Rachel's Stealing of the Terafim


Escape and Theft

Bereshit 31 describes Yaakov's flight from Lavan's house.  In preparation, Yaakov naturally collected his family, cattle, and all of his belongings, in order to take them with him to Canaan.  Surprisingly, though, the Torah also adds that Rachel took advantage of Lavan's absence to steal his terafim ("תְּרָפִים"):

(יח) וַיִּנְהַג אֶת כׇּל מִקְנֵהוּ וְאֶת כׇּל רְכֻשׁוֹ אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁ מִקְנֵה קִנְיָנוֹ אֲשֶׁר רָכַשׁ בְּפַדַּן אֲרָם לָבוֹא אֶל יִצְחָק אָבִיו אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן. (יט) וְלָבָן הָלַךְ לִגְזֹז אֶת צֹאנוֹ וַתִּגְנֹב רָחֵל אֶת הַתְּרָפִים אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִיהָ.
(18) And he carried away all his cattle, and all his substance which he had gathered, the cattle of his getting, which he had gathered in Paddan Aram, to go to Isaac his father unto the land of Canaan. (19) Now Laban was gone to shear his sheep. And Rachel stole the teraphim that were her father's.

The chapter provides neither motivation nor justification for Rachel's actions.  Why is Rachel reduced to thievery, and for what could she possibly have wanted her father's terafim?  Was this theft spurred by a desire for personal gain, or by a desire to prevent others from accessing the objects?

What are Terafim?

In order to both understand and evaluate Rachel's deed, it would be helpful to be able to ascertain what exactly were the terafim.  The contexts of the various appearances of the word in Tanakh1 suggest two different possible understandings, either idols or an object used for magic and divination.  But of what use would an idolatrous object or talisman have been for Rachel?  Moreover, in our chapter, while Lavan and Yaakov refer to the objects as "gods" ("אֱלֹהָי", ‎"אֱלֹהֶיךָ"), the narrative voice consistently uses the term terafim instead.  Is this difference significant?  Did Rachel and Lavan view the objects in the same way?  Did Rachel believe that the terafim had either magical powers or sacred status?  If yes, what does this say about Rachel's religious identity?

The Aftermath

Two later stories might also be of relevance to the discussion:

  • Yaakov's burying of foreign gods – In Bereshit 35, before fulfilling his vow in Beit El, Yaakov collects "foreign gods" from his family, buries them and cleanses the family from impurity.  Do these foreign gods include Lavan's terafim?  If so, what does that say about the theft?
  • Rachel's death – After Lavan's accusation, Yaakov declared that whomever was found in possession of Lavan's gods would not live.  Though Rachel escaped this fate by successfully hiding the terafim, her early death leaves the reader to wonder if somehow Yaakov's curse nonetheless came true.  If so, does this imply that her actions deserved punishment?
The Approaches page will explore various understandings of Rachel's motives.  These have important theological ramifications for how we view the religious persona of Rachel and the religiosity of the Patriarchs' households as a whole.