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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(Heb. teraphim, תְּרָפַים; only thus in the masc. plur. in the Bible, but in the fem. plur. תְּרָפוֹת, teraphoth, in Rabbinical writers) seems to denote tutelar household images, by whom families expected, for reverence bestowed, to be rewarded with domestic prosperity, such as plenty of food, health, and various necessaries of domestic life. This word is in the A. V. always rendered either by "teraphim," or by "images" with "teraphim" in the margin, except in 1 Samuel 15:23; Zechariah 10:2, where it is represented by "idolatry," "idols." The singular of the word does not occur, though in 1 Samuel 19:13; 1 Samuel 19:16 it appears that only one image is referred to. Possibly; as in the case of the Roman Penates (which word, also, has no singular), these representative images were always two or three in number. Strange to say, in the Sept. they are represented by a different rendering in nearly every book where the word occurs: in Genesis 31 by εἴδωλα; in Judges 17:13 by θεραφίν or τὸ θεραφείν; in 1 Samuel 19 by κενοτάφια; in Ezekiel 21:21 by γλυπτά; in Hosea 3:4 by δῆλοι; and in Zechariah 10:2 by ἀποφθεγγόμενοι . In the Vulg. we find nearly the same variations between theraphim, statua, idola, simulacra, figurae idolorum, idololatria. For other translations, which we find to be equally ‘ vague aid various, see below.
I. Derivation of the Term. — The etymology and meaning of this word may be inferred from the various modes in which it is represented by the Greek translators, such as θεραφείν, τὸ θεραφεῖν, or τὰ θεραφίν, reminding us of the etymological connection of תר טר, to nourish, with τρέφ - ειν . Its remote derivatives in modern languages, viz. the Italian tarifa, French tarif, and even the English tripe, throw a little light upon our subject. According to its etymology, the word teraphim has been literally translated nutritores, nourishers. It seems that the plural form was used as a collective singular for the personified combination of all nourishing powers, as the plural teraphim signifies God, in whom all superior powers to be revered with reverential awe are combined (comp. the classical epithets of gods-Sol, Phoebus, Ceres, Venus, Cybele, Pales, Trivia, Fides, Sibylla, etc., almus, ὄμπνιος, τρόφιμος ). The word teraphim signified an object or objects of idolatry, as we .may learn from some of the above renderings of the Sept., εἴδωλον, γλυπτόν; and that it was in meaning similar to the Penates is indicated by κενοτάφιον . Aquila renders it μορφώματα, προτομαί, ἀνθυφαίρεσις, ἐπίλυσις, εἴδωλα; Symmachus also translates it εἴδωλα .
The book Zohar derives the name teraphim from תור, turpitude, but mentions also that rabbi Jehuda derives it from רפה, to slacken, because they slackened the hands of men in well-doing. The rabbi adds that they uttered a נבוּאה רַפה, prophetia laxa, inanis, vana, a loose sort of prediction. Hence rabbi Bechai says that תרפים are the same as רפים, feeble, objects not to be depended upon. But in Tanchuma the former etymology is produced, since the teraphim were טור מעשה, opus turpitudinis seufeditatis (see Buxtorfii Lex. Talmud. et Rabb. s.v. תר, which root occurs in the Lat. turpis). Onkelos renders teraphim in Genesis 31 by צלמניא, and Jonathan in Judges 17, 18 by רמאין, images. The Targum on Hosea 3:4 has מחוי, indicans, expounder of oracles, where the Greek has δήλων; and the Targum on 1 Samuel 15:23 טעותא, idols. Goussetius, under תר, goes so far as to assert that the word ἄνθρωπος is formed from התרפים . Lud. de Dieu, and after him Spencer, in Leg. Rit. Hebr. Dissert. (7, 1. 3, c. 3, § 7), urges the frequent interchange of the sounds t and s and sh, in order to show that teraphim and seraphim are etymologically connected. Hottinger, in his Smegma, and Kircher, in the first volume of his (Edipus Egyptiacus, exhibit the etymological progression thus: Sor Apis (σὼρ ἀπ, ark of the ox), Sarapis, Serapis, Terapis, Teraphivm. The Arabic author Aben Neph also asserts the identity of Teraphim and Serapides. Others appeal to רפא, θεραπεύειν, to heal (comp. Wichmannshausen, Dissertatio de Teraphim; Witsius, zEgyptiaca, 1, 8; Ugolino, Thes. 12:786). Coln, in his Biblische Theologie, derives teraphim from the Syriac araph, percontari. Gesenius':( Thesaur. p. 1519) refers it to the Arabic root taraph, "to live in comfort;" and compares it with the Sanscrit trip, "to delight," and the Greek τέρπομαι. Fü rst (Heb. Lex.) returns to the root תר, in the sense of nourishing.
