Jacob runs away twice in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (“and he went”). At the beginning he runs away from his brother Esau in Beersheva, and arrives alone at his uncle Lavan’s house in Charan. He works as a shepherd for his uncle for twenty years, but Lavan still refuses to grant him independence. So Jacob runs away again at the end of the Torah portion. He heads back toward Beersheva with two wives, two concubines, eleven children, many servants, assorted tents and household goods, and more livestock than his own household needs,1 including expensive riding camels.2
His wives Leah and Rachel resent their father and agree it is time to go.3
Lavan went to shear his sheep. And Rachel, vatiginov the terafim that belonged to her father. (Genesis/Bereishit 31:19)
vatiginov (וַתִּגְנֺו) = she stole, (or) you stole. (A form of the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole, robbed.)
terafim (תְּרָפִים) = figurines or statues of household gods? (Although the -im suffix usually indicates a plural, the noun terafim can be plural or singular in the bible.)
Unlike his wife Rachel, Jacob takes only what he believes is rightfully his. But he does a different kind of stealing.
And Jacob, vayignov et leiv Lavan the Aramean by not telling him that he was running away. And he ran away, he and all that was his; he got up and he crossed the Euphrates and he set his face toward the hills of the Gilead. (Genesis 31:20-21)
vayignov et leiv (וַיִּגְנֺב אֶת לֵב) = he deceived. (Literally: vayignov = he stole + et = (definite direct object indicator) + leiv = the mind of.)
Lavan learns three days later that Jacob and his household have fled. He takes some kinsmen and chases after them, catching up with Jacob’s party in the hills of Gilead. The next morning Lavan confronts Jacob and says:
“What were you doing when vatignov et levavi and you carried off my daughters like captives of the sword? Why did you hide to run away, vatignov me, and you did not tell me? … I have power in my hand to do bad to you all, but last night the god of your fathers spoke to me, saying: ‘Protect yourself from speaking with Jacob for good or bad’.” (Genesis 31:26-27, 29)
vatignov et levavi (ותִּגְנֺב אֶת לְבָבִי) = you deceived me. (The same idiom as vayignov et leiv.)
He accuses Jacob of both deception (“stealing his mind”) and robbery. But influenced by the dream from the God of Israel, Lavan gives Jacob the benefit of the doubt.
“And now you surely walked away because you surely longed deeply for the house of your father. [But] why ganavta my gods?” (Genesis 31:30)
ganavta (גָנַבְתָּ) = did you steal. (Another form of the verb ganav.)
Lavan cannot help exclaiming about what bothers him the most: that his household gods, his terafim, are missing.
And Jacob answered and he said to Lavan: “Because I was afraid, because I said [to myself]: ‘What if you tear away your daughters from me?’ If you find anyone has your gods, he shall not live. In front of our kinsmen, identify what is yours with me and take it!” And Jacob did not know that Rachel genavatam. (Genesis 31:31-32)
genavatam (גְּנָבָתַם) = had stolen them. (Another form of the verb ganav.)
Lavan acts on Jacob’s invitation by searching the tents of Jacob, Leah, the two concubines, and finally Rachel.
And Rachel? She had taken the terafim and put them inside the camel saddle, and she sat on them. Lavan groped through the whole tent, but he did not find them. (Genesis 31:34)
Rachel tells her father she cannot stand up to greet him because it is her monthly period, and he leaves her tent. Jacob is spared the anguish of finding out the truth and making good on his promise to kill the thief.
Jacob justifies deceiving Lavan by explaining that he secretly fled because he was afraid of losing his wives. Later in the confrontation he justifies his deception by bringing up Lavan’s history of cheating him.4
But what about Rachel? Why does she steal from her father, and is she justified?
What are Lavan’s terafim?
Lavan’s terafim may be small terra cotta figurines, which archaeologists have found in abundance throughout Mesopotamia as well as at pre-586 B.C.E. sites in the kingdom of Judah. These figurines came from private houses, not temples. They may have represented a clan’s ancestors, and ancestor-worship may have been distinguished from idol-worship.5
One proposal is that Lavan’s terafim are similar to the “gods” mentioned in tablets from 1440-1340 B.C.E. at Nuzi.6 According to one Nuzi tablet, the chief heir of an estate received the “gods” of the deceased. The chief heir was usually a son of the deceased, but if he had no natural son, his adopted son could inherit the “gods” along with the rest of the estate.7
If possession of a family’s terafim indicated the ownership of a household in Charan as well, then Rachel might steal her father’s terafim in case she needs future proof that her husband owns the flocks, slaves, and goods he took.
