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In Genesis 31:17-21 NKJV we read:

17 Then Jacob rose and set his sons and his wives on camels. 18 And he carried away all his livestock and all his possessions which he had gained, his acquired livestock which he had gained in Padan Aram, to go to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan. 19 Now Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel had stolen the household idols that were her father’s. 20 And Jacob stole away, unknown to Laban the Syrian, in that he did not tell him that he intended to flee. 21 So he fled with all that he had. He arose and crossed the river, and headed toward the mountains of Gilead.

I was under the impression that the reason Abraham didn't want his son to marry a Cannanite woman in Genesis 24 was mainly because they served other Gods. Though that's a separate question.

2 So Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, “Please, put your hand under my thigh, 3 and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell; 4 but you shall go to my country and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”

Clearly though Laban had idols. Though Jacob being a man of God why would his wife steal her father's idols?

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  • Commenting because I don't have a strong source on this, or time to look into it; but it's also possible they were valuable items. Prized for their materials, craftmanship, or religious significance. They might have been intending to sell the idols to support themselves as they fled.
    – AJFaraday
    Jan 9 at 9:59

5 Answers 5

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Benson's commentary reviews 2 of the more common theories:

The Hebrew calls them [the images] teraphim. Some think they were only little representations of the ancestors of the family in statue or picture, which Rachel had a particular fondness for, and was desirous to have with her, now she was going into another country. It should rather seem they were images for a religious use, penates, household gods, either worshipped, or consulted as oracles; and we are willing to hope that she took them away, not out of covetousness, much less for her own use, or out of any superstitions fear, lest Laban, by consulting his teraphim, might know which way they were gone; but with a design to convince her father of the folly of his regard to those as gods which could not secure themselves.

A. For Rachel, having been raised by an idolatrous man, separating her father's idolatrous beliefs from belief in the Lord may have been more of a process than an event. If so, stealing the images could have been done with the intent that the images would not be available to aid Laban in finding them.

B. Rachel may have been trying to show her father how impotent his deities were, given how helpless they were to prevent their own theft.

Other theories have been proposed; these 2 are among the more common. But we do not know for certain the intent as it is not stated in the available record.

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    Good answer. +1. I think option (A) is far more likely give the subsequent event where Jacob purged his house of idols and buried them.
    – Dottard
    Jan 8 at 19:24
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Agreeing with @Hold to the Rod that the teraphim represented the family's ancestors (or local deities) I interpret Rachel's action as a continuation of a basic theme in Genesis: the younger child obtaining the blessing of the ancestors by whatever means.

  • Jacob, the younger son, obtained the blessing of his father and his ancestors through deception. (Gen 27)

  • Rachel, the younger daughter, deceived her father in a similar manner, in order to receive the blessing of her ancestors.

In the end, Laban gave Rachel's family his blessing, just as Isaac did for Jacob.

Genesis 28

[Isaac said] "Go now to Paddan-aram, to the home of your mother’s father Bethuel, and there choose a wife for yourself from among the daughters of Laban... 4 May God extend to you and your descendants the blessing of Abraham, so that you may gain possession of the land where you are residing, which he assigned to Abraham.”

Genesis 32

Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them; then he set out on his journey back home. 2 Meanwhile Jacob continued on his own way, and God’s angels encountered him.

The parallel between Rachel's course and Jacob's is clear: each of them deceived their father and thereby obtained an ancestral blessing. Thus, the two lineages of Isaac and Laban would merge in Jacob's family under the ultimate blessing of God.

Conclusion: Rachel stole her father's idols in order to obtain the blessing of her ancestors, just as Jacob deceived Isaac in order to receive the blessing of the patriarchs before him. In the end both ancestral lineages also received the blessing of God. The unexpected blessing of the younger child is a frequent theme in Genesis.

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  • There is certainly thematic continuity to this answer, you're not wrong in stating that there is an element of 'stealing the blessing' from Laban going on here (which is why I upvoted your answer), you may be overstating your case when referring to the idols as ancestors or family - there is a clear reference within the text to the idols as Laban's God's, in his statement to Jacob in vv 51-53 Apr 11 at 17:29
  • 51 “Here is this pile of stones and this pillar I have set up between me and you,” Laban said to Jacob. 52 “This pile of stones and the pillar are reminders that I will not pass beyond this pile to come to harm you and that you will not pass beyond this pile and this pillar to come to harm me. 53 May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor, the gods of their father, judge between us.” Jacob took an oath by the God whom his father Isaac feared. NET Apr 11 at 17:29
  • @TheodoreReinJedlicka I take your point. There is nothing in the bible itself to suggest they were images of the family's ancestors, although some of the rabbis did think so. But I do think it is correct to think they represented an ancestral tradition. Apr 11 at 17:58
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The "household idols/gods/images" are known in Hebrew as teraphim.

In the topic "Teraphim" in the Insight on the Scriptures, gives us a more detailed explanation:

The findings of archaeologists in Mesopotamia and adjacent areas indicate that the possession of the teraphim images had a bearing on who would receive the family inheritance. According to one tablet found at Nuzi, the possession of the household gods could under certain circumstances entitle a son-in-law to appear in court and claim the estate of his deceased father-in-law. (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. Pritchard, 1974, pp. 219, 220, and ftn 51) Perhaps Rachel, with this in mind, reasoned that she was justified in taking the teraphim because of her father’s deceptive dealings with her husband Jacob. (Compare Ge 31:14-16.) The importance of the teraphim with respect to inheritance rights would also explain why Laban was so anxious to recover them, even to the point of taking his brothers with him and pursuing Jacob for a distance of seven days’ journey. (Ge 31:19-30) Of course, what Rachel had done was completely unknown to Jacob (Ge 31:32), and there is no indication that he ever attempted to use the teraphim to gain the inheritance from Laban’s sons. Jacob had nothing to do with idols. At the latest, the teraphim would have been disposed of when Jacob hid all the foreign gods turned over to him by his household under the big tree that was close to Shechem.​—Ge 35:1-4.

