The Breastpiece of Judgment

15 “You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it—of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it. 16 It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. 17 You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; 18 and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; 19 and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; 20 and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. 21 There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. 22 You shall make for the breastpiece twisted chains like cords, of pure gold. 23 And you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece. 24 And you shall put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece. 25 The two ends of the two cords you shall attach to the two settings of filigree, and so attach it in front to the shoulder pieces of the ephod. 26 You shall make two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. 27 And you shall make two rings of gold, and attach them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder pieces of the ephod, at its seam above the skillfully woven band of the ephod. 28 And they shall bind the breastpiece by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a lace of blue, so that it may lie on the skillfully woven band of the ephod, so that the breastpiece shall not come loose from the ephod. 29 So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord. 30 And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the Lord regularly.” – Exodus 28:15-30 ESV

The high priest’s sacred garment was to include a second feature: the breastpiece of judgment. This smaller, color-coordinated accessory was also made of fine linen and woven with gold, blue, purple, and scarlet yarns. It hung from two gold chains which were attached to the shoulder straps of the linen ephod. This long piece of handcrafted fabric was folded into a square and stitched on three sides, forming a pocket. Attached to the front of the breastpiece were 12 precious gems, each engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. The gems were surrounded with gold filigree, accentuating the beauty and worth of each stone. Inside the pocket of the breastpiece were placed the Urim and Thummim, special stones used to discern the will of God.

“The purpose of the breastpiece was ‘for making decisions’ (v. 15). The Urim and Thummim, deposited in the pouch, were sacred lots used as the ‘means of making decisions’ (v. 30). The word ‘Urim’ begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and ‘Thummim’ begins with the last letter, so the lots were probably restricted to giving either positive or negative responses to questions asked of them. Strengthening that likelihood is the fact that the phrase ‘Urim and Thummim’ is best translated into English as ‘curses and perfections,’ meaning that if ‘Urim’ dominated when the lots were cast the answer would be no but if ‘Thummim’ dominated the answer would be yes.” – Ronald Youngblood, Exodus

Little is known about how the Urim and Thummim were used, but in the book of Numbers, Moses told his successor, Joshua, that these “sacred lots” were to be used to “determine everything” the Israelites were to do.

“When direction from the Lord is needed, Joshua will stand before Eleazar the priest, who will use the Urim—one of the sacred lots cast before the Lord—to determine his will. This is how Joshua and the rest of the community of Israel will determine everything they should do.” – Numbers 27:21 NLT

In the book of Joshua, it appears that the Urim and Thummim were used to determine who among the Israelites was guilty of violating the command of God.

“In the morning therefore you shall be brought near by your tribes. And the tribe that the Lord takes by lot shall come near by clans. And the clan that the Lord takes shall come near by households. And the household that the Lord takes shall come near man by man. – Joshua 7:14 ESV

Prior to their defeat of the city of Jericho, God had given the Israelites clear instructions regarding what to do with the plunder of the city.

“Do not take any of the things set apart for destruction, or you yourselves will be completely destroyed, and you will bring trouble on the camp of Israel. Everything made from silver, gold, bronze, or iron is sacred to the Lord and must be brought into his treasury.” – Joshua 6:18-19 ESV

But a man named Achan had violated God’s command, and his son resulted in the Israelites’ failure to conquer the much smaller city of Ai. Apparently, the Urim and Thummim were used to determine the identity of the guilty party. For whatever reason, God chose to use this rather strange system to guide Joshua and the people of Israel. Rather than speaking to Joshua directly, as He had done with Moses, God provided the Urim and Thummim as the primary means for revealing His will. And because the Urim and Thummim were under the care of the high priest, Joshua was required to seek the aid of Eleazar in order to receive direction from God.

This breastpiece worn by the high priest was adorned with the 12 gemstones, signifying the 12 sons of Jacob and the 12 tribes of Israel. Inside the pouch formed by the breastpiece were the Urim and Thummim, which were essential tools for determining God’s will for the 12 tribes. And this vital accessory was worn next to the heart of the high priest, signifying both his role as mediator but also as shepherd of the people of God.

Two additional gold chains hung from the bottom of the breastpiece which attached to two gold rings affixed to the front of the linen ephod.

“This will hold the chestpiece securely to the ephod above the decorative sash. In this way, Aaron will carry the names of the tribes of Israel on the sacred chestpiece over his heart when he goes into the Holy Place.” – Exodus 28:28-29 NLT

Aaron was to hold the people of God close to his heart at all times, especially when serving in his role as the high priest. Every time he entered the Holy Place to offer atoning sacrifices on behalf of the people, he did so as their representative. He bore the 12 tribes on his shoulders and close to his heart. And between his heart and the 12 stones representing the people of God, were the tools for determining the will of God.

God had made it perfectly clear that in order for the Israelites to remain His treasured possession, they would have to obey His will.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

Like priceless gems, the Israelites were of great value to God, and in his role as the high priest, Aaron was to share God’s care and concern for them. By carrying the Urim and Thummim, Aaron would play an important role in determining God’s will. But he would also serve as the agent of atonement, offering up the required blood sacrifices to cover the inevitable sins of the people.

In giving the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant, God made His will known. He had disclosed the laws that were to regulate the behavior of the people of Israel. They knew what was expected of them. The apostle Paul summed up God’s expectations of His people when he wrote, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). When all is said and done, what God demands of His people is a life of holiness. He expects them to live in keeping with their status as His children. The Israelites didn’t need the Urim and Thummim to determine how to live. God had already revealed that to them. These little-understood stones were to be used in special instances when the Law of God could not be applied. They were not to be used for personal decision-making but only for determining the will of God for the entire community of God. In the rare instance that the Law was not applicable, the nation was to seek the will of God through this divinely ordained decision-making system.

Every child of God wrestles with the desire to know God’s will. But as the apostle Paul points out, the will of God is quite clear: He desires our holiness. Yet we tend to want God to be more specific. Who should I marry? What career path should I take? Is this the house you want me to buy? And it is not that God has no opinion about those matters, but it is that He is more concerned about your holiness. In most cases, our decision-making would be greatly simplified if we learned to ask the question: Will this decision help or hinder my pursuit of holiness? If I marry this individual will they become a partner in my desire to live a holy life? Will that job or career path pave the way to greater sanctification or lead me to a life of self-reliance and a love of the world?

As the high priest for the people of God, Aaron was given the tools to determine God’s will. But from the sparse references to the Urim and Thummim in the Scriptures, it appears that they were infrequently utilized. Aaron knew what God expected of His people. The Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant were quite specific and left little to the imagination. God demanded holiness. And the primary role of the high priest was to help the people of God maintain their holiness by atoning for their sinfulness. Their purity was to be his highest priority.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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