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B'resheet/Genesis 31:19 And Laban went to shear his sheep and Rachel stole the household idols that were her father's.
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Ya'akov's two wives, Leah and Rachel, have just given him permission to obey HaShem's command (from an angel, in a dream), "Now then, do just as G-d has told you" (B'resheet 31:16, NJPS), to take them, their children and their whole household back to the land of Canaan and return to his father Yitz'khak. Our text tells us, firstly, that Ya'akov chose his time well. Shearing, particularly for those farmers owning larger flocks of sheep, was a highly labour-intensive and often quite lengthy process. Contemporary Mesopotamian documents report that shearing could tie up three to four hundred men for several weeks, working far away from home in stifling heat: rounding up, holding and shearing flocks of several thousand animals. What better time for Ya'akov to quietly slip away in the opposite direction, which Laban and all his key men were distracted. Putting his wives and children on camels and driving the flocks - "all his livestock and all the wealth that he had amassed, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram" (v. 18, NJPS) - Ya'akov sets off on the journey home.
Almost as an afterthought, the narrator tells us that Rachel stole her father's household idols. Before we look at why Rachel might have done such a strange thing, let's just understand what these items were. The text uses the word - the definite article followed by a masculine plural noun from the root or . The former, "to be feeble" is taken to be generally derogatory, the idols are useless because they are so feeble; the latter, known only from post-biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, means "to be foul", implying that the teraphim are dirty and a source of contamination. But are they idols at all? TheRadak suggests that "these were a bronze instrument that not only told the time but also predicted the future (though it was often wrong)." They were small enough to be hidden in or under a camel saddle - "Rachel, meanwhile, had taken the idols and placed them in the camel cushion and sat on them" (v. 34, NJPS) - yet were also large enough pass for a human figure: "Michal then took the household idol, laid it on the bed, and covered it with a cloth; and at its head she put a net of goat's hair" (1 Samuel 19:13, NJPS).
What were they used for? Richard Elliott Friedman tells us that "these are icons that may relate to ancestor worship", adding that "ancestor veneration was common in Israel until at least the reign on King Hezekiah (c. 700 BCE)." Tanakh reports that the reforming King Josiah "put away the mediums and the necromancers and the household gods and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem" (2 Kings 23:24, NJPS), which seems to suggest that teraphim were used in attempting to communicate with the dead. Gunther Plaut confirms that their use "continued into the days of the Judges (17:5) and the prophets (Hosea 3:4-5)." Josephus records that it was the custom "among all the people in that country to have objects of worship in their house and to take them along when going abroad" (Antiquities 18.9.5).Ibn Ezra says simply, "household idols" and points out that Laban explicitly refers to them as "my gods" (B'resheet 31:30, NJPS), echoed by Ya'akov in his response to Laban's charge: "your gods" (v. 32, NJPS).
Next, perhaps, we need to ask why Rachel did this curious thing. The Hebrew text uses the verb - the Qal 3fs prefix form of the root , "to steal, kidnap or appropriate",1 with a vav-conversive, so as above: "and she stole." Was this history's first documented case of god-napping?Targum Onkelos, perhaps to protect Rachel's honour as a matriarch, on the grounds that the Torah surely never intended to say that Rachel was a thief, changes 'stole' to 'took'. Frankly, that doesn't sound very different. Nahum Sarna agrees: "The text unequivocally describes her action as thievery. Even her father's shabby treatment of her did not justify her illegal act." We must look for some explanation of her motives. Based on the Midrash - "Yet her purpose was indeed a noble ones for she said: 'What, shall we go and leave this old man [Laban] in his errors?'" (B'resheet Rabbah 74:5) - Rashi offers that "she intended to separate her father from idolatry." Removing the idols would mean that he couldn't worship them and might cause him to think that if they couldn't even stop themselves from being stolen, they weren't really gods at all.
