Ancient Israelite Divination: Urim ve-Tummim, Ephod, and Prophecy
In its description of the High Priest’s vestments, the Torah includes two mysterious elements: the Urim ve-Tummim (Urim and Thummim) and the ephod (a priestly jeweled tunic).
Exodus describes the Urim ve-Tummim as objects that Aaron is to wear in his breast-piece:
שמות כח:ל וְנָתַתָּ אֶל חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֶת הָאוּרִים וְאֶת הַתֻּמִּים וְהָיוּ עַל לֵב אַהֲרֹן בְּבֹאוֹ לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת מִשְׁפַּט בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל לִבּוֹ לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה תָּמִיד.
Exod 28:30 Also put the Urim ve-Tummim in the breast-piece of judgment (mishpat), so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of YHWH. Thus Aaron will bear judgment (mishpat) of the Israelites over his heart before YHWH always.
The text here refers to Aaron wearing the breast-piece of “judgment” (mishpat) with the Urim ve-Tummim inside over his heart and “bearing judgment before God always.” In other words, they are part of his priestly garments and have no active function.
Urim ve-Tummim in Numbers
The description of the Urim ve-Tummim here contrasts with that in Numbers 27, according to which Elazar is to receive “judgment” (mishpat), i.e., a decision, from God through the Urim, and communicate this judgment to Joshua:
במדבר כז:כא וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן יַעֲמֹד וְשָׁאַל לוֹ בְּמִשְׁפַּט הָאוּרִים לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה…
Num 27:21 He (Joshua) is to stand before Elazar the priest, who will obtain decisions (mishpat) for him by inquiring of the Urim before YHWH…
It is unclear from this, or from any Torah, passage how exactly the Urim ve-Tummim functioned, and scholars have offered some suggestions based on other biblical passages.
Saul Uses the Urim ve-Tummim
The classic example comes from the story of Saul’s attempt to understand why his troops failed in battle. The LXX text reads as follows (1 Sam 14:41; the Hebrew in the brackets is a retroversion from the Greek):
ויאמר שאול אל י-הוה אלהי ישראל [למה לא ענית את עבדך היום. אם יש בי או ביונתן בני העון הזה, אלהי ישראל, הבה אורים. ואם ישנו העון הזה בעמך ישראל] הבה תמים.
Saul said to YHWH: “God of Israel, [why have you not answered your servant today. If the fault is in me or in Jonathan my son, O’ God of Israel, give Urim, and if the fault lies within your nation Israel,] give Tamim [Tummim].”
This passage suggests that the Urim ve-Tummim were a form of lot, cast to decide between two options.
The ephod described in Exodus is a precious tunic worn by the high priest that has two stones attached to it, upon which the names of the Israelite tribes were carved:
שמות כח:יב וְשַׂמְתָּ אֶת שְׁתֵּי הָאֲבָנִים עַל כִּתְפֹת הָאֵפֹד אַבְנֵי זִכָּרֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁמוֹתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה עַל שְׁתֵּי כְתֵפָיו לְזִכָּרֹן.
Exod 28:12 attach the two stones to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his two shoulder-pieces for remembrance before YHWH.
The statement that the ephod stones should be “for remembrance” implies a passive function. In contrast, several non-Torah texts, suggest that the ephod was a divinatory instrument.
David Consults the Ephod
For example, Abiathar the priest, who served David before he was king, had an ephod, which David made use of to receive answers to questions (1 Sam 23:9-12):
שמואל א כג:ט וַיֵּדַע דָּוִד כִּי עָלָיו שָׁאוּל מַחֲרִישׁ הָרָעָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל אֶבְיָתָר הַכֹּהֵן הַגִּישָׁה הָאֵפוֹד.
1 Sam 23:9 When David learned that Saul was planning to harm him, he told the priest Abiathar to bring forward the ephod.
