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Gemstones have been highly prized throughout human history, from ancient times to the present day. In fact, gemstones are even mentioned in the Bible, where they are used as symbols of beauty, wealth, and spiritual significance. From the dazzling breastplate of Aaron the High Priest to the precious stones adorning the walls of the heavenly city, gemstones play a prominent role in many biblical stories and passages.
In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating world of gemstones in the Bible, delving into their meanings and significance both in ancient times and in contemporary religious and cultural contexts.
Foundation Stones: A Symbolic Representation
Foundation stones are a typical choice when constructing important buildings like temples or city walls. Foundation stones in the Bible often carry a symbolic connotation, signifying the core principles, beliefs, and values that underpin a society or faith.
The Bible has multiple instances of foundation stones that are individually significant. We’ll explore two key examples – the cornerstone and the stones within the High Priest’s breastplate, which also make up the stones of the foundations of New Jerusalem.
I. The Cornerstone
The cornerstone in the Bible is possibly the most famous foundation stone example. It often appears in the Old and New Testaments and symbolizes Christ’s importance in the Christian faith.
In Isaiah 28:16, the Lord sets the cornerstone, which he calls a special stone. Later, in the New Testament, Jesus is supposedly the fulfillment of this cornerstone prophecy, and people start calling him the “chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20) or the stone “which the builders rejected” (Matthew 21:42).
Within the everyday context, a cornerstone is a symbol of stability and a foundation of a building. In a Biblical context, the cornerstone symbolizes a foundation of faith – Jesus Christ. Unlike many other gems we can read about in the Bible, the cornerstone is simple, humble, and strong.
II. The Stones of the High Priest’s Breastplate
In Exodus 28:15-21, the High Priest’s breastplate has twelve stones, each representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The breastplate has four rows, and each tribe has its name on the plate, each with its stone.
Sources state that these stones also formed the foundation of the New Jerusalem. They are very symbolic for the creation of the city because they reflect the virtues and values of the Jewish teachings and the Ten Commandments from the Lord.
The breastplate’s foundation stones symbolize unity, representing the collective identity of the Israelite nation and their shared spiritual heritage. The presence of these stones on the High Priest’s attire underscores the importance of interdependence and cooperation among the tribes and the significance of each tribe’s unique role within the larger community.
Here are the 12 stones:
Agate, the second stone in the breastplate’s third row, symbolizes the tribe of Asher among the Israelites. Agate was a symbol of good health, long life, and prosperity. People imported this stone to Palestine from other regions of the Middle East via their caravans (Ezekiel 27:22). Throughout the Middle Ages, people considered agate a medicinal stone with the power to counteract poisons, infectious diseases, and fevers. Agate exhibits a range of vibrant colors, with red agate believed to enhance eyesight.
Agates consist of silica, a chalcedony stone with a comparable hardness to quartz. One such characteristic of these objects is their color, sometimes multiple white, red, and gray layers. The agate’s name comes from the Sicilian river Achates, where geologists found the first traces.
Folklore attributes agates with various powers, such as making wearers persuasive, agreeable, and favored by God. People believed they provided strength, courage, protection from danger, and the ability to avert lightning strikes.
Amethyst, symbolizing the tribe of Issachar, also appears in the breastplate. People believed this stone averted intoxication, prompting individuals to wear amethyst amulets when drinking. They also believed it encourages deep, genuine love and exhibits a striking purple hue like red wine.
Amethyst, a purple gemstone, appears in the Bible as the last stone in the third row of the High PriPriest’seastplate (Exodus 28:19). The stone’s name comes from the Hebrew word “achlamah,” which translates to “dream stone.” In Revelation 21:20, amethyst is the twelfth foundation gemstone of New Jerusalem. Its Greek name is “amethustos,” meaning a rock that prevents intoxication.
A variety of quartz, amethyst was popular with ancient Egyptians for its vibrant violet color. The stone has a rich folklore surrounding it. Amethyst was a pious gem popular with the Church in the Middle Ages.
Beryls appear in the Bible as the first gemstone in the fourth row of the High Priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:20). In Hebrew; its name is “tarshiysh,” likely a chrysolite, yellow jasper, or another yellow-colored stone. Beryls was the fourth stone that Lucifer wore before his fall (Ezekiel 28:13).
In the New Jerusalem, beryls are the eighth foundation gemstone (Revelation 21:20). The Greek word “berullos” signifies a pale blue precious stone. There are several color varieties of beryls, such as deep green emeralds, goshenite, and more. The Golden Beryl, a pale-yellow variety with few flaws, might have been in the High Priest’s breastplate.
In folklore, beryls induce cheerfulness; people called them the “sweet-tempered” stone. They believed that beryls protect in battle, cure laziness, and even rekindle marital love.
The Carbuncle, linked to the tribe of Judah, is present in the breastplate’s top row and the King of Tyre’s treasure. This stone has a sparkling red hue, resembling burning coal held against sunlight.
Its other name is Nophek, the first gemstone mentioned in the Bible’s second row of the High Priest’s breastplate. Nophek also appears in Ezekiel 28:13, referring to the eighth of nine stones that adorned the symbolic King of Tyre, representing Satan, the devil. Various Bible translations render the word as “emerald,” “turquoise,” or “garnet” (or malachite).
“carbuncle” is a generic term for any red gemstone, usually a red garnet.
In folklore, red stones like garnets and rubies protected the wearer from wounds and ensured safety during sea travel. Carbuncles were also a part of the eyes of mythical dragons and acted as a heart stimulant, potentially causing anger and leading to a stroke.
Carnelian is a stone ranging from blood red to pale skin color and occupies the first position in the breastplate. Carnelian was vital in warding off misfortune.
