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#20—The Jewish Roots of Catholic Authority, Part 2: Urim and Thummim

The “Becoming Catholic” series presents the biblical, philosophical, and historical evidence for why Eternal Christendom Founder, Joshua Charles, became and remains Catholic. The series table of contents is here.

Anton Kern, Aaron, High Priest of the Israelites (c. 1710-1747)

In Part 1 of my series examining the Jewish roots of Catholic authority, I explored how God not only appointed Moses, but a priesthood by which to govern His people, and interpret the law, even after Moses and the first generation of priests had died out. I offered three conclusions:

  • God did not believe that men exercising His authority among men was an affront to either Him, or to the authority of the written law (the Scriptures).
  • God ordained Moses, and the priesthood, to interpret and execute the law in particular cases, and to do so with His authority—no sola scriptura for the Israelites!
  • God ensured that this same authority would continue long after the death of Moses, Aaron, and the first generation of priests. This necessarily implicates the principle of succession that underlies the Catholic assertion of apostolic succession as the means by which the authority to govern the Church originally established by Christ in the first century is perpetuated until His return.

In Part 2, I examine the mysterious Urim and Thummim, an enigmatic set of stones God commanded the High Priest to use in carrying out judgment. They first appear in the book of Exodus (Ex. 28:29-30):

29 So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment upon his heart, when he goes into the holy place, to bring them to continual remembrance before the Lord. 30 And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually. [Emphasis added]

Likewise, in the book of Leviticus, when Moses is ordaining Aaron and his sons to the priesthood, we observe the following (Lev. 8:5-9):

5 And Moses said to the congregation, “This is the thing which the Lord has commanded to be done.” 6 And Moses brought Aaron and his sons, and washed them with water. 7 And he put on him the coat, and girded him with the girdle, and clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod upon him, and girded him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod, binding it to him therewith. 8 And he placed the breastpiece on him, and in the breastpiece he put the Urim and the Thummim. 9 And he set the turban upon his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as the Lord commanded Moses. [Emphasis added]

Significantly, the Urim and Thummim appear again in the book of Numbers when Moses appoints Joshua to be his successor, which is done before the High Priest Eleazar (Num. 27:20-23):

20 You shall invest him [Joshua] with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey. 21 And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord; at his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the people of Israel with him, the whole congregation.” 22 And Moses did as the Lord commanded him; he took Joshua and caused him to stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole congregation, 23 and he laid his hands upon him, and commissioned him as the Lord directed through Moses. [Emphasis added]

And in his final blessing to each of the tribes of Israel, Moses specifically mentions the Urim and Thummim to Levi, the priestly tribe (Deut. 33:8, 10):

8 And of Levi he said, “Give to Levi thy Thummim, and thy Urim to thy godly one…10 They shall teach Jacob thy ordinances, and Israel thy law; they shall put incense before thee, and whole burnt offering upon thy altar…” [Emphasis added]

All of these examples of the Urim and Thummim align with the passages cited in Part 1, namely Deuteronomy 17, and 2 Chronicles 19:8-11, and confirm that God not only established a leadership structure over His people, but a means by which to actively guide them.

There are several scriptural examples where the Urim and Thummim are used (or at least attempted to be used) by the people of Israel. For example, in 1 Samuel, Saul appeals to God through the Urim and Thummim in order to discern whether he or the people of Israel were guilty of a particular sin (1 Sam. 14:41-42):

41 Therefore Saul said, “O Lord God of Israel, why hast thou not answered thy 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 thy people Israel, give Thummim.” And Jonathan and Saul were taken, but the people escaped. 42 Then Saul said, “Cast the lot between me and my son Jonathan.” And Jonathan was taken. [Emphasis added]

Later in the same book, Saul again inquires of the Lord. Scripture identifies three means by which God could have answered him: by dreams, by Urim (and Thummim), or by prophets. But God did not respond at all. Rashly, Saul decided to consult with the witch of Endor in order to get an answer (1 Sam. 28:3-7):

3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the wizards out of the land. 4 The Philistines assembled, and came and encamped at Shunem; and Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6 And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. 7 Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at Endor.” [Emphasis added]

Likewise, when the people of Israel returned from exile to rebuild the Temple, the book of Ezra records how some of the men sought to be registered among the tribes of Israel, but there names could not be found in the records. Therefore, to determine their eligibility, they needed a priest to consult the Urim and Thummim (Ezra 2:62-63):

62 These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean; 63 the governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim. [Emphasis added]

The same story is recorded in the book of Nehemiah (Neh. 7:64-65):

64 These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there, so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean; 65 the governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until a priest with Urim and Thummim should arise. [Emphasis added]