כג:י וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שָׁמֹעַ שָׁמַע עַבְדְּךָ כִּי מְבַקֵּשׁ שָׁאוּל לָבוֹא אֶל קְעִילָה לְשַׁחֵת לָעִיר בַּעֲבוּרִי. כג:יאהֲיַסְגִּרֻנִי בַעֲלֵי קְעִילָה בְיָדוֹ הֲיֵרֵד שָׁאוּל כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע עַבְדֶּךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַגֶּד נָא לְעַבְדֶּךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה יֵרֵד.
23:10 And David said, “O YHWH, God of Israel, your servant has heard that Saul intends to come to Keilah and destroy the town because of me. 23:11 Will the citizens of Keilah deliver me into his hands? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O YHWH, God of Israel, tell your servant!” And YHWH said, “He will.”
David asks Abiathar to use the ephod to answer a yes-no question of very practical, military significance: Will King Saul attack Keilah to get to David? After receiving a confirmation that this will happen, David continues with another yes-no question that is answered:
כג:יב וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד הֲיַסְגִּרוּ בַּעֲלֵי קְעִילָה אֹתִי וְאֶת אֲנָשַׁי בְּיַד שָׁאוּל וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה יַסְגִּירוּ.
23:12 David continued, “Will the citizens of Keilah deliver me and my men into Saul’s hands?” And YHWH answered, “They will.”
As a result, David leaves Keilah with his men. Again, these questions are not “judgment” (mishpat) in the sense of law but are practical military questions.
Divination and ANE Kings
David’s questions to the ephod are typical of ancient Near Eastern divination. Ancient Near Eastern kings, including the kings of Israel and Judah, faced problems similar to modern governments; first and foremost, they faced the ever-present question of war or peace.
As part of deciding whether or not to go to war, ancient Near Eastern kings sometimes made use of highly trained diviners, who could interpret natural phenomena that they believed revealed the gods’ views such as:
- Astrologers who interpret the movements of celestial bodies,
- Haruspices who interpret the anatomy of the livers of sacrificial animals,
- Dream interpreters,
- Augurs who would read the flight of birds,
These are just a few examples of the many sorts of specialists trained in the arts of reading and interpreting signs. If the omens were auspicious, the kings might choose war; if inauspicious, they could go on campaign at a later date or avoid it altogether. The practice of some Israelite kings to consult with priests who had objects like the Urim ve-Tummim or the ephod is a version of this kind of divinatory consultation.
Ritualizing Divinatory Objects
Why is the divinatory purpose of the Urim ve-Tummim and the ephod obscured in the description of the high priest’s vestments in Exodus? I suggest that the Priestly author here was uncomfortable with the divinatory purpose of these objects but instead of deleting them from the text and denying their existence, he recast them as ritual objects.
This discomfort is hardly surprising, since a number of biblical texts forbid divination as an idolatrous practice, including Leviticus 19:26, in the Holiness Collection:
לֹא תְנַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְעוֹנֵנוּ.
You shall not practice divination or soothsaying.
The non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, includes the lack of divination in his praise for the Israelites:
במדבר כג:כג כִּי לֹא נַחַשׁ בְּיַעֲקֹב וְלֹא קֶסֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כָּעֵת יֵאָמֵר לְיַעֲקֹב וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל מַה פָּעַל אֵל.
Num 23:23 Lo, there is no divination in Jacob, no augury in Israel. Jacob is told at once, yea Israel, what God has planned.
The recasting of the Urim ve-Tummim and the ephod as passive ritual objects demonstrates that the Priestly author of the Tabernacle chapters shared this aversion to divination.
Prophecy as Divination
Like the Urim ve-Tummim and the ephod, prophecy was also a form of divination and kings would consult with prophets for the same reasons. This is stated explicitly in a story about King Saul, where, on the eve of what was to be his final battle with the Philistines, Saul wants to know whether or not he is going to win:
שמואל א כח:ו וַיִּשְׁאַל שָׁאוּל בַּי-הוָה וְלֹא עָנָהוּ יְ-הוָה גַּם בַּחֲלֹמוֹת גַּם בָּאוּרִים גַּם בַּנְּבִיאִם.
