Rachel Steals the Household Idols, W. Gunther Plaut

Read the story in Genesis 31

Rachel, took the idols, placed them in the camel cushion and sat upon them.Rachel's theft of the household idols (teraphim), Laban's angry concern, and Jacob's extravagant denial all point to the great importance that ancient man attached to these objects. They were figurines, unusually small and in the shape of men [1]. Their use in Israel continued into the days of the Judges [2] and Prophets[3]. Josephus reported that even in his day (first century C.E.) it was the custom "among all people in the country to have objects of worship in their house and to take them along when going abroad.[4] Rachel, therefore, may have felt it necessary to take household deities along on her journey and decided to appropriate her father's idols. By doing this, however, she left him without proper protection — hence his great anger.

Another interpretation gives legal rather than religious reasons for Rachel's action. Nuzi records indicate that teraphim were often symbols of property rights and family status. Their possession could indicate that certain privileges had been confirmed by transmitting the ownership of the teraphim (cf. the symbolism of the scepter or of keys to a house). Thus, Jacob's possession of the teraphim might prove that he was no longer Laban's servant and that he was, therefore, entitled to a part of the latter's estate. If Jacob had not in law attained this position, Rachel by her theft meant to assure it for him. Biblical tradition viewed Rachel as a resolute woman who did not hesitate to take the law — or what she believed to be the law — into her own hands.[5] She knew her husband's rights and she had ample reason to doubt that Laban would voluntarily and formally transfer the images. That she might proceed in this fashion apparently never occurred to Jacob. He either did not know the intricacies of Hurrian law or was not aware of his wife's capacity for action.

We have already learned of Rachel's consideration and charm at the time of her first meeting with Jacob, of her agony over her barrenness, her jealousy over her sister's good fortune, and of her attempt to utilize aphrodisiacs. We now see her to be an independent woman. With the rift between Laban and Jacob widening, she took the lead over her sister in siding with her husband instead of her father, and in the moment of parting it was she again who was stirred to decisive action. However, her impetuousness caused Jacob to make and extreme and tragic oath.

Here the theme of retribution many again be glimpsed. For while the Torah passes no explicit judgement on Rachel's behavior, its tragic consequences will all too soon become evident. The commentators who exculpate Rachel [6] are therefore wide of the mark. Jacob's oath that whoever may be found with the teraphim should not remain alive (Gen. 31:32) is exacted not by Laban, as expected, but by God himself. Rachel dies in her next childbirth and is buried by the roadside (Gen, 35:16-20).[7] She is the only Matriarch not interred in Machpelah, the gravesite of the other Matriarch and Patriarchs.[8]



[1] See I Samuel 19:13, 16. [back]
[2] Judges 17:5 [back]
[3] Hosea 3:4-5 [back]
[4] Josephus, Antiquities XVIII, 9:5 [back]
[5] Speiser, Genesis, p. 250 [back]
[6] Genesis Rabbah: She stole the idols to keep Laban from idolatry; Rashbam and Ibn Ezra: They were a means of divination and Rachel feared Laban would discover her leaving. [back]
[7] She died at a young age because she had been disloyal to her father, which to the ancients was a cardinal sin. Jacob by his rash oath unwittingly brought his beloved's destruction, a plot also found in Greek tragedies. [back]
[8] So, the Midrash on the Ten Commandments: "Because she stole the teraphim she was not buried in Machpelah." [back]

Barnes and Noble linkGunther Plaut. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. 1981by Union of American Hebrew Congregations (New York) p. 214. Used by permisison of publisher.

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