THE GOLD OF THAT LAND: Biblical Minerals & Rocks  


Appendix 3: The High Priests Breastplate


"Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward?" the Teacher wondered in a bleak moment (Ecclesiastes 3:21). The human spirit does indeed fly upward because it searches inwards and we have inner lives and dreams. We dream in order to act, as W.H. Auden put it, and we act in order to dream. Our dreams are the wellspring of human creativity and any capacity we may have for altruism. Curiosity, a thirst for beauty, and a sense of the numinous feed the wellspring and keep it flowing.

This inner life explains why our ancestors have always sought to adorn themselves and have never been satisfied to make tools that are merely functional. The joint listing of gold, aromatic resin, and onyx in Genesis 2:12 illustrates the depth and universality of human interest in using the riches of the earth for personal adornment. The Bible lists a surprising variety of precious stones and other materials used for cosmetics, perfume, and jewelry long before history. It makes no distinction between "precious" and "semi-precious" stones: modern commerce invented this device to evoke an aura of exclusivity for a select few gemstones and for the prestige of those interested in vaunting their wealth. Diamond, ruby, emerald, and sapphire may claim the status of precious stones today, but many other gemstones have equal beauty.

Mineralogists have now identified several hundred types of gemstones, and the varieties of these must more than double the number. The qualities that give a stone value as a gem include color, hardness, luster, brilliance and other optical qualities, inclusions, rarity, or unusual properties such as chatoyance. The people of early civilizations valued gold for its glitter and working properties, and they prized many of the same red, green, and blue stones for what their colors meant to them.

The ancient Egyptians, like many other peoples, associated the red color of carnelian, jasper, or hematite, with blood, death, or strength. Green turquoise, amazonite, chrysoprase, or jasper stood for the new shoots of plants, resurrection, and the rebirth of Osiris. Blue symbolized the sky and heaven, the divine abode, and Arabs today believe that blue protects them from the evil eye.

The ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians therefore shared an appreciation of lapis lazuli, while the ancient Chinese and Mesoamericans coveted jade. Other paler or colorless stones became valued for their optical properties only after advances in cutting, faceting, and polishing brought out their fire and brilliance and made them fashionable as gems. The Egyptian demand for colored gems became so great that only their invention of colored glass and faience enabled jewelers to meet the demand. Colored glass and faience even became acceptable substitutes for carnelian, lapis lazuli, and turquoise in royal jewelry by the time of Tutankhamun.[i]

The Bible contains three lists of precious stones: twelve gemstones in the high priest's breastplate (Exodus 28:17-30 and 39:10-13), nine in the regalia of the King of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:13), and twelve in the foundations of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:19-20). Because the second and third lists parallel and evoke the first, Table 10-1 summarizes the first list and their most plausible modern identifications. In those cases that differ from traditional names, the table takes into account the documented availability and popularity of each stone, as well as gleanings from early sources.


[Table 10-1 goes here]


People of the ancient world valued precious stones for more than their beauty or rarity: they endowed them with symbolic values and credited them with magical properties. George Frederick Kunz has shown how the ancient beliefs persisted into the Christian era and became elaborated in medieval and renaissance times.[ii] I'm not sure that the Bible documents any examples of the ancient use of precious stones as talismans and amulets. However, we do read in Revelation 2:17,

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it."

The identity of the white stone is as cryptic as the name, and both have invited many plausible speculations. Mounce prefers "to take the white stone as a tessera which served as a token for admission to the banquet."[iii] Another possibility is that the white stone is an engraved signet seal that invests its owner with the power to minister to persecuted people on behalf of Jesus. Alternatively, the white stone evokes the Urim or "yes" oracle that was to be stored with the "Thummim" in the High Priest's breastplate (Exodus 28:30).


 The High Priest's Breastplate




Hebrew meaning


Tribal name




Most likely modern name

1. 'odem




 sard or carnelian

2. pitdw





3. brekath

 shining stone



 malachite or amazonite

4. nphek

fiery stone



almandite or pyrope garnet

5. sappr




lapis lazuli 

6. yahalm

tough stone



 nephrite or       jadeite jade

7. leshem

dedicated to God




8. shebw





9. achlamh






gem of Tarshish



 citrine or topaz 

11. shham

pale lapis






polished thing



red jasper


Table 6: The High Priests Breastplate


[i]   Romano, James F., 1995. Jewelry and Personal Arts in Ancient Egypt. In Sasson, Jack M., ed., 1995. Civilizations of the ancient Near East. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons; 1605-1621.  
[ii]   Kunz, George Frederic, 1908. The curious lore of precious stones. New York: Century.

[iii]   Mounce, Robert H., 1977. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans; 99.


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