2002 Norton Scholar's Prize Winning Essay

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    Rachel and the Household Gods: An Interpretation of Genesis 31
    Susannah Rutherglen

    The episode of Rachel and the household gods occurs at a moment of high drama in Genesis. I want to begin by summarizing that drama in some detail, in order to emphasize from the beginning how sharply Rachel's odd, small story is juxtaposed with sweeping events in the history of the Israelites.

    Jacob has spent twenty years in servitude to his uncle Laban, father of Rachel and Leah, during which time he has endured a number of humiliations and much hard labor among the flocks. Just as the final blows arrive-Jacob learns that Laban's sons are speaking poorly of him, and notices that Laban's attitude toward him has changed subtly-Yahweh fortuitously appears in a dream to tell Jacob that enough is enough. He escapes for his homeland of Canaan hastily, on the sly, possessions and wives in tow, while Laban is away.

    In the haste of the escape (Genesis 31), Rachel seizes her father's small household idols, teraphim, and brings them along without Jacob's knowledge. Laban subsequently chases down Jacob's caravan and demands, among other things, to know the whereabouts of the teraphim. Rachel conceals them with a bit of Jacobean trickery: she places them inside a small saddlebag, sits on this saddlebag, and then tells Laban that she cannot rise before him because she is menstruating. The idols remaining undiscovered, and Laban's accusation thus appearing false, Jacob gives Laban a harangue two decades in the making. The episode ends with the conclusion of a treaty by which the two men part ways and lands forever.

    The presence of the teraphim in this gripping drama raises several questions. Most obviously, why are small pagan deities among the baggage of the future first family of Israel, God's chosen people? Why does Rachel steal the gods? (This question ought perhaps to be articulated two ways: why does Rachel steal the gods? and why does Rachel steal the gods?) Why is the narrator silent about the motive of her theft? When Laban pursues Jacob and his convoy, why is he so intent on finding the teraphim? And why does Rachel conceal them from him in the peculiar and cunning way she does?

    In large part, these are questions about the incongruity of the teraphim—in the arc of the story, in the family possessions, in the Jewish monotheistic tradition altogether. And yet, considered in the text itself, the teraphim are not incongruous at all. The narrator takes them for granted, offering neither an explanation of their presence nor a condemnation of it. This silence is very loud to us, especially when held against numerous condemnations elsewhere in the Pentateuch of pagan images, most explicitly in the Decalogue: "You shall not make for yourselves a graven image or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth below or in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exodus 20:4). We are faced with a peculiarity of the Hebrew Bible, in which explicit condemnation of idol worship runs parallel to explicit narration of it.

    In the Hebrew Bible, teraphim appear several times in purely narrative, as opposed to moralizing, contexts. In Judges 17, Micah constructs an extremely ornate shrine, complete with a hired priest, which is eventually robbed of its teraphim by a band of Danites. When David flees the murderous Saul in 1 Samuel 19, David's wife, Michal, devises an ingenious ruse that deceives her husband's pursuers: she places a life-size teraphim in David's bed and covers it with goat's hair, rather as if she and David were teenagers conspiring to convince his parents that he was fast asleep beneath the covers. For our story, this episode has two important implications, to which we shall return: first, that teraphim were common household objects-readily available furniture for the quick-thinking Michal-and second, that they had the potential for involvement in acts of cunning, trickery, or transgression.

    Interpretations of stories like those of Micah, Michal, and Rachel face an interesting exigency: the text's very lack of exigency. That is, the narrator of Genesis 31 is not especially concerned that Rachel's involvement with the idols might be theologically questionable. It is interesting, then, that almost all interpretations of Rachel's story amount to attempts to whitewash the theologically suspect parts of her story. A common reading of Rachel's action appeals to Leviticus 15: "When a woman has a discharge of blood which is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days.…And everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean" (Lev. 15:19-20). In other words, Rachel, by sitting on the teraphim while she is menstruating, deliberately defiles them in order to make them unfit for worship: she saves Laban from his paganism. This reading makes little inherent sense, since there is no need to defile something that is already quite unholy. More importantly, though, it makes little narrative sense. If Rachel found the idols offensive, why did she take such pains to find and to pack them during what must have been an extremely hasty preparation to go? Why did she enumerate them among her most essential household items, the things she would take away for a long journey from a place to which she would never return? And so on.

