The Tribes of Israel and Their Symbolic Stones

The tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim and their relation to Britain and the United States, the order, stone, and color given to the tribes, and the identity of the stones mentioned in Exodus

A rather ingenious utilization of the reputed powers of Aaron's breastplate comes to us in a book printed in Portland, Maine.(C. H. Emerson, "Psychocraft" [Portland, Me., 1911]). The writer assumes that the Urim and Thummim enclosed in the folds of the breastplate consisted of twelve stones, duplicates of those engraved with the names of the tribes, and so disposed that, when they were shaken to and fro and then allowed to come to rest, three of them would become visible through an aperture in the ephod just beneath the rows of set stones. The signification of the oracle is given by the various combinations of color offered by the three stones that reveal themselves; to each combination a prearranged meaning is given. That anything of the kind could have been true of the original Urim and Thummim is scarcely worthy the trouble of refutation, but the practical result of this modern experiment is a clever oracle which will probably enjoy a certain vogue.

For those who, with the late lamented Lieutenant Totten, see in the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim the Anglo-Saxons of England and the United States, and who look upon George V as the king who sits upon the throne of David, these symbolical stones of the breastplate acquire an added significance. While not pretending to be able to follow all the intricate and certainly most ingenious and interesting speculations of this school of Biblical exegesis, we cannot help expressing some astonishment that Ephraim should be thought to prefigure England and Manasseh the United States, instead of vice versa. In Gen. xlviii, 17-20, the text more especially referred to in these speculations, Jacob's blessing is bestowed upon Ephraim, in spite of Joseph's protest that it should go to the eldest son, Manasseh. To this protest Jacob answers: "I know it, my son, I know it: he also [Manasseh] shall become a people, and he also shall be great: but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations." Certainly the very composite population of the United States perfectly merits this description. As a general rule, the Hebrews, when using the names Ephraim and Manasseh as tribal designations, maintained the twelve-fold division of the people, by substituting these tribes for Joseph and by dropping the name of Levi from the list, the tribe of Levi being assigned as priests to the care of the sanctuary, and not participating in the division of the Land of Promise.

In the Midrash Bemidbar, the Rabbinical Commentary on Numbers, the tribes are given in their order, with the stone appropriate to each and the color of the tribal standard pitched in the desert camp, this color corresponding in each case with that of the tribal stone. This list represents a tradition dating back to at least the twelfth century and possibly much earlier than that; hence its value should not be underestimated, although we may not accept it without some reserves. ("Der Midrasch Bemidbar Rabba," German transl. by Dr. Aug. Wunsche, Leipzig, 1885, pp. 15, 16. Parasha II. Of the tarshish it is said the color resembled that of "the costly stone with which women adorn themselves," possibly the pearl is signified. Hebrew text in "Sepher Midrash Rabba," Vilna, 1845, pt. iii,"Sepher Bemidbar," p.23.)

OdemReubenRed
PitdahSimeonGreen
BarekethLeviWhite, black and red
JophekJudahSky-blue
SappirIssacharBlack (like stibium)
YahalomZebulunWhite
LeshemDanSapphire-color
SheboGadGray
AhlamahNaphtaliWine-color
TarshishAssherPearl-color (?)
ShohamJosephVery black
YashphehBenjaminColors of all the stones

In the attempt to determine the identity of the stones enumerated in Exodus xxviii and xxxix, as adorning the breastplate of the high-priest, we must bear in mind that this "breastplate of Aaron" and the one described by Josephus, and brought by Titus to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., are in all probability entirely distinct objects. The former, if it ever existed, except in the ideal world of the authors of the Priestly Codex, must have been composed of the stones known to and used by the Egyptians of the thirteenth or fourteenth century, B.C., some of them being, perhaps, set in the "jewels of gold and jewels of silver" borrowed by the Israelites from the Egyptians just before the Exodus; on the other hand, the most trustworthy indications regarding the stones of the breastplate of the Second Temple, made perhaps in the fifth century B.C., should be sought in the early Greek and Latin versions of the Old Testament, and in the treatise on precious stones by Theophrastus, who wrote about 300 B.C. The Natural History of Pliny, that great storehouse of ancient knowledge, and other early writers, may also be used with profit.


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