Evidence #5 | September 19, 2020

Urim and Thummim

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The Nephite interpreters have several similarities with the form and function of the biblical Urim and Thummim.

The Nephite Interpreters and Breastplate

When Joseph Smith first began translating the Book of Mormon in 1828, he utilized “two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.”1 Joseph received these artifacts, known as the Nephite interpreters, at the same time that he was entrusted with the gold plates.2  

Replica made by Brian Westover. Photo by Daniel Smith.

In an 1891 interview (first published in 1924), Joseph Smith’s younger brother William reportedly stated that the stones were connected to a rod that could be attached to the breastplate and used like a pair of spectacles.3 For convenience, however, Joseph may soon have removed at least one of these stones from its holder and placed it in a hat to shield it from ambient light as he looked upon it.4 For instance, in 1829 an article appeared in the Palmyra Freeman (reprinted in the Rochester Advertiser) apparently quoting Joseph himself: “By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.”5 On other occasions, Joseph used what has come to be called a seer stone.6 The Prophet himself declined to explain the specifics of the translation process except to repeatedly say that it was accomplished by the gift and power of God.7 

Whatever the particular details may have been, it is clear that the breastplate and interpreters were linked artifacts and that they were prepared for the purpose of translation.8 It didn’t take long for the early Saints to notice that Joseph’s interpreters and seer stones were in some ways similar to the Urim and Thummim from the Old Testament, and soon these terms were used interchangeably.9 Joseph himself used the term “Urim and Thummim” as a reference to these devices as early as 1836.10 Readers may wonder, though, just how related these Old and New World artifacts really were.

Similar Modes of Revelation

Most scholars over the past few centuries have believed that the Urim and Thummim was “used merely to obtain a yes or no answer, similar to casting lots.”11 Yet biblical scholar Cornelis Van Dam has argued that there “was something very lively and direct”12 about the Urim and Thummim’s revelatory process and that “[p]rophetic inspiration is the only revelatory means that is known that can adequately account for the complexity and subtlety of some of the answers received.”13 Similarly, Joseph Smith was able to receive detailed revelations from the Lord through the Nephite interpreters. Several early revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received through this device.14

A replica of the Biblical Urim and Thummim as a form of casting lots of "yes" or "no." Image via ekacquah.me.

Similarities with the Breastplate of Judgment

The book of Exodus indicates that the Urim and Thummim was associated with a ceremonial breastplate worn by the high priest in ancient Israel, called the Breastplate of Judgment. Exodus 28:30 states that the Urim and Thummim was supposed to be put “in the breastplate of judgment” (emphasis added) and that it would be “upon Aaron’s heart, when he goeth in before the Lord.” Van Dam has argued that although the evidence isn’t conclusive, there are good reasons to suspect that the breastplate was “designed to provide a pouch in which the [Urim and Thummim] … could be kept.”15 

The fact that the Nephite interpreters were also accompanied by a breastplate establishes at least a general relationship between the two revelatory devices. Interestingly, Van Dam’s statements about a pouch for the Urim and Thummim possibly being a feature of the Breastplate of Judgment nicely corresponds with William Smith’s description of a “pocket [that] was prepared in the [Nephite] breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not in use the [interpreters were] placed in this pocket, the rod being of just the right length to allow it to be so deposited.”16 

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

Stones, Light, and Letters

The terms Urim and Thummim possibly mean “light(s)” and “perfection(s).”17 A number of sources indicate that the divine object to which they referred was associated with a sacred name and that its revelatory power was facilitated by gemstones, light, and even illuminated letters.18 For instance, in discussing Exodus 28:30, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan states that “you shall put into the breastplate the Urim, which illuminate their words and make manifest the hidden things of the House of Israel.”19 

According to Van Dam,

Ramban suggested that certain letters of the breastpiece lit up, and that lighted letters would then need to be arranged correctly by the high priest. The Zohar took this notion a step further, mentioning that the face of the high priest shone if the luminous letters conveyed a favorable message. The interpretation of [Urim and Thummim] as shining protruding letters is also found in Christian interpretation.20 

These various understandings correspond well with accounts of Joseph’s translation method. When asked what appeared to Joseph Smith’s view during the translation process, David Whitmer explained that Joseph would see “what appeared like an oblong piece of parchment, on which the hieroglyphics would appear, and also the translation in the English language, all appearing in bright luminous letters.”21 On other occasions he referred to them as “letters of fire”22 and said that the “letters appeared on [the stone] in light.”23 Joseph Knight said that words looked like “bright Roman letters.”24 Late in her life, Sally Conrad (who worked at the Whitmer home as a girl) reported that after translation sessions Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery sometimes appeared “exceedingly white and strange.”25 

Translating with Oliver. Image by Anthony Sweat.

