The Breastpiece of the Priest

The breastpiece is described at Exodus 28 as one of the garments that a Hebrew priest was to wear. There were to be stones in the vest to represent each tribe of the nation of Israel.

The exact identities of the stones named in the instructions for the breastpiece are considered unknowable. They have been lost in the obscurity of the original Old Hebrew from which they were translated.

This is an attempt to discover what those stones were.

Exodus 28:1
"Gather Aaron, your brother, and his sons from among the people, that he may minister unto me as a priest. And you shall make sacred garments for Aaron, your brother, for glory and for beauty. Speak with those who are wise and filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron's garments in a way that will consecrate him for his duty as a priest."

"And these are the garments they shall make: A breastpiece, an apron, a robe, a brocaid tunic, a mitre, and a sash. and they shall make them holy, and use gold, blue, purple, scarlet, and finely twined linen. The apron shall be made of gold, blue, purple, scarlet, and finely twined linen covered with cunning work. There will be two straps at the shoulder to be tied together. And the embroidered sash of the apron will be joined to it, and be as a part of the apron, made of gold, blue, purple, scarlet, and finely twined linen."

"Take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the tribes of Israel; six on the one stone, six on the other stone, in order, according to their birth. As a gem cutter might engrave the seal of a signet ring, engrave them, and fill the engravings with gold. Set these two stones on the shoulder straps of the apron, for a memorial to them. Thus Aaron shall always bear their names, to be remembered by the Lord."

"Make clasps of twirled gold wire, with two twirled chains of pure gold and connect an end of each to the clasps."

"Make the Breastpiece of Determination with cunning work, similar to the apron, of gold, purple, scarlet, and finely twined linen. It is to be foursquare when folded double, a span* high and a span wide. On it you shall mount four rows of precious stones. On the first row will be a sardius, a topaz, and a carbuncle. The second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond. The third row will be a garnet, an agate, and an amethyst. The fourth row will be a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. These precious stones will be set in gold, with the names of the tribes of Israel on them, in order of their birth, with the engravings filled with gold, similar to the engraved seal of onyx."

"And you shall put two gold rings at the upper corners of the breastpiece and attach to each the twirled gold chain of the clasps. Then put two gold rings at the bottom of the breastpiece at the front, and two gold rings on the edge of the apron just above the sash. Attach the two rings of the breastpiece to the rings of the apron with a lace of blue, so that the breastpiece is not loosed from the apron."

"And, thus shall Aaron wear the names of all the tribes of Israel near his heart on the Breastpiece of Determination, when he goes into the holy place, for a reminder always to the Lord."

"And you shall put in the fold of the Breastpiece of Determination the two opposing things, and they will always be near Aaron's heart when he goes before the Lord, and Aaron will draw out the decision before the Lord for the tribes of Israel."

*A "span" is approximately 9 to 11 inches.

If the translation of these passages is accurate... the breastpiece of the priest was to be worn whenever a determination was sought from the Lord... so that the Lord could always have a memory of the sons of Israel before him when speaking to the priest.

Perhaps the chieftains of each of the tribes would meet in the tabernacle when a decision needed to be made, and the priest would hand each stone to that tribe's chieftain to be used as a form of voting. The issue would be presented, afterwhich the chieftain might place his hand into the fold of the vest, either leaving a stone or not leaving a stone... unknown to the others which had happened. Or, used as a signet, the stone would be used to place a seal on an agreement between the tribes.

These stones were representative of the sons of Israel, as a memorial to them... which gives us clues to the stones being referred to.

If one were to try to thresh out what stones these were, the first task would be... to eliminate those stones that likely are not on the breastpiece. These stones were to serve as signets, with names engraved on them... meaning that the stones must have been capable of such an engraving by ancient Hebrew craftsmen.

The available stones are vast, as the Hebrews had left Egypt with gifts from the Egyptian people of jewels and valuables... and Egypt was a great power that had traded with all the nations, and thus could have acquired stones from the ends of the world.

Depending on which Bible you read... the stones are named, but each translation names them differently... with some commonalities because of a reference to color or hardness. Biblical commentaries note that the exact stones can never be known... they are lost forever. Below is an example of the various choices by different scholars.

Exodus 28:15-29 "And thou shall set in it settings of stones, even four rows of stones:..."

King James
"... the first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and a carbuncle:
the second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond:
the third row a ligure, an agate, and an amethyst:
the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper:"

New King James Version
"... the first row shall be a sardius, a topaz, and a emerald:
the second row shall be a turquoise, a sapphire, and a diamond:
the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst:
the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper:"

New International Version
      Footnote: "The precise identification of some of these precious stones is uncertain."

