Who created or assembled the Urim and Thummim mentioned in the scriptures? What did they look like? And how many different ones are mentioned?
You’re questions require some background and history to address. Please don’t think I’m taking a politician’s dodge – ignoring your questions in favor of answers I already want to give; rather, I’m trying to give you a complete picture so your questions can be answered specifically in the journey. I’ll address what the Urim and Thummim is, who used one (with descriptions where we have them), and how many different ones there have been across history.
What’s a Urim and Thummim?
Traditionally, Urim and Thummim means “lights and perfections” and are instruments of revelation. Each word is a plural that always appears in scripture referencing the instrument and is left untranslated in our scriptures when mentioned in the plural. The singular of urim is ‘uwr and describes the light or flame of a fire. At times Isaiah uses a play on words to reference this manifestation of the Lord’s revelation: “the Lord, whose fire [‘uwr] is inZion, and his furnace in Jerusalem” (31:9). Later he contrasts the insufficiency of the arm of flesh to reproduce divine results, especially when compared with the Lord’s servants:
“Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God. Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, thatcompass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light [‘uwr] of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled.This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow” (50:10-11, see also where Jacob repeats it in 2 Nephi 7:10-11).
The singular of thummim is tom, and includes the concepts of perfection, completeness, or fulfilment, as well as innocence (or speaking no guile), in addition to uprightness and integrity. It is, in short, a stone of Truth. Alternate translations for this phrase include “revelation and truth” and “light and truth” (see Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, Urim). At times, the levitical instrument is referred to in abbreviated form as simply Urim (1 Samuel 28:6).
The usage of the Urim and Thummim has proven baffling to scholars as the Bible contains no description of their usage – or even a description of the object itself. The general consensus is that it is binary lots drawn from the breastplate to give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers (see Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, Urim) and as far as blind guesses go, it’s as good as any. After all, the name (with each term being a plural and joined with an and) suggests that this oracle comprises of multiple objects. The association with the stone-laden breastplate suggests that we’re dealing with some sort of stones here. Such a conclusion, however, discounts Jewish tradition. Josephus, turning the entire breastplate into a revelatory instrument, notes that the stone on the right shoulder would shine “bright rays darting out thence, and being seen even by those that were most remote” when the Lord was present, and the twelve stones would shine with “so great a splendor” when the Lord accompanied them in battle. Even Josephus acknowledges that he is not an expert in this matter, since no one had seen it work for at least 200 years prior (Antiquties of the Jews, 3.8.9). Apparently, the Urim and Thummim proper had been missing since at least the Jews return from Babylon (Nehemiah 7:65). Other tradition also includes the lighting aspect and makes the Urim and Thummim the core instrument that made the breastplate work as a revelatory instrument. The stones contained letters, and the Urim “illuminate their words, and manifest the hidden things of the house of Israel” while the Thummim “fulfil (or perfect) their work to the high priest, who seeketh instruction by them before the Lord”. On this instrument is engraved “the Great and Holy Name … which was engraven and expressed in the foundation stone wherewith the Lord of the world sealed up the mouth of the great deep at the beginning” (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Section 20.28). So while our modern experts suppose the Urim and Thummim to be a divining coin toss or binary lot system, older traditions tie it in to entire revealed words and literal light.
Who has had a Urim and Thummim?
The following persons are associated with a Urim and Thummim:
- The brother of Jared
- High Priests until sometime before the return from Babylon
- Mosiah the First
- Mosiah the Second
- Alma the Younger/Helaman
- Peter and John (actually seer stones)
- Joseph Smith
- Resurrected saints
Latter-day scripture increases our knowledge of this divining instrument. The earliest mention we have is one “given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face” (D&C 17:1). Next we have Abraham receiving revelation and a vision through a Urim and Thummim. These were given to him by the Lord “in Ur of the Chaldees” (Abraham 3:1-4). We quickly lose track of these sacred relics on two different continents. We note in both cases they were given by the Lord, so they may have been handed down for generations or they may have been returned after they had served their purpose. If they were returned to the Lord, we may be dealing with the same instrument. Otherwise, we probably have a class of instruments which serve similar functions.
