Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Teraphim and the Urim and Thummim

This is an article found on the BYU/FARMS website as published by Matthew Roper, posted with permission. Please let us know your comments and insight.

Teraphim and the Urim and Thummim

Biblical scholars have long puzzled over the nature and function of objects referred to as “teraphim” in the biblical record. A recent study of divination practices in the ancient Near East notes that the term “is of disputed derivation and uncertain meaning” and that in the biblical text it “does not consistently designate the same type of object.” Yet evidence in Hosea 3:4 (8th century B.C.) suggests that, in the preexilic Israelite religion, the teraphim may once have been considered “a legitimate method” of divination until they were taken away from Israel during a period of discipline.1

In a recent study, Cornelius Van Dam argues that in ancient Israel the teraphim were a substitute for the Urim and Thummim and may have functioned in a similar way. He suggests that teraphim (plural of terep) derived from the root rpp, which corresponds to the Arabic root raffa (“quiver”) but can also mean “shine, glisten.”2 If so, teraphim, like the Urim and Thummim, “may have been made of a precious stone with light-reflecting qualities.”3 Van Dam thinks that teraphim had a revelatory function in early Israel and that they may later have been replaced by the Urim and Thummim, or “perfect light.”4

Similarly, the Book of Mormon prophets associated the Nephite interpreters (two stones consecrated to God for revelatory purposes) or their function with the concept of light. For example, we read about “Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light” and “bring to light” all the secret abominations of the people who possessed the land (Alma 37:23, 25). Moroni used similar language in describing how the Nephite record would be brought forth in the latter days (Mormon 8:15–16).

Other biblical scholars suggest that teraphim is the altered metathesized form of an earlier term, petarim, from the verb ptr, “to interpret.”5 This would mean the teraphim were originally called “interpreters.” Under this theory, while the use of teraphim may have been a legitimate method of divination in early Israelite times, later biblical writers gave these oracular instruments a name with a more negative connotation, teraphim.

In addition to its similarities to Aramaic psr and Arabic fassara, both of which can mean “interpret,” ptr appears to be related to the Egyptian verb ptr, “to see.”6 Both meanings are consistent with Ammon’s explanation in Mosiah 8:13 of the sacred instruments that King Mosiah used to translate ancient records.

In contrast to biblical commentators of the day, who viewed teraphim only as idolatrous images,7 early Mormon writer W. W. Phelps suggested that teraphim may have sometimes fulfilled a positive role and were similar in form and function to the Urim and Thummim possessed by Israel’s high priest. In the light of more recent studies of these objects, Phelps’s suggested connection between the Old Testament teraphim and the Book of Mormon interpreters utilized by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the translation of the Book of Mormon seems entirely plausible.8


1. Ann Jeffers, Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria (1996), 222–27.

2. Cornelius Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Study of an Old Testa-ment Means of Revelation (1997), 228–29.

3. Ibid., 229. See John A. Tvedtnes, “Glowing Stones in Ancient and Medieval Lore,” appendix 2 in The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books (2000), 195–225.

4. Van Dam, Urim and Thummin, 229.

5. C. J. Lubuschagne, “Teraphim: A New Proposal for Its Etymology,” Vetus Testamentum 16 (Jan. 1966): 115–17.

6. Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, W├Ârterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache (1935–53), 1:564.

7. Thomas C. Upham, Jahn’s Biblical Archaeology (1823), 528–29.

8. W. W. Phelps, “Hosea Chapter III," Evening and Morning Star 1/2 (July 1832): 6; “Despise Not Prophesyings,” Times and Seasons 2/7 (1 Feb. 1841): 298. See Tvedtnes, "Glowing Stones,” 209–10.

By Matthew Roper

Abraham and the Urim and Thummim

This is an artice posted with permission by John A. Tvedtnes (M.A. in Linguistics and M.A. in Middle East Studies (Hebrew), University of Utah) a senior resident scholar with the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts at Brigham Young University.

The Book of Abraham informs us that Abraham “had the Urim and Thummim,” by means of which he “saw the stars.” “And the Lord said unto me, by the Urim and Thummim, that Kolob was after the manner of the Lord, according to its times and seasons in the revolutions thereof” (Abraham 3:1-4).
The Bible associates the urim and thummim with the Israelite high priest, but never suggests that Abraham possessed this instrument of divine revelation. It is significant, however, that some early nonbiblical Jewish writings concur with the Book of Abraham on this issue.
The latter part of Esther 1:6 speaks of several types of stone, two of which are called dar and socheret. These are rendered “white” and “black” in the King James Bible, but the real meaning is unknown, since this is the only place the two Hebrew words are used in the Bible. Jewish tradition holds that they were precious stones (TB Megillah 12a). The Bahir, an early Jewish kabbalistic work, explains,

This is the measure of all merchandise (Sechorah) in the world. It is also the power of the precious stones that are called Socheret and Dar.
And upon what is the attribute of Dar?
This teaches us that God took a thousandth of its radiance, and from it He constructed a beautiful precious stone. In it He included all the commandments.
Abraham came, and He sought a power to give him. He gave him this precious stone, but he did not want it. (Bahir 190)

From Abraham 1:2, 4, we learn that the power that Abraham sought was the priesthood. It seems that the two stones he received were associated with that power. Bahir 192 continues,

[It is written that Abraham kept], “My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.” He said, “Since I do not want [the precious stone], I will keep all the commandments that are included in it.”
What is the meaning of “My Torahs”? This teaches us that he knew and kept even the decisions (Horah) and discussions that are taught on high.

Abraham did, indeed, learn of discussions from “on high.” Abraham 3 records his vision of the heavens and of pre-earth life, revealed via the urim and thummim. Abraham 4-5 records his vision of the creation of the earth, including the discussions and decisions of “the Gods.”
The Talmud supports the idea that Abraham possessed a miraculous stone.

R. Eliezer the Modiite said that Abraham possessed a power of reading the stars for which he was much sought after by the potentates of East and West. R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Abraham had a precious stone hung round his neck which brought immediate healing to any sick person who looked on it, and when Abraham our father departed from this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, suspended it from the orb of the sun. (TB Baba Bathra 16b)

Although the stone in question is said to have been used for healing purposes, it is interesting that it immediately follows a statement about Abraham’s astronomical capabilities which, according to Abraham 3:1, he acquired in part through the stones known as the urim and thummim. In this connection, we note that the translator of the Talmud passage indicated “A variant rendering: ‘He possessed an astrological instrument.’”
Jewish tradition holds that Abraham possessed glowing gems and pearls, reminding us that ancient texts also describe the urim and thummim as glowing stones.
The early Jewish texts that discuss Abraham’s possession of miraculous stones had not yet been translated into English in Joseph Smith’s day, and are hence valuable evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.

[1]Aryeh Kaplan, The Bahir (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1989), 75.
[2] Ibid., 77.
[3] Rabbi Dr. I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud, 18 vols., (London: Soncino Press, 1961), 83-84.

[4] Ibid., note.

[5] Louis Ginzberg, ed., Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1937), 1:298, 5:265 n. 312.
[6] See the discussion in John A. Tvedtnes, The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: Out of Darkness Unto Light (Provo: FARMS, 2000), 198-208.