Ancient Oracles: Urim and Tummim

In a recent comment I was asked:

Do you (or the dear Dr.) intend to expand this into a series of articles about ancient priestly oracles of various cultures ( “Urim and Tummim” for example)

I gladly offer a highly speculative look at Urim and Tummim. What or who (you will see shortly why I ask this) are Urim and Tummim? Wikipedia has the following to say:

תּוּמִים (Thummim) is widely considered to be derived from the consonantal root תּמִם (t-m-m), meaning faultless, while אוּרִים (Urim) has traditionally been taken to derive from a root meaning lights…. In consequence, Urim and Thummim has traditionally been translated as lights and perfections … or, by taking the phrase allegorically, as meaning revelation and truth, or doctrine and truth …However, although at face value the words are plural, the context suggests they are pluralis intensivus – singular words which are pluralised to enhance their apparent majesty. The singular forms – ur and tumm – have been connected by some early scholars with the Babylonian terms urtu and tamitu, meaning oracle and command, respectively…Many scholars now believe that אוּרִים (Urim) simply derives from the Hebrew term אּרּרִים (Arrim), meaning curses, and thus that Urim and Thummim essentially means cursed or faultless, in reference to the deity’s view of an accused – in other words Urim and Thummim were used to answer the question innocent or guilty.

We have seen in our previous discussions how important an influence Mesopotamian culture had on the whole of the middle east and particularly on those conquered peoples who as part of Assyrian imperial strategy were deported to other parts of the Assyrian empire. (A very interesting article by Stephanie Dalley, “The Influence of Mesopotamia upon Israel and the Bible” may be found in the book, The Legacy of Mesopotamia) and so the Babylonian words urtu and tamitu mentioned above are of particular interest to this discussion.

If you read the Wikipedia entry you will note that no one knows how Urim and Tummim looked like. And I would like to suggest that both are very familiar to us. They were symbols of the Sun and the Moon. How do I come to this very speculative conclusion? I’ll try to reconstruct my reasoning:

  • The first source is the collection of 70 celestial omen tablets known as the Enuma Anu Enlil. The first tablet contains a description of how heaven and earth were divided by lot between Anu, Enlil and Ea. Anu received the heavens, Enlil the earth and Ea the waters. That did not prevent the sky from being divided into three parts, the ways of Anu, Enlil and Ea. What were the lots that they used?
  • The first twenty-two of the Enuma Anu Enlil tablets are devoted to the Moon (eclipses, halos, conjunctions with the planets and certain fixed stars, etc). The next thirteen to the Sun. That is half. They contribute the bulk of the omens. They are the major lots thrown by the god(s) in the sky. They show divinely determined events i.e. the lot of man and the world and judgement. They shed light on what is to be.
  • The oracle texts reflect cosmological order and regularity but not universal determinism and necessity (see Francesa Rochberg’s, “The Heavenly Writing”, p.200) The order given by the gods is a gift to humankind. The signs given by the gods show their active interest in man’s lot in life.
  • Urim and Tummim were said to be used as an oracle of judgement, whether in a legal sense, guilty or faultless, or in the sense of revelation and truth.
  • Sun and Moon are the major markers of time, they determine the seasons, mark the months, mark the new year. By their movement they show what is to be.
  • The Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar and very similar to that of the Babylonian calendar. Like the Babylonian calendar the month begins with the New Moon. The month names were adopted from the Babylonian calendar. So the New Year is also defined by the New Moon
  • The beginning of the Jewish New Year is a day of Judgement. Ten days later is the day of Atonement. These two holidays are paired, in a sense like the Moon and the Sun. The Moon can only shine when it looks towards and receives the light of the Sun. Judgement is made when the Moon has no light, has lost it. Atonement when the light of the Sun has been sufficiently received (Full Moon would roughly be in 14 days). The Day of Atonement has equivalents also in the Christian and Islamic traditions. Good Friday and Ashura.

For the Mesopotamian the casting of a lot was to receive a sign, guidance, from the god invoked, it reflected what on a grander scale was the casting of the major celestial lots of the Sun and Moon and the lesser lots of the planets. So with a jump of imagination we could say that Urim and Tummim, later lost, were symbols of the Sun and Moon adopted during the ‘Babylonian Captivity’.

2 thoughts on “Ancient Oracles: Urim and Tummim

  1. Hi Thomas,

    Thank you for writing this very interesting post especially for me, and at my request. 🙂

    Among the rabbinic interpreters of the Torah, only Avraham Ibn Ezra made the connection between the Urim and Tummin and Astrology. Others disagreed with his commentary on this issue.

    I found three references to what Ibn Ezra wrote about the Urim and Tummim:

    1. “Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra attempted to display wisdom in the matter of the Urim and Tummim by saying that they were made by a craftsman from gold and silver… but what he said is of no importance” -Rambam

    🙂 Gold and Silver , as in Sun and Moon?

    2. “On the other hand R. Avraham Ibn Ezra thought that the Urim and Tummin alluded to the seven servants, that is the seven planets”. (Moshe Idol , the Mystical experience of Avraham Abulafia).

    3. “VI. The Urim and Tummim

    Ibn Ezra (From “The Secret of the Torah”, A translation of Abraham ibn Ezra’s Sefer Yesod Mora Ve-Sod Ha-Torah, by H. Norman Strickman.)

    The secret of the ephod[7] is extremely precious[8], for six names[9] were inscribed on each one of the two sapphire stones that were on the ephod. One stone was on its right, and one[10] was on its left[11].
    Observe: There was no image on the stones [of the ephod]. This alludes[12] [to the twelve sections of the sky]. These sections can be perceived only by the mind[13]. They correspond to the number of the tribes of Israel.

    The breastplate was like the work of the ephod (Shemot (Exodus) 28:15)[14]. It was square[15], corresponding to the four compass points. Each one of its stones[16] was therefore[17] unlike the other.[18] The boxes and the rings that were permanently set in the breastplate[19] allude to the celestial equator.
    The urim[20] are to be taken at face value.[21] So is the tummim.[22] The tummim corresponds to the cubed number.[23] Moses first placed them[24] on the breastplate, in accordance with the position of the heavenly bodies[25], on the day that he erected the tabernacle. The wise will understand.”

  2. Hello Naggie,

    Thank you so much for your observations. I think that this is a line of speculation that should be pursued further.

    Interesting that Urim and Tummim should be made of silver and gold.

    What has also come to mind is that both the Part of Fortune and that of the Spirit are the Parts of the Moon and Sun respectively. If placed on or in the Tree of Life, they would be centrally located, beginning at the bottom with PoF, Moon, Sun, Part of Spirit, the Crown. Sun and Moon would fit if Urim and Tummim were placed within the breastplate.

    Considering how important the two Lights are and some of the names for Urim and Tummim, for example truth and revelation, Sun and Moon are very fitting.

    Other suggestions are of course welcome!

    best regards,

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