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Which Tribe to Which Jewel?
by F. Graham Millar
Halifax Centre, RASC (Royal Astronomical Society of Canada)
Website use with permission of the late copyright-holding author.


According to Exodus, the jewels on the breastplate of the High Priest were engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel-- but we are not told which tribe to which jewel.

A comparison between the jewels and the modern birthstones establishes the order in which the jewels stood for the signs of the zodiac, provided one reads the order of the jewels in three columns of four, following the Egyptian calendar of three seasons of four months each.

Jewish tradition knows the sign of the zodiac attributed to each tribe, so we can infer which tribe to which jewel. However, the names and zodiacal standards of the tribes were probably assigned after the settlement in Canaan, hence the signatures on the jewels must have been the signs of the zodiac.


As stated in Exodus 28 and 39, each of the twelve jewels on the breastplate of the High Priest stood for the name of a tribe whose name was engraved on the stone as on a seal.

The encyclopedias agree in associating the stones with the signs of the zodiac; I cite Collier's (1). It occurred to me that the zodiacal signs associated with the stones might be identified by comparing them with the modern birthstones which, the encyclopedias say, are derived from the jewels on the breastplate. An excellent correspondence is disclosed, provided the ancient jewels are read by column rather than by row, to agree with the Egyptian calendar of three seasons of four months. Thus the obsession with the zodiac, present in the Israelitish religion of the time, may have been derived from the sky religion of the Egyptians. This much seems to be an original discovery; my further discussion relates these deductions to already known material. The Encyclopedia Judaica (2) gives the tribe associated with each sign. So now we know the tribe associated with each stone. However, as the tribe-names were probably assigned after the settlement in Canaan, the "name" was probably the sign of the zodiac.


Table I shows the arrangement of the jewels on the breastplate in capital letters, the names as in the New English Bible. The order in the rows is reversed relative to the English text because the Hebrews wrote from right to left. My trials of various runs of the birthstones failed to find a correspondence with the order of the ancient jewels until I thought of the fact that the Egyptians observed, not four seasons, but three of four months each: inundation, growing season, and dry season (3). Fitting the run of the birthstones by column succeeded at once

Table I shows the arrangement of the birthstones in lower case letters. The + sign indicates at least some resemblance to the ancient jewel in color and, moreover, in the cases of sardony and topaz, of the kind itself. There are seven coincidences, enough to be convincing, but two additional ones, in col. 1, rest on mythology (1):

a. JASPER (red-brown) vs amethyst. The wine color of amethyst is associated with Bacchus; in art he is often shown with goat's horns, hence the jewel was likely connected with Capricorn, in which the sun anciently stood in December.
b. GREEN JASPER vs bloodstone. According to a legend, drops of blood from the wounds of Christ fell upon a green stone beneath the cross and created the first bloodstone.

The correspondence is good. The zodiacal signs connected with the birthstones are known. The Hebrew names of the signs were translations into Hebrew of the names as we know them today (2); in particular sartan means Cancer. The ancient names of the tribes can now be added where they belong.
The information is laid out in Table II.


The key to the correlation was that the breastplate jewels had to be read in column to accord with the Egyptian calendar. There is no dispute that the zodiac was developed in Mesopotamia. However, the Hebrews of Exodus probably got their concepts about the zodiac from Egypt.

The uniform difference of two months between the zodiacal sign of today and that of the Mosaic era is attributable to the precession of the equinoxes, caused by the trace of the earth's axis making a circle of radius 23.4 degrees on the celestial sphere in a period of 25,800 years. A precession through two signs of the zodiac has taken four-and-a-third millennia. Thus the ancient month attributed to a jewel in this work was correct about 2300 BCE, give or take a few centuries. This accords well with the time of origin of the theology implied in the breastplate.

