Evidence #143 | January 26, 2021

Interpreters

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Biblical sources indicate that the Urim and Thummim and other forms of divinely sanctioned divination were associated with terms meaning interpreters. This accords with the description of the Nephite interpreters found in the Book of Mormon and given by Joseph Smith.

In his 1838 account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith stated that buried with the record “were two stones in silver bows and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim.” The heavenly messenger also informed him that “the possession and use of these stones were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times” (JSH 1:35).

While the interpreters are never called Urim and Thummim in the Book of Mormon text, Joseph Smith, placed these sacred instruments in the same category as those biblical objects. Several lines of evidence support the view that those who possessed the biblical objects were considered seers and that the Prophet’s classification of the Nephite Interpreters with the biblical Urim and Thummim was justified.1

Seers and the Urim and Thummim

Illustration of the Israelite High Priest holding the Urim and Thummim. Image via Bluberry Star.

Although it is not obvious from the biblical text, several biblical scholars have shown that there was likely a visual element in the way the Urim and Thummim functioned. Cornelis Van Dam has argued that the Urim and Thummim was a gem of some kind, in which “a miraculous light verified that the message given by the high priest was indeed from God.”2 C. Houtman likewise considered the object to be “a huge gem.” When inquiring through the Urim and Thummim, the high priest would gaze upon the stone and “God’s will [was] made known to the priest, either in words directly from a heavenly messenger, or in pictures that disclose the future.”3 Through divine spiritual power which penetrates the heart, the high priest was “able ‘to read’ Urim and Thummim, [and] learn YHWH’s will from it.”4

Seer (roeh)

The Hebrew word roeh which means “seer” is applied to Zadok, one of the high priests during the reign of King David (2 Samuel 15:27). The prophet Samuel is also called a roeh (1 Samuel 9:9). The text never states that Samuel used the Urim and Thummim, but his priestly activities, his presiding religious role, and the fact that both he and Zadok are called roeh suggest that the prophet possessed a similar gift.

Samuel’s gift as a seer is shown in his early encounter with Saul and the loss of his father’s asses. Saul and his servant, knowing that Samuel was a seer, went to the prophet to ask where they had gone (1 Samuel 9:3—27). Samuel not only revealed the location of the lost animals, but delivered a detailed prophecy to the future king (1 Samuel 10:1–13). Ann Jeffers observes,

Several ideas about Samuel are interlocked here: Samuel the seer used various methods of divination (“all that he says come true”); he was believed to have the gift of seeing what was happening in places far beyond the range of physical sight and of foreseeing events which would happen in the future. Samuel the prophet received the word of God and declared it. There is also the possible role of Samuel as priest … Samuel was renowned for his ability to see and reveal secrets (past-present-future) and to foresee future events and was also paid for his services. We are not told how this seer obtained his knowledge, only that Yahweh imparted what he saw and knew.5

It is interesting to compare this description with that of Ammon in his words to king Limhi concerning the role of the seer:

But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known. Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore, he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings. (Mosiah 8:17–18)

Seer (hozeh)

Another word, hozeh, can also mean seer. It can be used to refer to seeing in the natural way as well as seeing in a supernatural sense.6 It is applied to persons who served in the royal court, such as the prophets Gad and Jeduthan who are described as seers to the kings (2 Samuel 24:11–13; 2 Chronicles 29:30), as well as other prominent Levitical figures who served in the temple (1 Chronicles 25:5; 2 Chronicles 29:30). According to Jeffers, “this points to a time in the religious history of the Hebrews when divination formed a part of the priestly office.”7

During the time of Ezra, some who claimed priestly descent were unable to prove their genealogy and were not allowed to exercise priestly office. “And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with the Urim and Thummim” (Ezra 2:63). The Syriac translation of this passage is interesting because it omits reference the Urim and Thummim, but reads “a priest who can ask and who can see” (hzʾ).8 The high priest in post-exilic times was understood to have previously been a seer (hozeh), one who could inquire of God through the means provided and receive visual revelation on difficult questions.

