Gold, Pearls, and Adventists:
What Does the Bible Say About Jewelry?
Table of Contents
- Introduction: The Controversy
- Jewelry in Scripture
- The Real Issues
Introduction: The Controversy
Standards create controversy. In August 2002, students returning to Southwestern Adventist University were greeted by a new rule, designed to uphold traditional Seventh-day Adventist standards: no jewelry on campus. There was a great deal of discussion about the new rule, and not a little opposition to it. As I write this paper almost a year and a half later, the no-jewelry policy is no longer enforced.
The issue of jewelry has long been contentious in the Adventist church. The traditional stance is that wearing jewelry is wrong; however, there are many who contend that the traditionalists are akin to extremists when it comes to the jewelry issue.1 One side quotes a few Bible passages and insists that God absolutely condemns jewelry. The other side points out that there are a number of verses that mention jewelry in a positive sense and accuse the traditionalists of misinterpreting the texts they use against jewelry. At the same time, there are a number of moderates and a lot of confused people who do not take a firm stance. Some accept certain types of jewelry, such as wedding bands or non-metallic jewelry2 while others simply do not know what to think.
At the heart of this confusion is the question, “What does the Bible really say about jewelry?” or the corollary, “What does the Bible really mean when it speaks of jewelry?” On the next several pages, this paper will attempt to answer these questions.
Before delving into the Bible, it is important to understand the role jewelry played in the biblical world. Each Bible passage was written within a context of time and culture, and while the Bible’s principles are timeless, understanding the background is an immense help in interpreting the text. Knowing the background helps us explain why a passage states things the way it does and helps us apply ancient writings to modern life. When studying an issue that has a large cultural element—such as jewelry—it is almost impossible to gain a complete understanding of the Bible without background study, because background study alerts us to the cultural issues the passage originally addressed.
Jewelry in the Ancient Near East
Our background study begins in the Ancient Near East (ANE), the territory of the Old Testament during Old Testament times. According to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, both Canaanite and Israelite men and women wore jewelry and make-up.3 However, finding reliable extra-biblical information on the function of jewelry in the ANE has proven difficult. Angel Manuel Rodríguez,4 Samuele Bacchiocchi,5 and Keavin Hayden6 examine the Old Testament passages that deal with jewelry.7
Because Rodríguez provides a convenient list of eight uses for jewelry in the Old Testament, this section is based primarily on his work.8 The first use he lists—and perhaps the first use many people think of today—is personal beautification.9 As an example, he mentions the high priest’s costume. He says, “It is specifically noted that one of the basic purposes of this special and unique attire was to beautify . . . this religious leader (Exod 28:2).”10 He also cites Isaiah 3:16-23 where God describes many types of jewelry used at least partly for beautification.11
Next on Rodríguez’s list of Old Testament uses of jewelry is currency. He mentions Genesis 24:22: “When the camels had finished drinking, the man [Abraham’s servant] took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels” (NIV). He gave them to Rebekah, Rodríguez argues, as payment for watering his camels.12
Jewelry was also “evidence of wealth”13 in Old Testament times. In ancient Mesopotamia, the bride price paid by a prospective groom’s family included clothing, jewelry, food, drink, and oil.14 Jewelry was also part of the dowry paid by the bride’s family.15 This was the case in the story of Rebekah, as well. Rodríguez quotes Genesis 24:53, which says that Abraham’s servant gave jewelry (Hebrew kelê) to Rebekah. He says, “The term kelî could designate gold and silver utensils but it is also used to designate jewelry. In this particular case it was a gift to the bride to ensure her financial security.”16 In other words, it is functioning as a nest egg in case of need.17
Jewelry served as a symbol of social status. It “was used by the people belonging to the high strata of society,” says Rodríguez, “particularly those from the palace. They dressed and adorned themselves in accordance to their social identity.”18 He notes that according to 2 Samuel 1:10, King Saul wore a crown and armband. He also asserts that the jewelry mentioned in Ezekiel 28:11-19 (in connection with the king of Tyre) signifies royal or princely status.19
Jewelry also served as a sign of authority.20 In Egypt, kings and judges may have worn pendants and necklaces with images of the goddess Ma’at,21 while in Israel kings wore a crown at the minimum.22
