You open your Bible to Genesis 31 and read the intriguing story of Rachel stealing her father Laban’s household idols, known as teraphim. What are these strange idols that Rachel was so determined to take with her? As you study deeper, you discover that teraphim appear several times in the Old Testament, giving us clues about their importance in ancient Hebrew culture. Join me as we investigate the biblical teraphim and what they reveal about idolatry, family religion, and God’s warnings against idol worship.
Teraphim were household idols that played a significant role in the family religions of ancient Near Eastern cultures. Several times in the Old Testament, we find teraphim associated with divination and sorcery as people attempted to gain spiritual insight from these pagan gods. The worship of teraphim was widespread, yet God clearly denounced the practice and commanded His people to reject all idolatry.
As we explore the teraphim in the Bible, keep these key points in mind:
- Teraphim were household idols viewed as bestowers of prosperity and providers of guidance.
- The Israelites were tempted to blend the worship of teraphim with the worship of Yahweh.
- God strictly prohibited the worship of teraphim and false gods.
- The presence of teraphim revealed the continuing problem of idolatry among God’s people.
Now let’s dive in and uncover the meaning of these intriguing biblical artifacts.
Examples of Teraphim in the Old Testament
The most detailed description of teraphim comes from the story of Rachel stealing her father Laban’s household gods in Genesis 31. As Jacob and his family prepare to leave Laban’s household, Rachel stealthily takes her father’s teraphim without telling Jacob (Gen. 31:19). When Laban catches up and accuses Jacob of theft, Jacob denies having taken the teraphim, telling Laban “With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live” (Gen. 31:32 NKJV). Of course, Rachel was hiding the teraphim the whole time and did not confess to the theft.
This story gives us several clues about the nature and purpose of teraphim:
- They were valuable family possessions. Laban was furious about the theft, even pursuing Jacob to retrieve these idols.
- They may have signified inheritance rights. By taking Laban’s teraphim, Rachel may have attempted to secure the family inheritance.
- They were used for divination. In Zechariah 10:2 NKJV, the Israelites “consult the teraphim” for guidance and insight.
- They were small enough to hide. Rachel was able to conceal the teraphim in her saddlebags.
- Possession of teraphim was prohibited. Jacob declares that the thief of Laban’s teraphim deserves death.
In Judges 17, we find another example of teraphim used for divination. The story focuses on Micah, who admitted to stealing a large sum of money from his mother but later returned it to her. Micah’s mother takes 200 shekels of the money and has an idol, described as a “carved image and a molded image” (v. 3 NKJV), made for her son. This graven image soon becomes a centerpiece in a shrine Micah constructs, and he even hires a personal priest to lead the worship there. Then the story reaches its climax in verse 5:
“The man Micah had a shrine, and made an ephod and household idols; and he consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest.” (NKJV)
Here we see teraphim directly linked to ephods, which were devices used by priests for divination and seeking guidance from a deity. The teraphim and ephod together allowed Micah to create a personal mini-temple at his house and practice idol worship.
Again in 2 Kings 23 we find teraphim linked to pagan shrines as King Josiah seeks to purge Judah of idolatrous practices:
“Then the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest…to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the articles made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven… He also removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun…Then he brought out the wooden image which was at Bethel, and the high places which Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel sin, had made…He burned the chariot of the sun with fire…And he broke in pieces the sacred pillars and cut down the wooden images, and filled their places with the bones of men.” (2 Kings 23:4-5, 11-12, 14 NKJV)
Here Josiah destroys the teraphim along with the other idols of false gods. We see that teraphim were commonly placed in shrines alongside the pagan altars and images used in idol worship. Josiah recognized that teraphim were an abomination that had to be removed as he sought to turn the nation back to true worship of God.
Finally, the prophet Hosea mentions teraphim in his indictment of Israel for its sin of idolatry:
“For the spirit of harlotry has caused them to stray, And they have played the harlot against their God. They offer sacrifices on the mountaintops, And burn incense on the hills, Under oaks, poplars, and terebinths, Because their shade is good. Therefore your daughters commit harlotry, And your brides commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they commit harlotry, Nor your brides when they commit adultery; For the men themselves go apart with harlots, And offer sacrifices with a ritual harlot. Therefore people who do not understand will be trampled.” (Hosea 4:12-14 NKJV)
Here again we see a connection between teraphim and pagan worship practices. The presence of teraphim is evidence of Israel’s idolatry as the people blended worship of false gods with their worship of Yahweh.
The Origins and Meaning of Teraphim
Scholars trace teraphim back to the ancestral religions of ancient Mesopotamia and Syria. Evidence of teraphim appears as early as the 18th-century BC in the city of Mari. Teraphim spread throughout Semitic cultures and were common by the mid-second millennium BC. The Israelites undoubtedly adopted practices involving teraphim during their time in Mesopotamia.
The word “teraphim” may derive from the Semitic root “traph” meaning “to gain health and prosperity.” Ancient people viewed teraphim as idols that could provide protection, fertility, and guidance from the gods. Teraphim embodied the spirits of worshiped ancestors and “dead relatives through whom one could interact with deceased kin” (Mandel 2012). Families often possessed multiple teraphim, one for each ancestor.