    I will not address the several variations on this theme of Rachel's pious inclination to purge the teraphim, because all of them have the flaw of indifference to the tide of the narrative. Iconoclasts break idols, throw them away, or simply abandon them; Rachel risked her life in the midst of extreme haste and preoccupation to spirit away the teraphim, and then she took great pains to conceal them.

    If Rachel did not steal the teraphim because she abhorred them, why did she? Before I give my suggestion in light of the exigency I discussed above, one other possibility seems worthy of scrutiny. This is the view (the one suggested by The New Jerusalem Bible) that Rachel stole the teraphim in order to preserve for Jacob a legal claim to her father's estate. It arises from archaeological evidence, a set of complex Hurrian rules of inheritance enumerated on the Nuzi cuneiform tablets. In essence, these rules specify that when a man dies, the son who inherits the household gods becomes paterfamilias (Greenberg 240). By taking the gods, Rachel gave Jacob primacy over Laban's own sons; she ensured that he would inherit the estate.

    Without interrogating the cuneiform evidence (which Moshe Greenberg has done to quietly devastating effect), I want to suggest a set of reasons why this idea does not work within the narrative. First of all, the household gods were stolen, not bequeathed. Had Jacob shown up at Laban's funeral with the teraphim in hand, he would have received an arrest warrant, not an inheritance. The gods were stolen with little obvious prospect of gain and at great risk-a risk implied by the lengths to which Rachel went to hide them, and by Jacob's acknowledgment of the gravity of such a theft: "Any one with whom you find your gods shall not live," he assures Laban (31:32).

    The utility of the gods in securing Laban's inheritance aside, there is no clear reason why either Jacob or Rachel would have wanted this inheritance. Had Jacob not spent the last decade differentiating his possessions from Laban's through an elaborate system of selective breeding? Jacob and his family were rich, richer in fact than Laban himself. It seems odd, too, that Jacob did not take matters into his own hands: had the desire for Laban's estate come over him, he could certainly have taken the gods himself, or ordered Rachel to take them. But he did not, a behavior somewhat at odds with what we would expect from an aspiring and conspiring heir. Lastly and most obviously, he was headed to Canaan, presumably for good. We hear nothing about a planned return to Paddan-Aram for the collection of an estate.

    In fact, we hear nothing more about this episode altogether. We never discover whether Rachel's theft of the gods results in Jacob's acquiring Laban's inheritance or the position of paterfamilias over Laban's own sons. Indeed, in light of later events-namely, Jacob's becoming essentially the patriarch of the entire Jewish people-Laban's inheritance and all similar legal issues come to seem simply insignificant.

    The Nuzi tablets idea, rather like pious interpretations of Rachel's theft, resolves the theological discrepancy at the expense of attention to the texture of the story. It elides the question of the gods' devotional function by treating the teraphim as legal tender, commodifying them to a point where their pious value is negligible or, at the least, less marked. This it does at the price of seeing the story as an excuse for an intricate legal calculation rather than as a dramatic tale of escape, physical risk, and violent wrenching of family ties. Whether or not it stands up to the cuneiform evidence, it does not stand up to the evidence of the text itself.

    I have explored these interpretations in some depth because I think they point to an important temptation with the Rachel story: the temptation to resolve a discrepancy rather than to recognize it and to explore its nuances. There is not much reason to try to resolve this particular contradiction when the story itself seems to be integrally about contradiction, clash, and separation. We can see a number of concerns flowing through the story as a whole as they are caught and crystallized in Rachel's actions, and by negating these concerns we lose something of the story.

    The Bible has many names for idols, some with extremely negative connotations: gillilum means "dung pellets," siqqus means "detestable thing," hebel means "that which is insubstantial or worthless" (Curtis 378). The term in Genesis 31, teraphim, is of uncertain etymology, not obviously negative. The teraphim seem to have emerged from traditions of ancestor worship among Semitic nomads, who gradually incorporated them into the generic cache of household objects that they carried from place to place (Steinmuller 1077). They probably persisted in the households of the Israelites long after the Babylonian Exile, and were used for soothsaying and the consultation of oracles in the domestic sphere: "what may be described as 'family devotion' or 'domestic piety,'" according to one cuneiformist (van der Toorn 208). As we have seen in the story of Michal's ruse, the Bible itself gives us reason to think that teraphim were commonly available household objects, even among Israelite kings. This evidence points toward a simple explanation for the presence of the gods in the story: they were used for worship in Laban's household.

