THE GOLD OF THAT LAND: Biblical Minerals & Rocks  


 

 

Introduction

     So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. -- Genesis 2:20

The man did not give names to any minerals or other resources that he dug out of the earth. The attempts of his descendants to correct the oversight have ever since produced something akin to the confusion that followed the building of the tower of Babel.

Modern mineralogists classify minerals by their chemical composition and crystallography. Ancient peoples gave descriptive names to those materials from the earth with bright colors or useful properties, whether real or legendary, that attracted their attention. They gave distinctively colored or textured varieties of minerals such as quartz or corundum names of their own, while they grouped different minerals of similar color and properties together under a single name in ignorance of their differences in chemical composition and crystallography.

Newly-discovered precious stones like ruby and sapphire inherited the ancient trade names of the gemstones they replaced in fashion. That practice persists in an inverted way today: gem cordierite passes as "water sapphire" and rock crystal goes by such pretentious names as "Arkansas diamond" and "Bohemian diamond." The names and identities of a handful of minerals, like alabaster and topaz, have even changed places with other minerals over the years since biblical times.

Although they lived closer to the earth than we do, few biblical authors steeped themselves as deeply in the lore of mining as the writer of the Book of Job, so their allusions to minerals are those of laymen rather than professionals who knew the subtleties of field identification. This fact does not affect the value of their contributions, but it does underline the fallacy of adamant insistence on translating pânîyn in Proverbs 31:10, for instance, as "rubies" in the modern sense of the term. The fact that modern rubies are more valuable than the old-fashioned biblical rubies only goes to show that the good wife of the proverb is worth incomparably more than the writer could guess.

Literal and metaphorical references to gems, minerals, stones and rocks appear throughout the Bible, from beginning to end. Ruth V. Wright and Robert L. Chadbourne in Gems and Minerals of the Bible counted 1704 specific references to 62 gems and minerals under 124 Hebrew and Greek names. The number of allusions to stones and rocks in general must be many times greater. My study of these allusions has enriched my spiritual life while showing that Wright and Chadbourne's work needs updating. Their list includes duplications, naturally occurring substances that are neither gems nor minerals, and man-made materials. Table 1 therefore provides a key to all biblical materials that meet the definition of minerals or rocks, certain other natural resources that are neither rocks nor minerals, and industrial products obtained from mineral resources.

Table 1 takes into account the modern definitions of geological and mineralogical terms. The niceties of modern terminology did not trouble the biblical authors, who had other concerns in writing. Though attention to these terms may seem tedious, it nevertheless aids us today in cutting through confusion to rediscover the depth of biblical knowledge of the earth's riches.

Here are the common definitions used in this book:

Mineral: a naturally occurring, inorganic solid substance with a definite chemical composition which expresses itself in a diagnostic crystal structure and habit. Composition and crystal structure determine physical properties such as density, hardness, cleavage, color, luster, and streak.

Rock: a natural aggregate of one or more minerals that forms a distinct and sizable unit of the earth's crust. Igneous rocks form by cooling of molten rock, or magma, at or below the earth's surface. Sedimentary rocks form by the weathering and erosion of older rocks and the physical, chemical, or organic deposition of the weathering products in layered beds. Metamorphic rocks form by the recrystallization of sedimentary or metamorphic rocks under heat and pressure.

By "rock," we should note, biblical usage consistently means any stony mass at the earth’s surface that is too large to move. Stones are natural or man-made fragments of rock that are small enough to move. Modern colloquial usage, on the other hand, is far less precise and may denote any loose piece of a hard substance, natural or artificial, that is small enough to throw.

Crystal: a homogeneous body bounded by smooth plane surfaces that are the external expression of an ordered arrangement of atoms in a three-dimensional structure.

Stone: the popular, collective term for all solid materials of the earth's crust, except ice and coal. To engineers and builders, stone means any solid material used in construction. To collectors, stone includes organic and amorphous materials as well as minerals and rocks.

Precious stone: a general term for any solid material with ornamental value in jewelry, art objects, or decoration. It encompasses minerals, rocks, amorphous materials such as opal, glassy materials such as obsidian and tektites (blobs of colored meteoritic glass), and organic materials such as amber, coral, fossil specimens, ivory, jet, and pearl. The definition even takes in synthetic gemstones. The modern jewelry trade prizes diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires apart above all others as precious stones because they possess superior properties of color, transparency, hardness, luster, scarcity, brilliance, or distinctive optical qualities. This arbitrary distinction for the convenience of commerce relegates other ornamental stones into the category of semiprecious, colored, or fancy stones. No such distinction appears in the Bible or other ancient writings.

Gem: a general term for any ornamental specimen of natural material, both organic and inorganic, especially when cut and polished. Gems may be desirable because of their special characteristics of color, transparency, beauty, toughness, and rarity.

Gemstone: a collective term for any stony material used as an ornament. Mineralogists have identified several hundred types of gemstones, and the varieties of these must more than double the number. Herbert Whitlock reckoned that less than four percent of all known minerals have properties that make them valuable as gemstones. Of these minerals, only a few varieties and a tiny percentage of specimens may qualify. The properties that give a stone value as a gem include color, transparency, hardness, luster, brilliance and other optical properties, rarity, carat weight, and unusual properties such as inclusions or chatoyance. People in biblical times esteemed many of the same red, green, and blue stones for what their colors meant to them. They often credited colored stones with symbolic values and magical properties.

