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As Jacob brings his family back to Canaan, God calls him to build an altar to Him (Gen 35:1), and then Jacob is moved to do the following, of which the part in bold is what this question concerns in Genesis 35:2-4 (NKJV):

2 Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: 3 And let us arise, and go up to Beth-el; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went. 4 And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.

Questions:

  • What relationship did earrings1 have with idols in worship at this time?
  • Why were these items of jewelry (and no others) included in what was buried with the idols?

NOTES

1 The term is נֶזֶם (nězěm), which may also mean merely ring or nose-ring, according to both Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000) and Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). But the context makes it clear that these are earrings, because it clarifies they were rings "which were in their ears."

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What did earrings have to do with idolatry?

Aaron made the golden calf from earrings.

Exodus 32:2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

Gideon made the golden ephod from earrings.

Judges 8:23But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” 24And he said, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.” (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)

25 They answered, “We’ll be glad to give them.” So they spread out a garment, and each of them threw a ring from his plunder onto it. 26The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks. 27Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.

Hosea associated Baals with earrings.

Hosea 2:13 "I will punish her for the days of the Baals When she used to offer sacrifices to them And adorn herself with her earrings and jewelry, And follow her lovers, so that she forgot Me," declares the LORD.

Jacob associated strange gods with earrings.

Genesis 35:4 And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem.

The fact that Jacob didn't try to save the valuable gold from the earring shows he valued God more than gold.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Earrings seem to have been worn not so much for ornament as for superstitious purposes, being regarded as talismans or amulets.

It was commonly a symbol of superstition even as some people practice the same today.

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Based on opinions from several early Torah commentators, it appears that the issue with the earrings had less to do with their use as jewelry, and more to do with their possibly having been used in conjunction with idolatry.

Observe that the patriarchal figures themselves wore rings in their body. For example, in Genesis 24:30 Abraham's servant observes Rebecca wearing a nose ring:

וַיְהִי כִּרְאֹת אֶת הַנֶּזֶם וְאֶת הַצְּמִדִים עַל יְדֵי אֲחֹתוֹ וּכְשָׁמְעוֹ אֶת דִּבְרֵי רִבְקָה אֲחֹתוֹ לֵאמֹר כֹּה דִבֶּר אֵלַי הָאִישׁ וַיָּבֹא אֶל הָאִישׁ וְהִנֵּה עֹמֵד עַל הַגְּמַלִּים עַל הָעָיִן

And so it was when saw the nose ring and bracelets on the hand of his sister, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebecca saying, "Thus did the man speak to me,", that he came, and behold, he was standing over the camels at the fountain.

So clearly in this case the presence of a ring used as jewelry is not de facto forbidden.

Genesis 34:2 reads:

הָסִרוּ אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר אֲשֶׁר בְּתֹכְכֶם וְהִטַּהֲרוּ וְהַחֲלִיפוּ שִׂמְלֹתֵיכֶם

Remove the g-ds of the foreign nations, which are in your midst, purify yourselves and change your clothes.

Rashi, citing Genesis Rabbah, comments that the reason for removing the clothing was that it might have been used in idolatry. It follows then that such a fear might have also existed with the earrings. Maimonides confirms this by noting that idolators used to wear earrings engraved with images such as the sun and moon, as a sign of honor to the idols.

With regard to the second point of your question, Genesis 34:2 may very well have actually been intended to include multiple types of items, all grouped together as "clothes." It is possible that the earrings were singled out because they had a special significance with respect to idolatry, above and beyond all other types of clothing.

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  • Well, I did learn from your answer that the "Torah commentators" gleaned the same thing from the text that I did, namely, that some relationship existed between the earrings and idolatry in this instance. Maimonides speculation of engraving of images I speculated as well, but that does not really resolve why earrings as opposed to other jewelry. I would think that bracelets, finger rings, necklaces, etc., might have also been engraved with idolatrous images. Hence my 2nd question, but your conjecture of "earrings" representing "grouped together as 'clothes'" is not very satisfying. Cont. – ScottS Jan 25 '16 at 16:36
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    It is your last speculation, "It is possible that the earrings were singled out because they had a special significance with respect to idolatry, above and beyond all other types of clothing," that is exactly what I am trying to establish as fact and the why of that. – ScottS Jan 25 '16 at 16:37
  • Nice answer. Can you please provide a primary source for our first sentence/assertion? Thanks. – Ruminator Jul 4 '18 at 18:22
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As it was already answered, earrings where just fine in the Ancient Israel. The relationship between those particular earrings (Genesis 35:4) and idolatry is somehow made clear in a couple of interesting comments. Please see bellow two of those:

