Commentators differ both in their understanding of the character of the terafim and why Rachel decided to take them. According to the Tanchuma, they were objects of divination and Rachel stole them so that her father would not be able to trace the whereabouts of the family as they fled. Bereshit Rabbah, in contrast, asserts that the terafim were actual idols and Rachel removed them in an effort to convince her father not to worship them. However, not all assume that Rachel's motives were so pure or worthy. Ibn Ezra posits that Rachel had learned idolatrous practices from her father and had not yet totally forsaken them. Alternatively, some modern scholars agree that Rachel took the idols for personal reasons, but they suggest that her motives were economic rather than religious, and that ownership of the terafim testified to inheritance rights.
Rachel stole the terafim so that her father could not use them to divine the whereabouts of the family when they fled.
What are terafim? According to these commentators, the terafim were used for divination.3 As evidence, Rashbam points to Zekharyah 10:2 which mentions "terafim speaking" and links them with magicians ("הַקּוֹסְמִים"),4 and to Hoshea 3:4, which pairs them with the "אֵפוֹד", another object associated with prophecy and fortune-telling.5Bereshit 30:27 might provide further support for this reading since, there, Lavan says of himself that he uses "ניחוש".6
Etymology of the word – Tanchuma asserts that they are called "תְּרָפִים" because they are a "מַעֲשֵׂה תֹרֶף", an object of impurity. Ramban, in contrast, suggests that the term comes from the fact that their words are like a weak prophecy (נבואה רפה) and not very reliable.
"לָמָּה גָנַבְתָּ אֶת אֱלֹהָי" – If the terafim were magical objects, it is not clear why Lavan refers to them as gods. Ramban asserts that many people would turn their terafim into gods, much the way the Israelites strayed after the "אֵפוֹד" set up by Gideon.7 Thus, too, Lavan might have considered the terafim as gods,8 even if they were not originally intended as such. Radak similarly suggests that Lavan referred to the objects as gods because he trusted in them as one would in the word of God.
"וַיִּרְדֹּף אַחֲרָיו" – Considering that Lavan seemed to have no difficulty finding the family even without the use of his terafim, it is questionable how Rachel could really have thought that stealing them would suffice to prevent discovery of the escape.9
Why hold onto them? It is not clear why Rachel did not destroy the objects immediately. That would seem to be the best way to ensure that they could no longer reveal any secrets, and perhaps the proper way to deal with impure magical objects.
Belief in magic and divination – This position assumes that Rachel believed in the powers of impure objects (though she never used them herself). Indeed, most of these sources assert that the terafim really did have the ability to speak, reveal secrets, or tell the future, albeit often incorrectly. Ralbag and Abarbanel, in contrast, assert that the magician using the terafim merely imagined it talking,10 while Ibn Ezra assumes that Lavan's divination was related to his astronomical abilities.11
Sitting on the terafim – According to one opinion of the Baalei HaTosafotMS Oxford 268, Bereshit 31:19MS Oxford 268 Bereshit 31:34About Ba'alei HaTosafot, Rachel forcefully sat upon the terafim to prevent them from crying out and apprising Lavan of their location. Alternatively, she embarrassed them into silence for they would never reveal that they were so degraded to be sat upon. Ibn Ezra and Ralbag could also more simply suggest that this was just a good way of hiding them from her father.
The "אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר" buried by Yaakov – According to this position, the foreign gods which Yaakov buries upon leaving Shekhem do not include the terafim (which were used only for divination) and have no connection to Rachel's actions at all.12 The foreign gods were taken when the brothers looted Shekhem and were never worshiped by Yaakov's family.
Evaluation of Rachel's actions – These commentators might view Rachel's actions as proper, as she was simply attempting to protect her family. Radak, though, suggests that she should nonetheless not have stolen from her father.
Religiosity of the forefathers – This position views the forefathers as righteous believers in Hashem, and assumes that Rachel would never have taken impure objects for her own use.
Rachel took the terafim because they were used in religious rituals. This approach subdivides regarding whether Rachel wanted them for herself, or merely did not want her father to have them.
Rachel took the terafim so that her father would no longer worship them.
