#153. Who judges the people: the Aaronid priests OR the Levites OR the elders OR the prohets? (Ex 28:30; Lev 13; Num 5:16-28 vs Deut 17:8-13 vs Ex 18:13-26 vs 1 Sam 7:15, etc.)
#154. Who carries the Urim and the Thummim: the Aaronid high priest OR the Levites? (Ex 28:30 vs Deut 33:8-10)


As a composite text of competing ideologies and theologies, the Bible—the creation of a later generation of readers living centuries after these once individual texts were written (see What is the Bible?)—preserves multiple origin stories relating the establishment of its judiciary and who ministers judgment. Indeed, these competing texts do share one definable common feature: Yahweh is the ultimate Judge. It is he who judges. But what is variously represented in the Bible’s competing sources is who, or which group, functions as Yahweh’s viceroy: the elders, the prophets, the Levites, or the Aaronids?

The Elohist law code (Ex 21-23) implies that it is the elders who pass judgement. This is specifically apparent in the origin story of the judiciary in Exodus 18:13-26 (cf. Deut 1:15-18). On the other hand, the Deuteronomic source specifies that it is the Levites who pass judgement in judicial matters (Deut 17:8-13).

Older material preserved in the books of Samuel place the responsibility of judgment on the prophet, who is also the judge. It is instructive to note that there exists a marked tension between traditions that represent prophets as Yahweh’s mediators and judges, such as those found in the books of Samuel, and traditions that represent the priests, whether Levites in general or solely Aaronids, as Yahweh’s mediators and judges, such as we find in the Deuteronomic and Priestly sources respectively. In fact, these two traditions—prophets or priests—are at odds with one another. Is it the priests who function as Yahweh’s mediators or is it the prophets?

In the older traditions preserved in the books of Samuel, Samuel, prophet and judge, is also portrayed as officiating over Yahweh’s sacrifices and at various different altars throughout the land—in other words, in utter contradiction to the cultic legislation outlined in Exodus 29-40 and Leviticus 1-9 and 17! This picture has provided scholars with some of the strongest evidence against a Mosaic date for the composition of the pro-Aaronid cultic legislation laid out in the book of Leviticus. Frankly speaking, this legislation was not yet penned, as the whole history in the books of Samuel and Kings attest. It is post-Mosaic by at least a millennium! (For further discussion see the section titled “Nineteenth century scholarship: post-Mosaic by centuries” in How the Bible was discovered to be a collection of contradictory texts).

In the later 6th century BC Priestly literature, only the Aaronid priests can function as Yahweh’s judges and minister over Yahweh’s sacrifices (#148-149). In fact, in all of P there are no prophets! Rather it is the Aaronid priests who mediate the god’s will and graces. The only mention of the word “prophet” in P is in Exodus 7:1, where it is used figuratively and applied to Aaron!

This difference between priests and prophets is telling. It is the difference between conflicting traditions and worldviews. It should not be surprising that the Bible, which is rather a collection of competing and conflicting traditions stretching across centuries, should bear witness to these contradictory worldviews and ideologies.

Again, such apparently minute differences in the conception of Israel’s judiciary system is actually indicative of the larger theological and ideological differences and contradictions that ensued between the various different biblical scribes and their texts. The Priestly literature proposes a theocracy, at the center of which stands the Aaronid high priest. He not only judges all matters, ritual and ethical, but more so functions as Yahweh’s anointed representative on earth. He atones sins, mediates between Yahweh’s holiness and purity and the people. The whole social structure and worldview inherit in this Priestly literature is constructed on the idea of sacred space. Whether this worldview was merely idealistic and theoretical or whether it was actually implemented is debatable. But in the Priestly literature written by the Aaronid priestly guild, it was the priests who sat at the authoritative center. This should not come as a surprise. There is additionally no mention of kings in this corpus of literature, which als adds fuel to the hypothesis that this was penned in the exilic era, i.e., after the monarchy had fallen. This should not come as a surprise.

Lastly, in the Priestly literature, the Urim and Thummim are part of the Aaronid’s priestly garments and is worn on the “breastplate of judgement” (Ex 28:30; Lev 8:8). These are part of his anointed holy garments. Only the Aaronid high priest is able to touch them and use them to pass judgement (Num 27:21; cf. Ezra 2:63; Neh 7:65).

