Yesterday I had my internet service cut off to avoid distractions from my home projects (writing unreadable novel, reading unwritable novel, and other things). Meanwhile, getting on my bike, I laid my flip phone outside the doctor’s office, on a window ledge. An hour later, I discovered no phone and no way to call my phone with Skype to see if someone had picked it up. As I biked back to the doctor’s office, I pictured the phone gone and my getting that iPhone 5 that my phone company had been offering me for so little money for so long.
My flip phone was there, on the ledge.
Earlier that day, I saw a man outside a print shop, sitting in the sun. He was facing the sun, and his hands were cupped, as though in grateful prayer. Wow, I thought, what a great way to take a break from work. As he came into closer view, I realized he was cupping a smartphone, not that he wasn’t praying, but that he was tied into the device that has so many of us looking down.
The Jews in ancient Israel—before the Babylonians captured them—had a device, too, that, I think, made them look down. It was a pair of devices, the Urim and the Thummim. Between these two devices, they could make decisions on a national scale. They functioned as an intelligent lottery system, providing guidance. This guidance included the ability to isolate one betrayer from a large group in order to punish him (in the historical record of I Samuel 14, it was a him).
Debate surrounds the exact nature of the Urim and Thummim, and, as is often the case, hinges on the origin and definition of the words. It had been accepted that Urim meant light and Thummim meant truth, lending themselves happily to the Latin lux et veritat.
Along with this interpretation came the concept that these objects—whatever they were—consisted of jewels that would shine, perhaps like a high-resolution Smartphone screen insofar as it can selectively display one set of letters for one message and another, for another.
Currently, though, the meaning of the words appears to be “cursed” (Urim) and “faultless” (Thummim), lending the objects a binary significance (you are cursed, you are faultless…i.e. you move to the right, alone, within a stone’s throw of the rest of you, who move to the left).
The Arabs—before Islam—apparently had a similar device to which they looked. Three devices, amounting to three arrows, one with “prohibition,” written on it (similar to “cursed”), one with “command” on it, and one that meant the god(s) would not speak on the matter.
That Great Appropriator, that is, Joseph Smith of the Latter Day Saints, claims to have had his hands on the Urim and Thummim, with the result that some of his translation of “The Doctrine … “ and “The Bible” involved the Urim and Thummim. As I recall from one account, these kept his head down, too, as he secretly looked to them for guidance while translating.
The mistake I made (or was it) of thinking the man outside the shop was praying evokes a tradition that may have been relegated to priests and kings in earlier epochs but now is available to nearly everyone. Precious as this tradition may prove, a race of people looking down to a device for guidance, I am reminded that, contrary to trend in handheld devices, and contrary to what most Christian churches practice, when he prayed, the Son of Man never once is recorded as looking down. He was constantly raising his eyes to look above.