Urim and Thummim as Interpreters in the Septuagint

The Septuagint translation (third century BC) uses the Greek word delos instead of Urim in passages where that revelatory object is mentioned in the Hebrew text (Exodus 22:9; 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Numbers 27:21; Deuteronomy 33:8, verse 10; 1 Samuel 28:6). Importantly, delos “has the particular sense of ‘to interpret’ or ‘to explain’” and is used to describe “the interpretation of dreams and visions.”9

Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century manuscript of the Septuagint, written between 330 and 350. Image and caption via britannica.com. 

Teraphim

Biblical scholars have long puzzled over the nature and function of the objects referred to in the Bible as teraphim. Ann Jeffers, in a study of revelatory practices in the ancient Near East, notes that the term “is of disputed derivation and uncertain meaning” and that “close examination of the texts shows that ‘teraphim’ does not consistently designate the same type of object.”10 Some passages in the Hebrew Bible portray these objects negatively, possibly associated with idolatry (2 Kings 23:24; Zech 10:2), while other references are more ambivalent (Genesis 31:19),11 or even suggest that they were once a legitimate part of pre-exilic Israelite religion (Hosea 3:4).

Van Dam argues that teraphim may have once been a substitute for the Urim and Thummim and functioned in a similar way. Like the Urim and Thummim, teraphim were often used in connection with a priestly ephod, and sometimes, though not always, associated with a sanctuary. He suggests that teraphim (as the plural of terep) was derived from the root rpp corresponding to the Arabic root raffa  for “quiver,” but which can also mean “shine, glisten.” (Hebrew verbal roots with several meanings often have corresponding meanings in the Arabic cognates). If this proposal is valid, then teraphim, like the Urim and Thummim, “may have been made of a precious stone with light reflecting qualities.”12

Image via averdadesud.blogspot.com.

Legitimate or Not?

During a time of serious Israelite apostasy, the prophet Hosea prophesied,

For the Israelites shall remain many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim. Afterward the Israelites shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; they shall come in awe to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days. (Hosea 3:4–5 NRSV; emphasis added)

Hosea indicates that certain institutions and objects which once had divine prophetic sanction in ancient Israel (kingship, sacrifice, the ephod, and teraphim) would be taken away during the time of their apostasy. Notably, Hosea “classifies epod and teraphim among the institutions that, like the monarchy and bureaucracy, sacrificial cult and pillar worship, are theologically ambivalent per se; but because they have become a syncretistic danger they must be removed for a time from the susceptible people of God.”13 The teraphim, according to Jeffers, were once “a legitimate method of inquiry to be found in the cultus. The fact that, as punishment, Israel is deprived of their use is sufficient demonstration.”14

Revelatory Objects

Whatever their nature, most scholars believe the teraphim were likely associated with divination or seeking divine revelation.15 Interestingly, the Septuagint translation uses delos for teraphim in Hosea 3:4, the same word that is used in passages which speak of the Urim and Thummum in the Hebrew text. “It is possible,” according to Bray, “that the translator was guessing, or he may have known of some connection between the teraphim and the Urim and Thummim of which we are not now aware.”16

In the Targum for Hosea 3:4, the Aramaic word mhwh is used in place of teraphim. Interestingly, Kevin Cathcart and Robert Gordon translate this term as “interpreters”:

For the people of Israel shall dwell many days with no king from the house of David, and with no one to exercise authority over Israel, no one to offer an acceptable sacrifice in Jerusalem, and no cult pillar in Samaria, no ephod and no interpreters. After that, the people of Israel will return and seek the worship of the Lord their God.17

Similarly, Marcus Jastrow interprets mhwh as having reference to “idolatrous oracles” received by “‘soothsayers’ or ‘seers’ attached to idol worship.”18 The association of teraphim with an Aramaic word meaning oracles or interpreters, as delos does in Greek, suggests that some ancient writers saw teraphim as revelatory objects, capable of discerning the will of God or interpreting His revelations.

