Teraphim is a Hebrew word from the Bible, found only in the plural, of uncertain etymology. Despite being plural, Teraphim is thought to refer to singular objects, using the great plural of Hebrew which implies magnificence not plurality (cf. Elohim for El). The word Teraphim is explained in Classical Rabbinical Literature as meaning disgraceful things (dismissed by modern etymologists), and in many English translations of the Bible it is translated as idols, or household god(s), though its exact meaning is more specific than this, but unknown precisely.
Although the meaning of the phrase is unexplained in the text, some details can be ascertained by its use. In the Book of Genesis, Rachel takes the Teraphim of Laban, and hides it in a saddle bag, while in the Books of Samuel, Michal tricks Saul's men into thinking that a Teraphim in her bed is actually David; from these details some limits can be put on the size of Teraphim. Additional details can be gathered from the Septuagint translation of Teraphim; for its occurrences in Genesis it becomes images; for its occurrences in Samuel it becomes images and idols; for its occurrences in Ezekiel it becomes carved images; in Zechariah it becomes oracles and idols; in Hosea it becomes manifest objects.
In the narrative of Michal tricking Saul's men, it appears that, in the era of the narrative, there was a place for Teraphim in every household. In Hosea the Teraphim is described as being as essential as the ephod in national worship, but Biblical texts traditionally ascribed to later prophets seem to treat the Teraphim as something to be prohibited. In Genesis, Jacob takes the Teraphim of his household, and buries the Teraphim under the Oak of Shechem, which is clearly indicative of the Teraphim being something associated with Aramaean religion that was being given up; textual scholars attribute this passage to the Jahwist, whose religious prejudices are thought by textual scholars to have been far more conservative than those of Hosea, and potentially later than the relevant source of the Books of Samuel(though not its editing together with other sources to create the Books of Samuel).
The Teraphim would seemingly have been finally outlawed in Josiah's reform. However, Josephus mentions that there was a custom of carrying housegods on journeys to foreign lands, and it is thus possible that the use of Teraphim continued in popular culture well into the Hellenic era and possibly beyond
In the narrative of Micah's Idol, and in Hosea, the Teraphim is closely associated with the ephod, and both are mentioned elsewhere in connection with divination; it is thus a possibility that the Teraphim were involved with the process of cleromancy. That they were used for divination is suggested by Zechariah, which in the Septuagint often translates Teraphim as oracles, and in both Septuagint and masoretic text, evidently viewing them as somewhat negative, states for the [Teraphim] have spoken vanity, and the diviners have seen a lie; and they have told false dreams.
That Micah, who worshipped Yahweh, used the Teraphim as an idol, and that Laban regarded the Teraphim as representing his gods, is thought to indicate that they were evidently images of Yahweh. The implied size and the fact that Michal could pretend that one was David, has led to the Rabbinical conjecture that they were heads, possibly mummified human heads. According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first born male adult humans, shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate; it was believed that the Teraphim, mounted on the wall, would talk to people. During the excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon, evidence of the use of human skulls as cult objects was uncovered, lending credence to the Rabbinical conjecture. It is considered possible that they originated as a fetish, possibly initially representative of ancestors, but gradually becoming oracular.
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Givers of prosperity, idols in human shape, large or small, analogous to the images of ancestors which were revered by the Romans. In order to deceive the guards sent by Saul to seize David, Michal his wife prepared one of the household teraphim, putting on it the goat's-hair cap worn by sleepers and invalids, and laid it in a bed, covering it with a mantle. She pointed it out to the soldiers, and alleged that David was confined to his bed by a sudden illness (1Sam 19:13ff). Thus she gained time for David's escape. It seems strange to read of teraphim, images of ancestors, preserved for superstitious purposes, being in the house of David. Probably they had been stealthily brought by Michal from her father's house. "Perhaps," says Bishop Wordsworth, "Saul, forsaken by God and possessed by the evil spirit, had resorted to teraphim (as he afterwards resorted to witchcraft); and God overruled evil for good, and made his very teraphim (by the hand of his own daughter) to be an instrument for David's escape.", Deane's David, p. 32.