What are terafim? These commentators assume that the terafim were idols, worshiped by Lavan. This is supported by the fact that Lavan refers to them as such, asking "לָמָּה גָנַבְתָּ אֶת אֱלֹהָי". In Shofetim 18, the word terafim is connected to the phrase "פֶסֶל וּמַסֵּכָה", further suggesting that terafim might be a form of idol. According to this understanding, however, it is not clear why idolatrous terafim would be present in the house of David and Michal in Shemuel I 19.13
Why are they called terafim? The narrative voice consistently refers to the objects as terafim while Lavan and Yaakov refer to them as "gods". This suggests that the word terafim might be the Torah's derisive term for worthless figurines.14
Why hold onto them? Ibn Ezra15 questions why Rachel would not have buried or destroyed the terafim, if they were idols and she did not want her father to worship them. Toledot Yitzchak responds that she feared that she would be seen, and was waiting for an opportunity to dispose of them discreetly.16
Would this convince Lavan? Abarbanel wonders why Rachel's taking of one set of idols would prevent Lavan from simply making replacements and continuing to worship. R. Chananel contends that Rachel was trying to convince her father of the worthlessness of idols; if they can be stolen they must have no power.17
Sitting on the terafim – N. Sarna suggests that Rachel's sitting on the idols while menstruating reflects her scorning of the objects and her intentional defilement of what her father viewed as sacred.18
The "אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר" buried by Yaakov – According to Rashi and Ralbag, the foreign gods collected and destroyed by Yaakov came from Shekhem and did not include the terafim. Presumably, according to them, Rachel had by that point destroyed the terafim on her own.
Evaluation of Rachel's actions – This approach views Rachel very positively. She not only has no idolatrous inclinations herself, but even tries to convert her father to monotheism.19
"עִם אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא אֶת אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא יִחְיֶה" and Rachel's early death – Bereshit Rabbah connects Rachel's premature death with Yaakov's curse. Theologically, though, this is difficult as Rachel was motivated only by positive intentions.20
Religiosity of the forefathers – This position assumes that all of the Matriarchs were not only monotheists, but were also proactive in persuading others to desist from idolatry.21
Rachel wanted the terafim for her own personal use.
Objects of divination – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor and Shadal, they were used to foretell the future, while according to Hoil Moshe they were believed to have powers to bless barren women with children.23
Idols – According to Josephus and Ibn Ezra, in contrast, they were household gods.
Why did Rachel want them?
Children – The Hoil Moshe asserts that Rachel wanted more children,24 and hoped that the terafim would help.25 He suggests that the barren Michal26 had terafim in her house for the same reason.
Belief in divination – Shadal asserts that Rachel wanted the terafim because she believed in their divining abilities even though she did not worship idolatry.
Worship – Josephus instead posits that Rachel thought that the idols might protect her, and via them she could obtain pardon from her father if they were pursued.27 Josephus also relates how, even in his own time, it was a custom for people to take their household idols when emigrating.28 Ibn Ezra says more explicitly that Rachel (and the other wives and children) had learned idolatrous worship from her father and had not yet totally forsaken it.
"וַתִּגְנֹב רָחֵל" – The language of "stealing" ("וַתִּגְנֹב") supports the idea that Rachel had taken the idols for her own personal use rather than to save others or convert her father.
"לָמָּה גָנַבְתָּ אֶת אֱלֹהָי" – These commentators differ in their understanding of why the terafim are called gods by Lavan:
Perspective of character – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor posits that in Rachel's eyes the terafim were simply objects of divination, while in Lavan's eyes they were actually gods. Thus, when Lavan speaks, he calls them "gods", but when the text speaks from Rachel's perspective, it writes "terafim".
Two terms for the same item – In contrast, according to Josephus and Ibn Ezra, even Rachel viewed them as gods and would agree with her father's formulation. The narrative voice, though, perhaps chooses to use a more derogatory term when speaking of them. Alternatively, terafim are not a negative term but simply a specific type of idol (household gods). When Lavan talks, though, he chooses instead to highlight the main point of his accusation – how dare you steal my gods!
Why hold onto them? According to this approach, it is clear why Rachel does not get rid of the idols, as the whole purpose in taking them was for their use.
