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TERAPHIM (Heb. תְּרָפִים), household gods. The etymology of the word teraphim has defied commentators from ancient times until the present. W.F. Albright suggests the possible rendering of "old rags," based on the Canaanite trp, "to wear out." L. Koehler and W. Baumgartner also suppose that teraphim has obvious odious connotations and that its root trp means to act ignominiously. H.A. Hoffner has pointed to a Hurro-Hittite source for the word (Hittite: tarpis, "protective or malevolent spirit"). That these figurines were small and portable is obvious from the way Rachel managed to hide them in the camel cushion (Gen. 31:34). On the other hand, the fact that Michal could deceive her father's messengers by leading them to believe that the teraphim on the bed were David's figure, makes it seem that some were of considerable size (I Sam. 19:13). There is nothing in this incident, however, to show conclusively whether such a figure represented an entire human form or simply a head or bust.

The teraphim are both condoned and condemned in biblical writing. From the story of Rachel's flight and her appropriation of her father's teraphim, it seems to have been the accepted custom among the people in Mesopotamia to have objects of worship in their house and to take them along when going abroad (see Greenberg, in bibl.). Furthermore, in the story of Michal, teraphim seem to be a usual piece of household furniture and were most probably tolerated by the Israelite religion of that time.

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.

Apart from the household gods already discussed, a different sort of teraphim is encountered in the Bible; their place is not in the home but in the sanctuary, and they were used by the Israelites in cultic ritual. Teraphim were employed in divination in the period of the Judges (Judg. 17:5; 18:17), like the divining ephod with which they are compared, and their use in divination is particularly obvious in the condemnation of teraphim in I Samuel 15:23, where the iniquity of teraphim is placed on a par with the sin of divination. Josiah, known for his far-reaching cultic reforms, did away with all the cultic objects of abominable idolatry, including teraphim (II Kings 23:24). Zechariah further rejects the teraphim by including them among the sources of false prediction (Zech. 10:2). Divination teraphim are assumed by Ezekiel to have been among the devices consulted by the king of Babylon (Ezek. 21:26).


C.H. Gordon, in: BA, 3 (1940), 1–12; A.E. Draffkorn in: JBL, 76 (1957), 216–24; M. Greenberg, ibid., 81 (1962), 239–48; N. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (1967), 200–1; H.A. Hoffner, in: JNES, 27 (1968), 61–68.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.