    Of course, this does not explain why Rachel steals the gods, why Laban is so intent on getting them back, or why they are hidden as they are. But it gives us a useful tool for studying the narrative, and the narrative itself poses answers to these questions.

    An interesting pressure builds up in the story until the family's time of departure. Jacob evidently has been spending a great deal of time devising a way of separating himself and his possessions from Laban. After Joseph's birth, when it becomes apparent that Laban plans to keep his son-in-law in servitude, Jacob plans an elaborate and obscure system of selective breeding. He asks Laban for only the abnormal spotted and striped animals, but then mates them in such a way that they become the stronger breed. Thus Jacob creates two "races" of animals, Laban's and his own, analogous to the future division between Laban and himself as individuals.

    When God appears to Jacob in a dream in Genesis 31, it is exactly on this basis that He sanctions Jacob's abandonment of Laban and return to Canaan. Jacob recounts the dream to his wives:

    In the mating season of the flock I lifted up my eyes, and saw in a dream that the he-goats which leaped upon the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, 'Jacob,' and I said, 'Here I am!' and he said, 'Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that leap upon the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you.…Now arise, go forth from this land, and return to the land of your birth.' (31:10-13)

    Jacob's departure is keyed to his segregated possessions at several other moments as well. In the account of his escape, a forceful Priestly intercalation reminds us that Jacob leaves with his own things only: "Forthwith, Jacob put his children and his wives on camels, and drove off all his livestock—with all the possessions he had acquired, the livestock belonging to him which he had acquired in Paddan-Aram—to go to his father Isaac in Canaan" (31:17-18) (Wansbrough 55). When Laban catches up with Jacob after the escape, Jacob commences his tirade by defending the integrity of his belongings: "'What is my offence, what is my crime, for you to have hounded me like this? You have gone through all my belongings; have you found anything belonging to your household?" (31:36-37).

    The chapter ends with a final, formal differentiation of Laban's and Jacob's possessions: they conclude a treaty by which their lands are divided forever. "Then Laban said to Jacob, 'Here is this cairn I have thrown up between us, and here the pillar. This cairn is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I am not to cross to your side of this cairn and you are not to cross to my side of this cairn and pillar, with hostile intent" (31:51-52).

    Something very interesting is happening here. Jacob performs a number of scrupulous and detailed acts of segregation, which the narrator lists carefully because they make the departure from Laban possible and believable. Yet from the moment of his departure, it becomes clear that there is one thing Jacob will never be able to separate from Laban: their family tie—his blood and, significantly for our story, Rachel's blood. The lineage of Laban, Jacob's nemesis, persists down through all the twelve tribes of Israel.

    Returning to the escape: Jacob has just informed Rachel and Leah of his dream. They are frightened, but they agree: "do whatever God has told you" (31:16). The family packs hastily while Laban is away, shearing his sheep. There must be a great deal of confusion, panic, and prevailing fear that the paterfamilias will suddenly return and discover their preparations.

    For Rachel and Leah, the fear is deeper: they are suddenly leaving their home forever, going away to a place they have never seen. They pack essential things. Rachel seizes her father's teraphim, the gods of the hearth, of the home she knows and with which she has bonds of family and domestic ritual. These gods probably represent the figures of Laban's ancestors.

    She conceals them from Jacob for several potential reasons. First, she has done something instinctual, for her own security and comfort, which Jacob has not explicitly instructed her to do. Second, such a theft, if discovered by Laban, would thwart the escape and lead to unspecified dire punishments. Finally and most importantly, the gods are Laban's possessions, and they are probably deities representing the worship of ancestors; they thus run exactly counter to all of Jacob's efforts to differentiate his things and his family from Laban's. For the panicked Rachel, probably no single reason takes precedence; some uncertain combination of these motives conspires to make her conceal the teraphim.

