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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Precious stones were highly regarded in ancient times. The Scriptures tell us that people used them in necklaces, rings and bracelets. Royalty had crowns laced with gems and their gowns were often adorned with them. Gemstones were highly sought after, often for their arresting qualities such as their brilliant colors. When the Israelites left their land, they took large quantities of stones with them. When they were in Palestine, they bought stones from the caravans that came from the East.

Due to difficulties in translating early versions of the Bible, we are not always sure which stones are being referred to. The ancients didn’t identify stones by their composition or crystalling form but from their color or use, or where they came from. This means that any analysis of particular gemstones in the Bible could be open to interpretation. This factor should be kept in mind when discussing the various stones mentioned in the Bible.

There are many biblical references to gemstones but the most important are considered to be those in Aaron’s breastplate (Exodus 28: 15-20 and 39:10-13), the stones in the foundations of the wall of New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:18-21) and the precious stones that were among the King of Tyre’s treasures (Ezekiel 28:13).

Aaron was Moses’ brother and led the tribe of the high priests. His breastplate is one of the earliest accounts of an array of gemstones as decoration and symbols. It is described in the Bible as the breastplate of judgment or decision. It had twelve precious gems, one for each of the Israelite tribes, and was inscribed with their names. The stones were set in four rows: a sardius, topaz and carbuncle in the first row; an emerald, sapphire and diamond in the second; a ligure, agate and amethyst in the third; and a beryl, onyx and jasper in the fourth row. Each stone was set with an ouch, or clasp or buckle, of gold.

From the time of Aaron in the 13th century BCE, high priests wore a breastplate or gorget of cloth similar to that worn by Aaron. The priests wore these garments whenever they were communicating with God over the course the Israelites should take. Josephus felt that the breastplate represented the earth, and the priest’s girdle as the ocean that went around it. He took the twelve stones to be the months or Zodiac signs. The priests’ bells and pomegranates represented thunder and lighting, and their headdress signified heaven.

After Solomon’s temple was destroyed and the Jews were taken captive to Babylon in the 6th century BCE, they always hoped for Jerusalem’s restoration. Successive foundations of the wall of New Jerusalem were garnished with various precious stones. From the first foundation to the twelfth foundation, stones used were jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, sardius, chrysolyte, beryl, topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth and amethyst respectively. The wall itself was made of jasper. The stones are very similar to those worn by Aaron and successive high priests.

Regarding the treasures of Hiram I, 10th century BCE king of Tyre, Ezekiel (28:13) describes the Garden of Eden as having “every precious stone”, including beryl, carbuncle, diamond, emerald, gold, jasper, onyx, sapphire, sardius and topaz, and that “the workmanship of thy tablets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou was created”. Tyre was the center of a large trading empire which traded with Egypt, Arabia and Mesopotamia and the king became quite rich. Hiram helped Solomon build his temple.

Let’s now turn to the major individual precious stones mentioned in these biblical references and the significance of each gem, in alphabetical order:

– Agate was the second stone in the third row of the breastplate and thought to represent the Aser tribe of the Israelites. The stone was associated with health, longevity and wealth. It was brought to Palestine by merchants from places such as Babylonia, Persia, Saba and Reema in their caravans (Ezekiel 27:22). Agate was considered to have medicinal powers into the Middle Ages, supposedly countering poisons, contagious diseases and fever. Agate comes in various bright colors. Red agate was meant to improve eyesight.

– Amethyst represents the Issachar tribe. It appears in the breastplate, the wall foundations, and among the king’s treasure. This stone was thought to prevent intoxication. Drinkers would wear an amulet of amethyst for this reason. It is supposed to provide deep and pure love. It is a brilliant purple, close to the color of red wine.

– Beryl is thought to represent the Nephtali tribe and is in the breastplate and the wall foundations. It can be pale blue to yellowy green, although it can also be white or rose. It relates to happiness and everlasting youth.

– Carbuncle relates to the tribe of Juda, is in the top row in the breastplate, and in the King of Tyre’s treasure. It is a glittering red color. Holding it up to the sun makes it look like burning coal.

– Carnelian is a blood red color or it can be a pale skin color, and is in the first stone (sard) in the breastplate. It also appears in the king’s treasure, and in the celestial city’s wall foundations. Carnelian was an important stone in preventing misfortune.

– Chalcedony is one of the stones in the wall foundations. It is milky or grayish in color and is translucent. It was supposed to get rid of depression.

– Chrysolyte belongs to the tribe of Zabulon. It is a stone in the foundations of the wall. Orangey yellow in color, it gladened the heart, helped people get over a fear of the dark, and drove away the devil. It was supposed to cure eye diseases.

– Chrysoprasus is a green agate and is a foundation stone.

– Diamond was in the breastplate and one of the precious stones in the king’s treasure. It signifies purity, preserves peace and prevents storms.

– Emerald is represented by the tribe of Levy. It is in the breastplate, the wall foundations and the Tyre treasures. It glitters and is a brilliant green. Emerald is actually a green beryl. It was supposed to preserve or restore sight. It signifies immortality and incorruptibility.

– Hyacinth is a foundation stone. It is reddish-orange in color and gave second sight.

– Jasper is in the breastplate and represents the Benjamin tribe. The New Jerusalem wall itself was made of jasper. It is opaque, comes in most colors, and gives courage and wisdom.

– Ligurus is a stone in the breastplate and the wall foundations, and relates to the tribe of Gad.

– Onyx appears in the breastplate and belongs to the Joseph tribe. It relates to marital happiness. Its color is white and black, and sometimes includes brown.

– Sapphire is found in the breastplate, wall foundations and king’s treasure. It represents the Dan tribe. It is a beautiful blue color and promotes constancy, truth and virtue.

– Topaz also features in all three of the important biblical references to precious stones. It signifies friendship and happiness.

There are various other biblical references to the gemstones found in the priests’ breastplate, New Jerusalem’s wall foundations, and the King of Tyre’s treasures, as well as to other stones, but these three and their stones are generally regarded as the most important.