As discussed by Eliade (4), in the shamanic system of thought stones could be the carriers of potent magic, especially striped or crystalline stones. Stones could contain the souls of men, or could contain either malignant or benignant magic. They were of celestial origin, and might have been chipped from the throne of the Supreme Being. The following quotations, taken together, indicate the magical importance of the jewels:

--- The stones were according to the names of the children of Israel, twelve... like the engravings of a signet. (Exod.)
--- Next to a name, there was nothing so personal, so precise in the characterization of each demon and spirit, as the seal (5).
--- Seals of the name of God were most powerful (6).

From the importance of stones in shamanic belief, and from these quotations, it is plain that the jewels of the breastplate were potent amulets, laying claim to the protection of the zodiacal totems. We may believe that the design incised on each stone was not literally the name of the tribe, but the ideogram of a zodiacal demigod.

According to the Judaica (7), some modern scholars consider that the Hebrews penetrated Canaan in stages, by groups that perhaps were not already constituted as tribes. The historical names of some of the tribes resemble place names in Canaan that they might have adopted. The areas they settled (Josh. 13) are summarized in Judaica, and are shown in the column farthest to the right in Table II.

A map (8) of the areas shows that they conformed approximately to the cardinal directions and the quarters of the zodiac. It seems that the zodiacal standards of the tribes must have been assigned after the era of settlement. According to plausible evidence (2, 9, 10), the integrated nation developed in Canaan and the tribes were named there. Thus there is all the more reason to think that the engraving on each jewel of the breastplate was not in fact a tribe-name but a sign of the zodiac.

An illustration in the Judaica (9) shows a plan of "the Tabernacle" from a document of the date 1654 CE, in which a central tent shrine was surrounded by twelve booths, three to each side of a square. Clearly not the major Tabernacle of Exodus 25, it may have been the plan of the Place of the Ark in Shiloh (Josh 18:1).

An ancient practice, called amphictyony, known from the Middle East to Italy, was for a central shrine to be maintained in annual rotation by six or twelve tribes settled about it (9, 10). Now this is the point: this plan of the Tabernacle, and the assignment of the tribal areas, demonstrate a zodiacal amphictyony, a highly structured type of society. After the completion of the Settlement, the hosts of the tribes would meet at the shrine for sacrifice, civil affairs, and military planning. The rites and secular proceedings would confirm and strengthen the nation


1. By comparing the modern birthstones with the jewels on the breastplate of the High Priest, it has been possible to identify the signs of the zodiac for which they stood.
2. To establish the correspondence between the birthstones and the jewels, one must recognize that the ancient jewels were arranged in three columns of four, in keeping with the Egyptian calendar of three seasons of four months, an evidence of Egyptian influence in the religion.
3. The zodiacal sign of each tribe is known, so the jewel corresponding to each tribe can now be identified.
4. The settlement areas of the tribes in Canaan were in the order of the zodiac, fitting an amphictyonic system of society. This schematic perfection supports the theory that the tribes were named and their zodiacal standards assigned only after the Settlement.
5. Very likely the names engraved on the jewels of the breastplate were not literally the names of the tribes but the signs of the zodiac.


1. Collier's Encyc., s.v., Birthstone.
2. Encyc. Judaica, s.v. Zodiac.
3. Encyc. Brit., s.v. Calendar.
4. Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism, Bollinger Series LXXVI, Princeton University Press, New Haven, 1970: index s.v. quartz, rock crystals, stones.
5. Encyc. of Relig. & Ethics, 1932, s.v. Charms and Amulets.
6. Encyc. of Relig. & Ethics, 1932, s.v. Magic Circle.
7. Encyc. Judaica, s.v. Tribes, the Twelve.
8. Atlas of the Bible, Grollenberg, L. H., Nelson and Sons, London. 1956, p. 56+.
9. Encyc. Judaica, s.v. Tabernacle.
10. New Schaff-Herzog Encyc. of Relig. Knowledge, s.v. Tabernacle.


Ideas from this article may be adopted, or parts may be quoted, if credit is given to the author by name. The author gives permission for the entire article to be copied provided that his name and this copyright notice be included. Failure to give credit would violate international copyright law. - F. Graham Millar


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