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.
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.
Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006 by Richard S. Barnett, Virtual Curator of