The Levite Urim and Thummim turns up next. Moses gives a Urim and Thummim to Aaron, but is silent on where it comes from. Moses is given specific instruction on how to fashion the high priest’s breastplate (and the ark of the covenant, for what that’s worth) but receives no such instruction on how to design the Urim and Thummim, suggesting that they already existed (Exodus 28:30). Moses may here have Abraham’s Urim and Thummim, handed down through the ages, or perhaps given to him directly from the Lord (Moses 1 presents a circumstance similar to the other two noted before). This sacred instrument is the one noted above with the traditions and scholarship. It was handed down through the high priests as a birthright (Deuteronomy 33:8) until it disappeared no later than the post-exilic period.
We continue the timeline in the Americas when Mosiah the First is shown to have the power to interpret the language of the Jaredites. An instrument is not mentioned, but he translates “by the gift and power of God” – which is the same method Joseph Smith used when translating via the Urim and Thummim (Omni 1:20-22). Mosiah the Second has this same gift, and specifically uses interpreters (Oliver Cowdery ties this term to the Urim and Thummim Joseph Smith used (Joseph Smith-History footnote)) to translate (Mosiah 8:13, 21:28) so it is likely that both Mosiahs used Urim and Thummim for translation. These interpreters are neither magic devices nor advanced machinery but one of a long list of sacred objects powered by faith (8:18).
These interpreters are described as “two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow” (Mosiah 28:13). Their express purpose was to translate records as a warning to the current covenant people on the promised land of the fall of previous covenant people. Through this instrumentality, the Lord “should discover to every creature who should possess the land the iniquities and abominations of his people” (Mosiah 28:15). Alma agrees and quotes a previous prophet who understood this divine instrument. Note the parallelism that he employs in applying it to his day.
“And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light,that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea,their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations. And now, my son, these interpreters [which Alma is passing on to Helaman] were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled, which he spake, saying: I will bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works and their abominations; and except they repent I will destroy them from off the face of the earth; and I will bring to light all their secrets and abominations, unto every nation that shall hereafter possess the land” (Alma 37:23).
If this is the same Urim and Thumim used by the brother of Jared, Mosiah the First may have found it at the same time he discovered Coriantumr’s stone. If this is the same instrument used by the Mosaic high priests, Mulek could have brought it over as a way to preserve holy objects from becoming profane spoils. It’s also possible that, as with the brother of Jared and Abraham, the Lord Himself delivered this instrument to Mosiah the First. Most likely, this is either the Jaredite or the Levite Urim and Thummim as Mormon shares that they were “wereprepared from the beginning [compare with the Targum’s foundation stone], and were handed down fromgeneration to generation” (Mosiah 28:14). Of course, this being Mormon’s commentary, it could very well be that they were handed down from generation to generation from Mosiah the First to Moroni.
Alma, relating his two stones in a bow to the single stone Gazelem, leads us back to the Old world at the time of Christ. John alone, of all the Gospel authors, acknowledges that Peter’s name ties his revelatory gift with a physical instrument. “Thou art Simon the son of Jona, thou shalt be called Cephas, which is, by interpretation, a seer, or a stone” (JST John 1:42). John knows a thing or two on the subject of single-stone seership. As the author of Revelation he is referred to as St. John the Divine, or in other words, the Seer. In that same work he states that “Tohim that overcometh will I give … a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knowethsaving he that receiveth it” (2:17). This single stone “will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one” (D&C 130:10). Note again the parallel with the Targum tradition which etches a sacred name to the stone. In all likelihood Peter had a single stone Urim and Thummim which John was aware of. Peter may have discovered this stone on his own, been given it by the Lord (the Mount of Transfiguration would fit well with the other theophanies/apocalypses listed), or it could even be the one lost from the Levites (tradition aside, the Bible does not specify how many stones were involved – a single stone can provide both light and truth).
Back in the New World, Moroni reports having the Nephite interpreters, which he then seals up (Ether 4:5). Joseph Smith later unearths them and finds they are the same ones Mosiah had: “two stones in silver bows”, but these have the addition of being “fastened to a breastplate” (Joseph Smith-History 1:35). Joseph’s mother describes them as “two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows connected with each other in much the same way that old-fashioned spectacles are made.” (Lucy Mack Smith. History of Joseph Smith By His Mother, pg. 139). These interpreters serve the same purpose as they did for Mosiah, and Alma’s Gazelem reference. Whereas the Nephites used them to translate Jaredite records and warn their people of the destruction that necessarily follows when covenants are broken, Joseph used them to translate the Nephite record to issue the same warning in our day. These interpreter were presumably returned to Moroni along with the plates. Joseph also had a separate, single stone Urim and Thummim (for such it was referred to) similar to Alma’s reference or Peter and John’s. A number of articles have been published over the years describing the Prophet’s use of both instruments for translating. The most recent one can be found here. This single stone Urim and Thummim is still in possession of the Church.
