Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Urim and Thummim

      The means by which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon is the subject of frequent criticism. Smith said that he found the ancient records which he translated as the Book of Mormon buried in a stone box, and "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 1:35).
      Many critics have ridiculed Smith's account of seer stones as merely absurd, but others have gone so far as to claim that it constitutes witchcraft. God, they say, does not use physical objects as a medium of revelation. That smacks of crystal balls and other devilish fortune-telling practices, like "wizards that peep, and that mutter" (Isaiah 8:19).
      But as it turns out, the Urim and Thummim is actually biblical. Although biblical scholars today are uncertain as to exactly what sort of objects they were, it is clear that they were small devices that the Levite High Priest wore on his ceremonial breastplate "when he goeth in before the LORD" (Exodus 28:30). They were used to receive direction from God (Numbers 27:21) but had no innate power or supernatural properties; they only functioned by the power of God. They would not reveal anything to Saul when he was wicked (1 Samuel 28:6). The possession and use of the Urim and Thummim was one sign of a true prophet (Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65).
      This interpretation is not uniquely Mormon. Virtually every major Bible dictionary concurs. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary says that the Urim and Thummim was "a device consulted by the chief priest (in an unexplained manner) to determine God's response to "yes" or "no" questions asked by the leader of the people." The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible adds, "In connection with the Urim and Thummim, the high priest learned the will of God in doubtful cases...The answer was usually quite simple, often a mere affirmation or denial, or a choice of 1 tribe or place out of several; but it was not always so." The NIV Study Bible comments, "They were sacred lots and were often used in times of crisis to determine the will of God...their "every decision" was "from the LORD"" (note for Exodus 28:30).
      It is significant that Joseph Smith claimed such an obscure means of receiving revelation from God—if any doubt the obscurity of the Urim and Thummim, remember that many anti-Mormon critics are apparently unaware that they are mentioned in the Bible!—and that his claims on the matter should be so consistent with what biblical scholars believe.

In summary
Argument: Joseph Smith's use of the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon show that the book is not of God, but was produced through witchcraft.
Response: The Bible says that the Urim and Thummim was a legitimate means by which the ancient Israelites received revelation from God, and mainstream Christian scholars agree.

References
Achtemeier, Paul J. 1996. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Gehman, Henry Snyder. 1970. The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Barker, Kenneth L. 2002. NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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