"... the first row shall be a ruby, a topaz, a beryl.
The second row, a turquoise, a sapphire, and an emerald.
The third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst.
The fourth row a chrysolite, an onyx, and a jasper."

The Douay-Challoner Text (Roman Catholic)
      Footnote: "The translation of the Hebrew names of some of these gems is quite conjectural."

"... the first row a carnelian, a topaz, and an emerald.
In the second row, a garnet, a sapphire, and a beryl.
In the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst.
In the fourth row, a chrysolite, an onyx, and a jasper."

"And the stones shall be with the names of the children of Israel, twelve, according to their names, like the engravings of a signet;"

Some of the stones named are: diamonds, rubies, sapphires, etc. But, these small, hard gems could not be those stones... the stones in the vest were to be signets, and were to have Jacob's sons' names engraved on them.

To find clues to what these representative stones might possibly be... we can look at Jacob's last blessing... where Jacob describes his sons. We must also look at the history of gems and stones... then place all the clues together to see if anything might emerge.

Use this number guide on the entries below.

1.___ Jacob's son in the order of his last blessings, with the meaning of his name
2.___ The Hebrew name of the stone with notations of its meaning
3.___ In parentheses is the color suggested by its name, followed by a list of the stones that have been named in various translations of the bible.
4.___ Jacob's last blessing describing the son from Genesis 49
5.___ The theoretical choice using all this information and other reasonings

*Mohs' scale of hardness rates gemstones on a scale of 1~10, with 10 being the diamond and the hardest.
Each number below 10 is able to be cut by the one above it. The number 1 is talcom.

Reuben -- red garnet

1.____ Reuben "See! a son!"
2.____ odem____ The first three letters of "Adam" are used in the name of this stone... "edom" means "be red".
Most sources have this stone as a red stone. It is the color of wine (Prov.23:31), and of blood (2Kings3:22) or, even the color of dirt.
3.____ (red) ruby or sardius/ jasper/ ruby/ sardius/ ruby/ sardius/ carnelian
4.____ "Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father's bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch."
5.____ The Red Garnet:     Mohs' scale= 6.5 ~ 7.2
The red garnet is a deep reddish-brown transparent stone. It got its current name from the Latin "granatus", or "grain" because it often resembled a small round seed when it was found. It is of the "cubic crystal class" which produces a cube-like structure most often with twelve sides, and with diamond facets. Garnets are used by geologists to decipher the temperature and pressure during the formation of the rocks that produced the garnets. These stones are fairly common in igneous rock.

Simeon -- obsidian

1.____ Simeon: "to be heard"
2.____ pitdah___ Most sources say this is a yellow topaz, but without evidence. The Greek word for "rock" is "petra". If this is used as a clue, then a common or generic type of rock may be what is referred to.
3.____ (yellow, blue) topaz/ sapphire/ topaz/ topaz/ topaz/ topaz/ topaz
4.____ "Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations. O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel."
5.____Obsidian:     Mohs' scale= 5 ~ 7
Obsidian is a black volcanic glass that originates from explosive volcanoes. It has the same makeup as granite, but cooled too quickly to crystalize. It has been found in Ethiopia and elsewhere around the world. When it is given a glancing blow it will produce slivers that are extremely sharp. It can be shaped into cutting or scraping tools, arrowheads, mirrors, and jewelry, as was known even in ancient times.

Levi -- amber

1.____ Levi: "to adhere" or "to join"
2.____ bareketh___ This word is evidently from a Hebrew root that is used for "lightning," and is often translated as "glittering", and designates a stone of "flashing redness".
3.____ (green, red, blue) emerald/ agate/ malachite/ carbuncle/ beryl/ carbuncle/ emerald
4.____ Levi received the same words from Jacob as did Simeon.
5.____ Amber:     Mohs' scale= 2.5
Amber is the fossilized resin from ancient trees. It is found in shale, clays, and sandstones in the coal of ancient trees. It has also been found on seashores, as it will float on salt water. Amber has been sought after since prehistoric times. Stone age amber carvings are found in many museums. In some societies it was believed that amber lit the way through the underworld after one's death. Rubbing amber will produce static electricity, causing paper to stick to it. This oddity has been known since ancient times, and is the reason why the Greeks named it "elektron", which means "sun made", and from which we derive our word for electricity. Thousands of extinct species of insects and small animals have been identified from their preservation in quantities of amber.