An old and rare Jewish interpretation which has been adopted by more recent scholars is that teraphim is the metathesized (altered) form of an earlier term petarim from the verb ptr meaning “to interpret.” In other words, the objects which became known as teraphim were originally called petarim or “interpreters.”

Under this theory, the name of these objects, which were once considered legitimate, was changed by later writers to the more negative term teraphim, perhaps due to the dangers from their unrighteous use. Petarim is also related to a number of other Semitic cognates,19 including the Egyptian verb ptr meaning “to see.”20 Possibly related, Ammon taught that the king in the land of Zarahemla “has wherewith he can look … And the things are called interpreters … and whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer” (Mosiah 8:13).

Replicas of the Nephite interpreters and breastplate, accompanied by other artifacts. Replicas by David Baird. Photograph by Daniel Smith.

Conclusion

Recent biblical research indicates that there was a visual component in the ancient use of the Israelite Urim and Thummim. These findings are consistent with the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teaching that the possession and use of such an object is what constituted seers anciently. Additionally, there is evidence linking the Urim and Thummim and teraphim with terms meaning interpreters (the same term the Nephites used for their seeing instruments), supporting Joseph Smith’s teaching that they were the same class of revelatory objects.

Were Joseph Smith’s Translation Instruments Like the Israelite Urim and Thummim?” (Alma 37:24) KnoWhy 417 (March 20, 2018).

Matthew Roper, “Teraphim and the Urim and Thummim,” Insights: An Ancient Window 20, No 9 (September 2000): 2.

Matthew Roper, “Revelation and the Urim and Thummim,” Insights: An Ancient Window 15, No. 6 (December 1995): 2; Reprinted in John W. Welch, ed., Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1999), 280–282.

JSH 1:35Title Page of the Book of MormonMosiah 8:13Mosiah 8:14Mosiah 8:15Mosiah 8:16Mosiah 8:17Mosiah 8:18Mosiah 28:13Mosiah 28:14Mosiah 28:15Mosiah 28:16Mosiah 28:20Alma 37:21Alma 37:24Ether 4:5JSH 1:35D&C 3:12D&C 17:1

