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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 Book of Jasher, Ch 31, explains the story and the nature of the "images" perfectly. –  user6252 Nov 8 '14 at 14:56
    
The Book of Jasher is lost and unknown, though there appear to be at least two forgeries. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Jasher_(Pseudo-Jasher) –  Schuh May 21 at 17:29

8 Answers 8

up vote 15 down vote accepted

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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What is the evidence for the claim that teraphim are idols? The link to Wikipedia provides this, "[I]n many English translations of the Bible it is translated as idols, or household god(s), though its exact meaning is more specific than this, but unknown precisely." Your answer is either incomplete or unsupported. –  Schuh May 19 at 2:13

Teraphim: more than mere ‘idols’

The most that can be said with certainty is that teraphim were cultic objects, distinguished in Hebrew vocabulary from carved and molded idols, of significant value and meaning in Israelite religion and lore. They were probably made in human form to represent a household god or deceased ancestors. Like the more familiar Urim and Thummin – also associated with the priestly ephod vestment – teraphim were likely used for divination, specifically cleromancy or necromancy.1

Teraphim figure in three Hebrew Bible stories:

  1. Genesis 31: Rachel secretly stole her father’s small teraphim, which she hid in her camel saddle, when Jacob and his family snuck from Laban’s home to return to Canaan. Laban pursued them and asked why they had stolen ‘my elohim’, his god(s) or spirit(s).
  2. Judges 17-18: The Ephraimite Micah had a shrine dedicated to Yahweh in his house in which he placed a graven image (פֶּסֶל, pecel) and molded image (מַסֵּכָה, maccekah). He then made a teraphim and ephod and installed his son, and later a Levite, as priest in this shrine. Micah’s cultic objects and his priest were stolen by Danite tribesmen on their way to La’ish. Micah pursued them and asked why they had stolen ‘my elohim’, but they outnumbered him. The Danites conquered La’ish and installed Micah’s cult objects and priest, now identified as a grandson of Moses, in their city of Dan.
  3. 1 Samuel 19:8-17: Michal helped her husband, David, escape her father, King Saul, by telling the king’s guards that the teraphim – which she had put in her bed and covered with clothes and goat’s hair – was actually David, thus buying time for his escape.

Teraphim were also associated with divination in passing references by the prophets Samuel (1Sa.15:23), Ezekiel (Eze.21:21), and Zechariah (Zec.10:2), and were connected with the ephod and ‘sacred pillar’ by Hosea (Hos.3:4). They were also destroyed with necromancers and their idol pillars (גִּלּוּל, gilluwl) during the religious reforms of King Josiah in Judah.

Several etymologies of the Hebrew word itself have been offered, but none have gained scholarly consensus.2 The typical translation of ‘idol’ is plainly inadequate, teraphim being somehow distinct from the many other Hebrew words for ‘idol’, often in the same sentence. Because of its frequent association with the ephod and divination, teraphim were thought by McClintock and Strong to be “unauthorized substitutes for the Urim”. They continue:3

The inference is strengthened by the fact that the [Septuagint] uses here, instead of teraphim, the same word (δήλων) which it usually gives for Urim. That the teraphim were thus used through the whole history of Israel may be inferred from their frequent occurrence in conjunction with other forms of divination. .... The obnoxious name Teraphim was dropped. The thing itself was retained. The very name Urim was, [Spencer] argued, identical in meaning with Teraphim (Urim = “lights, fires;” Seraphim = “the burning,or fiery ones;” and Teraphim is but the same word, with an Aramaic substitution of ה for שִׂ).

This explanation suggests a development in the meaning of the word, if not the use of the object itself. More recent scholarship has similarly focused on the teraphim’s frequent association with necromancy, positing teraphim may have been simple ancestor figurines later given cultic purpose.

As Christopher Hays summarizes, “There is reason to think that the teraphim were once an accepted part of Israelite family religion” and only later “came to be condemned by representatives of Yahwism.”4 Whatever their exact use, teraphim were certainly more than mere idols.


1. For a full review of the scholarship, see B.D. Cox and S. Ackerman, "Micah’s Teraphim", Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, vol.12, art.11.

2. T. Desmond Alexander, David W. Bake (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, IVP: 2003; p.440.

3. John McClintock, James Strong, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, v.19, p.677 (Harper, 1894).

4. Christopher B. Hays, Death in the Iron Age II and in First Isaiah, (Mohr Siebeck, 2001); p.174.

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The person who talked about their worth had it right. The idols in this time period were basically the will. If you were in possession of someone's idols, it meant you inherited their estate. It was a purely mercenary action.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

    
Hello and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. Answers here are expected to stand on their own and show their work by explaining how they arrive at their conclusions. Could you edit this to elaborate and ideally provide citations to back up your claims? Thank you. –  Susan May 19 at 15:07

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. –  Dan 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 '14 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. –  Dan Feb 17 '14 at 1:00

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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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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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

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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The Hebrew word translated as 'gods' in Gen.31:30 -- which this answer appears to equate with teraphim and 'idols' -- is 'elohiym, which is usually rendered 'God'. This answer would be strengthened with the addition of evidence for its claim that teraphim are idols. –  Schuh May 19 at 2:22

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