1 Sam 28:6 And Saul inquired of YHWH, but YHWH did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets.
In reaction to YHWH’s silence, Saul goes to the female necromancer (בעלת אוב) of Endor to find out. This puts prophecy explicitly into the continuum with dreams, Urim ve-Tummim and necromancy! In fact, prophetic oracles function no differently than omens in this regard. The prophet or diviner warned his or her client, usually the king, and then the king could act accordingly.
Let us look at a few examples:
1. The Kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom Consult with Elisha
In the book of Kings, Jehoram, king of Israel, is leading Jehoshaphat king of Judah and an unnamed king of Edom in an attack on Moab (2 Kings 3). As the military encampment runs out of water, Jehoram complains that YHWH has brought them out to war just to deliver them into Moab’s hands. At this point, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, speaks:
מלכים ב ג:יא וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשָׁפָט הַאֵין פֹּה נָבִיא לַי-הוָה וְנִדְרְשָׁה אֶת יְ-הוָה מֵאוֹתוֹ וַיַּעַן אֶחָד מֵעַבְדֵי מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר פֹּה אֱלִישָׁע בֶּן שָׁפָט אֲשֶׁר יָצַק מַיִם עַל יְדֵי אֵלִיָּהוּ.ג:יב וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוֹשָׁפָט יֵשׁ אוֹתוֹ דְּבַר יְ-הוָה וַיֵּרְדוּ אֵלָיו מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוֹשָׁפָט וּמֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם.
2 Kings 3:11 But Jehoshaphat said, “Isn’t there a prophet of YHWH here, through whom we may inquire of YHWH?” One of the courtiers of the king of Israel spoke up and said, “Elisha son of Shaphat, who poured water on the hands of Elijah, is here.” 3:12 “The word of YHWH is with him,” said Jehoshaphat. So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him.
After a brief back and forth, Elisha agrees to consult with YHWH:
מלכים ב ג:טו וְעַתָּה קְחוּ לִי מְנַגֵּן וְהָיָה כְּנַגֵּן הַמְנַגֵּן וַתְּהִי עָלָיו יַד יְ-הוָה. ג:טזוַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה עָשֹׂה הַנַּחַל הַזֶּה גֵּבִים גֵּבִים.
2 Kings 3:15 “Now then, get me a musician.” As the musician played, the hand of YHWH came upon him, 3:16 and he said, “Thus said YHWH: This wadi shall be full of pools.”
The prophecy itself seems like a riddle, but Elisha continues by interpreting the image:
מלכים ב ג:יו כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְהוָה לֹא תִרְאוּ רוּחַ וְלֹא תִרְאוּ גֶשֶׁם וְהַנַּחַל הַהוּא יִמָּלֵא מָיִם וּשְׁתִיתֶם אַתֶּם וּמִקְנֵיכֶם וּבְהֶמְתְּכֶם. ג:יח וְנָקַל זֹאת בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה וְנָתַן אֶת מוֹאָב בְּיֶדְכֶם.ג:יט וְהִכִּיתֶם כָּל עִיר מִבְצָר וְכָל עִיר מִבְחוֹר וְכָל עֵץ טוֹב תַּפִּילוּ וְכָל מַעְיְנֵי מַיִם תִּסְתֹּמוּ וְכֹל הַחֶלְקָה הַטּוֹבָה תַּכְאִבוּ בָּאֲבָנִים.
2 Kings 3:17 For thus said YHWH: “You shall see no wind, you shall see no rain, and yet the wadi shall be filled with water; and you and your cattle and your pack animals shall drink. 3:18 And this is but a slight thing in the sight of YHWH, for He will also deliver Moab into your hands.3:19 You shall conquer every fortified town and every splendid city; you shall fell every good tree and stop up all wells of water; and every fertile field you shall ruin with stones.”