Jewelry had religious significance in the ANE. In fact, this may have been one of its most important functions. Jewelry identified the religious beliefs or position of the wearer, such as the Israelite high priest.23 More importantly, it was assigned supernatural abilities and was worn to protect the wearer from various forms of evil. Houghton Mifflin notes that “for [Egyptian] royalty, to be covered in gold . . . was to share in gold’s divine qualities: the flesh of the gods was thought to be gold. The scarabs . . . along with the flies, rosettes, hands, and other motifs, each had significance for Egyptians, who wore jewelry as much for purposes of display as for fending off potential harm.”24 Rodríguez identifies some of the jewelry mentioned in Isaiah 3:16-21 as supernatural ornaments, also called amulets. It is these amulets that the Old Testament condemns as idolatry.25
Finally, Rodríguez notes that jewelry was sometimes used as an offering to the gods to be placed on their images in their temples. He notes that while the Old Testament does not mention this use directly, the Israelites did occasionally bring jewelry to God, as in Numbers 31:50.26
Jewelry in the Greco-Roman World
The Greco-Roman world provides the setting for the New Testament. There are many similarities between the Greco-Roman world and the ANE. Perhaps this explains why there is less information about the use of jewelry in New Testament times than in Old Testament times. We do know that jewelry was common in the Roman Empire. The Oxford History of the Classical World has this to say:
The wearing of excessive jewellery [sic] was a practice which [Roman] legislators had long since given up trying to curb, though moralists still condemned it. Pliny rails against women who wore pearls on their fingers, on their earrings, and on their slippers, and reports with disapproval how Caligula’s first Empress, Lollia Paulina, turned up to a feast wearing emeralds and pearls on her head, hair, ears, neck, and fingers.27
It continues, noting that rings were very common. Men wore rings as signets, while women wore them to signify engagement.28 In fact, it seems that the Romans invented the engagement ring.29
Rings in the Roman Empire are particularly interesting. At various times, different types of rings were used to signify social status—slave or free, citizen or non-citizen, aristocrat or commoner. These rules were enforced by law, but were gradually relaxed as more people wanted to be able to wear fancier rings.30
Because the Greco-Roman world was a pagan society, jewelry in this time doubtless functioned in much the same way as it did in the ANE with regard to its religious aspects. It probably was accorded supernatural powers and used as protection from evil or a method to persuade the gods to act in a certain way.
Jewelry in Scripture
Now that we have gained a certain understanding of the context in which the Bible speaks of jewelry, we will turn to the Bible and discover the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this paper: “What does the Bible really mean when it speaks of jewelry?” We will examine the scripture passages that speak favorably of jewelry and those that speak against it, but first we will briefly examine several principles of biblical interpretation.
There are several principles which must be followed in order to correctly interpret a text. A comprehensive analysis of these principles is beyond the scope of this paper, but it is beneficial to briefly mention these principles.31
First, it is important to determine what the author meant when he wrote the passage in question. This includes studying the passage in its context—the immediate context, or surrounding verses; the book it is in; and the Bible as a whole. One should never consider a passage in isolation and then issue an interpretation. Such an approach will lead to a poorly-supported conclusion at best and a total misinterpretation, with its attendant problems, at worst.
Second, it is important to study the passage in question for oneself. While there are many excellent commentaries and other works that deal with the interpretation of various passages, they are no substitute for individual study of the Bible. Ideally, every work should encourage the reader to study the Bible directly.
Jewelry Spoken of in a Negative Sense
We will now examine the biblical passages that speak negatively of jewelry. These are the texts most often cited by those who uphold the traditional Adventist view that wearing jewelry is wrong.
1 Peter 3:1-6
This passage is part of a larger section on submission. In 2:17-25 Peter urges submission to masters. He speaks of kings and governors, then he addresses slaves. In chapter 3, Peter tells wives to submit to their husbands (3:1-7). This is the immediate context of the verse used against jewelry (3:3).
Here, Peter is contrasting true beauty with false. He says, “Your beauty should reside, not in outward adornment—the braiding of the hair, or jewellery [sic], or dress—but in the inmost centre [sic] of your being, with its imperishable ornament, a gentle, quiet spirit, which is of high value in the sight of God” (1 Pet. 3:3, 4, NEB). In other words, real beauty that lasts comes from inner virtues, not outer appearance.
