Monday, December 22, 2008

Teraphim: Idols or Ancestor Figurines?

Ancestor figurines from Central Africa

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.

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.

Given the urgency of Rachel's actions, these figurines must have had great significance. According to Hurrian/Horite legal records, possession of the ancestor figurines validated claims of inheritance.

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.

The word teraphim appears in 1 Samuel 19:13 - "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 if Michal covered ancestor figurines or sacred images/idols, or if she simply hoped these would serve as a decoy. However, it is clear that these are larger than the Horite Hebrew ancestor figurines Rachel hid under a saddle.

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. 

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 served as a high official in the territory of his maternal grandfather.

Among Abraham's early Hebrew people great ancestor chiefs would be regarded as having as real a presence as living persons. Their relics 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. 

In traditional African and Asian 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.

Related reading: Graven Images and Idols; Were Rachel and Leah Half-Sisters?; Why Rachel Didn't Trust Laban; Terah Means Priest


Unknown 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?

Anonymous said...

Is this where the name terracotta comes from tera/terah?

Alice C. Linsley said...

The term "terra cotta" comes from Latin and refers to the world for earth - terra.

Tera (Terah) is an ancient word for priest or high rank, or a ruler-priest. See this: