My time is up. I had planned to finish writing my book, Tasting the Fruit: Moral Psychology in Genesis, by the time the cycle of Jewish Torah readings came to the book of Exodus in January. But I’ve had to do a lot more writing from scratch than I expected.
Today I wrote about how Rachel steals her father’s household idols as she leaves home, sneaking off toward Canaan with her husband (Jacob), her son (Joseph), and her three fellow wives and their children (Genesis 31:1-21 in the portion Vayeitzei).
Why would Rachel steal the idols? Because they can be used for divination, and she does not want her father to know where she and her family are.
Idols (physical images of gods) are forbidden in the book of Exodus. One of the Ten Commandments declares: “You may not make for yourself a statue or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters from under the earth. You may not bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
The books of Isaiah and Psalms make fun of idols, asking why anyone would treat a piece of inert wood, stone, or metal as if it could hear and speak. But the book of Genesis is a different story. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not use idols, but Jacob’s father-in-law Lavan does, and his daughter Rachel believes they can speak to him.
The idols Rachel steals are small enough to fit into a camel pack. They may look like the figurines of gods I saw last year in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, all smaller than my hand.
Idols were standard religious equipment in Egypt during the 19th dynasty (1292–1190 B.C.E.), where Moses was born in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. He would have learned about all the gods of Egypt and their representations in painting and sculpture after he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. When he left Egypt as a young man, he went to live with a priest of Midian, and learned about the gods of the Midianites–probably including the god on Mount Sinai that later became the God of Israel.
Moses first encounters that god, God with a capital “G”, when he sees the bush on Mount Sinai that burns but is not consumed. God speaks out of the fire, not from an idol. Click here to read about it in my post Shemot: Holy Ground.
Today most of us do not hear strange voices in our heads, only the familiar subvocalizations of our own psyches. Yet many people engage in magical thinking. I can imagine staring a long time at a bronze figurine, and hearing it speak inside your head. And if the figurine said something that you did not consciously know, but that turned out to be true, you would stare at it again when you needed insight.
Unless it was gone when you got home, because someone had stolen it.