Biblical Aaron Wore a Golden Breastplate Fashioned With 12 Inscribed Gemstones

June 17, 2020

The biblical Aaron may have been the original King of Bling. More than 3,300 years ago, the first high priest of the Hebrews (and older brother of Moses) dazzled his followers with a gleaming breastplate fashioned with gemstones representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The inscribed gems — which included emerald, sapphire, amethyst and topaz —  were arranged in four rows and set in gold.

According to The Book of Exodus, Aaron bore the responsibility of memorializing upon his two shoulders the names of the 12 tribes before the Lord. His ceremonial costume consisted of a linen tunic spun with gold threads and a floor-length tasseled robe. Set into the breastplate were a colorful array of 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.

First-century Jewish historian Josephus described Aaron’s breastplate in his book titled, 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.”

“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, reinterpretations of the original Hebrew text have yielded other gemstone combinations. Some believe this to be the more accurate arrangement…

“The first 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.

“Urim and thummim” might have been two sticks or two stones, one white and the other black, that would reveal a yes or no answer to a specific question when one was randomly pulled from the pocket.

Biblical scholars believe Aaron was born in 1396 BC and died in 1273 BC at the age of 123.

Credits: From top, artist’s conception of Jewish high priest wearing a breastplate in ancient Judah. Image from THE HISTORY OF COSTUME by Braun & Schneider / Public domain. Flavius Josephus by William Whiston (originally uploaded by The Man in Question on en.wikipedia.org) / Public domain. Ceramic replica of High Priest’s breastplate by Dr. Avishai Teicher Pikiwiki Israel / CC BY.