An early comment is emphasizing that the earrings had been in the ears of the idolatorus people from that region. Which involves that they were earrings used in idolatrous rituals or expozed to idolatrous rituals:

Targum Jonathan on Genesis 35:4

And they delivered into Jakob's hand all the idols of the people which were in their hands which they had taken from the temple of Shekem, and the jewels that had been in the ears of the inhabitants of the city of Shekem, in which was portrayed the likeness of their images; and Jakob hid them under the terebinth that was near to the city of Shekem.

Another interesting comment, apparently from the Middle Ages, is getting those earrings even closer to idols:

Chizkuni

... the passage... אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶ֑ם from Genesis 35:4 ... should be read as: “which were in the ears of those idols.”

bilingual version here

So, if this reading is fine, then the connection between earrings and idols is even more obvious. Yet I think this could made the object of some analysis, as I don't think Genesis 35:4 is really going that way. However, there is a point in it.

On the other hand, ancient commentaries are rather worried about the reason why Jacob did not scatter these artefacts to the winds or throw them into the sea, as Moses did with the dust of the golden calf (see Exodus 32:20). Why did he buried them instead of destroying them? Can this imply that in fact these artefacts where no more "effective", from a religious perspective?

Rashi, for instance, is saying that the tree is not an oak, but a sort of a terebinth, "a kind of tree that bears no fruit" (Rashi on Genesis 35:4:1). That can involve that either the artefacts where deprived of religious significance already, or that, as a generally speaking message, that idolatry is barren, it is getting nowhere.

There are some more interesting comments on that, but they do not answer directly your question. I mentioned Rashi's only, because I think it is opening up a new perspective to your question. This may be that in fact those earrings had no so much to do with idols and worship directy, but rather with the fact that people from Shekem used to wear them.

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Nu 31:50 sheds additional light and an entirely different way to read the verse thus answering the original question in the negative (the earrings had nothing to do with idolatry)

Nu 31:50 speaks about needing atonement from a variety of jewelry items one of which is called kumaz (Caph-mem-zayin). Rashi explains it was shaped like a womb hinting at intimate relations. The midrash playing on the letters of the Hebrew word sees a reversal of the last two letters, zayin-mem as in zayin-mem-hey meaning lewdness.

The emphasis in Nu 21:50 is not on idolatry per se but on lewdness (one could argue that sexual rites often accompany idolatry but as will be shown that is not necessary). It is very possible that the rings mentioned in Genesis which in Hebrew is spelled nun-zayin-mem also was jewelry resembling a body part hinting at intimacy. In this case, the last two letters, zayin-mem, without any reversal, point to lewdness

This gives a different perspective on the Genesis verse. A critical reading shows a triple preparation

And Jacob said to his household and all that with him a) Remove the foreign gods amidst you b) purify yourselves c) Change your clothes.

The preparation here (per Gen 35:1 the previous verse) is going to a "house of God" to "offer" There is absolutely no reason to assume that the exclusive prerequisite is removal of idolatry. There might be equal co-requisites a) Removal of idolatry b) removal of lewd jewelry c) Formal attire for a "house of God"

Bottom line: The answer to the submitted question would be "The earings had nothing to do with idolatry; Jacob emphasizes that to attend a house of God one must do several things: remove idols, remove lewd clothing, dress professionally).

