And Laban went to shear his sheep; and Rachel had stolen the images that were her father’s… Now Rachel had taken the images, and put them in the camel’s furniture, and sat upon them. And Laban searched all the tent, but found them not.
Genesis 31:19, 34
Why did Rachel take her father’s images? It must have been for an important reason, knowing that Jacob would be accused of the theft and it would put him in grave danger. I’ve always been perplexed as to what she thought it would accomplish.
Yes, it is difficult to imagine why Rachel would take her father’s “gods” under these circumstances. It was a very emotional time and Rachel had to be quite fearful as she fled with Jacob, leaving her family and the only home she had ever known. Jacob was fearful as well, but for a different reason. He had secretly left with Laban’s daughters and grandchildren along with all the livestock and other goods that he had acquired while in Padanaram (Genesis 31:17-20).
Various interpretations have been proposed over the long history of exegesis concerning this question of Rachel’s unexplained theft of her father’s images on the eve of Jacob’s secret departure. Some believe that she took them; thinking that these “gods” might help bring them protection and safety on their journey to the land of Canaan, or perhaps, blessings of prosperity once there. Hopefully, it was not that she wanted to worship them as the pagan gods that these images represented. However, she may have believed that they had the power of speech (see Zechariah 10:2) and took them to prevent these “gods” from immediately revealing to Laban that Jacob’s household had fled. Josephus supposed perhaps a more plausible explanation, that Rachel wanted them so as “to have recourse to obtain pardon” from her father in the event that he overtook them. We trust that there is a yet more satisfying and honorable reason than any of the above speculations.
It is obvious from the way Rachel managed to hide her father’s images in the camel “furniture” (Genesis 31:34) or “saddle bags,” that these figurines were small and portable as shown in the picture provided. On the other hand, we know that in at least one case, a similar image must have been much larger. In 1 Samuel 19:12-17, we are told that Michal deceived her father’s messengers by putting an image in David’s bed to make them believe it was him under the blanket. Some of these images must then have been of considerable size.
The Hebrew word for these household or family gods, as they became known, is “teraphim” (Strong’s #H8655). It is translated most often as “idols” or “images.” We find the Hebrew word teraphim itself used in Judges chapters 17 and 18 with the account of the abduction of Micah’s priest and idols by the Danites. In that account, it was the supposed “divining” power of the teraphim that appeared to be uppermost in the minds of those abductors.
This instance with Rachel and Laban is the first mention of these “household gods” in Scripture, but the original Hebrew word appears Ancient female teraphim found recently at the Tel Rehov archeological site in northern Israel appears fourteen additional times in the Old Testament. Historically, it is known that teraphim became commonplace in the homes of the Israelites not long after the first generation coming into the Promised Land passed off the scene. These “house-gods” were soon tolerated as idol worship became more and more accepted among the children of Israel (and even “consulted” for answers about the future). In classical rabbinical literature, “teraphim” then takes on the meaning of “disgraceful things,” and surely they were such to Yahweh and any truly faithful Hebrew. For example, we read in Genesis 35 that Jacob, after being told by God to go to Bethel, ordered his household to put away the strange gods [teraphim] that are among you. They obeyed his instructions and gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand… and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem (vss. 2-4).
With this scriptural background, we return to our question with some extremely interesting insight given us through archaeological evidence discovered about 90 years ago in northern Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia). This very relevant discovery was in the form of clay tablets that date back to ~1400 BC, the time of the death of Moses and when Joshua led the children of Israel into the Land. A possible and more satisfying answer is revealed in one section of the inscriptions of what became known as the “Nuzi tablets.” The relevant statement as best translated from the cuneiform writing is: “If a son-in-law (or adoptee) possesses the household gods of his father-in-law (adopter), then he was considered a real son and would share in the inheritance.”
Is it then plausible that Rachel stole her father’s teraphim to make her husband an immediate member of her father’s family and heir to a portion of Laban’s property? Might she have justified her theft for this purpose, as her husband had served his father-in-law fourteen years for his two daughters and six years for his cattle (Genesis 31:41), and she felt he had a right to be considered an heir and lay claim to what was rightfully his?
This explanation is very much in keeping with Rachel and her sister’s line of thinking as expressed in their response to Jacob just prior to the record of her taking the idols: And Rachel and Leah answered and said unto him, Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not counted as strangers for he has sold us? (vss. 14-15). We will never know for sure why she took her father’s idols; but let us think the more highly of this faithful matriarch that was providentially chosen by Yahweh to be the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, two of the twelve progenitors of the tribes of Israel.
Note: This explanation has been adopted by several Bible scholars since the discovery and translation of the Nuzi tablets. For example, we read in Views of the Biblical World by B. Mazar, et. al., “The [Nuzi] documents show that September 2020 Christadelphian Advocate p. 229 the teraphim…carried with them the right of inheritance. Thus, Rachel was perhaps endeavoring to preserve this right for herself at the moment of Jacob’s final departure from Laban’s household” (p. 85). Also, in The Journal of Bible Literature, it states that ‘the above cuneiform translation’ means that “when property is to pass to other than normal heirs, such as the daughter’s husband, the house gods, as protectors and symbols of family holdings are thus drawn in, as it were, to safeguard and to render legitimate – not only the property, but also the person in relation to the property – against possible future claims.” (A. Draffkorn, p. 222).