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While there are several questions related to this occurrence in Gen. 31:19, none seem to mention this as even possible. It was also not mentioned in a resent commentary I read. That the teraphim acted as a property deed was the answer given in a seminary class, and I wondering if this has a valid basis.

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    Thanks for this question - I was blissfully ignorant of this idea and appreciate you raising it. I look forward to the responses and any supporting data.
    – Dottard
    Jul 21, 2020 at 12:04

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There are only 8 passages (not necessarily ‘verses’) where this term is present, namely: Gen 31:19-35; Judges chapters 17-18; 1 Sam 15:23; 19:11-17, 2 Kin 23:24; Eze 21:26.

An interesting excerpts we may quote, drawing out from the article Micah’s Teraphim, included in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (vol 12, article 11), penned by the couple of scholars Benjamin D. Cox and Susan Ackerman [I’ve omitted all the Masoretic punctuations of the quoted terms]. I suggest Perry Webb to read thoroughly this article, to have a more complete view of this topic. The pages’ number refers just to this article. The bold is mine.

“The witness of 1 Samuel 19 […] suggests that because that story’s תרפים (trpim > teraphim) has a human-like head and can be used to impersonate David, תרפים are anthropoid in form.” (p. 3)

According a number of scholars, they represented – in same way - family’s deceased and deified ancestors (see pages 4-5, 11, 15-16, 23-24). In this role, they resembling the Ilanu from Nuzi (the Akkadian Gasur, an ancient Mesopotamian city), or the Latin family-gods Manes. As a consequence, a lot of people possessing these תרפים used them also as objects of divination.

More probably, upon the occasion of a household patriarch’s death many families produced another ancestor figurine, representing the recently dead ancestor, as in the case of Judges 17:5’s Micah (see p. 24).

Moreover, the same scholars suggest something more usages linked with the תרפים. “[…] although we have heretofore considered only the role of the תרפים and the deceased ancestors that they represent in rituals of divination, we propose now to take into account deceased ancestor’s function in cementing their descendants’ claim to their families’ נחלה [‘a possess, an inheritance’, and alike]. […] Still, it is clear that in several instances in the Bible, נחלה does refer does refer to inheritance in the specific sense of the land each Israelite family claimed perpetually to hold as its inalienable patrimony.” (p. 25-26)

These authors now quote a conclusion of another scholar, Van der Toorn: “‘The possession of the teraphim may indeed be regarded as a kind of legitimization […] by keeping the cult of its ancestors, the family proclaimed its right to the land.’” (p. 28)

Afterwards, speaking specifically of the Rachel’s stolen תרפים Cox&Ackerman state: “Her [Rachel’s] תרפים, we continue to suggest, are brought to Canaan and used by the biblical writers to fulfill one of the standard functions of the תרפים, serving as otherwordly safeguards of Abraham’s family’s claim to its אלהים נחלת [‘inheritance (from) God’]” (p. 33)

So, to the Perry Webb’s question we may answer in the affirmative.

I hope this information will be useful to him.

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The Jewish Virtual Library, under the Encyclopedia Judaica, has an article on Teraphim which states:

Rachel's theft of her father's teraphim may be viewed as an attempt to secure her own right to her father's inheritance. Then again, since Laban had begotten sons, Jacob, who may have been adopted by Laban, would have had no right to the gods, and thus Rachel might have stolen them in order to secure the right of paterfamilias for her husband. The idea that possession of the household gods was in some way connected with rights to property inheritance has found widespread acceptance.

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  • Two proven instances of land titles in the Bible would be in Ruth 4:7-9 and Jeremiah 32:12. If there were such a tradition(perhaps Chaldaically derived) it should seem difficult to biblically prove outright.
    – user21676
    Jul 24, 2020 at 5:08
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I would like to add a somewhat new explanation to the mix. Some rabbinical authorities held that teraphim were ancestral images or even preserved heads of victims of human sacrifices honored by their families and descendants.

According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first-born male adult humans. The heads were shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate. It was believed that the Teraphim, mounted on the wall, would talk to people. Similar explanations are cited in the writings of Eleazar of Worms and Tobiah ben Eliezer. Wikipedia

Whether sacrificial victims or simply ancestors, evidence supporting the severed-head idea was found during the excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s: plastered human skulls used as cult objects.

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Personally I remain uncertain as to whether this sufficiently accounts for the teraphim. They may also have been a kind of "hearth deity" or an ancestral image in a different form than a human skull. Their use as divination tools also opens the possibility of a completely different form. In addition, the term could easily refer to more than one type of object.

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Conclusion: if the hypothesis is correct that the teraphim were some kind of ancestral image or death mask, then it is highly plausible that they were associated with a family's home and lands. In the case of Rachel's theft of her father's teraphim, they could constitute evidence for a future inheritance claim. This might also be true if they were merely images of local deities, but the theory that they represented a family's ancestors makes the property-deed more likely.

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