Gemstones in the Bible

The Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), attributed to Moses, presents the oldest known record in western writings to have itemized twelve different precious stones.  Twelve mounted gems are recorded as being a feature of the breastplate said to have been worn by the High Priest Aaron, and each gemstone allegedly represented one of the Israelite tribes.

In the list was sardius, a red colored stone upon which was engraved the name of Rueben.  It is likely this stone, sardius, became known as ruby because of that association with Rueben.

The second stone, topaz, may have signified peridot (olivine), which was described as having a color like an unripe olive.  Or it may well have been in reference to chrysolite which are various yellow or greenish-yellow stones.  But it was known as topaz in the list, and allegedly bore the name of Simeon upon it. 

The stone that supposedly designated the Levites was called baraqah in Hebrew, was described as shining like burning fire or lightning (from barqa, meaning lightning).   This is thought to be the stone known today as carbuncle, an almandine garnet with deep red, violet-red or black coloring.  From the biblical description of color the garnet nearest the described color suggests either pyrope or spessartite.

Judah is said to have been represented with the emerald, being pure green without any other color in its makeup.  Emeralds were mined in ancient Egypt, and the authors of the Pentateuch would have been well acquainted with the stone.

The stone associated with the tribe Issachar is ill-defined, but was apparently deep blue and somewhat translucent.  Tradition has favored the impression that the stone referred to sapphire.  (The sapphire associated with the Ten Commandments was quite another thing.)

Dimond (not diamond) is mentioned in the Pentateuch, and said to be perfectly white and “beautifully sparkling;” so sparkling in fact that it was said to be able to induce sleep and dreams.  The tribe of Zebulon was said to be inscribed upon it.

In the Middle East the stone ligure was known as “Dam stone,” dull green in color with dark red reflections.  This bore the name of Dan–from which the name “Dam stone” probably arose. 

Possibly the oldest precious stone known to man is the agate, chiefly brown, red, or sometimes bluish, gray or black with clouded translucency.  This was the stone of the tribe of Naphtali. 

The transparent stone amethyst, described in ancient times as purple with a strong bluish hue, was the stone apparently assigned to the tribe of Gad. 

The stone spoken of  as beryl in the breastplate description is traditionally held to be the bluish-green aquamarine.  The Semitic name for this stone was “Tarshish,” which suggests its origin was Tartesus, a region in southern Spain that was known for mineral and ore riches.  The stone represented the tribe of Asher.

Onyx, the chalcedony variety, a translucent stone of parallel layers of different colors, was the stone apparently assigned to the tribe of Joseph (who happened to have a coat of many colors).

Jasper is the last stone mentioned in the breastplate description, said to be green-clouded with either white or red and yellow–not quite the jasper we think of today.  In parts of the Middle East, however, nephrite or jadeite were to be found and was probably the stone that represented Benjamin.

With these stones together with the Urim and Thummin (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8), the High Priest Aaron supposedly could communicate with and divine the will of “The Most High.”  Being stoned was clearly to his advantage.

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