Some scholars believe teraphim were often made in human form. In 1 Samuel 19, Michal tricks Saul’s men by placing a household idol in David’s bed with goats’ hair on its head to resemble David’s hair. So at least some teraphim may have been fashioned to look like the deceased ancestors they embodied. However, the mere fact of having a humanlike form made them direct violations of the second commandment prohibition on carved idols (Ex. 20:4).
In using teraphim, the Israelites and their neighbors attempted to harness spiritual forces outside of God’s law. Deuteronomy 18:9-14 contains a stark warning against all the pagan practices of Israel’s neighbors, including child sacrifice, divination, interpreting omens, sorcery, and divination. Manasseh even brought a carved image of Asherah into the temple itself (2 Kings 21:7). The presence of teraphim throughout Israel revealed the ongoing temptation to mix idolatrous practices with the worship of Yahweh.
What the Law Said About Teraphim and Idolatry
As we’ve seen, the worship of teraphim permeated the ancient Near Eastern religious landscape. But God made it abundantly clear that teraphim were an abomination and strictly off limits for the Israelites.
The Ten Commandments issued the foundation law against idolatry: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:4-5 NKJV).
Both the carved images and the worship paid to them were forbidden. For a strict monotheist like Yahweh, no competition from other deities could be tolerated.
Deuteronomy 7 further warns against bringing any abominations into the home because that provokes God to anger:
“Nor shall you bring an abomination into your house, lest you be doomed to destruction like it, but you shall utterly detest it and utterly abhor it, for it is an accursed thing.” (Deut. 7:26 NKJV)
Having a teraphim, an object of pagan worship, under one’s roof was bad enough to warrant destruction.
Time after time, the Israelites were tempted to blend the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Canaanite gods and goddesses. The presence of teraphim shows the syncretistic religious environment that the prophets had to confront. God’s people simply would not give up their household idols and divination practices in order to remain pure in their devotion to Yahweh.
For example, the prophet Samuel would have likely confronted household teraphim during his circuit ministry:
“Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, ‘If you return to the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the Lord, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.'” (1 Samuel 7:3 NKJV)
Here we see teraphim (“foreign gods”) mentioned alongside Ashtoreth, a pagan fertility goddess often venerated through teraphim. The call to wholehearted repentance meant a removal of these rival deities from Israelite homes.
God’s law clearly prohibited teraphim but the Israelites kept blending the two systems of worship.
The Attraction of Teraphim
Why did the teraphim hold such an attraction if idol worship was so clearly forbidden? What drew the Israelites and their neighbors to these family idols even at the risk of God’s judgment?
For one, teraphim filled a cultural need for revering deceased ancestors and forming a link to the spirits of the dead. As we’ve noted, teraphim may have embodied the spirits of the ancestors like a primitive form of venerating Catholic saints. The images were passed down through families as a way to maintain connection with the spirits of the dead.
In a polytheistic culture, teraphim also provided a sense of control over everyday affairs like health, fertility and safety. People are naturally drawn to spiritual forces that seem to offer power, protection, and guidance. The teraphim promised benefits the Israelites did not fully trust Yahweh to provide.
Teraphim also likely played a role in confirming inheritance rights. When Rachel stole Laban’s teraphim, she may have been claiming the family inheritance by taking possession of the ancestor idols. Portable and valuable, the teraphim may have signified legal claim to property and assets.
Furthermore, the Israelites exhibited a constant attraction to the magical practices of their neighbors. Consulting teraphim, using divining cups, looking for omens in liver patterns—these practices seemed to offer supernatural power and hidden knowledge. The Israelites wanted to access such power while also worshiping Yahweh, even though God strictly forbade it.
The Allure of Idols Today
While we don’t worship physical idols like teraphim today, the allure remains as strong as ever. What are some “teraphim” that we secretly let into our lives even when we know God disapproves?
- Horoscopes and psychics. Checking our daily horoscopes or visiting fortune tellers seems harmless on the surface. But God strongly prohibits divination and sorcery of any kind. We must avoid putting our trust in such practices.
- Wealth and prosperity. The temptation to make material prosperity into an idol remains as strong as in biblical times. We begin to evaluate our lives more by the things we own than the God we serve. Career success and income level can subtly become teraphim.
- Entertainment idols. Modern society has no lack of celebrities that catch our fascination. We know every detail about their lives and idolize their attractiveness. What might it mean to dethrone the entertainment idols we worship?
- Ideologies and individualism. Do we make our pet causes and ideologies into unquestionable beliefs? Our culture’s increasing individualism leaves little room for submitting to God’s will first and foremost. We have to guard against ideological teraphim.
Identifying our modern-day teraphim may be more difficult than finding a carved image. Ask God to reveal any areas of divided loyalty and to purify your heart from subtle idols. We must avoid repeating the mistakes of ancient Israel.
Teraphim in the Bible: Closing Thoughts
Our exploration of teraphim throughout the Old Testament has uncovered insights into the family religions of ancient Israel and their neighbors. We’ve seen teraphim frequently associated with divination practices as the Israelites blended pagan worship with Yahweh worship. The presence of teraphim in so many biblical stories reveals the ongoing struggle with idolatry God’s people faced.
But ultimately, our study should lead us to praise God that He patiently drew His people away from idols and back to the worship He alone deserves. God wants our wholehearted, undivided devotion. May we echo the pledge of Joshua:
“Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord!” (Joshua 24:14 NKJV)
No more teraphim in the closet. No more divided hearts. Let’s offer God all that we are and trust Him fully, no other gods needed.