Conclusion

There will likely continue to be scholarly debates about what the biblical Urim and Thummim was and how it functioned. Yet non-Latter-day Saint scholars such as Van Dam have fairly recently been reaching conclusions that strengthen the possible links between the Urim and Thummim and the Nephite interpreters.26 While there are nuanced differences between these items,27 each was associated with gemstones, a breastplate, light, illuminating letters, and a lively mode of prophetic revelation.28  

Assuming that Joseph Smith wasn’t aquainted with arcane lore about the biblical Urim and Thummim, this set of unexpectedly specific parallels provides at least circumstantial evidence that the Nephite interpreters and breastplate were genuine ancient artifacts. This, in turn, increases the plausibility of Joseph Smith’s claim that an ancient set of plates accompanied the Nephite interpreters, and that he used these instruments to translate the writing on the plates by the gift and power of God. 

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

Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 61–140.

Roger Nicholson, “The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 5 (2013): 136–139.

John A. Tvedtnes, “Glowing Stones in Ancient and Medieval Lore,” in The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: “Out of Darkness Unto Light” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 195–225.

Matt Roper, “Revelation and the Urim and Thummim,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 280–282.

Mosiah 8:13, 19Mosiah 28:20Alma 37:21–24Ether 4:5

Mosiah 8:13, 19

Mosiah 28:20

Alma 37:21–24

Ether 4:5

  • 1 John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Timing of the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd edition (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2017), 138, doc. 28.
  • 2 See Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 6–7.
  • 3 See MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 88–90.
  • 4 See MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 89: “Outside of pulling the straps tighter, the breastplate was neither adjustable nor easy to work with, and the Book of Mormon explained that it was ‘large.’ Frustrated, Joseph apparently stopped using it even before Emma ever started writing for him. By having the spectacles connected to the breastplate, there was no way of adjusting them back and forth to achieve the optimum viewing distance.”
  • 5 Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 192, doc. 122. Apparently, the hat helped block out ambient room light and allowed Joseph to more clearly see the illuminated words through the stone. See also, Richard E. Turley Jr., Robin S. Jensen, and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph the Seer,” Ensign, October 2015, online at lds.org; “Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics, online at lds.org.
  • 6 See MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 65–71; “Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics Essays, online at churchofjesuschrist.org.
  • 7 See, for example, Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 130–140, docs. 9, 10, 11, 16, 20, 21, 22, 26, 28, 32.
  • 8 See MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 88–89.
  • 9 See Roger Nicholson, “The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 5 (2013): 136–139.
  • 10 Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 135, 140, docs. 23, 32.
  • 11 Matt Roper, “Revelation and the Urim and Thummim,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 280.
  • 12 Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim, 216.
  • 13 Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim, 217.
  • 14 Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,”121–125.
  • 15 See Cornelis Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 155; for Van Dam’s full argument see pp. 154–160.
  • 16 Peterson and Pender, interview of William Smith, 7, as cited in MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 89. As previously noted, the interview in which William made these statements was from 1891, which was late in his life, and it wasn’t reported until 1924. 
  • 17 Although there is no scholarly consensus on the etymology of these words, Van Dam has argued that “light(s)” and “perfection(s)” is likely their meaning in the Masoretic Text of the Bible. Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim, 136.
  • 18 See Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim, 9–38.
  • 19 Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim, 23.
  • 20 Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim, 32.
  • 21 Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 170, doc. 91.
  • 22 Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 173, doc. 96.
  • 23 Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 169, doc. 90.
  • 24 Welch, “The Miraculous Timing,” 189, doc. 119.
  • 25 Welch, Opening the Heavens, 185. See also Mark L. McConkie, Remembering Joseph (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2003), 248–249; Book of Mormon Central, “How Can Sally Conrad’s Witness of the Book of Mormon Strengthen Our Faith? (Alma 37:23),” KnoWhy 385 (November 28, 2017).
  • 26 For other relevant publications, see C. Houtman, “The Urim and Thummim: A New Suggestion,” Vetus Testamentum 40 (April 1990): 231; Shimon Bakon, “The Mystery of the Urim Ve-Tummum,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 43, no. 4 (2015): 241–245.
  • 27 It should be noted that Joseph’s conception of a Urim and Thummim was fairly broad. He taught that the “place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim” and that “this earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:9). Moreover, he taught that the “white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one …. And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word” (Doctrine & Covenants 130:10). Thus, there is no reason to assume that a one-to-one relationship would exist for artifacts from different continents. This may be an example of how God often communicates to separate individuals or groups of people in similar—yet not exactly the same—ways. As Nephi declared, God speaks “unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3).
  • 28 For information on the connection between Joseph Smith, his seer stone, and the name Gazelem, see MacKay and Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, 68–69. See also Alma 37:23–24; 2 Nephi 3:15. While the correspondences between the Urim and Thummim and Joseph Smith’s translation instruments are intriguing, these parallels alone don’t necessarily establish the ancient descriptions of the Urim and Thummim as being certainly accurate or valid.
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