About the Names of the 12 Hebrew Tribes and Thier Gem Stones

Hebrew tribes were given gems for their breastplates but no connection between the names has been traced yet

It would be both curious and interesting if we could trace a connection between the significance of the names of the Hebrew tribes and those of the breastplate gems assigned to the tribes. In ancient times names were much more significant than they are to-day, and the tribal names in particular possessed for the Hebrews a symbolic meaning, but this does not appear to have induced any marked tendency to connect the colors or the symbolic meanings of the different stones with the fame, or with the characteristics or fortunes of the several tribes. On the other hand, the foundation stones, as symbols of the Apostles, became a favorite theme with the early Christian writers. Possibly the neglect of ancient Hebrew writers to perform a similar task in connection with the breastplate stones might still be made good, even at this late date, and an effort in this direction might result in giving a wider range to the symbolic value of certain well-known gems.

The name Reuben signifies "Behold a Son," and this has been given a Messianic meaning by some commentators. In Jacob's enigmatic blessing, "excellency of dignity" and "excellency of power" are attributed to Reuben, but this birthright is taken from him because of a heinous sin he has committed. Still we might see in the carnelian, the gem of Reuben, a symbol of "dignity" and "power."

Simeon has been variously rendered "Hearing" or "Hearkener." The blessing accuses him of an act of cruelty in which he was aided by his brother Levi. To the peridot, or chrysolite, dedicated to Simeon, could be appropriately assigned the meaning "good tidings."

The priestly functions of the tribe of Levi are expressed by the name itself which means "attached" or "joined," that is, to the altar. Hence in the emerald we should see the symbol of "dedication" or "ministration," in addition to its other and better known meanings, such as "hope," "faith," and "resurrection."

For the tribe of Judah we have the ruby, and here the meaning of the name, "praised," fits in well with the dignity of the rare and glowing ruby. This noble gem has always been a favorite adornment for royal crowns and from Judah sprang the royalty of Israel. The blessing given to this tribe declares that "the sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come." This is often taken to signify the consummation of the Kingdom of Israel in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Issachar, signifying "reward," or "the rewarded," suggests as symbolic meanings of the tribal stone lapis lazuli, "success" and "fruition." This stone, the sapphire of the ancients, was typical of heaven, probably owing to the appearance of the specimens most highly valued in olden times, those in which a number of golden spots are scattered over the blue surface of the stone, which thus figure both the blue of heaven and the hosts of the stars.

The tribal name Zebulon signifies "exaltation," and to this tribe is assigned a dwelling-place by the sea bordering on the domains of the rich Phenician seaport, Sidon. We could thus see in the gem of Zebulon, the onyx, a symbol of dominion and authority. This could serve to offset some of the old superstitions regarding the onyx, which was sometimes charged with bringing discord and dissension.

Of the tribe Joseph, we are told that it was to be increased, and this meaning is contained in the name itself, which is rendered: "May God add." To Joseph were promised "blessings of heaven above," and "blessings of the deep that lieth under." The sapphire, probably the tribal stone of Joseph, was known in ancient times by the name hyacinth and was a stone of good omen, bringing increase of health and wealth; therefore its significance as a tribal gem does not differ essentially from the traditional one.

Benjamin signifies "son of the right hand," hence this name denotes strength and power. This meaning accords well with what is said in Jacob's blessing: "Benjamin shall raven as a wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey and at night he shall divide the spoil." The banded agate symbolizing this tribe would have the meaning "strength" and "mastery"; indeed, according to other sources the agate was reputed to bring victory to the wearer.

Dan is the "judge" among the tribes, according to the meaning of the name. In Jacob's blessing Dan is said to be "a serpent by the way," and "an adder in the path." These metaphors, which may not strike us as commendatory of the tribe, probably indicated the craft and courage of the tribesmen in attacking and defeating their foes, and enriching themselves with the spoils of war. The amethyst, as the tribal stone of Dan, could thus signify both "judgment" and "craft."

To the tribe of Gad was given the beryl, and the fact that spheres made from this stone were believed to be best adapted for use in crystal-gazing makes it an especially appropriate gem for the tribe of "good fortune," this being the most probable signification of the name "Gad," although in the Bible the interpretation "a troop," is given. The beryl would therefore signify "good luck" and perhaps also "cooperation."

The twelfth and last tribe, Asher, has the jasper for its gem. This would also gain an auspicious significance from its association with Asher, which means "happy." To the other meanings assigned to jasper might be added that of "happiness." As we have elsewhere remarked, there seems good reason to suppose that jade was frequently designated jasper in ancient times, and this stone was everywhere believed to possess wonderful magic powers.

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