Seeing Through a Glass Darkly, and the Urim & Thummim

Lapis specularis, or specularibus lapidibus, is a variety of gypsum (selenite) that forms crystal sheets and they were used as window panes in the first and second centuries AD.

Lapis specularis, or specularibus lapidibus, is a variety of gypsum (selenite) that forms crystal sheets and they were used as window panes in the first and second centuries AD.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

This scripture from the New Testament has often been used to describe our current estate in life, our vision and perception being a bit muddled as we go about our daily lives.  We don’t understand everything, we can’t see everything, we don’t know why some things are the way they are.  We don’t live by perfect light and knowledge.  Indeed, it is a good scripture on the topic of faith, and how we must live by imperfect understanding, having a feeling for things but unable to grasp them fully.  It also well describes what our LDS doctrine calls the veil (also spelled vail), this semi-impervious cloak and covering over God and his dominion.  In a future day, the curtain will be drawn, and we will see with perfect clarity, and our understanding will become as clear as day.

Why must we live by this faith, why the separation from God by the veil?  Why doesn’t God reveal himself?  This is often the cry of the atheists, who seek evidence of God’s existence.  I appreciated Dan Peterson’s explanation of this in his talk on “Humble Apologetics.”  He said:  

Why would the Lord do this? I think it’s partly because of what the British philosopher John Hick calls epistemic distance, the idea that God deliberately withholds things from us, to allow us freedom. It is very much what Latter-day Saints call the veil. This veil is dropped, and we don’t know everything. We have a sense of things, we have a kind of feel for the way things are and ought to be, but we don’t know very clearly. So we are left in this life to walk by faith.

There is a passage in Kierkegaard that is relevant. This is from something else I’m writing, so let me just quote what I’ve written:

“If God were to reveal himself directly, that revelation would be so overwhelming it would destroy our freedom. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard expresses this point memorably via a parable about a king and a maiden, in his Philosophical Fragments. Given the enormous gulf and rank, status and wealth between them, how can the king reveal his love to a maiden of humble parentage without coercing and crushing her? His dilemma is that ‘not to reveal oneself is the death of love,’ quoting Kierkegaard, ‘but to reveal oneself is the death of the beloved.’ The only choice open to the king is to court the maiden indirectly, by descending to her level, by taking on the character of a servant. But this is no mere costume change. In order to be convincing as a servant, and not reveal his royal status, he must really act as a servant.”

This is precisely what God did.  He wanted us to know of Him, but to know by indirect means at first, lest he crush us by His glory.  He condescended from His throne above, and was born in a lowly animal yard, becoming a simple carpenter in old Judea.  He lived how we live, perhaps much lower than most of us live, so that he could court us and teach us, to prepare us, and allow us to choose to join His fold.

Sometimes the lessons and direction from God must come more directly, and thus the veil must be rent.  Any direct revelation, angelic visitation, spiritual voice, miraculous manifestation, or the like is a type of this interaction.  The veil becomes very “thin,” as we say, even to its complete dissolution in some cases.  The prophets have often experienced this, as the prophets themselves become the indirect means by which we come to know God, and therefore the prophets come into direct contact with Him.

The Prophet Joseph Smith often received these types of revelations, beginning with the grandeur of the First Vision, and continuing with hundreds of subsequent revelations of various types.  Part of the revelatory offspring of the Prophet was the Book of Mormon, and other ancient scriptures.  The process by which Joseph translated the gold plates, and received this revelation is quite remarkable, yet mystifying in many respects.  Indeed, there were physical gold plates, as many witnesses attest, but ofttimes the Prophet did not need them to actually do the work of translation.  Sometimes he looked at a seer stone in the bottom of a hat, or through the use of an instrument he called the Urim and Thummim, these two words traditionally being translated as lights and perfections.  Sometimes he referred to the seer stones by the same name.  By looking into this prophetic instrument the Lord revealed the words to be written down by the scribe.  Elder Russell M. Nelson described the process, quoting David Whitmer:

Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.1

While writing a couple days ago about Dan Peterson’s predicament, I thought about this scripture in 1 Corinthians 13:12, which Peterson also referenced in his “Humble Apologetics” address.  We see “through a glass, darkly,” in this life, but some day we will know fully.  The word translated as glass is often interpreted as a mirror, or highly polished metal.  But this scripture, evidently, uses the word in a similar sense as the rabbinic use of אספקלריה or aspaklaria, from the Latin specularia.  Adam Clarke, the noted British Methodist theologian and Biblical scholar, thought the reference was similar to a common Jewish rabbinic usage of the day.  Clarke noted:

“Possibly, the true meaning of the words, through a glass darkly, may be found among the Jewish writers, who use a similar term to express nearly the same thing to which the apostle refers.  A revelation of the will of God, in clear and express terms, is called by them aspecularia maira, a clear or lucid glass, or specular; in reference specularibus lapidibus, to the diaphanous [translucent], polished stones, used by the ancients for windows, instead of glass [see photo at the top of post].  An obscure prophecy they termed aspecularia dela naharia, ‘A specular which is not clear.’”

