Friday, August 22, 2014

Urim, Thummim, and the Danger of Misinterpretation

The mystical interpretations some pastors preach never ceases to amaze me.

I was tuned to a different radio station while running late for work one day this week. Because of the later time, I was able to hear a preacher I would not normally catch. I did not know who this preacher was but I was not really surprised that I heard some truly poor exposition that I felt I needed to address for two reasons: 1) to correct the poor handling of Scripture, and 2) to show how a mishandling of Scripture moves the preacher off the topic of Christ. When any teaching is the product of poor hermeneutics, the teaching becomes mystical and the preacher becomes a something of a preaching magician. While the congregation "ooos" and "ahhs" over his magical skills in interpretation they for forget that, like any magic show, it is all just an act.

The sermon I was listening to was being shared by Jon Courson, who I really do not know much about. In fact, I forced myself to listen to the whole program so I could find out who was preaching. I have heard his name but have never really heard him preach before. I am not attacking his person; I know nothing about this man. But I feel I must say something about this teaching. Much like Paul confronting Peter when Peter was wrong, I feel I should do the same (Galatians 2:11-21)

Jon was teaching on the urim and thummim mentioned in Scripture. I say "mentioned" because there are only seven verses in all of Scripture that refer to thummim and/or urim (Exodus 28:30, Leviticus 8:8, Numbers 27:21, Deuteronomy 33:8, 1 Samuel 28:6, Ezra 2:63, Nehemiah 7:65). There is nothing in Scripture that tells us what the urim and thummim were or how they were used. Yet, Pastor Courson provided vivid detail on what these were and how God used them.

He indicated that they were stones on the breastplate of the priest (Exodus 28:30 tells us they were to placed in the breastplate but it does not indicate they were stones). He went on to teach that God would actually light up the stones on the breastplate of the priest as part of the use of the urim and thummim (you can read that at his website here as well). I assume he developed that theory from the literal translation of the names ("urim" means "lights" and "thummim" means "perfection."). The Scriptures says NOTHING about the breastplate of the priest lighting up like "Simon" game (I encourage the reader to take the time to read the seven verses above).

So far, there is no real theological problem with this teaching but there is a big hermeneutical problem. I am not sure why a person would want to invent information about anything in Scripture especially when there is absolutely no supporting evidence for it. The theological problem occurred when the poor hermeneutic produced a poor conclusion. Courson began saying something like this: "Just like the priest's breastplate lit up with lights when God was telling his people what to do, Jesus told us 'you are the light of the world' and therefore we are capable of giving others guidance." In short, I came away from the sermon feeling like he was reducing our ministry, and worse Jesus' ministry, to that of a magic 8-ball.

When Jesus told his followers they would be lights of the world (Matthew 5:14), he was not referring to the urim and thummim, and decision making. He was talking about the light of the gospel going into this dark world (Matthew 5:16). Jesus did not come to help us make better decisions or to help us know what we should do. He came to raise us from the dead and give us life. He came to rescue us from the darkness and transfer us into His Son's Kingdom (Colossians 1:13-14). He came to give His life as a ransom (Matthew 20:28). He came to redeem us and forgive us (Ephesians 1:7). But His purpose for coming was not so we could make better decisions.

Additionally, Jesus did not give believes the ministry of better decision making. He gave us the ministry of reconciling the lost world to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). He gave us the ministry of making disciples (Matthew 28:19). He gave us the ministry, as mentioned above, of being lights in the darkness. But the main ministry of believers is not making better decisions.

Yes, the Holy Spirit gives believers wisdom and guidance when making decisions (Galatians 5:25). Yes, Jesus uses other believers to help us when we have difficult choices (Proverbs 11:14). Yes, we all need to make better decisions as believers. But, using the urim and thummim to teach this truth smacks of attempting to impress people with magical hermeneutical skills and, in the end, conveys the wrong message about Jesus' ministry.

For this reason, we must be careful to say what the Bible says about an issue, and remain silent where the Bible is silent. I have no idea what the urim and thummim were or how the priest used them. That is because the Bible remains silent on the issue. A pastor should not have to take an obscure passage or item from the Old Testament to tantalize his congregation. The Word is powerful enough on its own (Isaiah 55:11, Hebrews 4:12).

For an interesting on the urim and thummim, this article gives a good balanced approach about this mysterious apparatus of the priests garments.