Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rachel and the Household Gods

And Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel cushion and sat on them. And Laban rummaged through the whole tent and found nothing. And she said to her father, "Let my lord not be incensed that I am unable to rise before you, for the way of women is upon me."
Genesis 31:34
 These "household gods"—as Alter translates—are, in Hebrew, teraphim.

A very old interpretation (the Tanhuma Yelammedenu) suggests that Rachel stole the teraphim in order to "eradicate idolatry from her father's home." What do you think? (Alter clearly disagrees!)

What might the teraphim have looked like? The Tanhuma has a picturesque vision of them:
And how were they constructed? First they would take a firstborn male child, kill him, and sprinkle him with salt and spices. Then they would write a demon's name upon a gold tablet and place it beneath the child's tongue while performing certain magical rites. After this, they inserted the corpse into a recess in the wall and bowed down before it. Then, they would bow down before it, and it would speak to them in a whisper.

(Tr. Samuel Berman) 

More likely, the teraphim were much less gruesome: "household gods," familiar deities made of stone or clay. Such deities--perhaps a foot or so high--have been found through much of the territory of ancient Israel. Here's a picture (from the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem).
We will see such household gods again later this term when we read the Aeneid, since the Romans had them as well.

—David Mikics

1 comment:

  1. I think you are correct household gods do mean a lot of things throughout our texts. I realize that the point of a household deity is to watch over the home and the family. However it is confusing to me as to why Rachel took the gods, and latter basically gave up her life for them, because Jacob had cursed the person withholding the gods. I understand they need to have a household protector, yet where are Jacob’s gods? Also, if Rachel is now married to Jacob should the same Gods still watch over them, since she had moved from one household to the other. Even though they are relatives, they have significantly different households.
    Another thing that was interesting for me was how the treatment of household gods is different in Genesis and the Aeneid. In Genesis Rachel is actually sitting on the household gods, which must mean that her posterior (“but”, the body part) is actually touching them. This is so different from what had happened in the Aeneid, when Aeneas was taking the idols out of his home before escaping. He did not even want to touch them with his dirty hands and thus asked his father to take them. It seems to me that the value of the household gods changes as the type of faith changes. In the Aeneid where the gods means everything and rule everyone the household gods mean significantly more than in Genesis where there is one god and it is considered okay to sit on the household gods with the part of your body with excretes waist.