DIG: How exactly did the high priest go about making decisions for the people? How does this way of making decisions differ from Jethro’s idea of decentralized decision-making (18:13-23)?
REFLECT: How do you determine what the will of ADONAI is in a particular situation?
The purpose of the breastpiece was for making decisions. The fifth piece of clothing, Urim and the Thummim, were the means by which the high priest made those decisions for the Israelites that were beyond human perception. The breastpiece was folded double (28:16) and formed kind of pouch for those precious stones. The fact that they were over Aaron’s heart whenever he entered the presence of ADONAI, reminded him of his awesome responsibility to discern the will of God when making decisions for the twelve tribes. It would be by the means of these stones, that the divine will was revealed.
The Urim means lights and the Thummim means perfections. The Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than translating the words, translates their meaning as revelation and truth. The words don’t mean revelation and truth, but the Urim and the Thummim reveled the truth. The fact that Urim begins the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet and Thummim begins with the last letter, probably meant that the lots were restricted to giving a positive or negative response to questions asked of them by lighting up. That is why they were named lights and perfections, or perfect light.
In the Old Covenant the Urim and the Thummim are mentioned by name seven different times. In Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8 and Numbers 27:21 they were seen as a means of inquiring of God’s mind. In Deuteronomy 33:8 they were seen as a unique possession of the tribe of Levi. In First Samuel 28:6 they refused to respond to King Saul’s questions. In Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65 we learn that after the Babylonian captivity they were no longer in existence. It seems that they had disappeared along with the ark of the Covenant.
There are seven biblical examples of how the Urim and the Thummim worked, although the words Urim and Thummim are not used explicitly. First, the high priest would cast lots to decide which of the two goats would be sacrificed as a sin offering to ADONAI on the Day of Atonement, and which one would be the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:7-10).
Secondly, Joshua had a problem. He needed to find out who was guilty of violating the herem ban on taking any plunder from Jericho that brought about Israel’s defeat at Ai. He demanded: In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe that ADONAI takes shall come forward clan by clan; the clan that He takes shall come forward family by family; and the family that He takes shall come forward man by man. The one who is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of ADONAI and has done a disgraceful thing in Israel (Joshua 7:14-15).
Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was taken. The clans of Judah came forward, and he took the Zerahites. He had the clan of Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was taken. Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken (Joshua 7:16-18). God could have simply told Joshua who the guilty person was. But He wanted him to use the Urim and the Thummim of the high priest, because they could only answer yes or no depending on the lighting of the stones. Each tribe had to pass by, but they only lit up when the tribe of Judah passed. Each clan passed, each family passed and each person within that family passed, and eventually they lit up and Achan was found to be the guilty party by the Urim and the Thummin.
A third example is also found in Joshua. There were seven tribes that had not received their inheritance of the Land. They were supposed to survey the Land and divide it up into seven parts. After they had written descriptions of each, they were to return to Joshua who would then have the high priest cast lots for them in the presence of ADONAI to determine which plot of land they would receive (Joshua 18:3-6).
Fourthly, there is another in First Samuel. So Saul asked God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into Israel’s hand?” But God did not answer him that that day. Saul therefore said: Come here, all you who are leaders of the army, and let us find out what sin has been committed today. A sin had been committed that resulted in Saul losing in battle. So he used the Urim and the Thummin to find out who the guilty party was. Then Saul prayed to ADONAI, the God of Israel, “Give me the right answer.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot, and the men cleared. Saul then said: Cast the lot between me and Jonathan my son. And Jonathan was taken (First Samuel 14:37-42).
Here is a fifth example. One of the sons of Ahimelech, son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled to join David. King Saul had killed all the priests of God, and only he had escaped and brought the ephod, which contained the Urim and the Thummin with him. When David learned that Saul was plotting against him, he said to Abiathar the priest: Bring the ephod. David said: ADONAI, God of Israel, your servant has heard definitely that Saul plans to come to Keilah and destroy the town on account of me. Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? ADONAI, God of Israel, tell your servant. And God answered: He will. Again David asked: Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul? And God said: They will (First Samuel 22:20-21, 23:6, 10-12). By asking those yes and no questions to the Urim and the Thummin within the ephod, David was directed what to do by God.
David would use the ephod again in the sixth example. Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, “Bring me the ephod.” Abiathar brought it to him, and David inquired of God, “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?” “Pursue them,” God answered, “You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue” (First Samuel 30:7-8). The reason that David knew that he should pursue after the invading party was that he questioned by means of the Urim and the Thummin.
In the last example, David inquired of God. He asked: Shall I go up to one of the towns in Judah? God said: Go up. So it was by the means of the Urim and the Thummin that David knew it was time to return to Israel.
The casting of lots by an Israelite high priest was by no means the same as throwing dice, because the results were not determined by chance. The priest knew that the lots every decision was from ADONAI (Proverbs 16:33). The last mention of a divine decision mediated through lots in the Bible is found in Acts 1:23-26. When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks (Acts 2:1-4), the need for casting lots disappeared.631
The Teaching Ministry of Jay Mack 2006-2013