I was able to find an online version of "Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament" that the Insight book references and have provided the relevant sections and footnote:

(1) Sale-Adoption47
The tablet of adoption belonging to Kuzu, the son of Karmishe: he adopted Tehip-tilla, the son of Puhishenni. As his share48 (of the estate) Kuzu gave Tehiptilla 40 imers49 of land in the district of Iphushshi. If the land should have a claimant, Kuzu shall clear (it) and give (it) back to Tehip-tilla. Tehip-tilla in turn gave I mina of silver to Kuzu as his honorarium. Whoever defaults shall pay 2 minas of silver (and) 2 minas of gold.
(The names of fourteen persons and the scribe as witnesses, each preceded by the witness-sign.)
(The names of two of the witnesses, one other person, and the scribe, each preceded by "The seal of.")
(2) Sale-Adoption50
The tablet of adoption belonging to Nashwi, the son of Ar-shenni: he adopted Wullu, the son of Puhi-shenni. As long as Nashwi is alive, Wullu shall provide food and clothing; when Nashwi dies, Wullu shall become the heir. If Nashwi has a son of his own, he shall divide (the estate) equally with Wullu, but the son of Nashwi shall take the gods of Nashwi. However, if Nashwi does not have a son of his own, then Wullu shall take the gods of Nashwi.51 Furthermore, he gave his daughter Nuhuya in marriage to Wullu, and if Wullu takes another wife he shall forfeit the lands and buildings of Nashwi. Whoever defaults shall make compensation with z mina of silver and z mina of gold.
(The names of five persons and the scribe as witnesses, each preceded by the witness-sign.)
(The names of four of the witnesses and the scribe, each preceded by "The seal of.")


51 Possession of the household gods marked a person as the legitimate heir, which explains Laban's anxiety in Gen. 31:26 f. to recover his household gods from Jacob. It is to be noted too that Laban binds Jacob in verse 50 to marry no other wives besides his daughters, just as Wullu is bound in our text.

The Jewish Virtual Library, under "Teraphim", has a similar explanation:

The tablets from Nuzi proved to have direct bearing on knowledge of teraphim since the Akkadian term ilāni, "gods," was used in Nuzi legal texts in ways that closely paralleled some of the occurrences of the word ʾelohim or its interchangeable partner teraphim (Gen. 31:30; cf. 31:19, 34, 35). In an adoption contract from Nuzi it is stated that on the death of the adoptive father the adopted son shall be heir. If, however, a natural son is born, he shall be the primary heir and receive his father's ilāni ("gods"); otherwise, the ilāni go to the adopted son. In cases where a normal heir was lacking, the possessor of the ilāni was entitled to a large share of the inheritance.

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. M. Greenberg, however, has cast serious doubts on the validity of this interpretation, and maintains that since both the adopted son and the legitimate heir divide the inheritance equally, the possession of these household gods does not determine a title to inheritance but rather leadership of the family, and a claim to paterfamilias.

So the "household idols/gods/images" could have been a sort of 'deed' to the family property and/or inheritance.


Scripture quotations

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    This was very well researched! I definitely appreciate that. +1.
    – Jason_
    Mar 8 at 18:19
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Rachel stole her father's household god (Teraphim), possibly as part of an ongoing rivalry with her sister Leah. While the exact purpose of the 'Teraphim' remain elusive, its significance as a symbol of property ownership is generally accepted. The Teraphim needed not necessarily represent idol worship, as it raises doubt whether God would permit Jacob to marry an idolater.

Rachel may have initial hoped that the Teraphim would bestow greater blessings upon her than her sister. However, upon witnessing Jacob's stern warning to Laban - that he would exact vengeance on whoever stole the Teraphim (Gen 31:32) - Rachel likely reconsidered and had it destroyed. Subsequently, there is no further mention of the Teraphim, suggesting that the Teraphim to Rachel was more on psychological than the physical realm, nor it had spiritual significance.

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I infer emotional attachment or nostalgia.

When Laban came looking for the items, Rachel did not, e.g., smash them against rocks in his sight while declaring his "household gods" to be impotent; she hid them.

Sure, fear of discovery must have been in mind, but also a purpose to keep the property for herself.

Personally, I think we go too far in ascribing to Rachel an undiluted allegiance to God; if Laban worshiped other gods, it is just as likely that Rachel had a life-long acquaintance with or attachment to the images. She was leaving her home for a faraway place. I maintain that she took them as a fond reminder of home.

I do not believe the idols were taken for monetary value or as security for later provision -- we are told that Jacob "took the money and ran", i.e., he left N.W. Mesopotamia with abundance. It is not evident that the property would have to be sold so the kids could eat.

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    Feb 26 at 14:53
  • Added evidence or research would be helpful; inference is completely subjective. Youre right though in pointing out from the text that they had enough provisions and would not have needed the idols for any financial reason Apr 11 at 17:34

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