Finally, as noted earlier, every faithful saint will one day receive a personal Urim and Thummim. This stone is actually part of a larger revelatory system.
“The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim. This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, willbe made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s. Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim andThummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will bemade known; And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a newname written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word” (D&C 130:8-11).
How many Urim and Thummim have there been?
For the origin and transmission of the various Urim and Thummim (excepting of course the heavenly ones mentioned in Revelation and D&C 130), we can use a few models. We can use a Single Urim and Thummim to trace the same one throughout time. We can use a Continental Urim and Thummim that has one in the Americas and one in Palestine. We could also use a Dispensational Urim and Thummim which has a new one revealed by the Lord with a fresh theophany and vision of the history of the world. With each of these, Peter and John may be outside the model because theirs is a single-stone Urim and Thummim – what we would call a seer stone today.
If we have a Single Urim and Thummim, then the brother of Jared was given it by the Lord, where it was returned in due time (either by the brother of Jared or by someone it was handed down to). The Lord would then have to intervene again to give it to Abraham (perhaps when he left with records of the patriarchs (Abraham 2:31)). From there, it could have been passed down until it came to Moses and Aaron, where it is kept loosely in the cloth breastplate. Aaron’s descendants would then pass it down until the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. Mulek would bring the sacred treasure with him and his people would place it in the hands of Mosiah the First when they appoint him king. Mosiah, having discovered the Jaredite breastplates (or fashioning his own) attaches the Urim and Thummim to a metal breastplate. The Nephites then pass it down until it gets to Mormon and Moroni, and finally Joseph Smith. We are dealing with a single Urim and Thummim and it is presumably back in the possession of Moroni.
If we have a Continental Urim and Thummim, then the brother of Jared and Abraham are given two separate Urim and Thummim. The Jaredite Urim and Thummim is attached to a metal breastplate and used by righteous Jaredite leaders until their destruction, when it is discovered alongside Coriatumr’s stone by Mosiah the First. This one remains in possession of the Nephites until Moroni buries it and Joseph claims it. These interpreters are back in the possession of Moroni today. The Abrahamic Urim and Thummim is associated with seership but not so much translation. It is passed on until it comes into Moses’ possession when he places it in the cloth breastplate of the high priests. They continue to pass it down until it is lost sometime during the exile in Babylon. It may or may not have been rediscovered by Peter, but regardless remains lost to this day. We are then dealing with two total Urim and Thimmim.
If we have a Dispensational Urim and Thummim, then we are dealing with several. The brother of Jared was given one personally by the Lord. This is the same one that wound up in the hands of Moroni and eventually Joseph Smith. Moroni has since taken them back and has them to this day. Abraham also was given one (perhaps when he was filled with visions of the Lord following his attempted sacrifice). This one is lost to this day. Moses would also be given one personally by the Lord (in association with the visions of Moses 1), which is passed down throughout the Mosaic dispensation until the Babylonian exile. This one remains lost to this day. Mosiah the First also receives his own Urim and Thummim from the Lord directly (this one looks like the Jaredite one, so maybe these all are built from the same template). Compare Mosiah fleeing the wicked Nephites and receiving the interpreters along the way with Lehi fleeing wicked Jerusalem and receiving the Liahona along the way. This instrument is passed down among the Nephites as late as Helaman but is lost before the time of Mormon. Finally, Peter is given a Urim and Thummim after seeing the history of the world and the Lord transfigured. This has subsequently been lost. This creates a tally of no fewer than 5 Urim and Thummim.
If you intend a serious study of the ancient Urim and Thummim, I must point you to a work that I just recently discovered. As I noted above, past scholars have typically focused on divination aspects of the instrument and largely ignored the revelatory and verbal aspects of it. Additionally, studies on it seem mostly relegated to footnotes rather than a full and lengthy look. In the last few decades a new work has surfaced that takes a more complete approach than what has been covered in the past. It is called The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel by Cornelis Van Dam (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1997). Van Dam, like many biblical scholars, is working without the scriptures of the restoration and so doesn’t take the reader the full distance. Nonetheless, a Latter-day Saint who has familiarized herself with the usage of this instrument in the scriptures and in this dispensation will find great value in Van Dam’s research.