The German lapidarist Max Bauer classified gemstones, semiprecious stones, and decorative stones into five ranks according to their hardness, color, transparency, intensity, fire, ability to take a fine polish, and rarity. Gemstones of Bauer’s first rank have a hardness of between 8 and 10 on the Mohs scale and include diamond, corundum (ruby and sapphire), chrysoberyl, and spinel. Gemstones of the second rank have a hardness of 7 to 8 and include zircon, beryl, topaz, tourmaline, and garnet. In the third rank, Bauer places turquoise, chrysolite, and other stones intermediate between true gemstones and semiprecious precious stones. They range in hardness from 6 to 7. Bauer's fourth rank covers semiprecious stones with hardnesses of 4 to 7, including biblical stones such as quartz and its varieties, chalcedony and its varieties, amazonite, lapis lazuli, and amber. The fifth rank covers ornamental and decorative stones which are never transparent, usually dull in color and luster, and highly variable in hardness and quality. Biblical examples include jade, marble, alabaster, and malachite.

In practice today, the distinction between precious and semi-precious stones has become so blurred that the International Colored Gemstone Association discourages the use of both terms.

Jewel: any individual ornament is a jewel and may consist of one or more cut or uncut gems set in precious metal.

Carat Weight: the carat is the standard unit of weight for gemstones. One carat is defined as 200 milligrams, or one fifth of a gram.

 

Sources:

Bauer, Max. 1896. Precious Stones. 1969 English ed.; Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle.

Whitlock, Herbert P., 1956. The Story of the Gems. New York: Emerson Books.

Wright, Ruth V., & Robert L. Chadbourne, 1970. Gems and Minerals of the Bible. New York, Harper & Row.

 

Table 1 – Biblical minerals and other natural resources

 

Biblical name

 Probable identity

Occurrence

 

1.  adamant

Emery = impure corundum

Mineral

2.  agate

Banded chalcedony

Mineral

3.  alabaster

Travertine

Sedimentary rock

4.  amber

Amber or electrum

Fossil conifer resin

5.  amethyst

Quartz variety

Mineral

6.  antimony

Stibnite

Mineral

7.  asphalt

Asphalt

Mixture of heavy hydrocarbons

8.  basalt

Basalt

Igneous rock

9.  bdellium

Balsam gum

Aromatic resin

10. beryl

Citrine (quartz variety)

Mineral

11. bitumen

See ASPHALT

Mixture of heavy hydrocarbons

12. brass

See BRONZE

Anachronism

13. brimstone

Sulfur

Mineral, native element

14. bronze

Bronze

Manmade alloy

15. carbuncle

Red garnet

Mineral

16. carnelian

Red chalcedony

Mineral

17. chalcedony

Dioptase

Mineral

18. chalkstone

Limestone

Sedimentary rock

19. chrysolite

Citrine quartz

Mineral

20. chrysoprasus

Green chalcedony

Mineral

21. clay

Clay

Sedimentary rock

22. coal

Glowing ember

Wood or charcoal

23. copper

Copper

Industrial metal*

24. coral

Precious coral

Organic product

25. crystal

See QUARTZ

Mineral

26. diamond

Jadeite or nephrite jade

Mineral

27. dust

Dust

Variable mixture of mineral and organic matter

28. earth

Soil

Variable mixture of mineral and organic matter

29. electrum

Electrum

Mineral, natural alloy of gold and silver

30. emerald

Amazonite

Mineral

31. flint

Cryptocrystalline quartz

Mineral

32. glass

Metal mirror or glass

Industrial products

33. gold

Gold

Metal, native element

34. gravel

Gravel

Unconsolidated sediment

35. gypsum

Gypsum

Mineral

36. hyacinth

Lapis lazuli

Rock

37. ice

Ice

Mineral

38. iron

Iron  or basalt

Industrial metal*

39. ivory

Ivory

Elephant tusk

40. jacinth

See HYACINTH

Mineral

41. jade

Jadeite or nephrite jade

Mineral

42. jasper

Chrysoprase or green chalcedony

Mineral

43. lapis lazuli

Lapis lazuli

Metamorphic rock

44. lead

Lead

Industrial metal

45. ligure

See AMBER

Fossilized tree resin

46. lime

Quicklime or plaster of Paris

Industrial product

47. malachite

Malachite

Mineral

48. marble

Marble

Metamorphic rock

49. nitre

Natron

Mineral

50. onyx

See TURQUOISE

Mineral

51. pearl

Pearl

Organic product

52. pitch

See ASPHALT

Mixture of heavy hydrocarbons

53. plaster

See GYPSUM & LIME

Industrial product

54. porphyry

Porphyry

Igneous rock

55. quicksands

Sand

Unconsolidated sediment

56. ruby

Red garnet

Mineral

57. rust

Limonite

Amorphous mineral

58. salt

Halite

Mineral

59. sand

Mainly quartz grains

Unconsolidated sediment

60. sapphire

See LAPIS LAZULI

Metamorphic rock

61. sardine

Brown chalcedony

Mineral

62. sardius

Brown agate

Mineral

63. sardonyx

Banded sard

Mineral

64. silver

Silver

Industrial metal*

65. slime

See ASPHALT

Mixture of heavy hydrocarbons

66. stibic stone

Powdered galena

Mineral

67. steel

See COPPER

Anachronism

68. sulfur

See BRIMSTONE

Mineral

69. tin

Tin

Industrial metal

70. topaz

Gem olivine

Mineral

71. turquoise

Turquoise

Mineral

72. vermilion

Cinnabar

Mineral

73. zircon

Lapis lazuli or turquoise

Mineral

 

* While these elements occur rarely as native metals, they were available in ancient times only as the products or byproducts of industrial extraction from ores.

 

 

 

 


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