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Gemstones of the Twelve Tribes

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Every one of the twelve tribes has a correlating stone. These stones were in the breastplate of the ephod that the high priest had to wear or else he couldn’t come before God. According to the Talmud, the breastplate had to be worn to atone for the sins of the children of Israel. These twelve stones also correlate to the foundation of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:19. There is a lot of debate over which stone corresponds to which tribe, as well as how to translate the stones into their modern equivalents. 

As an example of the confusion of the translation of the stone names, the fourth stone on the high priest’s ephod is called “emerald” in the King James version (Exodus 28:18), “carbuncle” in the Greek translation (Septuagint), “turquoise” in the New American Standard version, and “garnet” in Strong’s Concordance.

Almost everyone agrees on a few stones, which helps us get on the right track. Odem means “red stone,” and the corresponding Greek was likely sardios. Almost everyone puts that together with carnelian. 

The broad consensus is that akhlameh and amethystos are amethyst, which is no great surprise. 

Sapir and sappheiros simply mean “blue stone.” Historically, lapis was called sapphire, and sapphires, as we know them today, were not known at that time. They also are too hard to carve with rudimentary equipment. Most scholars agree that sapphire refers to lapis lazuli. 

The experts are sure that pitdah and topazion are topaz. I’m not. My money is on olivine (peridot), which is the main claim to fame from the Egyptian island Topazios, now named Zabargad.

For our purposes, we are less concerned with exactly what the archaic names mean and will focus instead on what they symbolize. 

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:12 that we are to build on the foundation, which is Jesus Christ, with gold, silver, and precious stones. Either we are building with those, or we are building with wood, hay, and stubble, and the fire will prove which we’ve used. He’s talking about the temple, which is now you. You are the earthly habitation where God dwells in this era. How you build on your foundation of salvation determines how you will come through trials. This is not just nice little language; it contains instruction. Netanel Nickells of Righteous Foundations has a teaching on this called “Stones to Build on the Foundation of Yeshua,” although he chooses different stones than I do.

Each stone symbolizes a tribe, and each tribe has redeeming characteristics as well as areas of weakness. For example, Simeon (with the gemstone of chrysoprase) struggles with anger and will have to deal with that. The foundation stones in New Jerusalem are compared to a bride, prepared and adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2). We are now a kingdom of priests, and as we go before God with our stones or our issues that need purification, we become rock solid. 

There have been numerous attempts to link tribes with gems. But Scripture does not tell us which tribe went with what gem. We can only speculate. We only have precise instructions about how to lay out the grid for the ephod with the stones. Josephus says that the shoulder pieces, which had six names on each side, were in birth order, but we do not know the order on the actual breastplate. 

Some historians propose that the colors are most important and that representative stones were chosen for those colors. Numbers Midrash Rabbah (an ancient Jewish version of a Bible commentary) tells us that the stones matched the color of the background on each tribe’s banner, so I’ve chosen to go with that. To further narrow down the choices, I’m going with stones that were soft enough for them to engrave at that time, large enough to hold a name, and popular with ancient Egyptians, which is where they got the stones (Exodus 12:35–36).

Another consideration is how the breastplate worked. The ephod was routinely necessary to get answers to questions from God. The Urim and Thummim, in particular, are mysteries, because for all the detail on creating the ephod, the temple, and everything in it, we have no additional information on these items. Apparently, we are not supposed to know more about them. Some have speculated that they are stones that give yes or no answers. Yet if we read all the accounts of consulting the ephod, the responses hold much more detail than a simple yes or no. The Mishnah Torah says that the stones on the breastplate actually lit up to give the answer. Since some stones glow naturally under the right circumstances, this idea might not be entirely far-fetched. According to geology.com, 15 percent of minerals have visible fluorescence. To add to that, some of the names have indicator meanings, such as “lightening” or “glowing coal.” I downloaded a list of luminous stones, and as it happens, my prime suspects for the gems that fit all the other criteria are on it. However, according to Revelation 21:18, the spiritual light of God rendered even gold as transparent.

Additionally, I’ve looked at the healing properties of the stones to see how they fit with the overall themes of the month and included a summation about how the gems I’ve chosen relate to the monthly themes.

If you would rather rely solely on biblical sourcing as opposed to my mix of Midrash, practicality, and supposition, you can look at both John and Ezekiel’s vision of the New Jerusalem, which has the twelve foundation stones that correlate to the twelve tribes. Ezekiel 48 tells us the order of the tribes on each side, and in Revelation 21, John lists the stones. But John viewed the city in an unusual order: east, north, south, and west, which gives me pause. I don’t know that this perspective is reliable enough to match up the Greek stone name with the Hebrew version, hoping that John stated them in the order he initially described the walls. When you’re in the spirit, you’re also not necessarily viewing objects from ground level. I’m not ready to hang my hat on that and abandon Jewish oral tradition. If you want to be scriptural and try to follow what John outlines, remember to read right to left as they would have in Greek, so read the Bible in order. Start placing stones and tribes from the right corner of a side of the city and ending on the left corner as a person would view it. 

In either case, because the correlation between the stones and tribes is unclear, they don’t play a large part in this book. It’s not necessary that we get them exactly right; we just need to understand that they symbolize a tribe, which has good and bad attributes. They were a symbol, borne on the priest’s shoulders and over his heart before God. We are now New Testament priests and can still carry all these attributes forward in prayer, knowing that God is transformative and deals with all the impurities, making us his radiantly beautiful bride. 

Seneca Schurbon

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