Twelve Sons, Twelve Stones

The twelve stones in the breastplate of the ancient Hebrew high priest can now be identified, with the corresponding tribes of Israel.

The Lord instructed Moses to have the names of the twelve sons of Israel engraved on twelve stones in the breastplate of the high priest. The exact order, arrangement, and type of each stone were explicitly stated (Ex. 28:17-21), but the name to be written on each stone was not given, perhaps because it was obvious to Moses. After the destruction of the temple, the knowledge of which tribe was associated with which stone was lost, and even the identity of some of the stones has been uncertain. This article attempts to restore this lost knowledge by use of the birth dates of those twelve sons, and the correspondence of those dates to the twelve zodiac constellations, as presented in last month’s article.[1]

Birthstones

Do you have any jewelry containing your birthstone? What is the origin of the birthstones? Are they just a way for jewelers to peddle their wares, or is their really some significance to these twelve stones? And if so, is it the chemical makeup of the stone that is important, or is it the color, or both? And should the stones be associated with months of our Gregorian year, or perhaps the Hebrew months, or maybe the 30-day signs of the zodiac, or how about the actual zodiac constellations in the heavens?

What about the colors associated with certain nations, such as the colors of their flags? Why are so many of the flags of Europe colored red, white and blue?[2] What about the colors in heraldry, the colors on your family crest? Are they significant? What do colors have to do with families and nations?

Figure 1. The high priest’s breastplate contained twelve stones.

The origin of our twelve birthstones and their colors is rooted in the twelve colored stones in the breastplate of the high priest of ancient Israel. The fact that our birthstones are not only associated with different tribes, but also with different months, shows that there was a strong tradition that each of the twelve sons of Jacob was born at a distinct time of year. So if our birthstones trace back to a Biblical origin, the question arises of just how accurate our modern list of birthstones is.

The Problem

Unfortunately, we have known neither the stones nor the associated tribes, much less the time of year for each stone. One of the long unsolved mysteries in the Bible is the identification of the twelve stones in the breastplate of the high priest. Most of those stones are mentioned only in that context, and so they have been extremely hard to identify. Most scholars have given up the identification as a lost cause. Many lists have been published, purporting to be authentic, but in fact they are based only on speculation, such as assuming that the order of the stones is the birth order of the sons.[3]

As an example of the confusion of the translation of the stone names, the fourth stone is called “emerald” in the King James version, “carbuncle” in the Greek translation (Septuagint), “turquoise” in the New American Standard version, and “garnet” in Strong’s dictionary. Note that the colors of those modern stones are all different (green, red, blue, blackish red), so we end up confused both on colors and stones. To add to the confusion, many stones come in a variety of colors: Sapphires are not just blue, they are also colorless, pink, orange, yellow, green, purple and black.[4] And another problem is that some of the ancient names that we recognize, used to refer to different stones. For example, before medieval times, “sapphire” referred to the blue stone lapis lazuli for at least many centuries.[5] So it has appeared to be a hopeless tangle of yarn that no one has been able to unravel.

Figure 2. The twelve stones each had a name engraved on it.

These, however, are some of the most difficult examples. The colors of some stones in the list are perfectly known, such as the first one, odem, which means “red” in Hebrew. In other cases, all translators agree on the identification of the stone, such as topaz and amethyst. They might all be wrong, but at least there is a consensus.

The Solution

This paper attempts to provide a definitive correlation of all twelve stones to their modern names, colors, and tribes of Israel. The solution is based on using information from two other sources: birth dates and birth constellations.

First, as mentioned above, the fact that there is a strong tradition that each of the twelve stones is associated with the time of birth of one of the twelve sons of Jacob is a big clue. Sometimes a general idea is preserved over time while the details are lost. The fact that each stone is associated with a different month and also with a tribe of Israel definitely indicates a tradition that it was the time of birth of those twelve sons that identified them with a specific stone. Last month a list of birth dates, derived from sacred calendars, was proposed for each of the twelve sons of Jacob. They were spread out during the year, which agrees with this tradition.

