Divination in the

Old Testament



Other Diviners

Ancient Israelite

           The descriptions of priestly duties in the Hebrew Bible are mainly found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The most important of these duties, according to the biblical authors, is the maintenance of the cult. This task included various offerings, pronouncements on matters of purity, and the preservation and teaching of the priestly law. Other priestly functions were: the menial duties undertaken by the Levites, singing and playing musical instruments, taking on the duties of judges, interpreting cultic law, resolving matters of ritual impurity, and divinatory practices, which are the central concern of this section.
Priests and Levites shewing the sentence of judgment
Priests and Levites shewing the sentence of judgment

           Central to the topic of divinatory practices of priests are the Urim and Thummim. Allusions to the Urim and Thummim are scarce in the Old Testament, and thus biblical scholars have long debated over what these objects were exactly, and whether they were objects at all or a divine force that entered the breastplate of the priest during rituals. The passages that explicitly mention the Urim and Thummim are in the Hebrew Bible are: Exod 28:30, Lev 8:8, Num 27:21, Deut 33:8, 1 Sam 14:41 (LXX), 28:6, Ezra 2:63, and Neh 7:65 (Van Dam 129). Most of these excerpts go no further than simply mentioning that the Urim and Thummim were used. For example, in Deuteronomy, Moses declares, “Give to Levi your Thummim, and your Urim to your loyal one…” (Deuteronomy 33.8). In his book, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel, Cornelius Van Dam attempts to shed light on the nature of the priestly divinatory devices in question.

           First, Van Dam ruminates over whether the Urim and Thummim were a divine force or a physical entity. The conclusion of the author is that the nature of the priestly divinatory devices was physical; his basis for this claim is found in Exodus 28:30. This passage in Exodus mentions that the priestly breast piece was “made double” and Van Dam concludes, with some linguistic deliberation, that this must have been a pouch for the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28.30). The author, however, cannot present much information on the physical characteristics of the devices, nor even if they consisted of one or two pieces, because of the lack of descriptive evidence in the Old Testament. As to the question of the purposes of the device or devices, Van Dam concludes that they were used very infrequently, being “reserved for special situations when the well-being of the theocracy warranted it (Van Dam 176).” He adds that these situations, as described in the Old Testament, were frequently connected with a military crisis. 

Israelite High Priest
           This is an illustrated reconstruction of an ancient Israelite high priest and can be found on the following website:
           Although the Old Testament does not contain much information on the priestly divinatory practices, biblical scholars have presented various interpretations of the allusions to such rituals. Van Dam’s interpretation focuses on the Urim and Thummim used by priests in divining the word of Yahweh. He argues that the Urim and Thummim were physical objects or a physical object, but departs from the popular theory that the Urim and Thummim were lots. Van Dam’s conclusion over the physical nature of the Urim and Thummim stems from his interpretation of the word ’el in Exodus 28:30 and Leviticus 8:8 as meaning ‘in’ or ‘into’. These passages refer to placing the Urim and Thummim ‘in’ or ‘into’ the hōšen, which Van Dam translates as the breastpiece. From this analysis, Van Dam concludes that only physical objects could be used in such a manner, and thus the Urim and Thummim were indeed objects.

            As to the author’s rejection of the theory that the Urim and Thummim were lots, this stems from his observation that many of the inquiries to God made by biblical priests could not be answered by lots, which were only capable of displaying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses or no answer at all. For example, in 1 Samuel 10, Saul asks Yahweh “Has the man come here yet” (1 Sam: 10:22). Yahweh answers “Behold he has hidden himself among the baggage” (1 Sam 10:22). Scholars have theorized that Saul procured Yahweh’s response by using a lot oracle; however, the response is far more complex than a lot could provide. If the priests use lots, the answers are described by the manner in which the lot ‘comes out’ or ‘falls’, whereas the answer to questioning using Urim and Thummim is always written in the words of Yahweh. Van Dam uses such biblical evidence to support his case that the Urim and Thummim were not lots. However, other scholars like Grabbe are not completely convinced by Van Dam, arguing that skilled diviners could elicit a lot of information from lots if they chose the correct questions to ask (Grabbe 120).

           The alternative form of the Urim and Thummim that Van Dam imagines is an object resembling a gem that would shine with a light that signaled a message from Yahweh. The idea that light was somehow involved comes from the author’s choice of translation: “If the Masoretic vocalization of ’űrîm and thummîm is accepted as correct, the use of űrîm by itself as a designation of the UT may indicate that light was a vital characteristic, and understanding ’űrîm and thummîm as hendiadys with the translation ‘perfect light’ could be defended” (Van Dam 224). He imagines the use of Urim and Thummim thus: the high priest would take the object out of the hōšen, and if a light were reflected in it, this would signal that Yahweh was imparting a revelation. The Urim and Thummim were probably a gem, according to Van Dam, because of the preciousness of the object and its ability to reflect light.

           Although Van Dam can give no explicit evidence for his hypothesis since so little detail is provided on the subject by the biblical authors, he supports his statement with the following claims: the interpretation reflects the primacy of revealing the messages of Yahweh through words versus objects; it fits into the time period when signs were frequently a means of revelation; it enables scholars to interpret some references to light in the scriptures as revelation through Urim and Thummim; it reflects the tradition of associating the Urim and Thummim with light, which dates back to the time of the Qumran; finally, it raises the question whether the teraphim can be viewed as an ancient Near Eastern parallel to the Urim and Thummim. Van Dam, however, discards the final point as too weak because he cannot find sufficient evidence to support the claim that the teraphim functioned as a divinatory aid, which resembled the Urim and Thummim.

Reconstruction of the garments
of the high priest.

Cf. Exod.28:2.
Reconstruction of the garments of the high priest. Cf. Exod.28:2.
           In addition to the Urim and Thummim, many scholars argue that ancient Israelite priests also used a part of their priestly garb, the ephod, as a form of divination. The connection between the ephod and the Urim and Thummim is not very clear; we do know, however, that the priests used the breastpiece, which was attached to the ephod, in divination through Urim and Thummim. In the Old Testament, two Israelite kings make use of the ephod: Saul and David.  The fact that people of so high a status made use of this divinatory method shows that divination by the ephod was accepted at some point in time in ancient Israel. A priest brings an ephod in 1 Samuel 14:3 to aid Saul in his fight against the Philistines. Saul calls for the ephod to be consulted in 1 Samuel 14:18 ("the MT has ’arôn, 'ark,' but the  LXX has  ephoud, 'ephod'  (Grabbe 120).  David also makes use of the ephod when Abiathar brings him the object to help him in his flight from Saul (1 Sam 23:6). David uses the ephod to escape from Saul in 1 Samuel 23:8-13 and later when his wives and children are taken captive in 1 Samuel 30:6-8. According to Grabbe, David communicates with Yahweh through the ephod, using questions that could be answered with either 'yes' or 'no' (123).             

        From the biblical evidence presented in this section, the importance of priests to divinatory practices in ancient Israel is clear. The divinatory practices of priests were one of the only examples of divination accepted as legitimate by the biblical authors. According to the Old Testament, priests mainly elicited responses from Yahweh through the Urim and Thummim and through the ephod. Grabbe and other scholars consider these methods as a form of casting lots, while Van Dam has contested this view, theorizing that the Urim and Thummim were actually an object, perhaps a gem, which would glow when God was ready to impart his words to the priests.   

Christina Jarymowycz '05
NES 275: Final Project