The image Elisha saw of a wadi full of pools is thus understood as YHWH’s message that the drought will end and the combined Israelite, Judahite, and Edomite armies will be victorious over Moab.
2. Prophets in King Ahab’s Court
According to 1 Kings 22, King Ahab had court prophets “on staff” whom he could consult on a regular basis and he consults these prophets regarding whether he should go to war with Aram:
מלכים א כב:ו וַיִּקְבֹּץ מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַנְּבִיאִים כְּאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם הַאֵלֵךְ עַל רָמֹת גִּלְעָד לַמִּלְחָמָה אִם אֶחְדָּל וַיֹּאמְרוּ עֲלֵה וְיִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי בְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ.
1 Kings 22:6 So the king of Israel gathered the prophets, about four hundred men, and asked them, “Shall I march upon Ramoth-gilead for battle, or shall I not?” “March,” they said, “and the Lord will deliver it into Your Majesty’s hands.”
Although these prophets all turn out to be false prophets, with the one true prophet Micaiah ben Yimla predicting (correctly) that Ahab will be killed if he goes, the story illustrates how King Ahab used prophets to help him decide whether to go to battle against Aram or not.
3. Prophets Instruct King Zimri-Lim Not to Make Peace with Eshnuna
Mari was a fairly large city-state near the Euphrates in modern day Iraq. The city was destroyed in the 18th century B.C.E. by Hammurabi of Babylon, and its final king was Zimri-Lim (ca. 1775-1761 B.C.E.). Among Zimri-Lim’s many perennial concerns, was whether to go to war against the city of Eshnunna or to make peace with them.
In a letter from to King Zimri-Lim, a palace official named Sammetar claims that prophets have informed him that the god Dagan was against making peace with Eshnunna:
lines 1–16 Speak to my lord: thus says Sammetar, your servant. Lupahum, the āpilumprophet of Dagan arrived here from Tuttul. He had conveyed the message that my lord charged him with in the city of Saggaratum (namely): “Entrust me to Dagan.” They [the Dagan priests of Tuttul] answered him: “Everywhere you go, well-being will greet you. Battering ram and (siege)-tower will be given to you…” This is the response they gave him at Tuttul ….
lines 24–28 “Hopefully you will not trust in the peace-making of the king of Ešnunna and become negligent! Your guard 28has to be stronger 27than before.” lines 29–37 He spoke to me: “Hop[ef]ully the king will not make a solemn treaty with the king of [Eš]nunna without asking a god. The situation now is like when the Yaminites had come and stayed in Saggaratum; then I spoke to the king: ‘Do not ally yourself with the Yaminites! I will drive the shepherds of their herds into the Hubur and the river will finish them for you!’ lines 38–39 [N]ow, he must not make a tr[eaty] without having a[s]ked a g[o]d!”
According to this text, Zimri-Lim had sent a prophet to consult with the god Dagan at his Temple in Tukkul, and the prophet came back with a clear message that Mari should not make peace with Eshnunna since Mari is destined to defeat them with divine assistance, just as they had defeated Yaminites at a previous incursion.
Sammetar continues his letter with yet another prophetic revelation that he should not make peace, this time from an unnamed female prophet who offers an unsolicited oracle:
lines 41–52 Two days later a qammatum-prophet of Dagan of Ter[qa] came and spoke [to me, say]ing: “Beneath chaff, water flo[ws]! They are continually writ[ing to you] (and) they are sending their gods [to you], but they are planning an act of deception in their hearts. The king should not make a solemn treaty without consulting a god!” She requested a woolen garment and a nose-ring, so I g[a]ve (them) to her.