    Three days later, Laban finds Jacob and his convoy. He immediately shows his concern to lie more with the sudden breach of a family bond than with the fact of Jacob's defiance. "Why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell?" he asks (31:28). Interestingly, he seems to accept the reasoning behind Jacob's departure: "And now you have gone away because you longed greatly for your father's house" (30)—he understands the pull of the father because he himself is attempting to exert that pull. And he is constrained from doing violence to Jacob by a command from God: "It is in my power to do you harm, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, 'Take heed that you speak to Jacob, neither good nor bad'" (29). Laban has only one way of reclaiming his family, and that is by proving Jacob a thief of objects explicitly belonging to the house of Laban: the teraphim.

    It is hard to say why Rachel conceals the teraphim by claiming to be menstruating; perhaps just because the ruse is ingenious, and because it works. I do not think it a coincidence, though, that Rachel's trick involves her own blood-the one link to Laban that Jacob cannot sever. The objects and symbolism of family lineage are too strong here to be fortuitous: a man speaking to his blood daughter, who is about to go far away from him; the daughter, fertile because she is menstruating, the mother of the twelve tribes of Israel; her blood, which is half her father's, concealing objects of reverence for one's ancestors. It is difficult to imagine a more potent convergence of images centering on Rachel's inextricable bond to the hearth and lineage of Laban, from whom she is about to be irrevocably separated.

    "'These daughters are my daughters and these children are my children, this livestock is my livestock.…But what can I do today about my daughters here or about the children they have borne?" Laban asks (31:43-44), relenting to the separation. He and Jacob conclude a treaty that decisively divides their lands, yet decisively joins them insofar as the fate of the daughters is concerned. "If you ill-treat my daughters or marry other women besides my daughters," Laban threatens, "even though no one be with us, remember: God is witness between us" (50). And the last thing Laban does before leaving for good is this: he "kissed his grandchildren and daughters and blessed them" (55).

    The endurance of Laban's own, forcefully asserted tie to his family implies another kind of endurance as well-that of spiritual and national ties. We never find out whether Laban is a follower of Yahweh, but most signs point the other way. Although he is Rebekah's brother, he lives far from Canaan, and he refers to Yahweh as "the God of your father" in 31:29 (the your varying between singular and plural in various translations). And Jacob's separation from him is more than geographical. Jacob is returning to the land of his father, Isaac, the Holy Land, where the story of the nation of Israel will presently commence. Laban will be conspicuously absent from that story. He is more than a person left behind; he is more profoundly a stranger, an outsider in the Israelites' history.

    Once again, though, Rachel's theft of the idols makes this break more conditional, more equivocal. It implies a powerfully felt, indeed instinctual, bond to Laban's habits of worship, to the customs of his home, to his spiritual tradition. This type of link, we know, continues to exist in the form of teraphim at least through the time of David. So the theological incongruity we immediately identify in the text actually functions as its central lesson: we cannot so easily separate our theology from our ancestors, or from their possibly divergent spiritual traditions. More broadly speaking, property and theological and lineal concerns do not run on parallel tracks; they emerge together from the mesh of family history, and cannot be disposed of even in the course of a dramatic breach such as that of Genesis 31.

    I think we can imagine this chapter being written another way: Jacob's Escape, a continuous coherent narrative, the grand drama of the final breaking with the house of Laban. That is perhaps the story to which some interpretations aspire. But the text does not give us this sweep of a story; we have to stop and puzzle over Rachel's perplexing, interesting gesture toward the things that cannot be left behind in the land of Paddan-Aram. In this way, peculiarly enough, the discrepancy, incongruity, and contradiction of her story remind us of an undeniable continuity.

    Works Cited

    • Bacher, Wilhelm. "Teraphim." The Jewish Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1916.
    • Curtis, Edward. "Idol, Idolatry." Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 3. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
    • Greenberg, Moshe. "Another Look at Rachel's Theft of the Teraphim." The Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (Spring 1962): 239-248.
    • Steinmueller, John (ed.). Catholic Bible Encyclopedia. New York: Wagner, 1956.
    • Van der Toorn, Karel. "The Nature of the Biblical Teraphim in the Light of the Cuneiform Evidence." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52:2 (April 1990): 203-223.

    Primary source for Biblical citations:

    • May, Herbert and Bruce Metzger (eds.). The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

    Secondary source for Biblical citations:

    • Wansbrough, Henry (trans.). The New Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1990.