The High Priest of Israel entered into the holiest recesses of the Temple while wearing a breastplate (Hebrew “choshen”) adorned with precious stones and jewels, along with the mysterious Urim and Thummim. The scriptures record:
“And you shall make an oracle of judgments […]And you shall interweave in it a four-rowed, stone-holding web. A row of stones shall be sardius, topaz and emerald, the first row, and the second row carbuncle and lapis lazuli and jasper, and the third row ligurion and agate and amethyst, and the fourth row chrysolite and beryl and onyx, covered around by gold, bounded up together in gold; let them be according to their row. And let the stones be from the names of the sons of Israel, twelve corresponding to their names; let them be engraving of seals, each corresponding to the name for the twelve tribes.”
Exodus (28:15,17-21 LXX)
There are several interesting things going on here, all of which have far-reaching implications.
First, the significance of the twelve tribes is that they are representative of the people of God in totality. Twelve is a number of totality in the scriptures (an Hebraism, if you will) and we see this repeated in the Apocalypse when there are 24 “elders” (12 for the old covenant saints and 12 for the new covenant saints, comprising the totality of the redeemed/saved “people of God”); twelve tribes and twelve apostles. As such, the priest is taking the “people of God” with him before the presence of God. This is intimated in the scriptures as well: “And Aaron shall take the names of the sons of Israel on the oracle of judgment on his chest, as he enters into the holy place, a remembrance before God” (Exodus 28:23/29 LXX). To be “remembered” by God is to be saved, essentially (to put it simply). In accordance with the name of this blog, the priest was offering the sacrifice in the Temple “on behalf of all.” This is an act repeated today with fulfillment by the priest in the mystery of the Eucharist: “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all, and for all.”
Secondly, the stones used on the breastplate are that of the “Zodiac” as well as the walls of the new Jerusalem (and in the case of the latter, with a “twist”). For example, sardius (carnelian) is the stone for the constellation/sign of Virgo, topaz for Sagittarius, carbuncle for Aquarius, emerald for Cancer … and so on. The ancients viewed the astrological signs/constellations as the “borders” of the cosmos, so to speak. The walls of the universe, to put it another way. They were also “read” according to the movements of planetary bodies through their “footprints” in the sky in order to make various predictions or divinations (by the pagans). It is — again — an idea of totality or the encompassed whole of the cosmos. By wearing “the cosmos” on his chest, the priest was — in a sense — bringing all of creation before God as an offering for healing and salvation. Besides this, we see these same stones being used to build the foundations for the walls of the new Jerusalem (and the entirety of the city is a conglomeration of “twelves” as well):
“The foundations of the city’s wall were adorned with all kinds of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, chalcedony; the fourth, emerald; the fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, topaz; the tenth, chrysoprasus; the eleventh, jacinth; and the twelfth, amethyst.”
The Apocalypse to St John (21:19-20)
In this example, the stones of the priestly breastplate have been rearranged and turned upside down to form the walls of the “new Jerusalem,” the city that is eschatologically representative of the fulness and completion of Christ’s kingdom and the totality of the people of God in eternity. The Church today is a partial manifestation of this new Jerusalem as we paradoxically await its full revelation (apocalypsis) at the return of Christ — at the time when heaven and earth are restored and transformed, and Paradise is again on earth. Incidentally, these stones are also associated with the construction of the new Jerusalem in the old testament book of Tobit: “For Jerusalem will be built as a city, as his house for all the ages […] And the gates of Jerusalem will be built with lapis lazuli and emerald, and all your walls with precious stone” (Tobit 13:16 LXX).
By surrounding this new Jerusalem with these stones of the twelve tribes (and of the stars/cosmos), we are, in one sense, being told that the new Jerusalem will be the entire cosmos in the resurrected order of creation in Christ. The walls of the city are the very boundaries of the universe, and the whole of God’s people is within its walls (the twelve tribes/twelve apostles). Additionally, since ancient peoples saw the constellations as a sign of the “order” of the universe (the passing of seasons, prediction of crops, etc.), what was seen by the pagans as an all-powerful force was little more than “bricks” for God’s use in the construction of His great “city.” The implication is furthermore that God is Who creates and directs the “order” of the universe, not any impersonal being or “forces” (and this is utilized by the apostle John in associating Christ with Logos).
There is an overarching “Temple” theme in the scriptures, as a result; a need to return to Paradise, to “re-connect” (religion) with God.
Mankind began in Paradise/Eden with the Lord in a temple setting, but is soon exiled because of sin and is introduced to both death and corruption. As a result, the people of Israel must approach God with absolute purity and cleanliness in the tabernacle/Temple, in which only the High Priest may enter fully into God’s presence (and even this is an abbreviated interaction). In the new covenant, with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, we are brought one step closer to the restoration of all things — Paradise/Eden with the earth. In the Church, we see this near-restoration beautifully in our Divine Liturgy and the sacrifice of the Eucharist. The veil has been removed (apocalypsis) and we are all in the “holy place” of the temple, with one foot in eternity, so to speak.
The tension of “already/not yet” is there, for sure, but that is part of the great mystery and beauty of it all. We are saved in hope, and we therefore live and worship in hope as well, through the Church and Her Mysteries. Through His resurrection, Christ has begun the resurrection of all things. And if we look close enough — in an Icon, in our prayers, in the Eucharist, or even in one another and creation around us — we just might catch a glimpse of what’s to come.