Teraphim and Elohim, Calvin & Hobbes

In the Book of Genesis, Rachel steals the teraphim that were her father’s (31:19). Meanwhile, Laban accuses Jacob of stealing “my gods [elohai]”; Jacob responds, speaking of “elohekha” [your gods], using Laban’s term; and a tent-by-tent search is conducted (Gen 31:30-33). Rachel and the teraphim then re-appear in Gen 31:34-35. Why “elohim” when it’s Jacob and Laban, and teraphim only when Rachel is around?

…The word “teraphim” is used three times in Rachel’s presence, and then never again in the Torah. In the prophetic books, there are a dozen more mentions of teraphim (Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Zechariah). “Elohim” is grammatically plural and means both (plural) gods or judges and (singular) name of God of Israel….

Many would attribute the shift in language to different source texts. Perhaps, though, vocabulary change indicates fundamental differences in experience. Genesis itself doesn’t tell us what the elohim/teraphim meant to any of the individuals or the households involved. But, we do find a few clues in the text.

Two relationships

After the search fails, Jacob and Laban do not again mention the elohai, which remain abstract, another element in a larger argument over possessions and twenty years of grievances. There is intensity between Jacob and Laban, but other family members recede into the men’s power struggle: Women and children become inanimate or invisible, while households gods seem to disappear. One moment, Jacob is declaring theft of elohim worthy of death-penalty; the next, they’re well and truly forgotten.

Meanwhile, whatever the teraphim were to anyone else, they do seem important to Rachel. She had no idea, when they were leaving home, that Jacob would later make a death-pronouncement about the theft. But she does seem willing to take substantial risk in stealing them. And her method of keeping them hidden is tied to her own body and “the ways of women.” Rachel’s life seems intimately attached to these teraphim.

Maybe, the switch of vocabulary indicates that Rachel relates to the teraphim differently than her (male) kin folk.

Two word-scenes

For Jacob and Laban the household gods seem abstract, maybe a little like this set of featureless, static images —

“Why have you stolen my gods?”
Image: a monochrome set of featureless human-shape models — the pose-able kind artists use to aid in sculpture or sketching — with the words “why have you stolen my gods [לָמָּה גָנַבְתָּ, אֶת-אֱלֹהָי]” in Hebrew across them. Artist dummy images are public domain, via Pixabay.

When Rachel’s around, though, the household gods seem more animated and personal, maybe a little like this set of images with real, lifelike features and sense of movement —

“And he didn’t find the teraphim.”
Image: two more monochrome artist’s models, this time in animated poses, around an ancient Canaanite figure, with the words “and he didn’t find the teraphim [וְלֹא מָצָא אֶת-הַתְּרָפִים]” superimposed. Canaanite image from LookandLearn.com. Dummy images are public domain, no attribution from Pixabay.

The vocabulary switch strikes me as something like the shifts from panel to panel in Bill Watterston’s “Calvin & Hobbes.” When Calvin was with Hobbes, Hobbes was an animated companion; but when another human entered the picture, Hobbes was an ordinary, inanimate stuffed toy. I am not suggesting teraphim are anything like stuffed animals to Rachel or anyone else in the story. Just fascinated by a sort of parallel shift in scene from one of animated connection to one of subject-object.

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vspatz

Virginia blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at "A Song Every Day. Manages WeLuvBooks.org. CommunitythruCovid.com is on hiatus.

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