Before quoting from the book of Sirach, which was written between 200-175 BC, it would be appropriate to quote the first century Jewish historian Josephus on the Urim and Thummim. He called it the “breastplate” and “sardonyx,” and believed it indicated certain judgments of God by shining certain forms of light (an opinion supported by various Rabbis)1[1]:

Now this breastplate, and this sardonyx, left off shining two hundred years before I composed this book, God having been displeased at the transgressions of his laws. [Emphasis added]

It is thus interesting to note that around this same time, the author of the book of Sirach still equated the certainty of judgment by Urim and Thummim with the law itself (Sir. 33:3):

3 A man of understanding will trust in the law; for him the law is as dependable as an inquiry by means of Urim. [Emphasis added]

Sirach later calls the Urim and  Thummim “the oracle of judgment” when describing the authority ascribed to the priestly tribe of Levi (Sir. 45:6-10):

6 He exalted Aaron, the brother of Moses, a holy man like him, of the tribe of Levi. 7 He made an everlasting covenant with him, and gave him the priesthood of the people. He blessed him with splendid vestments, and put a glorious robe upon him. 8 He clothed him with superb perfection, and strengthened him with the symbols of authority, the linen breeches, the long robe, and the ephod. 9 And he encircled him with pomegranates, with very many golden bells round about, to send forth a sound as he walked, to make their ringing heard in the temple as a reminder to the sons of his people; 10 with a holy garment, of gold and blue and purple, the work of an embroiderer; with the oracle of judgment, Urim and Thummim… [Emphasis added]

The orthodox Jewish organization, Chabad, explains the Urim and Thummim in a manner consonant with Scripture:

In ancient Israel, when a decision of national significance was needed, the High Priest was consulted. Within the fold of the High Priest’s breastplate were the Urim and Thummim (lights and perfections). [Ex. 28:30] According to most traditions, the Urim and Thummim were a piece of parchment with G‑d’s four-letter name written on it. [Rashi, Ramban, Ralbag ibid.; Ritva to Yoma 73b et al.] Its function was to serve as an oracle, divining whether or not the Jewish people should take a certain course of action, [Num. 27:21; see also 1 Sam. 5:23, 10:22, 14:4] and was to be used only by the king, the Jewish high court, or a person needed by the whole community [Mishnah Yoma 7:5] such as a general. [Tiferet Yisrael ibid.]

When its services were needed, the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] would stand facing the Holy Ark with the questioner behind him. The individual desiring an answer would ask a simple yes-or-no question such as, “Shall we go to war?” The Kohen Gadol [High Priest] would meditate until he reached Divine inspiration. Then, certain letters on the breastplate (upon which the names of the twelve tribes were written) would appear to protrude [Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion] or light up, [Reish Lakish’s opinion] producing an answer. [Yoma 73a; Mishneh Torah, Klei Hamikdash 10:11]

The Urim and Thummim were lost after the destruction of the First Temple. [Yoma 21b; Sotah 48b; Rashi to Ex. 28:30] According to another tradition, it was extant but ceased to work. [Tosafot to Yoma loc. cit.; Mishneh Torah, Beit Habechirah 4:1]

Jan Luyken, Oracle by the Urim and Thummim (1682)

A very similar explanation is provided in the Jewish Encylopedia and the Jewish Virtual Library.

Thus, the conclusions we reached in Part 1 are further confirmed by a consideration of the Urim and Thummim. Neither God’s authority, His sovereignty, or the authority of the written Scripture are in any way necessarily threatened by the existence of human authorities who govern with divine authority. Nor is such governance incompatible with the ongoing and active assistance of God given to particular offices, as was the case with the Urim and Thummim.

Growing up, and as a young adult, I was often told Catholic claims of authority were totally unbiblical because they amounted to man usurping authority from God—as if the very idea of men governing with God’s authority, and with His active assistance (as the Catholic Church claims) was contrary to Scripture.

But when I read the Bible carefully, I saw the exact opposite. Such a model is everywhere in the Old Testament. As such, I realized it could not be dismissed outright in the New Covenant context. Therefore, the burden was on us protestants to show that it had been clearly and explicitly disavowed by Christ or the Apostles. If it wasn’t, then the Catholic idea of authority would be far more plausible than I previously thought.

But upon studying the New Testament further, I discovered that far from disavowing this model of authority, Christ and the Apostles explicitly affirmed it, and made even greater claims of authority than had been made in the Old Testament.

Footnotes

  1. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews (Book 3, Ch. 8, §9); Josephus, William Whiston, trans., The Works of Josephus, Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2013), 93. ↩︎
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