Sitting on the terafim – Rachel sat on the terafim, despite this being an act of denigration, as this was the only way of avoiding detection.
The "אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר" buried by Yaakov – According to Josephus and Ibn Ezra,29 Rachel's terafim were among the foreign gods buried by Yaakov outside of Shekhem. According to Ibn Ezra, also the other idols were taken by Yaakov's family, not just for their gold, but to worship.
Yaakov's oath in Beit El – When Yaakov first left for Canaan, he took an oath that if Hashem watched over him and returned him safely home, then, "וְהָיָה י"י לִי לֵאלֹהִים" ("Hashem will be for me a God"). Josephus and Ibn Ezra might suggest that it was only upon his safe return to Canaan, that Yaakov fully accepted Hashem to the exclusion of other gods. Thus, it is only when he goes to fulfill his vow at Beit El that he cleanses his family of idolatry. Until then, Rachel and other members of the family had worshiped other gods as well.
"עִם אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא אֶת אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא יִחְיֶה" and Rachel's early death – If Rachel really took the idols for her own use, and especially if she worshiped them as idols, it is easy to posit a connection between Yaakov's curse and Rachel's demise. Soon after they are "found" in Shekhem, she dies in childbirth.
Repentance? R"Y Rock30 suggests that, on her deathbed, Rachel realized that she was being punished for taking and believing in the terafim31 and she confessed via the name she called her son: "בֶּן אוֹנִי". He posits that the word "אוֹנִי" is related to "אָוֶן", sin or falsehood. Rachel finally realized that, "הַתְּרָפִים דִּבְּרוּ אָוֶן".
Evaluation of Rachel – According to this position, Rachel is blameworthy. She is perhaps even punished for her actions, though she may have repented at the end of her life.
Religiosity of the forefathers – This approach challenges the assumption that all of our ancestors were pure monotheistic believers, and it raises the possibility that for some of them, monotheism was the result of a religious journey.
Possession of the terafim was evidence of Yaakov's rights to Lavan's inheritance.
What are terafim? This position assumes that the terafim were household gods, and their ownership testified to inheritance rights.
Ancient Near Eastern parallels – This reading is based on Ancient Near Eastern adoption documents found in Nuzi. There it is stated that if one adopts a son, he shall be heir upon the father's death. If, however, natural sons are later born to the father, they will split the inheritance with the adopted son and the natural son will receive the household gods. Otherwise the gods are taken by the adoptee. On this basis, some have suggested that Yaakov had been adopted by Lavan, who afterwards bore his own sons. Thus, Rachel took the terafim to ensure that Yaakov would nonetheless retain the main inheritance portion and leadership of the family.
Difficulties – M. Greenberg33 questions this theory on several grounds:
The adoption text does not seem to condition receiving the inheritance on ownership of the idols, but rather implies the opposite; he who inherits them obtains possession of the household gods.
The fact of ownership is not what is stressed, as much as the act of transference of the gods. It is the bequeathing of the idols which symbolically transfers title and inheritance, showing all whom the father has chosen.34
The context of the story, Yaakov's flight from Lavan and move to Canaan, suggests that the family had no intentions of returning to inherit Lavan's estate.35
"וַתִּגְנֹב רָחֵל" – The use of the term "stealing" supports the possibility that Rachel was motivated by self-interest.
Why hold onto them? In order to prove possession, Rachel had no choice but to keep the family idols.
Sitting on the terafim – According to this approach, Rachel held no reverence for the gods, while Lavan did. As such, sitting on them proved an excellent way to hide them.
The "אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר" buried by Yaakov – According to this position, it is unclear whether the terafim were included in the foreign gods buried by Yaakov. It is possible that, by this point, Rachel realized that they would never return to Charan and handed over the terafim.
Evaluation of Rachel – Some might negatively evaluate Rachel's actions, claiming that stealing for personal gain is always wrong, while others might suggest that Rachel felt cheated by her father and was only trying to retrieve what was rightfully hers.
Religiosity of the forefathers – This approach views the forefathers as monotheistic in their beliefs, yet willing to maintain possession of idols if they also served a non-idolatrous purpose.