The question is: Is Peter absolutely condemning jewelry? Rodríguez believes he is. He points out that the prohibition in verse 3 is an imperative followed by a contrast in verse 4,32 and he asserts that Peter is using his apostolic authority to prohibit jewelry, promoting inner virtues instead.33 In general, his position is very well-argued.
There is, however, another way to look at this passage. Verse 3 says, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment” (NIV).34 So Peter is speaking of the source of one’s beauty. This could be interpreted, then, as instructions on beauty, not instructions on what is worn. In other words, according to this interpretation, the issue is not whether a woman wears jewelry, but whether she uses it as her source of beauty. Peter says that the source of beauty should be “a gentle and quiet spirit” (3:4). It is also important to note that in verses 1 and 2, Peter gives the reason for his instructions: “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (NIV). We see again Peter’s emphasis on internals, rather than externals. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary states this well: “It is not fitting for a Christian woman to make a vain display of dress and ornaments to attract attention to herself. Her greatest attraction should be her Christian conduct.”35 This is Peter’s main point. While he may be condemning jewelry absolutely, this does not seem likely.
1 Timothy 2:9, 10
The other major passage used to condemn jewelry is 1 Timothy 2:9, 10: “I also [in addition to asking men to pray] want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (NIV). Worship is the context of this passage. In verse 8, Paul instructs men on how to pray, then in verses 11 onward he says that women should be quiet and not teach or have authority over men.36 This worship context suggests that verses 9 and 10 also have something to do with worship.37
Structurally, this passage is a chiasm. The prohibition against jewelry is at the center of the chiasm, flanked by the alternatives—decency, propriety, and good deeds. This may mean that the phrase “not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” is being emphasized, since it is at the center. Alternatively, the instruction to “dress modestly, with decency” and the admonition to “good deeds” may be emphasized, because this category is on the outside of the chiasm, flanking the prohibition.
This passage is more difficult to understand than 1 Peter 3:1-6. Still, a contrast is made between jewelry and good deeds. This is not terribly different from the contrast made in 1 Peter 3:3, 4 with the beauty of jewelry and the beauty of a gentle, quiet spirit.38 Rodríguez argues that Paul is listing a general principle in 1 Timothy 2:9a and following it up with specific examples (braided hair, jewelry, and expensive clothes).39 This is a fairly convincing argument.
Hayden says that the point of this passage—and thus the prohibition against jewelry—is that women should be silent (verse 11 onward),40 but this position cannot be easily supported.
Yet another option deals with the type of jewelry being worn. Most of the jewelry probably had some pagan religious significance; we know that amulets were common.41 If this is the case, then wearing these types of jewelry would be idolatry. However, since there is nothing in the context to indicate that this was Paul’s concern, this explanation is purely speculative.
Whatever the argument, this passage is inconclusive because of all the Bible texts that speak of jewelry in a positive sense (see the next section). One passage that seems to prohibit jewelry against a number of passages that support it or refer to it in a positive manner is weak evidence.42
Jewelry Spoken of in a Positive Sense43
We have observed that neither 1 Peter 3:1-6 nor 1 Timothy 2:9, 10 is a strong condemnation of jewelry. We will now note a number of Bible passages that refer to jewelry in a positive sense.
Genesis 2:10-12 tells of a land that God created—presumably at the same time He made Eden—called Havilah. Of Havilah, verse 12 says, “The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin [NIV text note: “pearls”; KJV: “bdellium”] and onyx are also there” (NIV). If the gold was good, and the land had other precious stones, then it must have been used for something. Alone, this text neither supports nor refutes jewelry, but when considered with the rest of the Bible, it provides a little supporting evidence.
We have seen above that the Israelite high priest wore jewelry. In Exodus 28 God gives Moses instructions on how the high priest is to dress. His attire included precious stones, fancy fabric, and a lot of gold, including a gold plate with the inscription “Holy to the Lord” (verse 36, NIV) worn on the front of the turban. The visual effect was similar to that of a crown. This hardly implies that God despises jewelry!