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  • Is your reference mis-typed? I don't have a Nu 21:50 in my Bible (just goes up to v.35). – ScottS Feb 19 at 22:07
  • Thank you for pointing this out. Yes it was a silly (inexcusable) typo. I will reread posts in the future with an emphasis on citations. The "Nu21:50" should be "Nu31:50" Ihave edited the original posting to reflect this. Thanx again. – Russell Jay Hendel Feb 21 at 14:29
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The reason why Jacob commanded his household to put off the earrings and all their gods was because jewelry was not acceptable before God, these were won by heathen nations and there fore their use meant divergence from true worship to heathenism. In all instances where jewelry is used, there are always mentioned in a negative way, God is always seen to detest them. the use of jewelry by Abraham's servant does not justify their use because he was just human and was bound to fall. That is why we see even David, a man after God's own heart, engaging in polygamy although it was not acceptable before the eyes of the Lord. In Isaiah 3;16-21, the Lord says that in that day, he will take away the....(different jewelry are mentioned). He refers to all those objects as filth. In Isaiah 4:2-3, God describes them again as comely and beautiful after they have done away with all those ornaments. In Hosea 2:13, God relates Israel's apostasy to a decorated woman. in Revelation chapter 17, the Bible describes a harlot woman who is decked with jewelry. this is in contrast to the pure woman of Revelation 12 who is only clothed with the sun and no ornaments. Jewelry has a pagan origin, they were by heathen nations and that is where the Israelites adopted them from. Over and over again, the Bible connects the use of colorful cosmetics and jewelry to apostasy, heathenism and sin. This shows how God was displeased with those things and used them to symbolize departure from his will.

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http://archives.adventistreview.org/2001-1538/story2-1.html

Idolatry of Jewels

Archaeological digs have uncovered such engraved trinkets. What made the jewelry idolatrous was the images on them. “In the Bible, earrings were often associated with idolatry. Jacob asked his family to stop their idolatry, and give up their earrings, which he buried (Genesis 35:4). The prophet Hosea associated the wearing of the jewelry with the worship of Baal (Hosea 2:13, 17). Earrings became connected with idolatry because heathen nations engraved strange deities and figures on their earrings and other jewelry. This was thought to ward off evil and bring good fortunate to a family. They were like good luck charms, except they were taken much more seriously” (The Victor Handbook of Bible Knowledge, p. 69; italics supplied).

“In the superstitious Near Eastern nations many people feared imaginary spirits. To protect themselves, they wore magical charms. The amulets referred to in the Bible were earrings worn by women (Genesis 35:4: Judges 2:13; 8:24), or pendants suspended from the chains around the necks of men. The amulet had sacred words or the figure of a god engraved on it. . .Women also wore amulets to insure fertility. Jeremiah the prophet noted another common heathen practice: The women of Judah kneaded cakes, gave drink offerings, and burned incense to the ‘queen of heaven’ to assure fertility (Jeremiah 44:17-19; cf. 7:18). The ‘queen’ mentioned in this passage was probably Astarte (Ashtoreth), the Canaanite goddess of sexual love, maternity, and fertility. Of course, all of these superstitious practices were evil in God’s sight” (Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, pp. 442, 481; italics supplied).

The Bible itself contains several references to the practice of turning ornaments into idols by either engraving the images of gods upon them or using the material to form an idolatrous image (see Eze. 7:20; 16:17; Isa. 30:22). The point I want to make here is that we cannot justly condemn jewelry as idolatry by these texts unless the ornaments bear graven images or are used in a superstitious or otherwise idolatrous way.

Ezek.7:20 - As for the beauty(6643) of his ornament,(5716) he set(7760) it in majesty:(1347) but they made(6213) the images(6754) of their abominations(8441) of their detestable things(8251) therein: therefore(5921), (3651) have I set(5414) it far(5079) from them.

Ezek.16:17 - Thou hast also taken(3947) thy fair(8597) jewels(3627) of my gold(4480), (2091) and of my silver,(4480), (3701) which(834) I had given(5414) thee, and madest(6213) to thyself images(6754) of men,(2145) and didst commit whoredom(2181) with them,

Isa. 30:22 - Ye shall defile(2930) also (853) the covering(6826) of thy graven images(6456) of silver,(3701) and the ornament(642) of thy molten images(4541) of gold:(2091) thou shalt cast them away(2219) as(3644) a menstruous cloth;(1739) thou shalt say(559) unto it, Get thee hence.(3318)

(Verses KJV.)

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