The Deuteronomic literature, however, speaks of the Urim and Thummim as belonging to the Levites in general and deny any type “holy” or anointed attribute to them. They were probably conceived of in similar terms to how they were viewed in the book of Samuel. It was probably some sort of binary divination, where Yahweh was seen as responding yea or nay to a particular question. In Samuel 28:5-6, Saul attempts to consult the Urim and Thummim to ascertain whether he should do battle against the Philistines or not. Unfortunately at this point in Saul’s beleaguered career, Yahweh no longer communicates with him. The Urim and Thummim were symbolic of divine judgement and were carried or used by the Aaronid priest, Levite, or prophet depending on which tradition we’re looking at.

3 thoughts on “#153. Who judges the people: the Aaronid priests OR the Levites OR the elders OR the prohets? (Ex 28:30; Lev 13; Num 5:16-28 vs Deut 17:8-13 vs Ex 18:13-26 vs 1 Sam 7:15, etc.)
#154. Who carries the Urim and the Thummim: the Aaronid high priest OR the Levites? (Ex 28:30 vs Deut 33:8-10)

  1. The Urrim v’tummin practice is an interesting item, of which a rich mythology had developed. For example, a mythical worm was supposedly used to cut letters into the gems (it leaked some sort of acid, apparently), and it was called “Urrum” from the root “Aur” (light) because when you asked a question these 12 gems would light up in a sort of shorthand, showing the 22 Hebrew letters out of sequence, which would require a prophet to interpret the answer. Think of it like reading tea-leaves. It’s an odd thing to believe that gem stone lit up, but, of course you can use the “well, God can do anything” gambit!

    It should be noted that the writers, especially of Samuel, use “Kohain” differently than to speak of a lineage or even a priestly sect, and so sometimes it will refer to the house of Levi, and there are times where it uses Kohain to speak of the house leadership that has no relationship to the priesthood or the house of Levi. The term was, at least by then, used to mean a leadership, judging, and teaching position for some, and a genealogy for others. 2Sam.8:18 comes to mind, where the sons of David were call “priests” (kohanim), even though they were from the tribe of Judah.

    Alas, poor Saul/Shaul, with some simple medication his bi-polar mental state could have been handled today. The town of Nob/Nov, which was the town of Kohanim (1Sam.22:19, etc), which is where the Urrim v’thummin was held (1Sam. 22:13), was wiped out, every priest and prophet in that town was killed during one of Saul’s paranoid moments. Levi’im were Kohanim, but here Kohanim may not necessarily refer to priests or the tribe of Levi. It is conjectured by some that Samuel was a Levi, but that’s only by referring to the genealogy in Chronicles, which is always a mess at the best of times. Anyhow, it’s no wonder that Saul couldn’t get a good answer from it later on in 1Sam 28:6 ! (Not that it ever could have really worked and was either a fiction or a con-game).

  2. I found this website only a few days ago and I must say the information here is truly amazing as well as mind boggling for me.I was a fundie for thirty years and at various times through those years tried to understand the bible and study it.But I also went for many years without reading it at all,though still a believer,because it was just too confusing.It’s only been within the last four months that I feel I’m finally realizing the truth about it.Though it’s been difficult in ways(and still is) it is also a relief to know there is no real reason to believe in or fear the bible-god/gods.
    I only heard of the documentary theory a couple months ago and am glad to have found this site and learn more about it.It’s quite fascinating and lets me know I was right those many years ago in thinking the bible was confusing and made no sense,while being told it’s so simple even a child can understand it.

  3. Andrew, Welcome. I do my best to provide knowledge about the texts that later become the Bible, who wrote these once independent texts, why, to whom, what historical circumstances prompted them to write what they did, etc.—issues and concerns that often don’t get addressed by modern mainstream forms of Christianity, and especially the fundamentalist type. Unfortunately the biblical texts, and their authors, get co-opted into, and for, the reading community’s needs, perspective, worldviews, and contexts.

    Excerpt from something I’ve written elsewhere:

    Seldom do readers of the Bible actually think about the compositional nature of the text they hold in their hands. Many Jews and Christians are completely unaware that the Bible is composed of a vast collection of different texts, themselves composed from a variety of texts and traditions, all of which were written over a period of roughly one-thousand years, by varying authors, and under diverse historical circumstances and religious and political convictions. In today’s culture, most biblical enthusiasts merely invoke the name “the Bible” in a variety of contexts with little or no real knowledge of the nature of the biblical text itself. Those few who have actually read—most often misread—a smattering here and a smattering there, have usually done so under the influence of predefined assumptions about the nature of the text, frequently prompted by personal beliefs or the particular concerns and dynamics of such-and-such faith community in the modern world. Rarely, in other words, is the Bible read on its own terms; most often it is on the terms imposed by its vast and divergent readership.

    To a large extent, then, my goal here is to give these ancient texts back to their authors!

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