Josiah attempted to suppress this form of idolatry (2Kg 23:24). The ephod and teraphim are mentioned together in Hos 3:4. It has been supposed by some (Cheyne's Hosea) that the "ephod" here mentioned, and also in Jdg 8:24ff, was not the part of the sacerdotal dress so called (Ex 28:6ff), but an image of Jehovah overlaid with gold or silver (comp. Judg. 17, 18;
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Plural word of unknown derivation used in the Old Testament to denote the primitive Semitic house-gods whose cult had been handed down to historical times from the earlier period of nomadic wanderings. The translation of the term "teraphim" by the Greek versions, as well as its use in the Scriptures, gives an excellent idea of the nature of these symbols. Thus Aquila renders the word by "figures"; the Septuagint in Genesis by "images," in Ezekiel by "carved images," in Zechariah by "oracles," and in Hosea by "manifest objects" (δῆλοι). The Authorized Version often simply transcribes the word, as in Jdg 17:5, xviii. 14 et seq., and Hos 3:4, but frequently translates it "images," as in Gen 31:19 et passim. The rendering "images" occurs in 1Sam 19:13 also, "idols" in Zech 10:2, and "idolatry" in 1Sam 15:23.
The form of the word in Hebrew must be regarded as a plural of excellence. Just as "Elohim" denotes "gods" and "God," the form "teraphim" is applicable to each single object as well as to the entire class (comp. 1Sam 19:13 and Gen 31:19).
That teraphim were really images of human shape and of considerable size is plainly seen from 1Sam 19:13, where Michal, the daughter of Saul, places one in David's bed in order to conceal his escape from her enraged father. It is furthermore evident that they were not too large to be easily portable, inasmuch as Gen 31:19 mentions that Rachel, without her husband's knowledge, stole the teraphim which belonged to her father, Laban, and, when she wished to conceal them, placed them among the camel's furniture and sat upon them (Gen 31:34).
The nature of the teraphim cult and its gradual decay seem also perfectly clear. It may be noted that teraphim were regarded in early times as representatives of real gods endowed with divine attributes (comp. Gen 31:30, where Laban, rebu-king Jacob for Rachel's theft of the teraphim, asks, "Wherefore hast thou stolen my gods?"), and that evidently the teraphim cult was practically on a plane with Yhwh worship. In Jdg 17:5 Micah has "an house of gods" ( (missing hebrew text) ) with a duly appointed priest; he makes an ephod (see below) and teraphim, which were used together with "a graven image" and "a molten image" made from silver dedicated to Yhwh; the figures were evidently Yhwh images. The value of the teraphim to the family and the tribe is shown by the statements that Rachel stole them from her father (Gen 31:19), and that the Danites, when they went to spy out the land of Laish, took away by force from the house of Micah not only the Yhwh images just mentioned, but also the ephod, the teraphim, and the Levitical priest (see Judges xviii.).
In early times teraphim-worship was undoubtedly tolerated by the Yhwh religion, as may be seen, for example, from 1Sam 19:13 (the story of Michal, the daughter of Saul), where it is tacitly implied that a teraphim was a usual piece of furniture in the household of a loyal follower of Yhwh. In Hos 3:4 and in Gen 31:19, also, teraphim are alluded to without comment, although Prof. H. P. Smith ("Samuel," p. xxxiv.) thinks he detects a touch of sarcasm in the latter passage. It is certain, however, that teraphim soon became an object of distinct condemnation in the Yhwh cult.
In Gen 35:2 et seq. Jacob orders that the "strange gods" ( (missing hebrew text) ), by which teraphim images were probably meant, be put away by his household and buried. The spot which was thus defiled was made a holy place by Joshua (Josh 24:20-26). Furthermore, in 1Sam 15:23 Samuel in his rebuke to Saul is made to classify teraphim with iniquity ( (missing hebrew text) ) and rebellion ( (missing hebrew text) ). Josiah, the reforming king, did away with the magicians and wizards as well as with the teraphim and idols ( (missing hebrew text) ), all of which are grouped together as "abominations" (2Kg 23:24). With these passages should also be compared Zech 10:2 (R. V.): "for the teraphim have spoken vanity, and the diviners have seen a lie; and they have told false dreams."
