The middle stone in the second row of the High Priest's breastplate (Exodus 28:18) is called in the Hebrew sappiyr (Strong's Concordance #H5601). While Strong's translates the word as "sapphire," the BDB lexicon states it could be translated as either a sapphire or a lapis lazuli. While the HCSB and NIV states it could be either of these precious stones, seven out of the remaining translations used in this series translate the word as "sapphire." The NLT refers to the stone as a "blue lapis lazuli."
Sapphires, a variety of corundum stones, have a Mohs hardness scale value of nine. This is the same hardness as rubies and second only to diamonds as the hardest minerals known to man. Because of the difficulty in attempting to engrave such a hard stone, the gem in the second row was likely a lapis lazuli. With a Mohs hardness of 5.5 it is much easier to engrave upon than a sapphire.
"The ancients gave the name of sapphire also to our lapis-lazuli, which is likewise a blue stone, often speckled with shining pyrites which give it the appearance of being sprinkled with gold dust . . . it is an opaque substance easily engraved" (Catholic Encyclopedia article on Precious Stones in the Bible).
"The stone cannot have been our sapphire, for both Theophrastus and Pliny describe the sapphirus as a stone with golden spots, thus showing that they meant the lapis-lazuli, which is often spotted with particles of pyrites having a golden sheen. This stone was named chesbet by the Egyptians, and was highly prized by them . . . (Curious Lore of Precious Stones, page 293).
The lapis lazuli was often paid in tribute to ancient Egypt, being obtained from some of the oldest mines in the world. The stone, made in the image of the pagan goddess of truth, was also worn around the neck by the Egyptian high priest (ibid. pages 119, 229, 293). Marco Polo, in 1271 A.D., is believed to have visited the Asiatic mines that produced the lapis lazuli (Diamonds, Pearls and Precious Stones, page 92).
The second row, middle stone in the priest's breastplate is likely not a sapphire for the reasons stated above. However, a true sapphire was likely used to adorn Lucifer since God himself decorated him. Additionally, since the Eternal will create the New Jerusalem, which will come down from heaven, like a bride (Revelation 21:2), there is little doubt that he will use sapphires for one of its foundations.
Lapis Lazuli Folklore
The cure for feeling melancholy, and for a reoccurring fever, was thought to come through a Lapis lazuli gemstone. Ancient Romans and Greeks believed the stone had medicinal applications. They were known to pulverize it and use it to make a tonic (Curious Lore of Precious Stones, pages 92 - 93, 370).
Onyx and Sardonyx
The middle gemstone in the fourth and last row of the High Priest's breastplate (Exodus 28:20) is called shoham (Strong's #H7718) in the Hebrew. It comes from a root word that means "to blanch." The same word is used to delineate the fifth stone that adorned Lucifer (Ezekiel 28:13). Shoham is translated as "onyx," in both Exodus 28:20 and Ezekiel 28:13, in all ten of this series' Bible translations reviewed.
The fifth foundational stone in New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:20) is called sardonux in the Greek (Strong's #G4557). Strong's states the word refers to the nail of a finger (probably due to its flesh tone color) and both it and Thayer's lexicon translates the word as "sardonyx." Thayer's states the sardonyx was a stone containing red and white colors.
Onyx and Sardonyx stones are a variety of agates, which themselves are a variety of chalcedony. Onyx gemstones possess black and white bands that tend to be parallel with one another. A Sardonyx (the prefix "sard" means "red") has parallel red or reddish bands instead of black.
The Bible states the onyx stone was found in the "whole land of Havilah" (Genesis 2:11). This gemstone is referred to at least eleven times in Scripture, more than any other precious stone. King David, after he officially made his son Solomon the new human ruler over Israel, set his heart to collecting and preparing materials for building Jerusalem's temple. One of the special materials he collected for the temple his son would build is this stone.
1. And David the king said to all the congregation, "Solomon my son, whom alone God has chosen, is young and tender, and the work is great, for the palace is not for man, but for the LORD God. 2. Now I have prepared with all my might for the house of my God the gold for things of gold, and the silver for things of silver, and the bronze for things of bronze, the iron for things of iron, and wood for things of wood, onyx stones . . . in abundance (1Chronicles 29:1 - 2, HBFV)
Anciently, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the onyx stone was mined in Egypt, Arabia and India. It has a long history of being used in jewelry and in pottery items such as bowls.
(First Century A.D.)
Onyx and Sardonyx Folklore
An onyx stone worn around the neck was believed to cool the passions of love. This made it a popular gemstone to wear in India. One major side effect, however, of wearing the stone was that it supposedly encouraged discord and separation of couples (Curious Lore of Precious Stones, pages 98 - 99).