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Jewelry

Source:
The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Jewelry

    References to jewelry in biblical literature suggest that it served most of the functions in ancient Palestine that it has served throughout human cultural development worldwide. The aesthetic appeal of different materials, colors, and shapes with which both men and women could adorn themselves was a primary concern. In addition, jewelry was a repository of wealth or form of currency, an insignia of rank or special favor, and, perhaps most important, a focus of religious or magical sentiments.

    Biblical words or phrases for various items of jewelry are often enigmatic because the terms are used infrequently and the contexts provide little information about their referents. Only by a careful appraisal of textual, archaeological, and iconographic evidence from a local Palestinian and cross‐cultural perspective can the meaning and significance of a term be elucidated. Among items of jewelry clearly denoted in biblical texts are the following: anklet (Isa. 3.18); armlet (Num. 31.50; 2 Sam. 1.10; Isa. 3.20); bracelet (Gen. 24.22, 30, 47; Num. 31.50); crescent pendant (Judg. 8.21, 26; Isa. 3.10); earring (Gen. 35.4; Exod. 32.2–3; 35.22; Judg. 8.24–26; Job 42.11; Hos. 2.15); frontlet (Exod. 13.16; Deut. 6.8; 11.18); necklace (Gen. 41.42; Ezek. 16.11; Dan. 5.29); nose ring (Gen. 24.22, 30, 47; Isa. 3.21; Ezek. 16.12); ring, including signet (Gen. 28.18, 25; 41.42; Exod. 28.11, 21, 36; 35.22; 39.6, 14, 30; Num. 31.50; 1 Kings 21.8; Esther 3.10, 13; 8.2, 8, 10; Job 38.14; Isa. 3.21; Jer. 22.24; Hos. 2.15; Luke 15.22; James 2.2); pendant (Judg. 8.26; Isa. 3.19).

    A number of terms are variously interpreted. The “amulets” of Isaiah 3.20 (NRSV) may be snake pendants; the word translated “headbands” in Isaiah 3.18 may mean “little suns,” that is, star disc pendants (see below); and the “perfume boxes” of Isaiah 3.20 are literally “soul houses,” possibly tubular containers of texts, related to the inscribed frontlet worn above the eyes and to phylacteries (Matt. 23.5).

    The star disc pendant illustrates how archaeological evidence (artifactual, iconographic, and textual) can help elucidate terms for jewelry. Numerous examples of four‐rayed, six‐rayed, and eight‐rayed varieties of this pendant have been recovered from Late Bronze Palestinian and other Near Eastern excavations, and Assyrian kings of later Iron Age dates are depicted on reliefs wearing multistringed necklaces of such pendants. Contemporaneous textual evidence (in particular, a detailed fifteenth century BCE inventory of jewelry presented to the goddess Ningal at Qatna in Syria) identifies these pendants as “suns” in Akkadian, the four‐ or six‐rayed variety representing the sun god (Utu/Shamash/Shapash) and the eight‐rayed variety representing a female deity with an astral aspect (Inanna/Ishtar/Ningal/Astarte). Similarly, other terms of biblical jewelry can be related to specific pendant types with magical and religious significance; thus, the crescent or horns pendant is probably to be identified with a moon or war god (Yerah/Baal/Resheph in West Semitic societies). Many other pendant types from Late Bronze and Iron Age Palestinian excavations represent Egyptian hieroglyphs and deities (Bes, Horus, Ptah‐Sokar, etc.), fauna (fly, frog, lion, ram, bull, cat, etc.), flora (lotus, mandrake, rosette flower, etc.), and various human and geometric forms. Some of the same motifs occur on signet rings, scarabs, and seals. Although not all are explicitly mentioned in biblical texts, the symbolic associations of the jewelry motifs imply that the ancient inhabitants of Palestine, even during the periods of the United and Divided Monarchies, wore jewelry that had amuletic and/or polytheistic significance.

    The inherent contradiction of such jewelry to normative Yahwism is reflected in diatribes against the haughty “daughters of Zion” in Isaiah 3.18–23 and Ezekiel 16.15–17; in Jacob's burial of earrings and foreign gods under a tree at Shechem (Gen. 35.4), and in Judges 8.21–27, which describes an ephod, made by Gideon from the rings, crescents, and other pendants of the Midianite kings, that became a “snare.” Properly employed, however, jewelry could be an item of beauty, value, and status, as exemplified by the nose and finger rings of Rebekah (Gen. 24.22, 30, 47), the signet ring and necklace of Joseph (Gen. 41.42), the armlets and crown of Saul (2 Sam. 1.10), and the signet ring presented to Mordecai by Ahasuerus (Esther 8.2, 8, 10). These items were of gold and/or semiprecious stones, which were highly valued in antiquity. Jewelry was thus an ideal symbol of Israel's relationship to Yahweh, whether as bridal or queenly apparel (Ezek. 16.10–13; Song of Sol.1.10–11) or the high priest's breastpiece (Exod. 28.17–20; 39.10–13).

    Archaeological evidence from Palestine attests to the usage and value of jewelry in a variety of contexts. Anklets, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, frontlets, and rings have been found on the wrists and ankles and near the foreheads, ears, and necks of burials. Special types often occur together on the same individual, which suggests an elevated social status. The occurrence of similar jewelry types in domestic contexts is probably due to accidental loss or to the intentional deposition of the jewelry as hoards, the latter being concentrated in larger buildings. Deposits of jewelry under floors and walls of cultic structures are also common; the jewelry might have adorned a cult statue or represented votive or foundation offerings or taxes. While gold and other precious metals (silver and electrum) are not as prevalent as suggested by some biblical texts (e.g., 2 Chron. 3.3–10), they are well represented in the archaeological record, along with copper/bronze, silicate materials (glass, faience, and frit), bone, shell, and common and semiprecious stones (principally quartz varieties, such as carnelian, agate, and amethyst). Except for precious metals, most of the materials were locally available, and workshops existed throughout the country for fabricating jewelry.

    Patrick E. McGovern

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