It will appear from the above quotations that the most important function of the teraphim, at any rate after the spread of the Yhwh cult over Israel, was that of divination. Evidently the images were used chiefly for oracular purposes, although nothing is known of the method of their consultation; it is probable, however, that they were used in connection with casting the sacred lot (comp. Zech 10:2; Ezek 21:26 [A. V. 21]). The mention of an ephod in connection with teraphim (Jdg 17:5, xviii. 20) is a peculiar use of that word, which in these passages represents merely "a portable object employed or manipulated by the priest in consultation with the oracle" (comp. Moore, "Judges," p. 379, and see Jdg 8:27, which clearly describes an ephod as an object employed in divination). This use of the word seems to be quite distinct from that in the so-called P document (Ex 28:6 et seq.), where a high-priestly garment of the same name is referred to (see Ephod).
Such oracles were probably consulted down to a quite late date (comp. Hos 3:4, Hebr.: "for the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice [ (missing hebrew text) ], and without a pillar [ (missing hebrew text) ], and without an ephod, and without teraphim"). The passage 2Kg 23:24, cited above, makes it evident that teraphim had survived in later Judah. The mention of teraphim in Zech 10:2 may have been due to an archaizing tendency of the author of this section (see Zechariah), and would not in itself be sufficient evidence to prove that the teraphim cult had continued into the Greek period; if, however, this passage is taken in conjunction with the statement of Josephus ("Ant." xviii. 9, § 5) that the customof carrying house-gods on journeys into strange countries prevailed in his time in the Mesopotamian regions, it appears highly likely that the use of teraphim continued into the first Christian century and possibly even later.
It would seem, then, as remarked above, that teraphim, like the Roman Lares and Penates, originally represented house-gods, which were carried about by the primitive Semitic nomads as fetishes along with their family effects, and that these deities were in all probability worshiped at first as the most important divine objects known to the followers of this cult. Although nothing whatever is known about the origin of the teraphim cult, it may have been a survival of primitive ancestor worship; i.e., the images may have originally represented the deified ancestors of the family which revered them, and may have become later a sort of Manes oracle. They were probably not astral personifications. The cult could not have been regarded as indigenous among the Israelites, because the deities are characterized as "gods of the stranger" (A. V. "strange gods") in Gen 35:4. In Ezek 21:26 (A. V. 21) it is recorded that the King of Babylon consulted teraphim, and "looked in the liver"; i.e., he made use of magical incantations as well as of the astrological rites common in Babylonia. It is not at all unlikely that the Israelites obtained the teraphim cult from their Aramean kinsmen.
The word "teraphim" is explained by the Rabbis as meaning "disgraceful things" (Yer. 'Ab. Zarah ii. 41b; Tan., Wayeẓe). It is rendered "ẓalmanaya" or "ẓilmanaya" (= "images") by the Targumim of Onḳelos and pseudo-Jonathan to Gen 31:19, 34, and by the Targum of Jonathan in the other parts of the Bible, except in connection with the image of Micah (Jdg 17:5; xviii. 14, 18, 20), where it is rendered "dema'in" (= "likenesses"). The nature of the teraphim is much discussed by ancient commentators. According to Targ. pseudo-Jonathan to Gen 31:19, the teraphim were made of the head of a man, a first-born, which, after the man had been slain, was shaved and then salted and spiced. After a golden plate on which magic words were engraved had been placed under the tongue, the mummified head was mounted on the wall, and it spoke to the people. This legend is more fully developed in Pirḳe R. El. xxxvi., where it is said that after the head had been displayed on the wall, lighted candles were placed round it; the people then prostrated themselves before it, and it talked to them.
Ibn Ezra (on Gen. l.c.) records two definitions of "teraphim"; namely, (1) a copper dial by means of which one might ascertain the exact time, and (2) an image made by astrologers at a certain time and under the influence of certain stars, which caused it to speak. Ibn Ezra himself favored the latter interpretation, it appearing from 1Sam 19:13, 16 that the teraphim had the shape of a man. Naḥmanides (on Gen. l.c.), however, thinks that while the teraphim of Laban might have been idols, those of I Sam. l.c. were not, inasmuch as there could have been no idols in David's house. He thinks that in general teraphim were astrological tables by means of which one might learn future events (comp. Ḳimḥi on I Sam. l.c.). The "Sefer ha-Yashar" (section "Wayeẓe," pp. 46b-47a, Leghorn, 1870), after having repeated the description which Pirḳe R. Eliezer gives of the teraphim, declares that they were made of gold or silver, in the image of a man and at a certain moment, and that by the influence of the stars they revealed the future. It adds that the teraphim of Laban were of the latter description.