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When Jacob flees from Laban, Rachel steals his household gods.

When Laban had gone to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s household gods. Genesis 31:19 (NIV)

Jacob seems pretty serious about the household gods too.

But if you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods. Genesis 31:32 (NIV)

What are they talking about? Are these idols?

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The original word translated here as "household gods" is Teraphim, a Hebrew plural which may have actually referred to a singular object. (Hebrew is weird like that, sometimes using plural forms for singular things as a way to indicate greatness. Many people interpret Elohim this way, for example.) The word is used in various places throughout the Old Testament, always referring to some object of worship.

In other words, yes, they were idols. However, they seem to be frequently connected with Jehovah-worship, which implies that the use of Teraphim was not so much the worship of false gods as the worship of the true God in an incorrect manner.

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The verses say this:

Genesis 31: 30 Now you have indeed gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?” 31 Then Jacob replied to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. 32 The one with whom you find your gods shall not live; in the presence of our kinsmen point out what is yours among my belongings and take it for yourself.” For Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them. (NASB)

To answer your question, yes they are talking about idols. Jacob is serious because whether these are idols or not, it is another man's property (probably made out of gold or silver or something precious), and Jacob, being a man of honor, was not in favor of stealing.

Since he didn't know that Rachel had stolen the idols, he is basically angry at the accusation that anyone from his house would steal the property of Laban.

That's what I think is going on.

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1  
I agree with your explanation for Jacob's behavior. The man who was so careful to separate his animals from Laban's rather than just fleeing with anything he could grab would not want to stand accused of theft, whether it's an idol, a valuable piece of gold, or a sheep. –  Gone Quiet Dec 25 '12 at 20:36

The Jewish Virtual Library says in reference to the Nuzi tablets:

Rachel's theft of her father Laban's household gods (Genesis 31:19) may be explained by the idea that possession of household gods could be part of a legal title to the paternal estate.

And in the case of a married daughter, it gave her husband the claim to her father's property (C.H. Gordon, Revue Biblique, p. 35f).

Because Laban now had sons of his own who alone had the right to their father's god's, Rachel's theft was a serious offense.

Looks like the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.

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Interesting find. (And no. The apple does not fall far from the tree. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Nov 27 '12 at 23:39

Oft times in my studies, I find it beneficial to realize the truth that the nature of mankind has been relatively constant through the ages, especially when it comes to security, financial and otherwise.

Perhaps a key motive for Rachel's theft was more mercenary than spiritual. Take note of the following First Testament passages, noting especially the physical nature of the 'gods':

The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God. —Deuteronomy 7:25 (KJV)

Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. —1 King 12:28 (KJV)

They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone. —Daniel 5:4 (KJV)

Essentially, there were no "banks", nor coins. Payment was made by weight of silver or gold.

And Abraham hearkened unto Ephron; and Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the audience of the sons of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant. —Genesis 23:16 (KJV)

Thus, when one became wealthy, and desired to safeguard these irregular chunks of metal from thieves even of their own household, it was expedient to take them to the metal caster and have them molded into an homogeneous mass, which could easily be identified. Thus these "god" often represented the results of a lifetime of labor to the owner.

There are, of course, many references to these molten images throughout the Word.

Specifically, in the Deuteronomy reference above, it is apparent that the precious metals on these idols would become a snare: the images themselves were burnt into ashes, so that was not the "snare". Their precious metals were the snare, as the Word says.

The precious metals were the money of that day. Now, in Laban's case, He was both greedy and dishonest, as can be seen from his treatment of Jacob. His household gods most probably contained the majority of his old age pension, as well as the inheritance to be passed to his sons.

Although it was customary to provide his daughters with a dowry, he did not do so. Rachel perhaps took it upon herself to steal the dowry which she thought rightfully hers.

Jacob recognized that the thief was worthy of death. Not because the 'gods' were in any way special except for their monetary value.

It is so today with ones life savings, is it not? Too often money is more highly thought of than any mere works. People will do all they can to preserve their wealth, since it is often the most precious thing in their lives. Yes, many worship money as their god. It is as the Word says: the love of money is the root of all evil.

Likewise, The more things change, the more they are the same.

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From my point of view, these household gods really stands for the smaller gods and the worship of idols, but yet the Almighty God was with these family because of Jacob. Jacob did not know about these gods, but worshiped the God of his grandfather Abraham, and his father Isaac.

Remember, God told Abraham to leave his people to a land that he will give to his many descendants in Genesis Ch 12 vs 1 to 2. Because, Abraham was a God fearing person who did not do what the other people were doing, and avoided the worship of smaller gods. Also remember that, Laban said in Genesis Ch 31 vs 29 that, (I have the power to do you harm, but last night the God of your father warned me not to threaten you in any way). Laban was aware of the kind of god he was worshiping.

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In the ancient ME every household had Gods. They were typically represented as statues or "idols". They protected the household and were invoked for important contract signings (between households). The people of this time didn't have a concept of monotheism this story is from centuries before the Deuteronomists. The context of the narrative is not that it was wrong to have these Gods but that it was wrong to steal them. As noted above, by stealing them, Rachel may have been stealing her brother's inheritance.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! We're a little different from other sites. Do you have any sources to support the claims made in this answer? We prefer answers that 'show their work' here. –  Daи Dec 18 '13 at 6:05
    
Keel and Uehlinger provide evidence of these cult figurines in 'Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God: In Ancient Israel', with (for example) drawings of several fertility goddess figurines on page 165. 'The Early History of God', by Mark S. Smith provides a clear narrative of the evolution from polytheism towards monotheism. –  Dick Harfield Feb 11 at 20:34
    
The best way to add additional information to your post is by editing it, with the edit button. It is more visible that way, and comments are mainly for secondary, temporary purposes. Comments are removed under a variety of circumstances. Anything important to your post should be in the post itself. –  Daи Feb 17 at 1:00

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