Judah -- jade

1.____ Judah: "praise"
2.____ nopech___ This word has been said to be derived from an Arabic root signifying "to transmit or pervade" or even "dividing"
3.____ (red,green,bluegreen) carbuncle/emerald/turquoise/emerald/turquoise/ emerald/ garnet
4.____ "Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father's children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk."
5.____ Jade:     Mohs' scale= 6.5 ~ 7
Jade is the most highly prized of all stone. The Chinese have mined jade since 5000 BC, and called it the "Yu" stone. It was considered the "stone of heaven" and artifacts of jade were buried with their dead. It has also been mined in Russia since 3000 BC. It is mined and sold in large blocks. The color can be white, yellow, green, brown, or black. When it is of a rich green lustre, it is called "imperial jade." Jade is formed from fibrous silica that interweave so that it becomes stronger than steel. It can't be chiseled but has to be ground with strong abrasives. It is strong enough to serve as a tool or a weapon. The Maori relied on jade for weaponry until metals were introduced to them in the 18th century. It has a utilitarian use, and yet is of gem quality. It has been believed to confer good luck and well-being on its owner.

Zebulun -- turquoise

1.____ Zebulun "dwelling"
2.____ sapeer___ This word is derived from a verb signifying "to scratch or polish," and hence, "to write and to number." It is also the color of the vision of heaven by the elders. Sapir, or shaphir in hebrew means "beautiful or pleasant".
3.____ (blue, onyx) sapphire/ onyx/ sapphire/ sapphire/ sapphire/ sapphire/ sapphire
4.____ "Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for an haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon."
5.____ Turquoise:     Mohs' scale= 5 ~ 6
Turquoise gets its English name from the French derivative "Turkish," since it arrived in Europe through Turkey from Iran. It is one of the first stones to have been mined, as early as 6000 BC in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The ancient Egyptians commonly used it as jewelry, and pieces have been discovered buried with mummies. Turquoise has an opaque sky blue color that is often disrupted with jagged veins of accompanying brown or black minerals. It can be pourous and if rubbed too vigorously it can turn greenish; and is sensitive to such things as soap, sunlight, and grease.

Issachar -- gold-veined quartz

1.____ Issachar: "given hire or recompense"
2.____ yah-gha-lohm___ It's derivation implies that a very hard stone was intended. It's root has signified "to break in pieces or bruise", or "one that is harder than others."
3.____ (red, salmon, purple, green, clear) sardonyx/ carnelian/ amethyst/ diamond/ emerald/ diamond/ beryl
4.____ "Issachar is a strong ass couching down between two burdens: and he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; and bowed his shoulder to bear, and became a servant unto tribute."
5.____ Gold-veined Quartz:     Mohs' scale for quartz=7     Mohs' scale for gold=2.5
Gold often forms in igneous rock, next to and within the formations of quartz. Quartz is the most abundant of all minerals, and is a common gauge mineral, forming in granite near mineral veins. Sometimes minerals trapped within the crystals create beautiful effects. Veins of gold are found in quartz formations and can be easily extracted because it does not combine with surrounding elements. It may become loosened and wash into streams where it can be panned to separate it from the lighter sand. Gold was made useful 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia and has always been a sought-after metal. It has been associated with divinity, royalty, and wealth; and has been used as a monetary exchange throughout all of history. Quartz vibrates at a steady rate in reaction to an electical charge, and thus is used in watches to keep time.

Dan -- lapis lazula

1.____ Dan: "judged"
2.____ leh-sham___ origin unknown... perhaps refers to "rays going forth from"
3.____ (golden, green, orange,) amber or jacinth/ chrysolite/ jacinth/ ligure/ jacinth/ ligure/ jacinth
4.____ "Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward. I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord."
5.____ Lapis Lazula:     Mohs' scale= 5.5
Lapis lazula is a limestone or a phosphate that contains lazurite, golden flecks of pyrite, and white flecks of calcite. It's color is comparable to the dark blue sapphire. Its name comes from the Persian word "lazhuward" meaning "blue" or "heaven." Lapis lazula was mentioned in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, in 2600 BC, and has been mined in Afghanistan for over 6000 years. It was a popular stone in the ancient world, used for jewelry, talismans, beads, inlay work, and signets or seals. The ancient Egyptians used it commonly in religious ceremonies. Lapis Lazula can be scraped into a powder and used as a blue pigment in paints.

