Breastpiece of Judgment
June 10, 2020

Aaron’s breastpiece (chosen) is woven of gold, colored wool thread, and linen, square like. the Holy of Holies (Exodus 28:15). It’s a span in length and a span in width, folded double to form a pouch (Exodus 28:16), and attached to the ephod by gold rings and chains (Exodus 28:22-28). Inside the pouch are the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30), used to consult Yahweh. On the outside are twelve stones in four rows of three, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:17-21). 

Exodus 28 calls it the “breastpiece of judgment” (vv. 15, 29-30). That could mean that in wearing it the priest is identified as a judge in Israel, or an agent of Yahweh’s judgment. The fact that the phrase is linked with the Urim and Thummim (v. 30) suggests the latter notion is more prominent. No one is certain what the Urim and Thummim were. They appear to be stones. Their names mean “lights” and “perfections.” Urim begins with aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and Thummim with a tav, the last letter. Perhaps it was an alphabetical system that spelled out the Lord’s messages; perhaps it was a binary yes-no system, an early Turing machine. There is a parallel between the two stones hidden in the high priest’s breastpiece and the two tablets of Torah hidden in the ark. By wearing this sartorial “ark,” the priest becomes an oracle, a human version of Yahweh’s throne of judgment.

A huge amount of attention is given to the rings and chains that attach the breastpiece to the ephod; seven of the sixteen verses devoted to the breastpiece. We're reminded of the "rings" on the furnishings of the tabernacle, and reminded once again that the priest is an item in the tent and a living version of the tent. The tabernacle itself consists of two large pieces joined by rings (cf. Exodus 26:1-6), and we conclude that Aaron's garments are a human-sized "tent" covering the glory of God that is Aaron himself.

Like the onyx stones on Aaron’s shoulders (Exodus 28:12), the breastpiece functions as a “memorial,” a reminder to Yahweh to keep His commitments to Israel. The twelve colored stones represent Israel, and so the memorial is a symbolic Israel. Given their colors, the stones are also a rainbow encircling the high priest; gems are, in Jim Jordan’s words, bits of “frozen rainbow.” Thus Aaron’s clothing replicates the original memorial, the post-diluvian rainbow (Genesis 9:13-16). When Aaron enters the Most Holy Place, he’s a “rainbow in the cloud” that causes Yahweh to “remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:16).

Precious stones are natural symbols of people. Adam was made of earth, soft minerals. Strong men are “rocks,” like the divine Rock. Shiny stones glitter like the glory of Yahweh. Gemstones are glorified earth representing glorified men.

Most translations give modern names to the twelve colored stones. That’s probably an error. As James A. Harrell has argued (“Old Testament Gemstones,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 21.2 [2011]), modern gemstones weren’t well-known in the ancient world:

“Prior to the Hellenistic period, colored translucent and opaque gemstones were the ones most commonly used, but following Alexander the Great’s eastern conquests in the late fourth century B.C., colored transparent gemstones from India (and Sri Lanka) began flowing into the Mediterranean region. This flow became a torrent by the first century A.D. with the rise of Imperial Rome and its preference for colored transparent gemstones. This development must be kept in mind when using Pliny the Elder’s Natural History from A.D. 77 in identifying the LXX gemstones. The misbelief that all gemstones of Pliny’s day were in common use in the preceding centuries or that the gemstone names had unchanging meanings has led astray many writers on LXX gemstones” (151-2).

Thus, instead of emerald, we should think of a semi-precious stone like jade.

The onyx stones list the names of the tribes of Israel in birth order (Exodus 28:10). That is not the case for the beastpiece, which says the stones should be “according to the names” (v. 21). Birth order isn’t the only possible order for Israel. Reuben, Simeon, and Levi lose their prominence because of their sins, and Judah and Joseph rise to prominence. I think it likely, for instance, that Judah is the ruby tribe (the first stone, Exodus 28:17), and Benjamin, the youngest, the jasper tribe (the last stone, Exodus 28:29). That is, the tribes are framed by the two royal tribes. 

Whatever the order of the stones, they represent the tribes as Aaron enters the presence of Yahweh. Whenever he enters the tent, he carries Israel “over his heart” (Exodus 28:29). Israel is excluded from the tent, but not entirely; they are in the sanctuary through the priest, in the sanctuary in a glorified condition as precious stones, as we are present in the heavenly sanctuary through our priest, Jesus, who wears us on His heart.

The breastpiece is finally described as the "judgment of the house of Israel" (Exodus 28:30), which Aaron carries on his heart. Every time the priest enters, he is scrutinized; every time he enters, Israel is scrutinized. But they enter as rainbow, and so the judgment of the house of Israel will be a favorable one.

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