There is more. Ezekiel 28:12-15 is generally recognized as a description of Lucifer before he fell. Notice what it says about him: “You were the model of perfection, . . . perfect in beauty. . . . Every precious stone adorned you. . . . Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared” (verses 12, 13, NIV). It appears as though God himself bedecked Lucifer with a form of jewelry. This is not a condemnation of jewelry.
Then in Ezekiel 16, God tells the story of Jerusalem in allegory. He describes the city as a girl rejected by her parents. God says He found her and cleaned her up. Then He says, “I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver” (verses 11-13, NIV). He proceeds to describe the beauty and prestige of Jerusalem. But then, in verses 15 and 16 Jerusalem becomes proud and becomes a prostitute. Verse 17 says, “You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourselves male idols and engaged in prostitution with them” (NIV). Here God uses jewelry to signify what He provided for Israel (represented by Jerusalem). It is an extremely positive symbol, but it can be misused. This is the theme of several other passages, as well.44
Revelation describes two women. One is the prostitute, Babylon. Revelation 17:4 says she was “glittering with gold, precious stones, and pearls” (NIV). The other woman, the true church, is also described as wearing jewelry. She was “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (NIV). Clearly, a crown is a form of jewelry, and God is not condemning it. Furthermore, in 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul indicates that we will receive a crown at the Second Coming.45
In summary, “for every text in the Bible that speaks of ornaments negatively you will find two or three in which God speaks of them favorably.”46 Also, the Bible does sometimes mention the misuse of jewelry. Overall, though, it is very difficult to say that God absolutely condemns jewelry.
The Real Issues
Thus far, this paper has established that a biblical case against jewelry is weak. It has also demonstrated that the texts used to condemn jewelry do not necessarily condemn it. Jewelry, however, is not the real issue that needs to be solved. In fact, much of the confusion mentioned in the introduction to this paper is due to a lack of understanding of the real issues. These are issues everyone should prayerfully consider before deciding whether or not to wear jewelry. This paper will examine three.47
Self-Worth and Pride
Where does one’s self-worth come from? God created us. He did not have to. At the fall, He could have destroyed Adam and Eve, but He chose not to. Psalm 139 describes how valuable we are to God. He knows us intimately. This prompts David to exclaim with wonder, “When I awake, I am still with you” (NIV), because even though He knows us intimately, God still values us. The best illustration of our value to God is the redemption story. We are so valuable to God that He was and is willing to go to any length to save us.
If jewelry is a source of self-worth for us, we are in effect rejecting the incredible value God places on us in favor of a little metal or stone. This is essentially pride. Pride is described in Ezekiel 16:15 onward where Jerusalem is depicted as becoming a prostitute and giving away all her jewels. If wearing or not wearing jewelry is a source of self-worth or pride for an individual, then for that individual it is a sin.48
Waste of Money
The Bible clearly teaches that we are not to waste our money. It also teaches us to use our money to further God’s cause. While it is difficult to argue that it is wrong to look good, it is possible to waste money on jewelry. Before deciding to wear jewelry, one should prayerfully consider whether such an expenditure would be a waste of money.49
The third issue finds its basis in Matthew 18:6, 7: “If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” (NRSV).
When Paul is talking about eating food sacrificed to idols, he says, “Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. . . . It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else that will cause your brother to fall” (Romans 14:13, 21, NIV, italics supplied). The same holds true for jewelry. If wearing jewelry (or not wearing jewelry) damages someone else spiritually or causes someone to fall, it is a sin—even if wearing jewelry is not inherently sinful.
This paper is hardly complete, but it addresses the most basic issues relating to jewelry. More research needs to be done on the function of jewelry in the biblical world. Also, a study of Ellen White’s statements regarding jewelry would be extremely beneficial. Because of the special discussions taking place over wedding and engagement rings, this is also a topic to be covered. Finally, the New Age should be examined as it relates to jewelry and amulets today.
Despite the areas that have not been examined, this paper has shown that the biblical case against jewelry is not very strong, but that in the light of the real issues many people are excluded from wearing jewelry anyway.