Gad -- white agate

1.____ Gad: "a troop" "a multitude" or "a fortune"
2.____ shevoo___ or "shebo": origin unknown. S'bu is Hebrew for "oath" and can be tied to the word "seven" or "rest".
3.____ (unknown, possibly blue) agate/ beryl/ agate/ agate/ agate/ agate/ agate
4.____ "Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last."
5.____ White agate:     Mohs' scale= 6.5 ~ 7
Agate is a type of quartz that is formed inside a nodule or a geode. It is related to chalcedony in that the crystals forming it are much more microscopic than crystal quartz, but it still has the opaque transparency of quartz. Agate has banding of color similar to onyx, but its bands are circular and irregular and can include colors such as white, black, grey, blue, brown, or red. Agate has been used since ancient times for signets, amulets, dishes, and figurines of various deities.

Asher -- coral

1.____ Asher: "blessedness" or "happy"
2.____ agh-lah-mah___ Sources claim that this is amethyst, a stone of great hardness and beauty, and of a fine violet or purple color.
3.____ (purple, yellow, clear) amethyst/ topaz/ crystal/ amethyst/ amethyst/ amethyst/ amethyst
4.____ "Out of Asher his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties."
5.____ Coral:     Mohs' scale= 3.5
Coral is formed by the limestone skeletal remains of sea anemones that harden as these microscopic organisms die off. They live in large colonies and form united and branched shapes that serve as an environment for other plant and animal life. Coral forms in warm water in areas that include the Mediteranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. It can be carved into beads, amulets, cameos, and figurines.

Naphtali -- ivory

1.____ Naphtali: "a prevailing wrestler"
2.____ tarshish___ This word is exactly the same as a place called "Tarshish," spoken of at times, but this name is similar to several cities of the ancient world. The place "Tarshish" however, was always referred to in relation "to the sea" or with ships "on the sea".
3.____ (clear, unknown) chalcedony or chrysolite/ chrysoprase/ beryl/ beryl/ chrysolite/ beryl/chrysolite
4.____ "Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words."
5.____ Ivory:     Mohs' scale= 2.5
Ivory has been used for carving for tens of thousands of years. It is the hard white dentine from the tusks of elephants, walruses, and whales... as well as from the the teeth or horns of many animals. Most ivory can be carved with simple tools. Its elasticity makes it ideal for such things as combs. Ivory is durable, difficult to damage or destroy, does not burn, and resists water. It is also a good heat insulator, used for such things as teapot handles. Many ancient civilizations produced great works of ivory.

Joseph -- sardonyx

1.____ Joseph:   "may the Lord give me another"
2.____ shoham___   The Hebrew root from which this name is supposed to be derived signifies "a flashing forth of splendor"
3.____ (green, orange, salmon, onyx) beryl/ jacinth/ carnelian/ onyx/ onyx/ onyx/ onyx
4.____ "Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall: The archers have sorely grieved him, and shot at him, and hated him: But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mightly God of Jacob: (from thence is the shepherd, the stone of Israel:) even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb: The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren."
5.____ Sardonyx:     Mohs' scale= 6.5
The sardonyx is an onyx with parallel bands of "sard" a brownish red color, and white. It was once valued more than gold. It was carved by the ancient Egyptians into scarab beetle talismans. Romans connected it to the god Mars, and believed that amulets made from it gave them courage in battle. Deities were depicted in this particular onyx as cameos or figurines, cutting into the layers to create a two-color design. The oldest cameo known was made from sardonyx. It can also be fashioned to resemble an eye. It seems, as well, to depict Egypt... with red bands bordering a river of white. The sardonyx serves well as a beautiful signet ring or a seal.

Benjamin -- white opal

1.____ Benoni or Benjamin: "son of sorrow" or "son of my right hand"
2.____ jahsh-peh___ Sources all appear to agree that this is a green jasper. It is the last to be listed in the breastpiece, and the first listed in Revelations 21:11, as the foundations of the New Jerusalem. The characteristics of the stone called "jasper" in Revelations, as far as they are specified, are that it "was "most precious" and "like crystal." And again in Rev.4:3, that it was "a stone of brilliant and transparent light." One must acknowledge that Exodus and Revelations emerged in different times and were written in different languages.
3.____ (green or red jasper, purple) jasper/ amethyst/ jasper/ jasper/ jasper/ jasper/ jasper
4.____ "Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: In the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil."
5.____ White Opal:     Mohs' scale= 5.5 ~ 6.5
The white opal shines with a translucency full of varying pastel colors, as of a rainbow, which is called its "fire." Opal is amorphous, with no crystaline structure... the only other major amorphous stone being amber. Opal is a hydrated silica which forms with the skeletons of organisms like sponges and diatoms. It is mined near geysers and springs and contains up to 10 percent water when it is removed. It must be dried slowly or it may crack. Its name comes from the Sanskrit word upala meaning "gem" or "precious stone". It is a comparably soft stone for carving cameos or amulets, but it can be damaged easily.


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