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Holman Bible Dictionary

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Jewels are stones valued for their beauty or scarcity. Most often they are cut and polished to enhance their appearance. Jewels have been more rare in archaeological finds in Palestine than in Egyptian, Greek, or Phoenician archaeological remains. There are two reasons for this. First, the land of Israel had no natural deposits of precious stones. Jewels (sometimes in the form of jewelry) were taken as booty during war (Numbers 31:50), brought as gifts to the king (2 Chronicles 9:1,2 Chronicles 9:9); or purchased from merchants (1 Kings 10:11; compare Revelation 18:11-12). Secondly, Israel and Judah were pawns in power struggles between its neighbors. The wealth accumulated by the king and Temple was carried off by conquerors (e.g. 1 Kings 14:25-28).

Jewels functioned as a medium of exchange in the Ancient Near East before the invention of money. In Israel, jewels were used primarily in relation to worship and the monarchy.

Worship First, jewels were a fitting contribution for a special offering (Exodus 35:22). Second, the high priest was garbed in fine clothing decorated with jewels (Exodus 28:1; Exodus 39:1). The ephod worn by the high priest had an onyx stone, set in gold filigree and engraved with the names of the tribes of

Israel, on each shoulder. The breastplate of the high priest (also called the “breastplate of judgment,” Exodus 28:15,Exodus 28:29) was made of the finest cloth, interwoven with gold, into which were set two precious stones, in four rows of three each. On each stone was engraved the name of one of the twelve tribes. Thus, the twelve tribes were symbolically present whenever the high priest ministered before the Lord. The Hebrew words for some of these jewels can be translated with some degree of assurance; in other cases translators must guess what stone is intended. Since the ancients had no way to cut diamonds, they were not yet precious stones. The word translated “diamond” in Exodus 28:18; Exodus 39:11 probably does refer to a very hard stone, since it is based on a root word meaning “hammer, smite.” Thus it is probably not what we call a diamond (so NIV, “emerald”; REB, “jade”; NRSV, “moonstone”). The high priest would have looked quite elegant when presiding in worship.

The Monarchy Jewels were considered a fitting gift for kings. The Queen of Sheba brought them to Solomon (1 Kings 10:2,1 Kings 10:10). Jewels were used in royal crowns (2 Samuel 12:30), and probably royal garments (Ezekiel 28:13). Jewels were a form of wealth which could be accumulated and easily kept in the royal treasury. The writer of Ecclesiastes considered such accumulation of royal wealth a matter of great vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11).

Unlike precious jewels, jewelry was widely used by ordinary people in the Ancient Near East. Archaeologists have demonstrated that men and women have adorned themselves with various kinds of jewelry almost from the earliest known times. Jewelry was known in the patriarchal period. Abraham's servant, when sent to find a bride for Isaac, put a nose ring and bracelets on Rebekah (Genesis 24:47) and gave her other gold and silver jewelry. The Israelites are said to have “despoiled” the Egyptians, by begging gold and silver jewelry of their neighbors in preparation for the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 3:22; Exodus 11:2-3). More Egyptian jewelry undoubtedly came into Israel through trade, as well as with the daughter of Pharaoh who married Solomon (1 Kings 3:1). At least 15 precious stones were mined in ancient Egypt. Egyptian metal workers were especially skilled in the art of making gold jewelry. The opulence of royal Egyptian jewelry has been demonstrated from archaeological finds, especially the tomb of Tutankhamen.

During the period of the monarchy, an ordinary man or woman might have had a few pieces of jewelry, something made of bronze or, if they could afford it, gold. Gold, which was used as a medium of exchange, was relatively plentiful, and could be made into a necklace, bracelet, or ring by a local craftsman. Royalty, of course, could wear more expensive jewelry set with precious stones.

Many kinds of jewelry are mentioned in the Old Testament. Not only women wore bracelets (Genesis 24:47); King Saul was wearing one when he died in battle (2 Samuel 1:10). Ankle bracelets might be worn (Isaiah 3:16, Isaiah 3:18). Such bracelets have been found on the leg bones of women buried in ancient Israel.

