, No. 72, Dec. 27, 1800, New York: E. Conrad, 1820.

There is much more to say on this topic, but that will suffice for now. I hope you’ll read the book yourself.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

14 thoughts on “Cornelis Van Dam on the Urim and Thummim

  1. It is noted that many renderings in the old and new testament of stones are emblematic of light, knowledge, angel, spirit and temple where more perfect light and knowledge come to man kind.

    The high-priest’s breastplate, as described in Hebrew tradition, was regarded by the Jews with peculiar reverence, and the stones set in it were believed to be emblematic of many things. It is, therefore, quite natural that these stones are described in the book of Revelation as the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem. The names are in some cases not identical with those given in Exodus, but this may arise from various renderings of the Hebrew names in the Targums or in the Greek versions.

    The text in Revelation (xxi, 9-21) is as follows:
    “And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife:

    And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.

    Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper-stone, clear as crystal;
    The passage in Revelation xxi, 19, 20, is not the only one in that book treating of precious stones, for we read in chapter iv, 2, 3

    “And immediately I was in the Spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.
    And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.”

    The commentators, both ancient and modern, have given many different explanations of the symbolic meaning of the similes employed here. Some have seen in the two stones a type of the two judgments of the world, by fire and by water; others find that they signify the holiness of God and his justice. Of the rainbow “like unto an emerald,” Alford says we should not think it strange that the bow is green, instead of prismatic: “the form is that of the covenant bow, the color even more refreshing and more directly symbolizing grace and mercy.” Alford, “The Greek Testament,” vol. iv, Pt. 2, p. 594.

  2. This is, in fact, very interesting information. I am examining the claims of the LDS Church with a view to moving my family over to them. I have been reading the BOM and other books (Gospel Principles etc) and enjoying them all. I have what can only be described as a similar experience so far to the disciples on the road to Emmaus- “[my heart] burns within me whilst He talks with me on the way”.

    I had wondered many times at the “Urim and Thummim” and none of my previous theological studies had answered (adequately) what these were or how they linked in with the Biblical stories I had read. As soon as I read your entry Jeff, I ordered the book (even though I am from the UK). This blog is a fantastic tool in the hands of the LDS- even though it contains your personal thoughts!


  3. Wow, thank you! I’m glad someone read the post. More work than normal went into it, but people seem a lot less interested in this topic. Maybe I should have said something negative about the latest Batman movie in the title instead? Maybe “That Silly Batman Movie: All Those Gadgets But No Urim and Thummim? No Wonder He’s a Loser“?

  4. </lurk>

    I read it (and both linked articles), and it was really interesting, but no comment came immediately to mind. Keep it up, though — I don't usually wander around FAIR/FARMS because most of it is too dry for my taste and posts like this lead to fascinating reading material.

    It does beg the question, though… where in the world did Joseph Smith get all this info, assuming he made it all up? He might have been alive during or after the last time scholarship on the topic advanced in a meaningful way, but that round of scholars seems to have had it all wrong!

  5. Ryan, I believe Joseph Smith’s version of events.

    But critics of the church have pointed to such works as the Spaulding manuscript, Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews”, and E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Golden Pot” as possible outside sources.

    Critics have pointed at Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon as possible vectors of information from those sources as well as additional information from other unknown sources.

    A cynic would say that Oliver had plenty of opportunity to influence the composition of the Book of Mormon.

    I believe that Joseph didn’t meet Sidney until after the publication of the Book of Mormon. But there are those who claim that Joseph and Sidney were observed in the same locality (town area, not necessarily the same room) at the same time. But I don’t think that claim is well-supported or generally accepted.

    We believe that Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon to Oliver Cowdery within the span of a few months in 1829. However, cynics/critics would say that Joseph had at least from 1820 to 1829 to concoct the Book of Mormon in his mind.

    Joseph also continued to attend various churches after his vision in 1820. I don’t know at what point he totally ceased attendance of other churches or religious-oriented meetings.

    Some critics claim that Joseph actually did join another church after being told in his vision of 1820 not to. I don’t know the truth of that claim, or whether that issue is dealt with in Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling.

    My point in mentioning Joseph’s continued contact with other churches is that he likely picked up at least some Biblical knowledge from those sermons, in addition to his own Bible study and family Bible study.

    Jeff does a great job on his LDS-FAQ and BoM Evidences pages at his web site, in dealing with these issues.

