Monday, December 4, 2023

The Urim and Thummim narratives

My book Infinite Goodness includes a section on the Urim and Thummim. It's a useful overview of the narratives about the Urim and Thummim that I want to be able to refer to people, so I'm posting that section from the book here, with an additional link not in the book.

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Urim and Thummim.
Jonathan Edwards’ observations about the “Urim and Thummim” may shed light on some unresolved questions in Church history.

Throughout this book, we’ve noted alternative faithful narratives for the Book of Mormon: translation (U&T) vs. vision (SITH). Statements by both Joseph and Oliver suggest it was Moroni who used the term “Urim and Thummim” when explaining the existence of the plates and how Joseph would translate them. For example,

 

He also informed me that the Urim & Thummim was hid up with the record, and that God would give me power to translate it with the assistance of this instrument; he then gradually vanished out of my sight or the vision closed.[1]

 

However, neither the text of the Book of Mormon nor any extant documentation prior to 1832 refers by name to the Urim and Thummim. The text refers to “interpreters” while early documentation refers to “spectacles.” This leaves believers to speculate about the origin of the term as applied to the Nephite interpreters/spectacles, particularly Moroni’s use of a biblical term that involved a much different relic.

The earliest known published account of the translation is from August 11, 1829, six weeks after the translation was completed in the Palmyra Freeman. The article titled “Golden Bible” included this passage:

Its proselytes give the following account… By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret the characters.[2]

This article was republished in the Niagara Courier on August 27, 1829, the Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph on August 31, 1829, and the Painesville [Ohio] Telegraph on September 22, 1829.

A separate article published in Rochester on September 5, 1829, directly attributes the account to Martin Harris.

A man by the name of Martin Harris was in this village a few days since endeavoring to make a contract for printing a large quantity of a work called the Golden Bible. He gave something like the following account of it.... By placing the spectacles in a hat and looking into it, Smith interprets the characters into the English language.[3]

The reliability and precision of these early accounts (“he gave something like”) is questionable. No one could have seen Joseph put the Urim and Thummim into a hat because Joseph had been forbidden from displaying the interpreters until the translation was complete. That’s why Joseph used a stone during the demonstration.

Perhaps Martin said “stone” and the reporter conflated it with prior accounts about the “spectacles.” Whether and how much earlier events, rumors, and misunderstanding influenced these newspaper articles is impossible to say.

In his 1832 History, Joseph Smith wrote “the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore.” His scribe Frederick G. Williams continued the sentence: “I commenced translating the characters.”[4] Translating characters isn’t merely reading words off a stone in a hat.

That Joseph did not use the term “Urim and Thummim” in the 1832 history does not mean that the term was not in circulation at that point. “Spectacles” is a shorter and more descriptive term, perhaps more appropriate in the brief 1832 history.

Joseph had apparently used the term Urim and Thummim at least by the time he wrote his 1832 history. The earliest known documented historical reference connecting the “Urim and Thummim” to the Book of Mormon dates to August 1832, roughly concurrent with Joseph’s 1832 history. An article in the Boston Investigator from August 5, 1832,[5] reported a question-and-answer sequence with Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith who were serving as missionaries in Boston.

 

Q.-By whom was a fac simile of some part of the language and characters taken, and on what material.

A.-It was taken by Joseph Smith on paper from the original plates themselves….

Q.-In what manner was the interpretation, or translation made known, and by whom was it written?

A.-It was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim; and was written partly by Oliver Cowdery, and partly by Martin Harris.

Q.-What do you mean by Urim and Thummim?

A.-The same as were used by the prophets of old, which were two crystal stones, placed in bows something in the form of spectacles, which were found with the plates.

Q.-What became of the plates after the translation was made?

A.-They were delivered into the hands of the angel of the Lord by whom they were afterwards shown to the three witnesses, who have testified to that effect.

Q.-At what place was the translation made?

A.-Partly at Manchester, Ontario county, N.Y. where the plates were found, and partly on the banks of the Susquehannah river in Pennsylvania.

[Note: this error confuses Fayette with Manchester, likely an error by the reporter.]

Q.-How many were present at the time and who?

A.-Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris-and several others at least part of the time whose names were mentioned but not taken down.

[Note: this is evidence that this exchange was not recorded verbatim.]

Q.-When were the plates seen by the eight who saw them, and who have testified to that fact; before they were translated, or since?

A.-They were seen at different times while they were in the hands of Joseph Smith and during the time of their translation.

[Note: This is another error or misunderstanding because the witnesses did not see the plates until after the translation was completed.]