JSH 1:35

Title Page of the Book of Mormon

Mosiah 8:13

Mosiah 8:14

Mosiah 8:15

Mosiah 8:16

Mosiah 8:17

Mosiah 8:18

Mosiah 28:13

Mosiah 28:14

Mosiah 28:15

Mosiah 28:16

Mosiah 28:20

Alma 37:21

Alma 37:24

Ether 4:5

JSH 1:35

D&C 3:12

D&C 17:1

  • 1 In 1832 W.W. Phelps, commenting on Hosea 3:4–5, wrote, “the children of Israel were to remain scattered abroad, without the sacred things which God gave unto them when they were in favor with him, They were even to do without the Teraphim, [Urim & Thummim, perhaps] or sacred spectacles or declarers.” “Hosea Chapter III,” Evening and Morning Star 1, no. 1 (July 1832): 14. In 1833 he wrote that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, “through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles—(known, perhaps in ancient days as teraphim, or Urim and Thummim).” “The Book of Mormon,” Evening and Morning Star 1, no. 8 (January 1833): 57–59. Phelps never said where he got this idea. In another article published in 1841, he called the Urim and Thummim “the spy-glass of a seer” and suggested that teraphim “might with more propriety, be rendered spectacles or spy-glass, and actually mean Urim and Thummim; for neither Laban or Abraham are charged with worshipping ‘images,’ or idols. The Urim and Thummim, Seer Stones, Teraphim, and Images, whatever name is given to them; are found in the United States of America. And when Israel according to the 3rd chapter of Hosea, shall seek the Lord their God in the latter days, the same instruments of the holy offices of God, will be used as formerly. We are coming back to the light ages.” “Despise not Prophesyings,” Times & Seasons 2, no. 7 (February 1, 1841): 298. Because Joseph Smith links Urim and Thummim to the Interpreters in 1838, it is possible that the idea was first suggested to him by Phelps. Alternatively, the 1838 account may indicate that the Prophet’s concept of “Urim and Thummim” as a broader category of sacred revelatory objects was derived from Moroni. Phelps’s speculations could be based upon or influenced by what Joseph heard from Moroni.
  • 2 Cornelis Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 230.
  • 3 Cornelis Houtman, Exodus (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2000), 496.
  • 4 Houtman, Exodus, 497.
  • 5 Ann Jeffers, Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 100.
  • 6 Jeffers, Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria, 35.
  • 7 Jeffers, Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria, 38–39.
  • 8 Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim, 89.
  • 9 Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 2:62.
  • 10 Ann Jeffers, Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria, 222.
  • 11 An old Jewish tradition holds that Jacob’s wife Rachel stole her father Laban’s teraphim in an attempt to prevent him from using them to reveal information about their escape. See Anthony Phillips, Ancient Israel’s Criminal Law (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1970), 60.
  • 12 Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim, 229. He reasons that while the Urim and Thummim “functioned as oracular equipment associated with the legitimate high priestly ephod, the teraphim apparently did so in conjunction with the illegitimate ephods.” Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim, 149.
  • 13 K. Seybold, “Teraphim,” in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. Ernst Jenni and Claus Westerman, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Peabody, MA: Hedrickson, 1997), 1434. Ammon taught king Limhi that the seer must be commanded to look in the interpreters “lest he look for that he ought not, and he should perish” (Mosiah 8:13). The idea that God would, for a time, take away, even some legitimate gifts, due to the dangers they might pose for the unworthy or unprepared is interesting, in light of the teachings of Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders. Joseph Smith, according to Brigham Young, taught that “every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and shall have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it.” “History of Brigham Young,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 26 (February 20, 1864): 118–119. According to Orson Pratt, “there was evidently a danger, lest the Levites should prostitute the sacred use of this holy instrument to trivial and unholy purposes; and by so doing, the gift which was intended as a blessing would become a great curse … They were to appeal to the Holy One, when, and for what purposes to use this divine instrument; they were not to desecrate its use contrary to the will of the Holy One, by inquiring for things which would be improper or forbidden.” Orson Pratt, A Series of Pamphlets (Liverpool: 1852), 73–74.
  • 15 Jeffers, Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria, 226–227.
  • 16 “The balance of opinion does … favour the idea that the teraphim were used in divination.” Jason Bray, Sacred Dan: Religious Tradition and Cultic Practice in Judges 17–18 (New York, NY and London: T&T Clark, 2006), 123.
  • 17 Bray, Sacred Dan, 122.
  •  Kevin J. Cathcart and Robert P. Gordon, eds., trans., The Targum of the Minor Prophets (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987), 35n.4.
  • 18 Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature (Brooklyn, NY: Judaic Press, 2004), 2:758; Cathcart and Gordon, The Targum of the Minor Prophets, 35n.4.
  • 19 Ptr apparently has the same root as the Aramaic psr (“dissolve”, figuratively “solve” or “interpret.” Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 837. The Aramaic meaning is always given as “interpret,” while its metathesized form prs means “distinguish, disclose.” Franz Rosenthal, An Aramaic Handbook (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassiwitz, 1967), Part I, 70; Part II, 9, 50, 78, 101. There is also Arabic fasara, meaning “discover, detect, reveal, disclose.” Edward William Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (London: Williams & Norgate, 1863), 239, which is rendered in modern standard Arabic as “to explain, expound, explicate, elucidate, interpret.” Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Arabic, ed., J. Milton Cowan (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966), 713.
  • 20 Adolf Erman and Herman Grapow, Worterbuch der Aegyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1926–1961), I 564, 1.
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