    If Oliver or Sidney or other preachers were the source or pathway of all these “coincidental” tidbits getting into the Book of Mormon, it still boggles the mind how Oliver did it in a few months, or how much information Joseph was able to pick up and retain during the years leading up to 1829.

    One of the pages on Jeff’s website is about the “vast frontier library” that would have been needed for Joseph to have gleaned all the necessary info.

  6. Hi Book,

    Um.. it’s me, regular LDS poster? I’m thoroughly on your side here… and just lurking for this one post. The frontier library LDSFAQ entry is hilarious, though. Especially the dialogue.

    My badly-stated point was that if you don’t accept Joseph Smith as a prophet (though I do, in fact) he either knew nothing about the scholarly state of the art and had to make up everything about the Urim and Thummim, or else he did know the woefully incomplete and incorrect scholarly state of the art and decided to make up nearly everything anyway.

    Either way, Joseph seems to have made a solid bulls-eye from 170+ years away. Could any book(s) in the Great Frontier Library have contained this information? Certainly none from the non-fiction section, if Dr. Van Dam is correct.

  7. Ryan,

    You're right. The "lucky guesses" that JS had to have made just keep piling up. The U & T, the thing about barley, and all those seemingly "silly faux-Jewish" names.

    If nothing else, all those unexplainable "how did Joseph know?" things ought to cause serious non-LDS scholars to seriously investigate the Book of Mormon.

    But the funny thing is, if someone is a seriously heavy-duty scholar who is smart enough to thoroughly understand the evidence, and the "coincidences" cause them to raise an eyebrow, the very nature of them being a "serious scholar" almost precludes them from a spiritual investigation. Such people don’t believe in spiritually investigating, praying, and receiving answers to prayers. They’ll just chalk it up as a “yet to be explained mystery” something that is “yet to be explained by our current science and knowledge.”

  8. Blessings, said:
    “I had wondered many times at the “Urim and Thummim” and none of my previous theological studies had answered (adequately) what these were or how they linked in with the Biblical stories I had read.”

    Christ’s promise:

    “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.” —Revelation 2:17

    Joseph Smith expounds further.

    “When the Savior shall appear we shall see him as he is. We shall see that he is a man like ourselves… And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, thereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word…

    Remember that the temple is where God communicates with man just like the Urim and Thummim. When you learn about LDS thought about the new name, garments, knowledge, temples, seer stones, and Urim and Thummim go back through the Book of The Revelation and it brings on a whole new meaning.

    Just as the Jews had this knowledge as we now know from the Dead Sea Scroll people discoveries so also the early Christians had this knowledge in The Book of The Revelation. The Book of The Revelation gives more about what heaven is like than any book of the Bible until Joseph Smith obtained the restored gospel.

    An ephod (pronounced either ē´fod or ef´od) was a type of object in ancient Israelite culture, and was closely connected with oracular practices. In the Books of Samuel, David is described as wearing one when dancing in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant,[1]

    “…clothed in special garments also, and in fact, we see that worship of Gideon’s ephod is mentioned at Judges 18:18. The ephod itself was considered a synonym for the Ark of the Covenant, which was itself a miniature temple. “It has been thought that the ephod too was some kind of miniature temple.”

    You also can obtain the same blessings that Joseph Smith obtained with the Urim and Thummim.

  9. Jeff – great subject and wonderful article. I think the lack of comments is that there’s really nothing much to add and the antis simply ignore it because they can’t refute it.

  10. As Joseph grew in righteousness and spirituality, I find it interesting that later on he didn't need the U & T (or a seerstone) to obtain revelations.

    I'd also be interested in reading some compare-and-contrast between the U & T and seerstone Joseph used later to translate.

    Am I correct in thinking that Joseph used the U & T before he lost the 116 pages (and stopped translating for a while), and used the seerstone after he resumed translating later on?

  11. Sorry Jeff but you mentioned Van Dam and whole bunch of 80’s moments passed by me….I can still hear the “Kumate! Kumate! Kumate!” music in the background as the bad guy says “I will break you like I did your friend.”

    I just can’t comment on the Urim and Thummin right now…because I have a ankerin’ to go watch some old rated R movies…like Bloodsport. Good post though!

  12. The description of the book says, “He traces the use of the Urim and Thummim from the time of Joshua through the early monarchy under David and describes its apparent disappearance by the time of the ‘classical’ prophets, where a shift to primarily verbal oracles occurs.”

    “Classical” prophets? Like around the time of Jeremiah?

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