Appendix 6 - The Names on the Jewels of the Breastplate
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Divine ordinance for the breastplate
- 3. Etymology of the third breastplate stone
- 4. Fourteen precious stones
- 5. New Testament reference
- 6. Conclusion
Exodus 28 recounts the story of Moses receiving from God instructions for the fashioning of the breastplate of judgment, a device to be fastened to the outer garments of the high priest for his service within the tabernacle. Twelve precious stones were attached to the breastplate, each stone being engraved with the name of one of the children of Israel (Jacob). As is likely from the account in Exodus 28 - comparing verses 9 and 10 with verse 21 - the names were according to birth order.
From early times, debate has existed surrounding the list of the names of the twelve patriarchs engraved upon the stones of the breastplate. The general thesis has been that the names are the same as those of the twelve birth sons of Jacob - children of his wives, Leah and Rachel, and their handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah - although this opinion has not been universal. Another school of thought contends that the names are the same as those of the twelve tribes in the Wilderness Encampment, as described in the second chapter of Numbers. Here, the names of Levi and Joseph are replaced by those of Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh - adopted by their grandfather, Jacob, as his own sons (as recounted at Genesis 48). This secondary order of the twelve tribes arises through Levi having been separated out from the rest of the tribes for priestly service, Joseph subsequently being divided into Manasseh and Ephraim to cover the displacement of Levi. While opinions may vary, a careful reading of the Scriptures - both Old and New Testaments - reveals that the correct sequence coincides with that of the birth order of the twelve sons of Jacob, as enumerated at Genesis 29, 30 and 35. The following evidences are set out in support of this position.
2. Divine ordinance for the breastplate
As stated, the divine ordinance for the construction of the breastplate is given at Exodus 28. Importantly, the instructions given to Moses concerning the breastplate antedate the choosing out of the tribe of Levi, which event occurred only after Moses had come down from the mountain, having already received the divine dictum on this matter (see Exodus 32, particularly verses 28 and 29; compare also Deuteronomy 33:8-9). Bearing this in mind, the name of Levi must logically have been intended to be on the breastplate.This point, in itself, pretty much settles the matter in favour of the twelve birth sons, although an objection might be raised concerning the high priest belonging to the tribe of Levi. Accordingly, it might be argued, Levi would be represented in the person of the high priest, thus precluding the need for Levi's name to be borne on the breastplate.
While it is true that Aaron and his sons had already been called to the priestly office, the remainder of the sons of Levi still belonged to the body of Israel at the time of the giving of instructions concerning the breastplate. In this capacity, they therefore required inclusion on the breastplate; and are, in fact, represented by the third breastplate stone, the bareqeth, upon which the name of the patriarch Levi was inscribed.
3. Etymology of the third breastplate stone
The third breastplate stone is the bareqeth - our modern emerald - upon which was inscribed the name of Levi, the third of Jacob's twelve sons. This word, bareqeth, has an interesting etymology. It derives directly from the notion of light and lightning. According to both Strong's and Gesenius' Hebrew lexicons, the word bareqeth also includes the meaning of a 'flashing sword', i.e. a sword of lightning. In essence, the bareqeth is the stone of justice, being the 'lightning stone'.
In the Old Testament, thunder and lightning - where the root word 'baraq' is employed - are often conflated with the presence and voice of God (as at Exodus 19:16; Psalm 77:18; Jeremiah 10:13). Extending this thought further, lightning - again under the root word 'baraq' - is used to symbolise the judgments of God (as at Deuteronomy 32:41, 'glittering sword'; 2 Samuel 22:15; Psalm 18:14; Zechariah 9:14).
The semantic field surrounding the stone bareqeth is amply filled by the Scriptural account of the patriarch Levi and the eponymously-named tribe. The notion of a flashing sword of judgment is met in Levi's vicious retribution on the men of the town of Shechem for the rape of his sister, Dinah; an incident that brought the sternest of rebukes from his father, Jacob (Genesis 34, particularly verse 25; and Genesis 49:5-7). This same propensity for wielding the sword of justice is later seen in his tribal progeny, the men of Levi taking up the sword and slaying, without partiality, any and all who had committed idolatry in the worshipping of the golden calf (Exodus 32, especially verses 26 to 29).
This latter episode indicates that those slain of the men of Levi included their own kith and kin, an intuition confirmed in the Mosaic blessing. Remarkably, the blessing of Moses - iterated at Deuteronomy 33:8-11 - contains the true origin of the symbols of Lady Justice, the personification of our legal system. Lady Justice is depicted blindfolded, bearing a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left hand. The sword is that wielded in retribution for the idolatry involving the golden calf. Referring directly to this episode, Moses introduces the image of the blindfold at verse 9 to show that Levi's meting out of justice was impartial. The scales of justice are found in the Urim and Thummim of verse 8, and show that judgment was administered according to the word of God. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for the scales - moznaim - comes from a root meaning 'to flatten the ears against a surface so as to hear what is being said'. The two scales represent the ears listening to the word of God, symbolised in verse 8 by the Urim and Thummim. The tribe of Levi - whose symbol was the original Lady Justice and who taught the law of God to Israel - was no doubt represented by the third breastplate stone, the bareqeth, equating to our modern emerald. It was Levi's role to bring the light of God's word to the children of Israel, as connoted in the very name of the stone that bore his name. Were the tribe of Levi to be absented from representation on the breastplate, this third stone would then fall to Judah. Not only does the Scriptural account give nothing to indicate a symbolic connection between Judah and the bareqeth, but the green colour of this stone would be entirely unsuitable for the tribal symbol of Judah, viz the lion.