Secondly, that same article also identified each tribe with a constellation of the zodiac. That is also a big clue to solve the puzzle, because the Lord apparently also alludes to several of the constellations as the same precious stones of the breastplate of the high priest. He said to the prophet Ezekiel,

Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created. (Ezek 28:13).

Nine of these stones covered Eden.

Those nine stones are nine of the twelve stones of the high priest. The fact that he says the stones were the “covering” in the Garden of Eden, suggests that he might be referring to the canopy of the heavens, and that each of those stones is associated with a zodiac constellation. This argument is not compelling, but if this suggestion is not correct, then just what does the scripture mean? The scriptures do tell us that some of these stones were found in the Garden (Gen. 2:12), but when so many of the stones are listed as a “covering,” it seems more likely that it refers to the heavens.

Let us now use these two new lists of birth dates and constellations to identify the stones. Those who wish only to know the answer can skip the somewhat detailed derivation which follows to Table 4 near the end of this article.

Unravelling the Mystery

Let us now solve the mystery of the stones one step at a time. The solution is based upon a few postulates.

Postulates

1.       Twelve Tribes. The twelve stones in the breastplate correspond to the original twelve sons of Jacob, not to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, which were later adopted as sons, effectively doubling the inheritance for their father Joseph. That seems to be implied in the text.

New Jerusalem has walls of jasper.

2.       Twelve Foundations. The twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem are garnished with the same twelve precious stones, as named by John the Revelator (Rev. 21:19-20). While those stones are associated with the twelve apostles, they are also near the twelve gates that are named for the twelve tribes of Israel. This postulate is perhaps the most important, because John is writing in Greek some fifteen hundred years after Moses. He is referring to stones that he recognized and understood. Because Greek is so much better known, and those words can be found in so many other documents, this postulate greatly simplifies the problem.

You might ask yourself how well you know gemstones. Suppose you had had the Revelation given to John. How would you have described the foundation stones? Most of us know that rubies are red and emeralds are green, but perhaps not many more. Apparently John knew his gems well, right down to recognizing sardonyx as a specific form of onyx.

3.       Twelve Colors. It is proposed that it is the twelve colors of the stones that are most important, and that representative stones were chosen for those colors. The stones had to be large enough to engrave the names of the tribes upon, whereas in other contexts, such as a gem inlaid in a ring, a smaller, more precious stone could be used to represent the tribe equally well.

4.       Twelve Constellations. It is also proposed that the twelve zodiac constellations each had a unique color for the figure and that the twelve stones also correspond to those colors. This postulate is a key element that will allow some of the most difficult relations to be discovered.

5.       Order. The final order discovered should make sense. That is a vague requirement, but God’s house is a house of order, and the order certainly will not be random. The trouble is, almost every time the twelve tribes are listed, they are given in a different order (Gen 27, 49; Num 2; Deut 33; Rev. 7). The names of the tribes were also engraved on stones on the shoulders of the priest, with six on each shoulder according to their birth (Ex. 28). That would be the most logical order to assume for the twelve stones on the breastplate, and indeed, that is usually the case in most studies, as shown in Figure 2.[6] This study will not require birth order, but at least some sort of reasonable order.

Hebrew Names

Let us proceed step by step, making sure the ground is firm beneath our feet before each new step is taken. One mistake could lead us down a false path. Table 1 lists the stones in order by Hebrew name in the first column and the King James translation in the second. The third column lists the name used in the Greek translation of the Bible done in the third century B.C. (called the Septuagint). That is extremely important because it gives us the understanding of the Hebrews at that time of the meaning of the stones. We still use nearly all of the same Greek names today to refer to the same stones, so if that translation were totally correct, we would just about have the entire answer we are looking for. The final column lists other places in the Old Testament where the name of the stone is used again to describe a color. Unfortunately there are very few such references; most of the stone names appear only in the context of being a precious stone, which doesn’t help distinguish one from another.