Taking a different approach, theBekhor Shor suggests that "she wanted them because she knew that they could speak by magic." The Rashbam builds on that to say that she took them "so that they would not reveal to Laban that Ya'akov intended to flee" or where they had gone. The belief that idols could or did have some effect either alongside or instead of HaShem, the G-d of Israel, must have been prevalent in some quarters as the prophets speak out against Israel in later generations using illegal or prohibited ways to obtain knowledge or control their future: "For the teraphim spoke delusion, the augurs predicted falsely; and dreamers speak lies and console with illusions. That is why My people have strayed like a flock, they suffer for lack of a shepherd" (Zechariah 10:2, NJPS). Walter Brueggemann makes the critical comparison between HaShem and the teraphim: "The G-d of Ya'akov orders and transforms the affairs of history. By contrast, the household gods of Laban can do nothing. They must be protected - even by a menstruating woman. Those gods may be tokens of inheritance, but they cannot influence real events. They are gods who 'cannot do good or ill' (Zephaniah 1:12). In contrast to YHVH, they are objects to be carried about (cf. Is 46:1-2)."2
Bruce Waltke offers two other possible motives for Rachel's abductance of Laban's household gods: "Rachel may have stolen them for protection or blessing, or she may be acting out of spite. As Laban stole her from Ya'akov and stole her dowry or brideprice (B'resheet 31:16), so she now steals his prized gods. She herself is probably not yet completely free of her polytheistic background and beliefs."3 Gordon Wenham sees something of the same, perhaps that Rachel feels insecure - "it might also be that she was rather less confident about leaving home than she sounded" - so the teraphim were "thus a Saint Christopher for her."4 The familiar household gods of her childhood might have offered security at a time of great change, not so much because of what they might do, but because of their familiarity and sense of home in a sea of uncertainty.
One line of argument from here is to note that one sin leads to another. The stealing of the household gods is followed by Ya'akov's rash vow (v. 32) and in turn by Rachel's lie to her father (v. 35). Although no-one dies as a result of Ya'akov's vow and Laban's search, several commentators suggest that Rachel's death in child-bearing - giving birth to Benjamin - is a result of her sin and a fulfilment of Ya'akov's vow: "But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!" (v. 32, NJPS). Laban did not find the stolen gods, but G-d knew and the consequences of sin caught up with Rachel in the end. The prophet speaks of the way sin grows: "Those who haul sin with cords of falsehood and iniquity as with cart ropes!" (Isaiah 5:18, NJPS).
Another important line asks the question whether we have stolen or are hanging on to "household gods" that don't now or never have belonged to us as believers in Messiah Yeshua. Do we have, put away in the back of a some mental cupboard, where we only ever go in moments of stress, a comfort blanket from our childhood or life before coming to faith. This might be a saying such as "Touch wood!" that we occasionally say without thinking. It might be a reliance upon another person rather than G-d, because they have always resolved our problems in the past. It might even be a genuine religious symbol such as a prayer we always pray or a silver cross that we clutch, rather like a good-luck charm, when we are stressed. Whatever it is, unless checked and removed, it will grow and has consequences that will ultimately lead to death. It stands between us and G-d; it acts as a barrier to the free flow of His grace and His Spirit in our lives.
Rav Sha'ul asks, "What agreement has the temple of G-d with idols? For we are the temple of the living G-d; as G-d said, 'I will make My dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their G-d, and they shall be My people" (2 Corinthians 6:16, ESV). We dare not follow Rachel's example and hang on to idols from the past or the world, however innocent or comfortable they may seem. Sha'ul makes sure that we and the Corinthians know who we are - "Do you not know that you are G-d's temple and that G-d's Spirit dwells in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16, ESV), - so that we can ask the Ruach to guide us in cleaning our house to purge all forms of idolatry or superstition, foolish talk or wrong attitudes and place our trust fairly and squarely on Yeshua.
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 69.
2. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), page 259.
3. - Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 427.
4. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), page 274.
Further Study: Isaiah 44:9-11; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6
Application: Do you have an idol in your life, thoughts or speech that needs to be exposed and evicted? It can be all too easy to carelessly pick one up through our journey in this world and they are guaranteed to damage and stifle your relationship with Yeshua. Ask Him to show you what is going on today and help you to clear the ground so that you can hear His voice without hindrance.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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