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Household Gods

Certain biblical texts reveal that ancient Israelites kept, venerated, and even consulted “household gods,” or, more precisely, teraphim, sacred effigies of living-dead ancestors.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Rachel verbigt die Idole, 1726, fresco, 300 x 500 cm. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Some biblical texts contain evidence that ancient Israelites kept, venerated, and even consulted “household gods.” The Hebrew term for these objects, teraphim, appears fifteen times in the Hebrew Bible. However, the common translation of “household gods” (e.g., NRSVue) is misleading.

What were teraphim?

Mesopotamian households typically venerated three types of beings: bona fide deities, protective spirits, and dead ancestors. The teraphim in Israelite religion appear to correspond to the third type. They were likely effigies of supernatural, living-dead ancestors (that is, deceased ancestors who live on in a different form). Thus, when Laban searches for his stolen teraphim in Gen 31:30, he calls them his elohim (“gods”) rather than repeating the term teraphim (Gen 31:19, 34–35). In doing so, he is not referring to any major deities but to a different class of supernatural beings (see the term elohim in Ps 8:5 [Hebrew: 8:6]). Ancient Israelites would likely have understood Laban’s elohim as a group of living-dead spirits who look over his household (Exod 21:6; 1 Sam 28:13; Isa 8:19).

The biblical texts reveal that teraphim were human-shaped figurines of varying sizes. David’s wife Michal puts one in his bed to make it look like David was sleeping (1 Sam 19:11–17). This suggests that the teraphim were generally human shaped, sometimes close to life-size, which would be consistent with representing deceased ancestors. The teraphim in Gen 31 fit in a saddlebag, so they were smaller than David’s. Perhaps they were no bigger than the nine-inch-tall effigy presumably associated with the ceramic head unearthed at Abel Beth Maacah.

Although used in Late Bronze Age Syria and mentioned in Judg 17:5, dedicated domestic shrines were rare in Iron Age Israel. Instead, when teraphim were not in storage, they probably took up positions near the household door (Exod 21:6) or the meal place (1 Sam 20:6). This fits well with Iron Age archaeological evidence from Tel Mazor (Room 101) and Tel Halif (Locus G 8005), where worship objects appear to have been stored away when not in use.

How were teraphim used?

Teraphim were used for rituals and other sacred purposes in households. Several biblical texts associate teraphim with practices of divination (various techniques of learning paranormal knowledge). In Zech 10:2, the teraphim speak oracles. In Judg 18:5, Micah’s priest, who possesses teraphim, conveys knowledge of the future. Judges 17:5 pairs teraphim and the ephod, another instrument of divination (see 1 Sam 23:9). In Ezekiel, consulting teraphim is one technique that the king of Babylon uses to determine his invasion route, alongside divination and extispicy (gaining paranormal knowledge through the study of animal entrails). This suggests that teraphim represent neither deities per se nor talismans of fertility but a distinct group of supernatural beings, the living dead, who possess paranormal knowledge. The divinatory use of teraphim would therefore count as necromancy (the act of procuring otherworldly knowledge by conjuring the dead). In the case of the teraphim, one conjured dead ancestors.

Were teraphim illegal in ancient Israel?

According to 2 Kgs 23:24, King Josiah’s reforms targeted necromancers, mediums, and teraphim. The king declared these people and objects “abominations” in the land of Judah. The injunctions in 2 Kings follow those found in Deut 18:11, which contains a string of forbidden divinatory acts, including consulting the dead, all of which are declared “abhorrent to the Lord.” Notably, the two texts alternate reference to “teraphim” and language of “seeking oracles from the dead.” They disapprove of seeking oracles from teraphim, that is, from the dead.

However, the answer is not that simple. We have already seen several texts that have no problem with teraphim per se (e.g., 1 Sam 19:13). Moreover, the prophet Samuel forbids the use of divination in 1 Sam 15:23 but not the veneration of ancestors within the household. Texts like Exod 21:6 also seem to be okay with simple veneration, since the family’s elohim (its teraphim; see Robert Alter’s translation, “the gods,” and 1 Sam 28:13 NIV, REB; Isa 8:19) properly witness a ceremony attaching a bondsman to a family household. The teraphim’s presence keeps the memory of the deceased alive and thereby reinforces the family’s cross-generational bonds.

To sum up, the teraphim are not “household gods” in the sense many might suppose. They differ completely from pillared female figurines and other “talismanic” or “votive” household statuettes. They are certainly not “gods” or “idols” in the sense of Syro-Phoenician worship images, which are absent in Israelite domestic contexts. Although certainty eludes us, the teraphim were likely material representations of dead ancestors, who remained bonded to their family.

  • Dr. Stephen L. Cook has served as the Catherine N. McBurney Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Virginia Theological Seminary since 1996. He is the author of several books, including Ezekiel 38–48 in the Anchor Yale Bible series (Yale University Press, 2018), Reading Deuteronomy: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, 2015); and The Apocalyptic Literature (Abingdon, 2003). Stephen has served in several capacities for the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the American Society for Overseas Research.