There are three lists in the Old Testament of these stones: 1) when the Lord instructs Moses how to fashion the breastplate (Ex. 28:17-20), when the breastplate was completed (Ex. 39:10-13), and in a revelation to Ezekiel, when the Lord compares the Garden of Eden’s “covering” with nine of these twelve stones, given in a different order (Ezek. 28:13). None of those three references helps us identify the stones, except that some of the meanings refer to colors. The stones mentioned in only those three places are listed with “none” in the column for other references.

Hebrew Name

King James

Septuagint

Color

Other Refs.

1. Odem

Sardius

Sardius

red

“red” (Hebrew); not ruby, which is “paniyn” (Lam. 4:7)

2. Pitdah

Topaz

Topaz

topaz

from Ethiopia (Job 28:19)

3. Bareqeth

Carbuncle
(Garnet)

Emerald

green?

color of “lightning,” (Dan. 10:6), “green” (Greek)

4. Nophek

Emerald

Anthrax
(Garnet)

red-black

precious, Ezek 27:16, “coal” (Greek)

5. Sappiyr

Sapphire

Sapphire

blue

sky blue, Ex. 24:10

6. Yahalom

Diamond

Jasper

many

none

7. Leshem

Ligure

Ligure

?

none; ligure is unknown

8. Shebuw

Agate

Agate

many

none

9. Aclamah

Amethyst

Amethyst

purple

none

10. Tarshish

Beryl

Chrysolite

yellow

color of heavenly chariot wheels (Ezek. 1:16, 10:9 ); color of a heavenly man’s body, whose face was like lightning (Dan 10:6)

11. Shoham

Onyx

Beryl

white

“whiten” (Hebrew); on high priest’s shoulders (Ex. 28:9)

12. Jashepheh

Jasper

Onyx

many

none

Table 1. Hebrew names of the Twelve Breastplate stones.

Now let’s see what we can learn about the identity and colors of the stones from this table.

Odem, meaning red, refers to the sard.

Odem (Red). The first stone odem means “red” in Hebrew[7] and nearly all translations agree that it refers to a sard (also called sardius), which is a very red stone. Note that while some translations list this stone as a ruby,[8] one would be hard pressed to find a ruby large enough to engrave a name on, and even then it would require a diamond to write it. Moreover, most rubies are not as red as sard. Thus the first stone and color are well-identified. If all of the stones were this easy, the puzzle would have been solved long ago.

Sapphire represents blue.

Sappiyr (Blue). Our word sapphire comes from the Greek, which in turn comes from the Hebrew sappiyr. At the time of John the Revelator, the name referred to lapis lazuli, a very blue stone. The confirmation that the ancient stone was also this color comes in a vision at the time of Moses, when the Lord appeared on a pavement of sappiyr, described as being as blue as a clear blue sky (Ex. 24:10).

Amethyst is a deep purple.

Aclamah (Purple). All the translations agree that aclamah refers to the amethyst and there seems to be almost no doubt about this identification. While the scriptures don’t specify that the color is purple, that is the only color of amethyst.

The second stone is topaz.

Pitdah (Yellow Brown). The other stone on which all translations agree is that the second stone pitdah is the topaz. Although topaz comes in many colors, the principal color associated with the most common variety is a very light yellowish brown color. That is almost certainly the color implied for this stone.

Chrysolite was yellow, like this chrysoberyl.

Tarshish (Yellow). This stone is most likely a golden color, matching the translation in the Septuagint of chrysolite (“golden stone” in Greek). It is the color used by Daniel to describe a man seen in heavenly vision, who face is described like lightning (Daniel 10:6). The name of the third stone is derived from that same word for “lightning” and is presumably a similar golden color. The name Tarshish is the same as the Mediterranean country (Jonah 1:3, probably Spain) and hence also came to mean “Merchant Vessel” (see 2 Chron. 9:21, Psalm 48:7, Isa. 23:1).

Beryl symbolized white or clear.

Shoham (White). The eleventh stone shoham almost certainly refers to a white stone because the root of the name means “to whiten.”[9] It has been translated both as onyx and beryl, both of which have white varieties.

