“Quick, we need to hurry. Pack all your things, we need to leave here as fast as we can. Your father no longer wants me here and we may be in danger. Pack your things and meet me at the gate as soon as possible.” This is how I picture Jacob and Rachel, when Laban no longer wanted Jacob around. Jacob was always a great helper, and he was the son he never had...until he had one. Jacob was probably the one going to receive the inheritance from Laban, but Laban had a son later in life and grew to be bitter towards Jacob. We see here that God's plan was not to stay with Laban, but to go back home to his brother Esau. So, in this picture from the opening statement, we can see how Rachel needs to pack her things quick and they need to leave as fast as they can. So why does she take, of all things, her father's teraphim. Genesis 31:19 says “When Laban went to shear his sheep: and Rachel had stole the images that were her fathers.” (KJV) Rachel knows that Jacob loves the Lord, the God of gods, so why does she do this?
One explanation is made by John Wesley when he says that “Some think they were only little representations of the ancestors of the family in statue or picture, which Rachel had a particular fondness for, and was desirous to have with her now she was going into another country. It should rather seem they were images for a religious use, penates, household gods, either worshiped, or consulted as oracles; and we are willing to hope, that she took them away, not out of covetousness much less for her own use, or out of any superstitious fear lest Laban, by consulting his teraphim, might know which way they were gone; (Jacob no doubt dwelt with his wives as a man of knowledge, and they were better taught than so) but with a design to convince her father of the folly of his regard to those as gods which could not secure themselves.”1 This says here that Rachel knew exactly what these teraphim were, that she viewed them as some sort of oracle or false god. The Hebrew word for teraphim means “...primitive Semitic house-gods whose cult had been handed down to historical times from the earlier period of Nomadic wanderings.”2 These things that Rachel was taking were meant for a purpose, and she wanted to use them. It never states anywhere in this passage that she told Jacob about them, which means she probably kept it quiet to him as well because she knew that Jacob worshiped the one true God. This also probably meant that Laban didn't worship God or he worshiped God with other gods. We see a lot of ancestor or oracle worship in old oriental societies, so Rachel still may be caught up in this act.
John Gill views this act of Rachel as an act of compassion for her husband and their family. He states that the “teraphim” could also be translated as “seraphim” and that they were angelic figures that some would place in their household and pray to for protection. Gill says that Rachel may have taken these “...that her father might not consult them, and know which way Jacob fled...”3 So Rachel was placing claim that she believed that these figurines would lead Laban to where they were and where they were going. Many 'Christian” religions today still pray to idols of saints or angels such as St. Peter or the Virgin Mary. Rachel was placing the same importance on these figurines as many religions place on different artifacts and statues today.
Another interpretation by W. Gunther Plaut says that “Nuzi records indicate that teraphim were often symbols of property rights and family status. Their possession could indicate that certain privileges had been confirmed by transmitting the ownership of the teraphim (cf. the symbolism of the scepter or of keys to a house). Thus, Jacob's possession of the teraphim might prove that he was no longer Laban's servant and that he was, therefore, entitled to a part of the latter's estate.”4 This means that these artifacts were a type of legal presiding, meaning that once Rachel took them for her family, that the legal rights of Laban would transfer over to Jacob. Jacob not knowing of the theft meant that Rachel used her cunning skills to grab the artifacts without her father knowing, and thus trying to transfer all of her families legal rights to her husband.
While I have never heard of the third explanation by Plaut, it made an impact on my beliefs of what Rachel did. However, my belief lies mostly in that Rachel took these Teraphim as an act of idol worship. Many cultures at this time were very polytheistic, even the land that Abraham came from, so it would occur to me that Rachel and her family were most likely polytheistic as well. This probably meant that Jacob has yet to make an importance on his family to be monotheistic and place their trust in God. Rachel doing this act of theft without her husbands knowledge most likely means that Jacob has stressed an importance of God, but not enough. I think this act of theft means that Rachel still has a belief that these teraphim, or false idols, will either protect them or give them guidance.
(Below is an example of what a teraphim is)
Jewish Encyclopedia. Teraphim. 1906.
Gill, John. Exposition of the Bible. (1748-1763)
Plaut, W. Gunther. Rachel Steals the Household Idols (Teraphim). The Torah: A Modern Commentary. Union of American Hebrew Congregations (New York). 214.
Wesley, John. Commentary of the Whole Bible. (1754-1765)