Q.-Did they see the fac simile also, and if so, did they compare the fac simile with the plates to see if they agreed?

A.-They saw the fac simile also, but did not compare it with the plates to see whether it agreed or not.

 

The missionaries’ response uses a phrase identical to the one Joseph used in the 1842 Wentworth letter. “Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God.”[6] That phrase could be coincidental, but it also suggests that that Joseph was the common source; i.e., that his brother Samuel and/or Orson Hyde learned about the Urim and Thummim from Joseph.

Some scholars conclude that the phrase “Urim and Thummim” was adopted years after Moroni’s first visit, but both Joseph and Oliver published accounts depicting Moroni himself as having used the term.

He [Moroni] said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants;

Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.

(Joseph Smith—History 1:34–35)

In 1835, Oliver, who had kept a notebook of what Joseph told him starting in April 1829, related what Moroni told Joseph during their first encounter in 1823.

He [Moroni] said this history was written and deposited not far from that place, and that it was our brother’s privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.[7]

Nothing in the historical record contradicts what Joseph and Oliver taught in these examples. Moroni could have used the term whether Joseph published it or not. Evidently, at least by summer of 1832 Orson and Samuel had heard about it from someone.

On top of the vague chronology of events, we wonder why Moroni would have called the interpreters the “Urim and Thummim.”

Scholars have long observed that the Urim and Thummim described by Joseph Smith differs from the Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Bible. There are only a few references in the Bible.

30 ¶ And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goeth in before the Lord: and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually. (Exodus 28:30)

8 And he put the breastplate upon him: also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim. (Leviticus 8:8–9)

8 ¶ And of Levi he said, Let thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one, whom thou didst prove at Massah, and with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; (Deuteronomy 33:8)

63 And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim. (Ezra 2:63)

65 And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and Thummim. (Nehemiah 7:65)

These obscure passages don’t explain much. The biblical Urim and Thummim was “put in” the breastplate and the priest could stand up with them. There is no suggestion of “spectacles” such as those Joseph found with the plates or any connection to a “seer” here.[8]  

A good summary of biblical interpretations is here: https://www.biblestudy.org/bible-study-by-topic/the-urim-and-thummim.html

Even assuming Joseph was familiar with these biblical passages, it would have been confusing for Moroni to use the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the Nephite interpreters. However, Joseph’s understanding of the Urim and Thummim was not necessarily limited to what he could read in the Bible. Jonathan Edwards discussed the Urim and Thummim in several passages in the 1808 edition of his work. He pointed out that:

(i) the ancient priests determined matters by Urim and Thummm,

(ii) that the Jews had lost the Urim and Thummim,

(iii) that it was something by which the high priest inquired of God and receive immediate answers from him,

(iv) that God revealed himself by Urim and Thummim.

These characteristics roughly fit the Nephite interpreters, or spectacles, which had been prepared to enable Joseph to translate the plates. In a sense, the translation process required Joseph to inquire of God and receive answers. If Moroni referred to the spectacles as “Urim and Thummim,” Joseph could have understood the term as explained by Edwards: a means for getting answers from God and an object that had been lost to the Jews (although once he translated the plates, he would learn that the interpreters originated with the brother of Jared).

Other Christian writers offered brief explanations of the Urim and Thummim, but Edwards wrote enough about the topic to support Moroni’s use of the term (assuming Joseph read Edwards’ writings). Edwards pointed out that there was no account of the Urim and Thummim “being ever restored.” Moroni putting the interpreters with the plates could be seen as restoring the Urim and Thummim.

Again another thing that was lost that the Jews had before was the Urim and Thummim . This is evident by Ezra 2:63, "And the Tirshatha [said unto them], that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there should stand up a priest with Urim and with Thummim." And we have no account of this being ever restored, but the ancient writings of the Jews say the contrary. What this Urim and Thummim was I shall not now inquire, but only shall observe that it was something by which the high priest inquired of God and received immediate answers from him, or by which God gave forth immediate oracles on particular occasions. This was now withdrawn, the time approaching when Christ, the great antitype of the Urim and Thummim, the great word and oracle of God, was to come… 

And it was of vast importance that we should have an inspired history of these times of the Jewish church wherein there was kept up a more extraordinary intercourse between God and them, and while he used to dwell among them, as it were, visibly revealing himself to them by the Shekinah, by Urim and Thummim, and by prophecy, and so more immediately to order their affairs….