Thus, only six of the stones are clearly identified with colors by the stone itself, by other passages or by name derivations. Note also that there are some serious questions about some of the King James translations. “Diamond” almost certainly is not correct because nothing would be available hard enough to inscribe the name into it, and it would have to be a very large diamond! The name Jasper was probably chosen only because it is similar to the Hebrew word. Nine of the names of the stones only appear in the context of being a precious stone, with no clues at all to color or other identifying characteristics. So let us now turn to other clues.

Greek Translation

In the third century B.C. the Old Testament was translated into the Greek version called the Septuagint. At that time, the temple at Jerusalem was functioning, and the breastplate was not just a memory, but was actually used by the high priest. This translation is extremely important because Greek words would be used to describe those gems, words that should give us excellent understanding of just what stones are implied. Many of our words for minerals today derive directly from these very Greek words. We must be cautious because many have changed in meaning, but they give us a big step up in understanding. Let’s consider what is implied about the colors of the stones.

Known Colors. Several of the stones have known colors, either because the Greek word includes the color name, or is synonymous with that color, or because the stone is well known and only comes in one color. As listed in the table, the known colors are: sardius is red, emerald was a synonym for green, sapphire was a synonym for blue, amethyst only comes in purple, “chrysolite” means “golden stone” or “yellow stone,” and beryl meant only the white or cream colored variety.

Unknown Colors. On the other hand, jasper, agate, and onyx come in a variety of colors, and often are striped. And to complicate the issue, the meaning of the Greek “ligure” has been entirely lost. While that word is used in English, as in the King James Version, its meaning is unknown, but it is usually associated with the jacinth. Now let us consider other color considerations.

Bareqeth (lightning or green?). The third stone bareqeth derives in Hebrew as the same word for “lightning,” supposedly because it represents the same color. For example, Daniel compares the facial color of a man he saw in vision to that of lightning (Dan. 10:6). But the Greek translation is “emerald,” which was synonymous with “green” in Greek. Most people would not say lightning is green, and we could hardly think of an angel with a countenance like lightning as having a green face. The solution to the problem proposed in this article explains both translations.

Carbuncle (glowing coal) usually means garnet.

Nophek (reddish black). This stone is a great key to the entire puzzle, which I discovered only after I had solved it the hard way. The Greek translation of nophek is “anthrax,” which in turn is translated as “carbuncle” into English. Both are said to mean a dark red stone. “Carbuncle” also refers to red, inflamed boils, and the sheep disease “anthrax” was supposedly named for the dark red streaks and spots that appear. My research showed me that this was definitely correct and that the stone must be a dark red color as a substitute for pure black, the color of the tribe of Dan,[10] and probably refers to the garnet.

The origin of both the words “anthrax” and “carbuncle” describe the color implied very well. Carbuncle comes from the work carbon, meaning coal, with the “cle” on the end meaning “little,” like a “particle” is a “little part.” What was implied was the idea that it was a hot, “glowing coal,” in the sense that one might speak of barbecuing over the hot “coals” of a fire. Similarly, “anthrax” also means “glowing coal.” We still use that Greek root in our word “anthracite” coal. One dictionary definition of “carbuncle” is “deep-red garnet,” deriving the word as meaning “glowing ember,” which indeed described the color of many garnets perfectly.

“Glowing ember” also exactly matches the description of one of the foundation stones, as described in the next section, which greatly simplifies the puzzle. Just for the record, I only looked up these meanings after I had solved the puzzle the hard way, so to me this derivation comes as comforting confirmation that the solution is correct. It is a lesson in the importance of understanding the origin of words.

The royal blue lapis lazuli.

Sappiyr (blue). The meaning of sapphire has clearly changed over the centuries. All agree that sapphire refers to stones of a blue color, but the exact meaning is unclear. The Greek word sapphire was derived from the Hebrew sappiyr (stone #5). Fortunately, we have a clear reference of exactly what color was indicated. The Lord appeared on a sappiyr colored pavement to the seventy with Moses, which was compared to the color of a clear blue sky (Ex. 24:10). The Greek word sapphire referred to lapis lazuli, which is a royal blue stone. And today in English, sapphire refers to an entirely different blue stone and even to stones of other colors.

New Jerusalem has walls of jasper.