See, for example, Martin Weber’s Adventist Hot Potatoes (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1991). ↩
This was the general case when I was a student missionary in Delap, Majuro, Marshall Islands. ↩
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, “Daily Life: Personal Identity,” Canaan and Ancient Israel. ↩
Angel Manuel Rodríguez, Jewelry in the Bible: What You Always Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 1999), 22-41. ↩
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Christian Dress and Adornment (Berrien Springs, MI: Biblical Perspectives, 1995), 28-52. ↩
Keavin Hayden, Lifestyles of the Remnant (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2001), 56-74. ↩
The specific passages that deal with jewelry will be discussed in a later section of this paper. ↩
Rodríguez is the only source that I am aware of that examines this subject. ↩
Rodríguez, 22, 23. ↩
Rodríguez, 23. ↩
Rodríguez, 23. ↩
Rodríguez, 24, 25. ↩
Rodríguez, 25. ↩
Victor H. Matthews, “Marriage and Family in the Ancient Near East”, 8. Linked content is no longer available. ↩
Matthews, 14. ↩
Rodríguez, 26. ↩
This is a separate gift from the one mentioned earlier. The former was given by Abraham’s servant as payment for services rendered, while the latter was a part of the marriage arrangements. ↩
Rodríguez, 30. ↩
Rodríguez, 27, 28. ↩
Rodríguez, 31. ↩
Katherine Griffis-Greenberg “Jewelry as Badges and Bodies of Law,” 11 March 2002. Linked content is no longer available. ↩
Rodríguez lists a number of biblical references to crowns on page 31 of his book. ↩
Rodríguez, 32-34. He also points out that the only jewelry prescribed for the Israelites was the high priest’s attire and possibly the king’s crown. The rest of the people may not have worn jewelry while they were faithful to God. ↩
Houghton Mifflin, “Jewelry, Gold, Adornment, and Their Meaning.” ↩
Rodríguez, 35. ↩
Rodríguez, 37. ↩
John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray, eds., The Oxford History of the Classical World (New York: Oxford UP, 1986), 745. ↩
Boardman, Griffin, and Murray, 745. ↩
Bacchiocchi, 105. ↩
Bacchiocchi, 103, 104. ↩
For a more complete treatment of this subject, see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and Moisés Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994). ↩
“ἔστω οὐχ ὁ ἔξοθεν . . . ἀλλ’ ὁ κρυπτός” or “éstō ouch ho éxothen . . . all’ ho kruptós“ (3:3, 4). ↩
Rodríguez, 55. ↩
The NEB is even clearer when it says, “Your beauty should reside, not in outward adornment . . . but in the inmost centre of your being.” ↩
Francis D. Nichol, ed., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary vol. 7 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1980), notes on 1 Peter 3:3. Emphasis added. ↩
A discussion of these verses is beyond the scope of this paper. ↩
Rodríguez points out that it cannot be understood only in a worship context. He notes that people should pray and do good works outside the church service (p. 63). However, the context does not seem to require a worship service unless the prohibition against women teaching in verse 12 refers to a worship service. If worship is understood in a broader sense, then Rodríguez’s point is weakened. ↩
Because this is a comparison of two passages from two different books, it is not very strong and should not be used alone. The meaning of a passage must be determined primarily from its context. ↩
Rodríguez, 63, 67. ↩
Hayden, 69. ↩
This does not mean that 1 Timothy 2:9, 10 does not condemn jewelry. Such an understanding would not provide irreconcilable difficulties. However, this does not seem likely given the weight of biblical evidence. ↩
Hayden presents an excellent list of texts on pages 58-63. I have made extensive use of his list throughout this section, though the comments are my own unless otherwise noted. ↩
See, for example, Isaiah 3:16-24; 61:10; Revelation 21:2. ↩
The NIV Study Bible, fully revised edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), says in the notes on this verse that there are three options for interpreting this verse: “He [Paul] could be referring to (1) a crown given as a reward for a righteous life, (2) a crown consisting of righteousness or (3) a crown given righteously (justly) by the righteous judge.” Whichever option is correct, the crown is still used in a positive sense. ↩
Hayden, 59. ↩
Because the topic of this paper is jewelry, all our discussion has centered around it. These issues, however, have a much broader application. They can, and should, be applied to all one’s material possessions: clothes, car, house, computer, stereo, and so forth. ↩
Pride can also show itself in using jewelry (or other possessions) to demonstrate class distinction or superiority in some way. ↩
This issue may be even more relevant in other areas, such as keeping up with fashion or buying an expensive car or house. ↩