In the book of Exodus, God instructs Moses in the design and construction of the tabernacle. Within these instructions is a description of the garments to be worn by the priests. As part of this outfit, the priests were to construct and wear a breastplate which contained twelve different stones arranged and set in gold filigree (Exodus 28:15-30). Each of the stones is specified in their order, and each stone is to have one of the names of the tribes of Israel engraved upon it. With the level of descriptive detail given to this priestly accessory, one might wonder what significance it holds for God followers.
Some people have attempted to attach symbolic significance to each of the stones and the tribe for which they represented – that a quality of each semi-precious stone aligns with qualities of the different tribes. While this is a plausible suggestion, the scripture does not explicitly make this connection. Such an interpretation is made especially difficult by our inability to identify the stones named in the description. Susan Meschel, a professor of materials science, reviewed the work of various researchers who surveyed both biblical and other ancient near east texts to try and discern the identity of each stone named in the breastplate (2018). Her basic conclusion was that while we can make some good guesses as to what these stones might have been, we have no confidence what they actually were. The biblical naming of semi-precious stones was based on things like color and their source rather than any characteristic property. So, even though your English translation of the Bible assigns a name to each stone, they simply are guesses, and we should not try to ascribe any meaning to them.
While we cannot ascribe meaning to individual stones, I think there is still meaning to be had for us with these stones. Scripture says the breastplate with the stones was to be worn in the tabernacle “to bring [the tribes of Israel] to regular remembrance before the Lord.” (Exodus 28:29) While Christians who are considered to be a royal priesthood (compare Exodus 19:5-6 and 1 Peter 2:9), they are not instructed to wear a breastplate today. Nevertheless, I think we can reflect on God’s design of the breastplate to remind ourselves about a number of things regarding the people of God.
Telling the Israelites that the breastplate should be composed of gold and these semi-precious stones meant one thing for certain: a lot of work! You could not just pick up these stones down at the local mall. They had to be mined out of the earth. Mining in the ancient near east was back breaking, labor intensive and dangerous work. The gold had to be smelted, and then hammered into thin wire to make the filigree. Collecting the stones was followed by the lengthy monotonous process of cutting, smoothing and polishing of the stones. In this we should remember the intentional effort, care and sacrifice which God exerted to bring his people together.
It should not go unnoticed that each of the stones in the breastplate are both beautiful and different. To me, this is an indicator of how much God loves, celebrates and makes use of human diversity – He does not expect everyone in the church to conform to one specification. Each person comes to the church with different gifts and abilities which enable the body of Christ to function as a collective whole. Not referring to stones, but to body parts, the apostle Paul says, “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:19-20)
Once the stones for the breastplate had been smoothed and polished, they were also engraved. Each stone had a name of the tribe of Israel written upon it. While we don’t have much in our modern culture that relates to this, we still carry in our language the sense of permanence and surety when we say something is “written in stone.” The notion of having a name carved in stone shows up the book of Revelation. Though a bit cryptic, there is a passage indicating that the faithful followers will be given a white stone with a new name written upon it. (Revelation 2:17) Having names written in stone should remind us of the binding and everlasting covenant God has established with his people through the blood of Christ.
The use of stones in the breastplate should also remind us that God thinks stones are useful. When the Pharisees demanded that Jesus silence his disciples for praising him on his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus said that “if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:40) It is a bit humbling to know that God says the rocks are just as good at praising him as we are. God also views his people to be stones which are to be used in building His temple (Ephesians 2:20-22 and 1 Peter 2:5). The people of God are all different, they each have important roles to play in glorifying God and building His kingdom.
Meschel, S.V. 2018. “The Gems in the High Priest’s Breastplate: A Pragmatic Review”, Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol 46:4 (241-251).