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.