This explanation is based on 20th-century archaeology, and assumes that the biblical term terafim applies to small terra cotta figurines. But what if we interpret the word terafim in this week’s Torah portion by examining the other seven occurrences of the word terafim in the Hebrew Bible?
Traditional commentary assumed that terafim were idols, which God forbids in the Ten Commandments and later biblical passages. Genesis Rabbah 74:5-6 and Rashi (11th-century C.E. rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) credited Rachel with taking the terafim in order to reform her father and end his idol-worship. 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch added that since the terafim could not protect themselves from theft, Lavan should realize that they were also powerless to protect him.8
But if Rachel despised the terafim, she could have discarded or destroyed them during the first ten days of the journey, before Laban caught up with them.
Furthermore, the book of Genesis never censures anyone for owning terafim. And the book of Hosea includes terafim in a list of things the Israelites will be deprived of until they turn back to God.9 The implication is that in the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) where Hosea prophesied, terafim were acceptable accompaniments to the worship of the God of Israel.
The first book of Samuel also considers household terafim acceptable. In 1 Samuel 19:13, King Saul sends men to kill David, and David’s wife Mikhal helps him escape out the bedroom window. Then she arranges his bed so that it will look as if he is still sleeping there. She takes a terafim in their house, gives it a wig of goat-hair, and pulls the bedclothes over it. This man-sized terafim is obviously larger than the ones Rachel steals and hides in her camel saddle. It seems to be a normal item for a God-fearing Israelite general to have in his house.
That leaves five negative references to terafim in the bible. Judges 17-18 gently pokes fun at Micah by relating how he acquires four “gods”: a carved silver idol, a cast silver idol, an oracular object, and a terafim. Like the silver idols, a terafim is a physical object used for dubious religious purposes.
Terafim are listed along with false and/or idolatrous items used for divination in 1 Samuel, 2 Kings, Ezekiel, and Zecharaiah. These lists assume that terafim are also devices for soothsaying.10 The purpose of Lavan’s terafim may therefore be to provide omens about the future and knowledge of the unknown.
In that case, Rachel might steal the terafim so Lavan could not use them to find out what route Jacob and his household were taking.11 But Lavan and his men track them down anyway.
Once Lavan no longer has his terafim for divination, he also becomes able hear God in a dream: an inner voice telling him to guard his own behavior and be careful when he speaks to Jacob. The next day, Lavan becomes a reasonable man, giving up his “rights” for the sake of peace.12 The two men conduct a ritual to set a clear boundary between the areas they will occupy, and Jacob walks off as a free man and head of his own household.
If Rachel had ditched the terafim after stealing them from Lavan, would she, too, have heard God’s voice in dream? God never speaks to her in the Torah, and she dies in childbirth on the road south of Beit-El. The contention between Rachel and her sister Leah continues between her sons and Leah’s sons. Would it have been different if she had heard God’s voice? What kind of person would she have become?
What if you threw away your terafim? So many people get attached to the figurines they have acquired: viewing every coincidence as an omen, reacting as if human beings were stock characters made of clay, denying inconvenient realities. What if you stopped deceiving yourself, stopped stealing your own mind? What would you be able to hear?
- Jacob evidently leaves Charan with more flocks and herds than he needs, since he can afford to give away 580 animals to Esau in Genesis 32:14-16.
- Genesis 31:17-18 and 32:16.
- Genesis 31:11-16.
- Jacob promises to serve Lavan for seven years in exchange for marriage with Lavan’s younger daughter, Rachel, but at the wedding Lavan substitutes his older daughter, Leah. He gives Rachel to Jacob a week later as a second wife, but he requires Jacob to work another seven years (Genesis 29:15-27). After he has completed 14 years of service, Jacob asks Lavan to let him go back to Canaan with his wives and children, but Lavan negotiates wages for continued service (Genesis 30:25-31). Jacob alludes to this history in Vayeitzei in Genesis 31:41.
- Aaron Greener, “What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah During the Biblical Period?”, www.thetorah.com, Aug 16, 2016.
- The ruins of Nuzi were unearthed near present-day Kirkuk, Iraq, about 430 miles (690 km) east of Charan (present-day Harran in Turkey near the Syrian border).
- Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 640.
- Hosea 3:4.
- 1 Samuel 15:23, 2 Kings 23:24, Ezekiel 21:26, and Zecharaiah 10:2. Following up on the idea of diviniation, Targum pseudo-Jonathan (originally Targum Yerushalmi) defined a terafim is a mummified head that can speak prophecy. 12th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra proposed that a terafim was an image made by astrologers at a propitious time so that it could speak.
- Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah, Bereishis (vol. 1), English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, NY, 1994, p. 424.
- Genesis 31:43-44.