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Teraphim and Family Gods

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsThe mysterious teraphim show up in a variety of texts. They are used to describe the images Rachel stole from her father and as what Michal put in David’s bed to make it look like he was sleeping there. Though certain identification has not been made, a consensus has developed that offers some explanation based on information from the ancient world. ZIBBCOT explores this topic in its commentary on Genesis:

Teraphim and Family Gods

There are a variety of opinions about the terapîm, and there probably were various practices with regard to whether these ancestors were worshiped or considered to even have quasi-divine status. Minimally, ancestor images provided a focus for rites related to the care of the dead and also were at times used in divination.

In some of the archives from the mid-second millennium B.C., legal documents allow us to see how the family gods figured in the inheritance. At Nuzi, several texts indicate that the principal heir received the family gods. In texts from Emar one document suggests that the household gods were not to be given to a man outside the family. Rachel would have no right to this portion of the inheritance, nor would Jacob. Laban is logically distressed over this breach of inheritance practices as well as concerned that the care of the ancestors will be jeopardized by the loss of the images. "The family gods were not only the tie between the family unit and its property but also the very heart of the family."1

We can therefore conclude that Rachel’s interest in the terapîm has more to do with family and inheritance than with the issue of worshiping other gods. The spirits of the ancestors were not substitute deities, though some uses of them were certainly proscribed in ideal Yahwism as it eventually took shape.

When women married, it was customary for them to transfer their loyalty to the gods of their husband. "Women were not free to choose the god they would worship," but were automatically by marriage bound to the god of the husband.2 In most cases, because of endogamy, the god of her fathers would be the same as the god of her husband, because people in the same geographical location, and especially people in the same clan, tended to worship the same deities.

This is one of many issues that help us to begin to understand the religious background of the Patriarchal period. Our ideas of marriage and religion and worship are all very different from what is found in the ancient world. By acquainting ourselves with the ancient world we can see the biblical text more clearly.

0310255724 Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.


1 M. Morrison, "The Jacob and Laban Narrative in Light of Near Eastern Sources," BA 46 (1983): 161.

2 Van der Toorn, Family Religion, 75; cf. idem, From Her Cradle to Her Grave, 66.

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