Necklaces and pendants were popular (Song of Solomon 1:10). A certain kind of gold necklace probably functioned as a symbol of authority. When Pharaoh appointed Joseph to high office, he put a gold chain around his neck (Genesis 41:42). Likewise, in the Book of Daniel, King Belshazzar proclaimed that whoever could interpret the mysterious writing on the wall should have a gold chain put around his neck and be made “the third ruler in the kingdom” (Daniel 5:7,Daniel 5:29). The crescents mentioned in Isaiah 3:18, like those of Judges 8:21,Judges 8:26, which were worn by the kings of Midian, were probably moon-shaped pendants worn on chains. Gold crescent jewelry has been discovered by archaeologists. The crescent may have functioned as a royal insignia. The items referred to as chains, collars, or pendants (NRSV) (Isaiah 3:19; Judges 8:26) were probably also worn around the neck, perhaps on cords.

Earrings were known in the patriarchal period. They may have had some religious significance (Genesis 35:4). Nose rings are mentioned in Genesis 24:22,Genesis 24:30,Genesis 24:47 (NIV) and Isaiah 3:21 (NIV). The same term, nezem, is used for both, so the references are often ambiguous (e.g. Numbers 31:50; Proverbs 25:12).

Good luck charms called “amulets” are not mentioned often in the Bible but have been widely found throughout Palestine in archaeological sites from all periods. Some represented gods and goddesses. Isaiah 3:20 may include a reference to amulets (see NRSV), though the translation is not sure. The earrings buried by Jacob under the oak near Schechem may have been amulets (Genesis 35:4). Such amulets were violations of the commandment not to make graven images (Exodus 20:4).

The most important item of jewelry mentioned in the Old Testament is the signet ring. The signet was used to make an impression on clay or wax and thus to seal and authenticate documents. Generally the signet was a finely engraved semiprecious stone. A hole could be bored through the signet and it could be hung from a cord around the neck (Genesis 38:18), or it could be used as a setting for a ring or more elaborate necklace. Pharaoh gave Joseph his signet ring as a symbol of authority (Genesis 41:42). King Ahasuerus gave his signet ring first to Haman (Esther 3:10), then to Mordecai (Esther 8:2).

Jewelry was also used to decorate animals, at least by the wealthy. The camels of the Midianite kings slain by Gideon wore crescents and decorated collars around their necks (Judges 8:21,Judges 8:26). The reference in Proverbs 11:22 to a ring in a swine's snout is metaphoric; one cannot draw conclusions from it concerning the use of decorative nose rings for animals. Amulets were sometimes worn by animals to ensure good fortune on a trip.

Isaiah 3:18-23 is sometimes interpreted as an attack on women's fashions and a denunciation of the uses of jewelry. The Hebrew terms used in the passage appear to refer rather to official insignia. Thus the passage is a condemnation of the misuse of wealth and power at the expense of the poor. In Ezekiel 16:8-13, the Lord is portrayed as a Bridegroom decking His bride, Jerusalem, with fine clothing and jewlry, including a nose ring, earrings, and a crown.

The New Testament does not make much mention of jewels and jewelry. Pearls were highly valued in New Testament time and thus a fitting metaphor for the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:45-46). James warned his readers not to discriminate on the basis of wealth, as indicated by the wearing of gold rings and fine clothing (James 2:1-7). In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, women are reminded that the best adornment is not braids, gold, or pearls, but good deeds.

In Revelation 21:2, which echoes the imagery of Ezekiel 16:8-31, God is pictured as a Bridegroom whose bride, the new Jerusalem, is adorned with jewels. The walls of the new Jerusalem are pictured as built of jasper, adorned with twelve kinds of jewels. Each of the twelve gates is made of a single pearl. The gems of the holy city, like those in so much jewelry, are to be put in a setting of gold. The idea of rebuilding Jerusalem with jewels as building material reflects Isaiah 54:11-12. Unlike the old Jerusalem, the new Jerusalem—associated with the completion of the kingdom of God-will not be unfaithful. See Minerals and Metals.

Wilda W. Morris

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor.. "Entry for 'JEWELS, JEWELRY'". "Holman Bible Dictionary".
<>. 1991.


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