It was by the Urim and the Thummim that the high priest was especially furnished to make intercession for the people, and to reveal the mind and will[9] of God to them. The Urim and Thummim had their principal importance, as they were typical, and represented the perfection, and merit, the light, and glory, there are in Christ.

Another puzzle involving the Urim and Thummim is the expanded application of the term around 1843 (D&C 130). In the early years of the Church, the term meant the Nephite interpreters. The 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed distinguished between the Urim and Thummim and the “peep stone” that some people claimed Joseph put in a hat to see the words he dictated to his scribes. In response to Mormonism Unvailed, Oliver Cowdery emphasizes that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim. (JS-H 1:71, note 1). Subsequent teachings by Joseph and Oliver reaffirmed this point.

On April 2, 1843, however, Joseph taught that “the placed where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim,” that the earth “will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon,” and “the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17 will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one.” Although not presented as revelation, these teachings have been canonized as such.

Perhaps Joseph was influenced by comments Jonathan Edwards made in his notebooks of ideas and insights that he drew upon for his sermons and treatises. Some, but not all, of these Miscellanies[10] were published in the 1830 10-volume collection of The Works of President Edwards, edited by his grandson Sereno Edwards Dwight.

Entry number 240 discusses the Urim and Thummim. I’m not aware that it was published in whole or in part prior to 1843, or whether Joseph would have had access to it if it was published, but Edwards’ here explains that in his view, the term referred not to specific objects but to the spiritual power to prophesy and obtain divine responses. This expanded concept of the term is congruent with what Joseph taught, so it’s worth considering. I’ve highlighted relevant portions in bold.

 

240. URIM AND THUMMIM.

There has been great inquiry, what was that urim and thummim that was in the breastplate of the high priest, whereas I think we have it plainly described in Exodus 28:17–21. …

Every jewel stood for a tribe, and had the name of that tribe written on it that it stood for. God's people are called his jewels. So Christ bears our judgment; that is, he is our representative in judgment and, as to God's dealings with respect to his law, he stands for us.

The name "urim and thummim" signifies light and perfection; and it being 'tis the plural number, may more properly be rendered "glisterings" (or "brightnesses") and "beauties," because of the charming appearances that the jewels made by their different kinds of glisterings, and the beautiful proportion of their different colors. …

The use of it seems to be much the same with the plate of gold on the miter mentioned in Exodus 28:36, whereon was engraved "holiness to the Lord"; which the high priest was to have on his forehead, that he might bear the iniquity of the children of Israel, and that he might be accepted when he came in before the Lord (as Exodus 28:38). By the urim and thummim he was to bear the judgment of the children of Israel on his heart; by this plate of gold he was to bear the iniquity of the children of Israel on his head. 

We find them both mentioned after the same manner, where we have an account of Moses putting the holy garments upon Aaron, as in Leviticus 8:8–9, …

But if the objection be allowed, all that it can argue is that the urim and thummim was not any material thing, but a power given to the breastplate of foretelling or of obtaining divine responses. 

For we can't imagine in reason, that any material thing was expected to be sent down from heaven, to be put into the breastplate; but Leviticus 8:8 proves it was [a] material thing.

Therefore, if they had those jewels in the breastplate at that time, the reason of their speaking in this manner must be, because they did not think them worthy the name of urim and thummim till they had such a power given them as the former urim and thummim had.



[2] “Golden Bible,” The Freeman, August 11, 1829, online at http://www.olivercowdery.com/smithhome/Phelps/1829_0811PF-pg2.gif

[3] “A Golden Bible,” The Gem, of Literature and Science, Rochester, NY, September 5, 1829, Vol. I, No. 9, online at http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/ny/miscNYSf.htm

[4] Joseph Smith, History, circa Summer 1832, online at https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/5

[6] “Church History,” Times and Seasons, March 1, 1842, online at https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/2

[7] Oliver Cowdery, “Letter IV,” History, 1834-1836, p. 64, online at https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1834-1836/68

[8] Jewish traditions have various understandings, ranging from the Urim and Thummim as lots or dice cast for divination to their being illuminated words or jewels on the breastplate that formed words. Whether Joseph was familiar with this speculation is unknown but unlikely. See Trevan G. Hatch, “Magic, Biblical Law, and the Israelite Urim and Thummim,” Studia Antiqua 5, no. 2 (2007). https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/studiaantiqua/vol5/iss2/10  

 

[9] The non-biblical phrase “mind and will” appears only in D&C 133:61 (November 3, 1831). “And this according to the mind and will of the Lord.”

[10] A complete list of the Miscellanies is available here: http://edwards.yale.edu/research/misc-index.


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