Monday, December 22, 2008

Teraphim: Idols or Ancestral Figurines?

Some of these Nok figurines are likely teraphim

Alice C. Linsley

Genesis 31: 34 Now Rachel had taken the household idols and put them in the camel's saddle, and she sat on them. And Laban felt through all the tent but did not find them.

The word teraphim is usually rendered "images" or "idols" but the word actually means the things pertaining to terah. Terah is an ancient word meaning priest. Abraham's father was called Terah, though this is likely a title, not a proper name. This is the case with other Biblical persons such as Lamech and Enoch.

1 Samuel 19:13 reports that "Michal took the teraphim and laid it on the bed, and put a quilt of goats' hair at its head, and covered it with clothes." It is not certain here if this refers to sacred images or simply to figurines that she hoped would serve as a decoy. However, it is clear that this cannot refer to small Horite ancestor figurines such as Rachel was able to hide under a saddle.

The teraphim which Rachel hid from Laban were small clay figurines that represented Rachel and Jacob's common ancestor, the great Horite ruler-priest Terah. There would have been at least 2 figurines, 1 male and 1 female. Possibly there were 3 figurines: 1 male (representing Terah) and 2 females (representing Terah's wives). The set of three would have had great value as they represented Terah's kingdom.

It isn't clear to which Terah these images pertained. Did they pertain to Abraham's father and Canaanite mother, or to Abraham's great grandfather and his wives? Given the urgency of Rachel's actions, these figurines must have had great significance. That suggests that they did not represent Abraham's father, who inherited a kingdom, but his kingdom-building great grandfather.

Terah the Younger's mother married Nahor and named her first-born son after her father, Terah the Elder. (For more on this see Bride's Naming Prerogative.) This was the naming practice of the cousin or niece bride and indicated to whose throne her first-born son would ascend.  The first-born son of the patrilineal cousin/niece ascended to the throne of his maternal grandfather.

In Abraham's Afro-Asiatic culture great ancestor chiefs would be regarded as having as real a presence as living persons. They would have been guarded by Terah's clan and passed from generation to generation through the mother's line. The custom is traced to West Central African and there is much physical and anthropological evidence for the practice.

The Sao culture in the Chari Valley of Cameroon produced elaborate human figure sculptures, representing deified ancestors. Carbon-14 dates for the Sao figurines date from the 5th century BC to the 18th century AD.

Small figurines of fired clay dating to the 6th century BC were excavated at Daima near Lake Chad, Noah's homeland. The figurines were simple animal figures in clay, produced by a population of Neolithic herdsmen. The Daima style is different from that more sophisticated Nok figurines, farther to the west. Nok was a fully Iron Age Culture, producing large, hollow sculptures in well-fired pottery, some of the stylistic features of which imply still earlier prototypes. Nok is the African equivalent of the Hebrew name Enoch. Cain and his brother Seth married Nokite brides.

In traditional African societies ancestors are honored by family and community in the homes and at shrines. These places hold relics of the ancestors. Contact with the relics is believed to stimulate awareness of the ancestors’ presence and produce trances whereby the living communicate with the dead.

The Yoruba of Nigeria believe that the Creator God "Olurun" is served by a pantheon of lesser deities called "Orisha". Figurines of honored orisha are guarded by families and clans. Voodoo practices of the Caribbean come from this west African religion. In voodoo ritual, a relic of hair, nail clippings or an item of clothing must be used to identify the figurine with a living person.

Clay figurines made with relics from an ancestor are carefully guarded by their families. These are passed from generation to generation, often through the mother's line as in the case of the Teraphim mentioned in Genesis 31. Rachel took them from Laban because it would have been through the mother's line that these were to be passed along. Laban had possession of them, but as Jacob's mother was a direct descendent of Terah, the Teraphim more rightfully belonged with Jacob's house.

The Teraphim were likely clay figurines with perforations around the top of the head. The hair of the ancestor Terah would have been woven through these holes. Such perforated figurines, dating to as late as the time of King David, have been excavated in Israel and are preserved among Israel's antiquities.

Related reading:  The Afro-Asiatic Dominion; The Nile-Japan Ainu Connection: Graven Images and Idols


Robert said...

Another thing, Alice, I understand that the teraphim represented ownership to the family land, so that Rachel was taking off, not only with fetishes of ancestors or of her parents, but with the deed to the family farm! No sources, sorry, but just lecture notesk, tho' from John Oswalt..! Blessings on ya, Alice- still feel bad about missing you last month!

Alice C. Linsley said...


According to Hurrian records, the family shrine "idols" were passed to the son who would rule after his father, the heir to the father's territory. It isn't entirely clear whether the Teraphim served this purpose, but I think it likely.

Difficulty arises when we remember that these Afro-Asiatic chiefs had 2 wives and therefore they almost always had 2 first-born sons. In the case of the Teraphim which were passed down through the mother's line, it makes sense that they were in Nahor's possession. Rachel apparently believed that they were to be passed to her first-born son. That would have been Joseph. Might this have contributed to his brothers' jealousy?