The prophetess begins with a poetic image and then explains the message. Sammetar takes this message quite seriously, pays the woman what she asks, and sends the message on to the king so he can make a decision:
lines 52–57 She delivered her instructions in the temple of Belet-Ekallim before the (female) h[igh priest, Ini]b-shina. I have sent my lord a report [on the matter] which she spoke to me. Let my lord consider (it) so that he can act as the great sovereign (that he is).
Zimri-Lim Ignores the Prophets
From other texts we know that in year four of Zimri-Lim’s reign, he was at peace with Eshnunna, until he and Hammurabi of Babylon turned on their former ally and conquered Eshnunna. Thus, Zimri-Lim may have ignored these prophetic messages, just as Ahab ignored the warning of the prophet Micaiah.
Alternatively, it is possible—perhaps even likely—that Zimri-Lim received other oracles either through prophets or other diviners that the gods were in favor of an alliance with Eshnunna. A treaty with Eshnunna would have involved treaty curses and be sworn by the relevant gods, thereby implying that another such divine message had been received. Nevertheless, kings routinely broke their peace treaty, as Mari itself would soon come to realize when Babylon attacked and destroyed Mari in spite having been allies previously.
Prophecy as Officially Sanctioned Divination
The Torah is aware of the fact that prophecy is, for all intents and purposes a form of divination. In fact, the verse introducing prophecy in Deuteronomy depicts it as the acceptable alternative to forbidden divinations:
דברים יח:י לֹא יִמָּצֵא בְךָ…קֹסֵם קְסָמִים מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף. יח:יא וְחֹבֵר חָבֶר וְשֹׁאֵל אוֹב וְיִדְּעֹנִי וְדֹרֵשׁ אֶל הַמֵּתִים.
Deut 18:10 Let no one be found among you… who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, 18:11 one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.
יח:יב כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְ-הוָה כָּל עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה וּבִגְלַל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מוֹרִישׁ אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ…. יח:ידכִּי הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה יוֹרֵשׁ אוֹתָם אֶל מְעֹנְנִים וְאֶל קֹסְמִים יִשְׁמָעוּ
18:12 For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to YHWH, and it is because of these abhorrent things that YHWH your God is dispossessing them before you…. 18:14 Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs;
וְאַתָּה לֹא כֵן נָתַן לְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.יח:טו נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן.
to you, however, YHWH your God has not assigned the like.18:15 YHWH your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself from among your own people; him you shall heed.
The contrast is clear: Many forms of divining are prohibited, as they are foreign practices that YHWH abominates. Nevertheless, Israel is not to be left entirely in the dark about God’s will. When issues arise in the future, God will communicate with prophets, and they will tell Israel what they need to know.
The above is likely the original meaning of this passage, but as Deuteronomy developed, the lack of comfort with prophecy and divination of any sort became dominant. Thus, in the final form of Deuteronomy, prophecy was reframed to be Mosaic and made essentially impossible. This is quite similar to the Priestly approach to the Urim ve-Tummim and ephod, namely, to maintain their theoretical existence but neutralize their divinatory role.
Prophecy and Divination in ANE Royal Courts
Ancient Israelite kings act very much like any other ANE kings in their desire to determine in advance possible divine support or opposition to projects and whether they are likely to be victorious or not. According to the biblical text, Saul used the Urim ve-Tummim and David used the ephod, while later Israelite and Judahite kings turned to prophets as a way to divine information they wanted directly from YHWH.
Divination was a fact of life in Levantine royal courts, and kings relied on this conduit of divine inside information as being of vital importance to make decisions. Despite the implicit protestations of the Priestly and Deuteronomic authors, Israelite and Judahite kings were no different in this regard than their ancient Near Eastern counterparts.
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Dr. Jonathan Stökl is Lecturer in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at King’s College London. He completed his D.Phil. in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the Oriental Institute of the University of Oxford. He is the author of Prophecy in the Ancient Near East: A Philological and Sociological Comparison and editor with Corrine L. Carvalho of Prophets Male and Female: Gender and Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East.
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