Foundation Stones

Now let us look at the twelve stones that John describes as forming the foundation of the New Jerusalem. All of the twelve Greek stone names are essentially identical to names still used today to describe semi-precious stones, so they are much better understood than the ancient Hebrew names. According to Postulate 2, they should be identical to the twelve breastplate stones, or at least be stones of the same colors.

The twelve foundation stones are listed in alphabetical order in Table 2. The order given in Revelation apparently corresponds to the twelve apostles (Rev. 21:14), and that is not the subject of this article. Let it now suffice simply to correlate the stones to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Greek

Modern Stone

Color

Other Refs.

Amethyst

Amethyst

Purple

none

Beryl

Beryl

White or Cream

none

Chalcedony

Chalcedony

Light Blue

none

Chrysolite

Chrysolite

Yellow (Gold)

“golden stone”

Chrysoprase

Chrysoprase, Peridot

Yellow Green (Gold)

“golden leek”

Emerald

Emerald

Green

“green”

Jacinth

Jacinth (Hyacinth)
or Garnet

Reddish Black

color of smoke,
Rev. 9:17

Jasper

Jasper

Orange or
Fiery Red

Yellow-Red, Rev. 4:3 & Ezek. 1:27. Walls of New Jerusalem, Rev. 21:11,18.

Sapphire

Lapis Lazuli

Royal Blue

“blue”

Sardius

Sard

Red

“red” Rev. 4:3

Sardonyx

Sardonyx

Red & White layers

none

Topaz

Topaz

Yellow Brown

none

Table 2. The Foundation Stones in alphabetical order, with colors

If we compare these twelve stones to those given in the King James translation, we find that eight of them agree (if we equate sardonyx with onyx). But before we get too excited about believing all the correlations, we need to remember that the King James translators had no clue (literally) as to what many of the stones names referred to. Often, they simply picked the name of a modern precious stone (like “diamond”) to use in the translation.

Cameo carved from sardonyx.

Three new stones. If we compare these twelve Greek names for the foundation stones to the Greek translations of the breastplate stones given in the Septuagint, we find that nine are identical. That is very encouraging because the Greek Septuagint translation was done some three centuries before John wrote Revelation. It is the fact that most of them are the same, which lends credence to Postulate 2 – that all twelve must correspond. The remaining three stones mentioned in Revelation, which thus need to be matched with the Hebrew names, are chrysoprase (yellow-green), chalcedony (light blue), and jacinth (also called hyacinth, referring to either a red or blue form of zircon). Gem books note that the original meaning of jacinth is unclear. The modern meaning refers to a yellow-red to red-brown from of zircon, but many believe that the ancient stone was blue. The three stones on the Greek breastplate list that are not on the foundation list are carbuncle, ligure, and agate. The two stones of onyx and sardonyx can probably be safely equated because sardonyx is merely a special form of onyx in which the layers are alternately red and white. Sardonyx is used for making cameos, by cutting away one colored layer to form a background for the picture. Thus, specifying “sardonyx” indicates the colors, because onyx can come in many colors, including not only white, but also black.

Jacinth is Carbuncle. In Greek, jacinth sometimes refers to a dark red color and sometimes a dark blue. There is one scripture that seems to tip the scale as to what color the stone “jacinth” represented to John the Revelator. He states,

And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone. (Revelation 9:17)

Here we are told the horsemen had breastplates of fire (red), jacinth (?), and brimstone (sulfur or yellow). But then in a parallel construction we are told they breathed out fire, smoke, and brimstone. That construction strongly suggests that the color of jacinth corresponds to the color of the smoke accompanying the fire. That favors the dark red interpretation. Moreover, now that we know the meaning of “carbuncle,” it is a perfect with the idea of “glowing ember” because smoke often contains glowing sparks. So let us equate jacinth to carbuncle (Greek anthrax).

Yellow Jasper (silex) has red streaks.