Clarke notes such scriptures such as Numbers 12:6, in which the rabbis say that the revelation was not aspecularia maira, or by a lucid specular, while at other times, visions such as Ezekiel 1:4 were aspecularia dela nahara, or by an obscure or dark specular.  The aspecularia maira, or clear specular, is only attributed to Moses, while the other prophets received revelation via aspecularia dela nahara, or dark specular.

It is interesting to note that both types of revelations involved “specularia,” and both were good, although the latter might have been a more symbolic revelation, in need of interpretation, and not as precise.  Indeed, Clarke goes on to describe that the use of the term “darkly” in the verse might have reference to the obscurity of the revelation, or the representative nature of it, quoting Parkhurst, “we see by means of a mirror reflecting the images of heavenly and spiritual things… in an enigmatical manner,” whereas, “in the eternal world, face to face; every thing being seen in itself, and not by means of a representative or similitude.”

So Paul’s use of the pattern “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face,” may have been an allusion to these two types of revelation known during Paul’s time; we currently see through aspecularia dela nahara, or dark specular, but in a coming day we will see via aspecularia maira, or a clear and lucid glass.

The second century Rabbi Judah ben Ilai once said, “All the prophets had a vision of God as He appeared through nine specula” while “Moses saw God through one speculum” (Leviticus Rabbah 1:14).  Additionally, the Talmud states, “All the prophets gazed through a speculum that does not shine, while Moses our teacher gazed through a speculum that shines” (B.T. Yevamot 49B).

In our modern day English we use the term spectacles, from the same root meaning to look at or view, to refer to common glasses or lenses.

It is not known by scholars whether actual glasses or stones were used by the ancient prophets as revelatory instruments, but the ideas already discussed certainly approach that notion (see also Rev. 2:17).  In the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 14:37 in the King James Version reads “And Saul asked counsel of God, Shall I go down after the Philistines? wilt thou deliver them into the hand of Israel? But he answered him not that day.”  The phrase “asked counsel of God” is translated as “inquired of God” in the ESV, NASB, RSV, and other translations.  It is notable that Joseph Smith often said that he was “inquiring of God” about a certain subject when the revelations were given him.  But even more significant is that the grammatical form of the Hebrew for “inquired of God” in this verse indicates that the inquiry may have been by means of an instrument or instruments, likely the Urim and Thummim2.

The Urim and Thummim are also mentioned in connection with the white stone of Revelation 2:17 in this revelation given to Joseph Smith:

Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known;  And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word. (D&C 130:10–11)

One verse in Joseph Smith-History is dedicated to describing the instrument that Joseph used in the translation of the Book of Mormon:

Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book. (Joseph Smith—History 1:35)

Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, described it as “two smooth three-cornered diamonds”3.  Oliver Cowdery reported that the stones were transparent4.

Spectacles from the movie National Treasure

Spectacles from the movie National Treasure

I have often imagined this instrument, and the way Joseph used it, as something like the imagined spectacles invented by Benjamin Franklin in the movie National Treasure, in which the characters use these specially crafted glasses to see things written on a map that would not otherwise appear with the naked eye.  (Click here to see the video clip.)

Some other interesting things to note, in the Old Testament the Urim and Thummim were a part of the high priest’s liturgical garments, perhaps kept in a pouch stored within the breastplate, and over the Ephod, which is regarded as a type of apron, and held together by a girdle or belt.  The Urim and Thummim was an actual object or objects that the priests used to receive the word of God, yet there is still much unknown about what they were, much less how they were used.  In his book “The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel,” the Old Testament scholar Cornelius Van Dam posits that the objects were not mere lot oracles, but were perhaps much more:

“…the material object(s) that made up the [Urim and Thummim] had to be used… a special or miraculous light was somehow involved in the functioning of the [Urim and Thummim],” possibly through some kind of stone, “in order to verify that the message given by the high priest was from Yahweh”5

  1. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887), 12; cited in Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign (July 1993), 61. []
  2. See Encyclopedia Biblica, and also Cornelius Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel, 4 []
  3. The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother. p. 101 []
  4. Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate (April 9, 1831) 2:120 []
  5. As quoted in Matthew Roper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars,” FARMS Review, 9/1, pg. 87-145.  See also Alma Allred, “Coin of the Realm: Beware of Specious Specie,” FARMS Review, 12/1, pgs. 137-74 []


  1. Mark Haymond
    Posted July 9, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    In High Priests group, while we were talking about modern day technology (referred to by President George Albert Smith) that allows the gospel to be spread worldwide quickly today when compared to the past, my former bishop leaned over and said, “the iPhone is not so far from a crystal.” I know what he meant. It think it is related to what you have written especially where you talk about a white stone being given to each person in the Celestial Kingdom.

  2. Posted July 9, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    True. An iPhone is a good analogy to what the white stone will be, or the Urim & Thummim, at least with our limited understanding. You can look into an iPhone today, and receive knowledge about just about anything you desire. Good point.

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