by Timothy S. Wilkinson
Beautifully colored and polished gemstones caught the eye and inspired the imagination of people of ancient times as effectively as they do our own. While writing scenes for The Eternal Throne Chronicles, I am constantly trying to paint mental pictures of the people and places of Iron Age Israel. While my research leads me to pictures that are more primitively agrarian and considerably less romanticized than most illustrations of the period, I do enjoy adding color to the scenes by imagining the use of gems as jewelry, ornamentation, and even building materials.
One of the most famous uses of gemstones was the breastpiece worn by the High Priest of Israel. Exodus 28 gives the instructions for its manufacture. It’s gold surface had twelve stones inset on it, representing the twelve tribes of Israel: ruby, topaz, emerald, turquoise, sapphire, jasper, leshem, agate, amethyst, chrysolite, onyx, and jade.
The ancient Israelites probably did not facet stones—they simply did not have the technology to do so. Instead they polished them using materials like emery powder or, in the case of crystals, left them in a relatively natural state. Which stones they used is a question not easily answered: there is considerable debate as to the translation of some of the Hebrew terms, and the meaning of some has been entirely lost to the ages.
In any case, here are a few of the common gems of Palestine and a comment or two about each.
Shamir (Ezekiel 3:9)
Some scholars translate this word as diamond. It seems unlikely that the ancient Israelites could fashion diamonds, although Jeremiah 17:1 talks about using Shamir to cut other stones. It was obviously a very hard material, and so many translators believe it refers to corundum, emery, or some other adamant stone.
Cadcod (Isaiah 54:12)
This stone’s identification is also a matter of debate. The Hebrew word means “reddish” or “ruddy,” and so it is most commonly translated “ruby.” Others believe that it refers to some form of agate.
Shevo (Exodus 28:19)
Most scholars agree that this is the common form of chalcedony that we know today as agate. It is a stone layered in shades of black, brown, blue, and white, and can be polished to a beautiful sheen. This stone was one of those used in the High Priest’s breastplate.
Sha’yish (1 Chronicles 29:2)
This is the famous alabaster of ancient times. Modern alabaster is usually hydrated calcium sulfate, a very soft material that is easily engraved and broken. The alabaster of the early Iron Age, though, was a type of calcium carbonate that was white with streaks of various colors. It was nearly as hard as marble. The modern name comes from the fact that the stone was originally mined near Alabastron, Egypt. The material became famous for its use in perfume jars. Not only was the alabaster considered appropriately beautiful for the expensive contents, but the porous stone allowed the scent to escape very slowly over many years.
Achlamah (Exodus 28:19)
This is almost certainly amethyst, a rare, purple variety of the six-sided quartz crystal. The Hebrew name comes from the root halam, which means “to dream.” Ancient peoples believed that amethyst had the ability to give its wearer significant dreams.
Tarshish (Daniel 10:6)
The area known in the Bible as Tarshish (almost certainly modern Spain) was the source of a translucent yellow or green stone that is formed from silicates of magnesium and iron; we know it today as topaz. Some translators, though, believe that the term could also apply to the various forms of beryl: emerald, aquamarine, or morganite.
Shoham (Genesis 2:12)
Onyx stone has been used from the earliest of times in Mesopotamia. The most ancient of cultures took this hard type of agate and polished it for use in inlays, tile work, jewelry, and more. The word “onyx” is Greek in origin—it means “finernail.” Apparently the Greeks thought that the two materials had a similar luminescence.
Ramoth (Ezekiel 27:16)
The famed merchants of Tyre traveled along the Mediterranean coast in their ships, collecting the wealth of one culture and selling it to others. Various small communities along their route sold them pieces of the beautiful, red or orange coral their divers had collected from the sea. The Tyrians then sold them to the wealthy citizens of the Levant and Egypt. The material was polished for use in jewelry, or inlaid in the walls and floors of buildings.
Bareqeth (Ezekiel 28:13)
This word seems to refer to emeralds. Some scholars doubt that the Israelites could have worked emeralds, but many excavations in Egypt have uncovered decorate materials and jewelry set with emeralds. Emerald mining operations have also been discovered in upper Egypt, Cyprus, and the mountains of Ethiopia.
O’dhem; kadhkodh (Ezekiel 28:12, 13)
Both of these words mean “ruby”; the terms may refer to different colors of stones. Ruby is a type of corundum formed when traces of chromium and iron oxide form in aluminum oxide, turning it red. Only slightly less hard than diamonds, this stone was among the most expensive in Bible times.