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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."

2

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
1

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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-2

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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