More than 3,000 years before the trade group Jewelers of America defined the modern list of birthstones in 1912, the biblical Aaron (older brother of Moses) wore a bedazzled breastplate adorned with gemstones representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The gems were arranged in four rows and set in gold.
First-century Jewish historian Josephus described Aaron’s breastplate in his book entitled, Antiquities of the Jews. In the following passage the gems are listed right to left.
“Twelve stones were there also upon the breastplate, extraordinary in largeness and beauty,” Josephus wrote. “The first three stones were a sardonyx, a topaz, and an emerald. The second row contained a carbuncle, a jasper, and a sapphire. The first of the third row was a ligure (possibly orange zircon), then an amethyst, and the third an agate…the fourth row was a crysolite, the next was an onyx, and then a beryl.”
According to The Book of Exodus, Aaron, the first high priest of the Hebrews, bore the responsibility of memorializing the names of the 12 tribes before the Lord, upon his two shoulders. His ceremonial costume consisted of a linen tunic spun with gold threads and a floor-length tasseled robe. On the breastplate were precious stones inscribed with the names of the 12 tribes.
The breastplate was attached to the ephod (a sleeveless garment) by gold chains/cords tied to the gold rings on the ephod’s shoulder straps, and by blue ribbons tied to the gold rings at the lower parts of the ephod.
“And Aaron shall bear the names of the Children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth in unto the Holy Place.” — EXODUS xxviii.12,29.
Over many centuries, translations from the original Hebrew text have yielded other gemstone combinations. Some believe this to be the correct arrangement…
“The first row was a row of ruby, topaz, and emerald; and the second row, a turquoise, a sapphire and a diamond; and the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper.”
Aaron’s priestly dress also contained a small pocket for “urim and thummim,” mysterious and still undefined substances or articles that would help the priest determine God’s will. Some biblical scholars believe that “urim and thummim” might have been two sticks or stones, one white and the other black, that would give a yes or no answer to a specific question.
Credits: Images via Wikimedia Commons.