Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The 12 Gemstones of the Bible: First Row

 There are several passages that connect gemstones to religion in the Bible. Precious gems and jewelry held significance in the holy text, both for personal adornment and spiritual enhancement. Today, we’ll talk about three very specific gemstones: those found on the first row of Aaron’s sacred Breastplate of Judgement. Aaron was the high priest of Israel as well as Moses’s brother, and God commanded him to create the breastplate thusly:

“Put four rows of beautiful jewels on the judgment pouch. The first row of jewels should have a ruby, a topaz, and a beryl. The second row should have a turquoise, a sapphire, and an emerald. The third row should have a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst. The fourth row should have a chrysolite, an onyx, and a jasper. Set all these jewels in gold. There will be twelve jewels on the judgment pouch—one stone for each of the sons of Israel. Each stone will be like a seal with the name of one of the twelve tribes cut into it.”
Exodus 28:17-21

Although the directions seem straightforward, the identification of the twelve gemstones is actually one of the Bible’s longest unsolved mysteries. The precise nature of each stone confuses even scholars since the Bible’s translations are so inconsistent.

For instance, across different versions and translations of the Bible, the name of the fourth stone varies between beryl, emerald, turquoise, carbuncle and garnet, stones that include colors from blue to green to red.

In addition, scholars have discovered with certainty that some of the ancient names for stones actually refer to entirely different stones today. For example, the terms “sapphire” and “topaz” in the Bible do not indicate modern day sapphire and topaz—they refer to what we know as lapis lazuli and peridot.

As the story goes, the breastplate contained four rows of three gemstones. Below, we’ll examine the first row.

Ruby Gemstone

The ruby is the first gem listed on the first row of Aaron’s breastplate. Like many other gems in the Bible, its actual identity is uncertain; rubies did not come into use until the Roman Empire around 300 BC, and there have been no rubies found in excavations of early Egyptian civilization. In addition, it would be difficult to find a ruby large enough to engrave on, and even then, its hardness would require a diamond to write on it. Other red gemstones, such as sardius, red garnet, and carbuncle have been used in various translations of the Bible as well as in research by geology, theology, Greek, and Hebrew scholars. Therefore, the red color of the first stone is essentially agreed upon, although the name is widely debated.


The second gemstone on the first row is referred to as “topaz” in the Bible. However, the true identity
of this gem is likely something different. Today, we know the topaz as a popular gem occurring in various colors including light blue and pale yellow. However, topaz was not abundant in Egypt around the time Exodus was written, making it unlikely that it was included in the breastplate. When the Bible says “topaz”, it is actually referring to what we know today as the green peridot; the term “topaz” probably refers to Topazios Island, the place where peridot was mined.


Green Gemstone
Modern day beryl is of the same species as emeralds, therefore the two gems are often confused. Because emeralds were once abundant in Egypt, it’s quite possible that the biblical breastplate text is actually referring to a true beryl. Although emeralds were not actively mined until some 500 years later when Cleopatra fell in love with their beauty, they did exist in the region during the time of Aaron and Moses.
However, other research and Bible translations call this stone a variation of names, including onyx, chrysolite and chalcedony. Some claim that the beryl of the Bible was a white or cream shade, while others are certain it was a green hue.

Have another interpretation of which stones were found on the first row of Aaron’s Breastplate of Judgment? Let us know by commenting below!

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