Carnelian or Odem appears in the Bible as the first stone in the High Priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:17). Odem also appears as the first gemstone God used to beautify Lucifer (Ezekiel 28:13), with translations calling it a ruby, sardius, or carnelian.
Although some think the first stone was Ruby, others disagree and claim it was another precious blood-red stone. Rubies would have been too hard for ancient Israelites to engrave. However, the first stone adorning Lucifer may have been a ruby since God directly used it.
Carnelian gemstones have rich folklore. People used them in amulets and talismans, and they believed that Carnelian stopped bleeding, brought good luck, protected from injury, and makes the wearer a better speaker.
Chalcedony, a variety of Silicon Quartz, is the third foundational stone of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:19). This gemstone has a fine grain and bright colors. It is part of the family, including Agate, Jasper, Carnelian, and Onyx. Its translucent, waxy luster and potential for various colors make it unique.
Chalcedony would represent Jacob’s eighth-born son, Asher, by birth order and Joseph’s son Manasseh by order of the camp. It is also associated with the apostle Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.
In Christian living, Chalcedony symbolizes faithful service to the Lord (Matthew 6:6). The gemstone embodies the essence of doing good deeds without seeking excessive praise or boasting.
Chrysolite, a gemstone mentioned multiple times in the Bible, holds great spiritual value. Chrysolite appears in the Bible, specifically in Exodus, as one of the twelve stones adorning the high priest’s breastplate. Each stone represented a tribe of Israel, with chrysolite symbolizing the tribe of Asher. The yellowish-green stone could signify Asher’s wealth and abundance as the tribe flourished from its lucrative olive oil and grain resources.
The stone may also be a type of jasper; some described it as “a jasper stone, clear as crystal.” In ancient times, chrysolite’s appealing color and healing powers made it valuable. People wore it as a talisman for protection and considered it a symbol of wealth and status. Gemstone was also popular in jewelry and decorative items.
When the word “apple” is mentioned, what comes to mind? A computer company, a Red Delicious or Granny Smith fruit, William Tell’s arrow, or Newton sitting under an apple tree? Perhaps Adam and Eve’s first forbidden fruit or sayings like “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” or “you are the apple of my eye.”
The Chrysoprase, the tenth foundational gemstone, is an uncommon chalcedony variety containing small amounts of nickel. This nickel silicate presence gives the stone a distinctive opalescent apple-green shade. The unique golden-green hue is what adds value to the gemstone.
“chrysoprase” originates from the Greek words chrysos, meaning ‘gold,’ and prasinon, meaning ‘green.’ Chrysoprase contains fine crystals that aren’t perceivable as distinct particles under normal magnification.
The Greeks and Romans valued the stone, fashioning it into jewelry. Ancient Egyptians also recognized the gemstone’s worth and used it to adorn pharaohs. Some say that Chrysoprase was Alexander the Great’s favorite gemstone.
Emerald represents the tribe of Levi and is a glittering, brilliant green stone. People believed that emerald restores sight and signifies immortality and incorruptibility.
Emeralds in the Bible present a classic example of the challenges in accurately translating words from one language (Hebrew) to another (English). The same word can mean “carbuncle” in one version and “emerald” in another.
Bible commentaries disagree about the modern identity of this Hebrew gemstone that some call “bareqath.” Some lean towards red-colored gemstones such as red garnet, while others suggest a more accurate translation would be the green-colored emerald.
Hyacinth or Jasinth, a foundation stone with a reddish-orange hue, could allegedly grant the power of second sight.
Jacinth is the inaugural stone in the third row of the priest’s breastplate. This precious stone appears in Revelation 9:17, where the breastplates of two hundred million horse riders contain this gemstone or at least resemble it.
However, there’s a challenge in determining the appearance of the biblical Jacinth due to conflicting definitions of the gemstone’s color.
In folklore, amulets containing Jacinth were popular to safeguard travelers against the plague and any wounds or injuries sustained during their journey. People believed this gemstone guaranteed a warm welcome at any inn visited and protected the wearer from lightning strikes (Curious Lore of Precious Stones, pp. 81-82).
The onyx stone appears 11 times in the Bible and holds significant value in biblical history. Its first reference was in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 2:12).
David prepared onyx stones, among other valuable stones and materials, for his son Solomon to build the house of God.
“Now I have prepared with all my might for the house of my God the gold for things to be made of gold, and the silver for things of silver, and the brass for things of brass, the iron for things of iron, and wood for things of wood; onyx stones, and stones to be set, glistering stones, and of divers colors, and all manner of precious stones, and marble stones in abundance”(Chronicles 29:2)
Jasper holds an important place in the Bible, as it is the final stone mentioned in the High Priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:20). Derived from the Hebrew word “yashpheh,” the term’s etymology relates to the concept of “polishing.”
The Book of Revelation contains numerous visions given to John the Apostle, including one that highlights the importance of this gemstone in connection with God’s appearance on His throne.
John wrote, “After this, I looked, and before me was a door in heaven… Instantly, I was in the Spirit and saw a throne in heaven with someone seated on it. The figure on the throne appeared like a jasper stone…” (Revelation 4:1-3).
Throughout history, jasper appears in various folklore and beliefs. In ancient times, people believed it brought rain, stopped blood flow, and drove away evil spirits. Some also believe that it protects the wearer from venomous bites.
Each of these unique gemstones is important in the biblical narrative and has rich symbolism in the Christian faith.
Beyond their physical beauty and rarity, these gemstones carry deeper spiritual meanings, reflecting various aspects of Christian life and virtues
Ultimately, these gemstones serve as powerful reminders of the values and teachings of the Christian faith, encouraging believers to cultivate these virtues within themselves and in their relationship with God.