The Intriguing Symbolism of Twelve Stones in the Bible

Twelve Stones—A Reminder to Future Generations

We all know there are certain numbers with Biblical significance. It seems that God places more emphasis on some numbers than other. One of those is the number 12, as in the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve stones.

In the Bible, there are several stories concerning 12 stones. The twelve stones (twelve matzevots or stones standing) were commonly used to celebrate religious events at the beginning of Kingdom of Israel and before Josiah’s reign ( Deuteronomy 27:1). Before building the temple the Israelites used stones to mark specific areas for their sacrifices. In addition, sometimes the Israelis or individuals used stone as a memorial for the gifts they received from God. Today, let’s look at those stories and try to understand why 12 stones would become a remembrance for the people of Israel.

The First Set of 12 Stones

In Exodus 28, explicit instructions were given to Moses concerning priestly clothes Aaron and his son Levite should wear during their job duties. Thus the original High Priest’s breastplate, worn by Aaron when communicating with God was created. Revelation 16:15 states that the breastplate was adorned with twelve precious gems in remembrance of the twelve tribes of Israel on the front. The stones were engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel – so he was reminded of them every time he prayed.

The breastplate may have looked somewhat like the one below.

The High Priest’s Breastplate, with Precious Stones. Photo Credit.

The Hebrew names for the 12 precious stones are: Odem, Pitdah, Bareketh, Nophek,Sappir, Yahalom, Leshem, Shebo, Ahlamah, Tarshish, Shalom, and Yashpheh. In English they are known today as carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, turquoise, lapis lazuli, emerald, jacinth, agate, amethyst, topaz, onyx and jasper.

Elijah and the Rain

In 1 Kings 18, we see Samaria in a severe famine. Many of the people worshipped Baal and cried to his prophets for rain. Elijah came to King Ahab to challenge him about the decision of the Baalites to abandon God. In an effort to show them who the real God was, Elijah challenged them to cry out to the prophets of Baal for rain.

He waited until they realized nothing was going to come from their efforts, then he rebuilt an altar of the Lord and lined it with 12 stones, a remembrance to the 12 tribes. He poured water on the altar again and again to make it difficult for a fire to catch. Then he started a fire. He sacrificed a bull and prayed, and the rains came. The people, seeing that God truly brought the rain, understood that Elijah’s God was real.

Tell me the Biblical meaning of 12 Stones and the Israelites

After walking through the desert for a 40-year time period, Joshua brought the Israelites back to the promised land. They were finally ready to cross the river. While they were crossing, the Lord dried up the waters of the Jordan River and the Ark of the Covenant was carried to the middle, acting as a representation or type of Christ standing in the middle holding back the waters until the Israelites made it across. Joshua 4:1-4 says,

When the whole nation passed over the Jordan, the Lord said, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’”

And they brought twelve stones from the Jordan, each one carried by a different man from one of Israel’s tribes, and brought them with them to the camps. Eventually the stones were stacked at Gilgal as a memorial, a reminder for future generations of God’s promise.

12 stones as a memorial. Photo credit

But there was a second set of 12 stones in the story. This set was carried into the Jordan river while the priests were still standing holding the ark of the covenant. The stones were laid at their feet (Joshua 4:9) and left there. Once the ark of the covenant was carried out of the water, the waters of the Jordan rushed back to their normal position, burying the stones in a watery grave at the middle of the Jordan.

But I still don’t get the significance of the twelve stones?

Throughout the Old Testament the twelve stones serve as reminders of the law when people visited the altar. The 12 stones stand as a monument for the 12 tribes of Israel. But more than that, they also represent God’s promise to get the people of Israel to the promised land. They stand as a memorial to represent God’s goodness. The 12 precious stones on Aaron’s breastplate are a good example of this kind of memorial; every time Aaron put it on, he was reminded of God’s goodness.

The 12 stones at Gilgal were carried, one by each tribe, and stacked. Have you ever tried to stack stones? it’s hard. But these were able to stack and remain there, a monument signifying once again the greatness of God.

The 12 stones under the Jordan River have a deeper significance, I feel. I believe that the 12 that were buried in the water stood for the people who followed him. The twelve stones that are under the waters of the Jordan are underwater forever, and they represent the people who are not going to follow Jesus, ever. They may hear the message of salvation, but they choose not to follow it. Not only will they never know the promised land, those people will perish. The Lord wants us to remember those people, and this serves as a memorial to them. It is a reminder that it’s always our job to help people see the goodness of the Lord.

Stones in the Bible – New Testament

Stones are clearly significant in the Old Testament, but they show up in the New Testament as well. In many places of the scriptures, stones are used to describe resilience of one’s character. In one instance this refers to Christ himself. 1 Peter 2:4 says,

“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious”

If you think about Jesus and all that he represents to us, this makes sense. Symbolism for stones is grounded in ideas of stability, resilience, and permanence. It is an innate connection with earth, which is considered grounded. Stone is strong, versatile and readily available – and so is the Lord.

In Acts 4:11, we see an example of the ‘stone’ that is strong, versatile, and permanent: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. ” Again, the stone is Jesus.

We Even Will See Stones in Heaven

There is another place we see stones in the Bible. That is seeing them as precious stones, gemstones as we would call them now. Stones mean something a little different in the New Testament, though; let’s take a look.

Many people ponder what heaven will be like. The Bible says the holy city will be created from precious stones:

” The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. 19 The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. 21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.” — Revelation 21:18-21

Can you imagine such a city? Can you see yourself living in a a place like the one described in these verses? Many people wonder what heaven will be like, but I believe the answers are written already in Revelation. The video discusses it in more detail:

Q&A

What do the 12 stones in the breastplate represent?

The twelve stones were engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel – so Aaron was reminded of them every time he prayed. They represented the twelve tribes, and therefore stand as a remembrance to God’s promise to lead the people of Israel into the promised land.

What does a stone symbolize in the Bible?

Stones are related to several ideas in the Bible. In the Old Testament, 12 stones represent the 12 tribes of Israel (Exodus 28) and in the New Testament, stones are used to refer to Jesus Christ.

Why did Elijah use 12 stones?

The number 12 was a reminder of so much concerning the history of God’s people. There was the giving of the law (Exodus 24) and the time that the people crossed the Jordan into the promised land (Joshua 4). By reminding the people of these incidents, he was also reminding them that God created them to be one united nation, not divided as they currently were. And more importantly, by drawing on their rich history he showed he was praying on behalf of all the patriarchs, giving him strength in their eyes.

Why did God take 12 stones from the River Jordan?

He told them they represented a memorial to the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land.

“In the future, when your children ask you, `What do these stones mean?’7 tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.'” Joshua 4:6-7

When God gives a story like this to us, it serves not only as a remembrance or memorial, but also a tool to help us see our way forward.

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