Yellow/Red Jasper. The stone Jasper comes in a wide variety of colors, but John gives us enough clues to deduce that it is the yellow variety with red streaks (silex) that is indicated. The being on the throne is described by John as being the color of Sard and Jasper (Rev. 4:3). Sard is red, but what color is Jasper? Fortunately, in a parallel revelation given to Ezekiel, the being is described has being colored like amber (yellow) filled with swirling fire (red) in the upper body, and like fire in the lower (Ezek. 1:27). So here again a being with two colors is described, even as John compared the colors to two stones. Clearly the red fire corresponds to sard, which leaves the red swirling within yellow to be the jasper. As shown in the illustration, the exactly describes one kind of jasper. Note that this fills in the color wheel area for “orange,” but does so in a more picturesque fashion than the simple color orange. Similarly, the opal with an orange color is called the “fire opal,” which serves well as a gem of this color.

Chrysoprase is yellow-green.

Golden-green Chrysoprase. One of the new stones on John’s list is chrysoprase, which means “golden-green” or “yellow-green” in Greek. This color fits well to be that of bareqeth (stone #3) which was described both as like “lightning” (a golden color) and also as green (emerald). Let us tentatively make this identification, which refers to the modern gem stone peridot or olivine.[11]

Chalcedony is light blue.

Sky Blue Chalcedony. There are two sacred colors of blue in the scriptures and there are two blue stones of those colors, so let us match them. John adds chalcedony to the list, which is a light blue (sky blue) stone. The other blue stone he lists is called sapphire in Greek, which during his time referred to the stone we call lapis lazuli, which is a royal blue color. In the Old Testament, the stone sappiyr is compared to the azure blue sky, so let us equate that stone to chalcedony.

Royal Blue Ligure. In the temple, the blue color used for the high priest’s robe (Ex. 28:31) was a royal blue color that exactly matches that of lapis lazuli (see Figure 1). Let us equate the unknown Greek “ligure” to lapis lazuli. Most translators equate ligure to the blue form of jacinth (blue zircon), but that would yield too many blue stones. I propose that about 280 BC, when that Septuagint was translated, that the Greek “sapphire” referred to the azure blue chalcedony, the color of sappiyr. Nearly four centuries later when John wrote, I propose that the Greek word sapphire had changed in meaning to refer to the deeper blue lapis lazuli. That seems like a reasonable conjecture, and as will be seen in the final order, it is apparently an important key to unlocking the order of these stones.

Agate can be light or dark green.

Green Agate. By elimination, we are left to equate the Hebrew shebuw, translated as “agate” in the Septuagint, with the stone John describes as emerald. Is that reasonable? It is, because agate refers to any of a wide variety of colors of quartz rock, named more for their stripes or variegated patterns than for their color. One green form of agate is called moss agate, which could be the foundation stone. Another possibility is called “emerald quartz.” Let’s try equating agate to green and see how well everything fits together.

Sardonyx has alternate red and white layers.

Red/White Sardonyx. It is worth noting how much information was added by John the Revelator when he named one stone as “sardonyx” rather than merely onyx. Onyx refers to a layered rock that usually has white, red, or black layers. Sometimes it is all white or all black, so the name onyx alone does not specify color. But the variety with alternate red and white stripes has the specific name “sardonyx.” Sardonyx is used to make cameos by carving out one layer to leave a raised picture. The same is done with onyx made of black and white layers of stone.

Table 3 lists the twelve breastplate stones with their Greek translations from the Septuagint, along with the proposed correlation to the twelve foundation stones, and also to gems of similar color.

Hebrew

Greek

Foundation

Gem

Color

1. Odem

Sardius

Sard

Ruby

Red

2. Pitdah

Topaz

Topaz

Topaz

Tan

3. Bareqeth

Emerald

Chrysoprase

Peridot

Yellow green
(Golden)

4. Nophek

Anthrax

Jacinth

Garnet

Reddish black

5. Sappiyr

Sapphire

Chalcedony

Aqua-
marine

Light Blue

6. Yahalom

Jasper

Jasper

Fire Opal

Orange

7. Leshem

Ligure

Lapis Lazuli

Sapphire

Royal Blue

8. Shebuw

Agate

Emerald

Emerald

Green

9. Aclamah<

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