4. Fourteen precious stones
One cannot write about the stones of the breastplate without mentioning the two shoulder stones of the ephod. Upon these two shoulder stones the names of the children of Israel were engraved; six names on each stone, according to their birth order. These bring to fourteen the number of precious stones used in the garments of the high priest. It is worth noting that these two shoulder stones are identical to the eleventh breastplate stone; all three are shoham stones, our modern white agate. This would appear to be anything but happenstance, the deliberate choosing of the eleventh breastplate stone for secondary use as shoulder stones drawing our attention to some deeper organising principle. According to birth order, the eleventh son of Jacob was Joseph; the eleventh breastplate stone would, therefore, bear his name. This intuition is given greater currency when we observe, in the two shoham stones on the shoulders of the ephod, an innate reference to Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The two shoulder stones are, as it were, projections of their progenitor in the breastplate.
Such an interpretation allows us to see that all the tribes of Israel were to be represented in the high priest's garments: the twelve birth sons in the stones of the breastplate; and the proxies of Ephraim and Manasseh in the shoulder stones of the ephod. At this point it needs to be said that the names engraved upon the breastplate jewels are the same as those that were engraved upon the two shoulder stones. The names of Ephraim and Manasseh, while not engraved upon any of the fourteen stones in the high priest's garments, nevertheless achieved representation in the shoham stones themselves. It is worth noting in this context that Jacob, having adopted Ephraim and Manasseh as his own - 'as Reuben and Simeon, they shall be mine' - dictates that his name should be named on them (Genesis 48:5,16). It follows that Jacob's name should include those of his sons; and, indeed, the shoulder stones bear the names of the children of Israel. Were the breastplate to omit the name of Joseph, the eleventh stone would then fall to Manasseh. This would then obscure the raison d'etre for shoham being the choice for the shoulder stones.
5. New Testament reference
The New Testament mentions all twelve breastplate stones at Revelation 21, referring to them as the foundation stones of the New Jerusalem. A little earlier, three of the twelve stones are co-opted in describing a vision of the throne of God. In the fourth chapter of Revelation, we read that the one seated upon the throne is likened to jasper and sard - iaspis and sardios in Greek (verse 3). The Greek iaspis agrees to the Hebrew yashepheh, and is derived from it. The Hebrew yashepheh is the twelfth breastplate stone, upon which the name of Benjamin was engraved. The Greek sardios is a red stone, agreeing to the Hebrew odem - meaning 'red', from the same triliteral root as Adam, meaning 'man' - which was the first breastplate stone. Upon this stone the name of Reuben was engraved.
What we have encoded in these carefully chosen stones are the names of the first and last of Israel's twelve sons, Reuben and Benjamin. Reuben's name means 'see, a son' and, according to Gesenius, in a secondary sense 'provided for my affliction'. The name Benjamin translates as 'son of the right hand'. Interestingly, Benjamin was originally named Ben-oni - meaning 'son of my sorrow' - by his mother as she passed away, apparently in childbirth (Genesis 35:18). The one seated on the throne is therefore the first and the last, the Son of man and the Son of God, provided for our affliction and acquainted with sorrow. This dual nature of Christ is aptly captured elsewhere in the vision of Stephen (Acts 7:55,56).
The thick convergence of meaning found within the two stones iaspis and sardios is supplemented by the third stone mentioned at Revelation 4:3. This third stone is the smaragdos, our modern emerald. As noted earlier, emerald is the stone of the tribe of Levi, the Greek smaragdos derived directly from the Hebrew bareqeth. Levi means 'to unite, join to', and, in a secondary sense, 'crown'. The role of the tribe of Levi was to unite Israel with the law of God. The verse, in fact, speaks of a rainbow 'like unto an emerald'. In Scripture, the rainbow was a symbol of the covenant between heaven and earth (Genesis 9:13). Again, many harmonious aspects converge around this third stone; they, in turn, harmonise with the meanings found in the two previous stones. The united testimony of the iaspis, sardios and smaragdos of verse 3 is therefore: the Son of man and the Son of God, united in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the first and the last, both high priest and sacrifice in one. This rich vein of meaning contained within the names of the stones would be lost were Joseph and Levi to be excluded from the breastplate at the expense of Ephraim and Manasseh.
The evidences cited herein offer conclusive proof that the names of Levi and Joseph were included amongst the twelve engraved upon the breastplate jewels. Clearly, each stone was carefully chosen to convey a depth of meaning and insight spanning both Old and New Testaments. While the names of Ephraim and Manasseh definitely do not feature on the breastplate, they are nevertheless represented by the two shoulder stones of the ephod.