II. Biblical References. —
1. Teraphim are first mentioned in Genesis 31:19, where we are told that Rachel stole the teraphim of her father Laban, and successfully concealed them from his search under the hiran, or coarse carpet which is used to cover the wicker-work pack-saddle of the camel. Aben-Ezra says that she stole them in order that her father might not, by means of their oracles, discover the direction of Jacob's flight (and we note that Laban adopted this or some other mode of augury from' his use of the word nichdshthi, "I have augured" [30, 27]); but Josephus says that she carried off these τύπους τῶν θεῶν that they might serve as a material protection to her if overtaken, although she herself disbelieved in them (καταφρονεῖν μὲν τῆς τοιαύτης τιμῆς τῶν θεῶν διδάξαντος αὐτήντοῦ Ι᾿ακώβου [Ant.;i,19, 8]); and, lastly, some suppose that she was tempted by the precious metals of which they were made. It is far, more probable: that, like her father, Rachel, whose mind was evidently tainted with superstition (Genesis 30:14), regarded the teraphim as tutelary "gods" (Genesis 31:30). Laban's eagerness to recover them shows the importance in which they were held; and it is important to observe that, although a believer in Elohim (Genesis 31:53), he openly paid to these teraphim, which were probably ancestral divinities of his family (ibid.), an idolatrous worship. Jurieu (Hist. des Dogmes et des Cultes, 2, 3, 456), after elaborately entering into the question, thinks that they may have been images of Shem and Noah. From this Biblical notice it would seem that they were usually somewhat large figures, which could not very easily be secreted.
2. It is extremely probable that these household deities were among the "strange gods" and talismanic earrings which Jacob required his .family to' give up, and which were buried by him under the boughs of Allon- Meonenim, "the sorcerers oak" (Judges 9:37). But an isolated act would naturally be ineffectual to abolish a cult which had probably existed for centuries in the Aramaean ‘ home of the Shemites; and, consequently, in the time of the Judges we find the worship of teraphim existing in full vigor. The 17th and 18th chapters of Judges are entirely occupied with the story of Micah, an Ephraimite, who in those wild and ignorant times had fancied that' he could honor Jehovah (Judges 17:13) by establishing a worship in his own house. To the ephod and teraphim which he already possessed (Judges 17:5) his mother added a Pesel and Massekach (possibly "a graven and a molten image") made out of the gold which she had consecrated to Jehovah and which he had stolen. When Jonathan, the grandson of Moses, arrived at the house in his accidental wanderings, Micah engaged him as a regular priest, and anticipated, in consequence the special blessing of Jehovah. The five Danite spies consulted these oracular Penates of Micah through the intervention of Jonathan (18:5), and informed the Danites on their way to Laish of the images which the house contained. The Danite warriors, with the most unscrupulous indifference, violently carried off the whole apparatus of this private cult, including the priest himself, to their new city and we are informed that it continued to be celebrated till the day of the captivity of the land," which, as we see from the next verse, may perhaps mean till the capture of Shiloh by the Philistines. What is most remarkable in this narrative is the fact that both Micah, who was a worshipper [of Jehovah, and the Danites, who acknowledged Elohim. (Judges 17:5; Judges 17:10), and Jonathan, the grandson of Moses himself, should, in spite of the distinctest prohibitions of the law, have regarded the adoration of teraphim and other images as harmless, if not as laudable and that this form of idolatry, without any political motive to palliate it as in the case of Jeroboam, should have been adopted and maintained without surprise or hesitation, nay, even with eager enthusiasm, by an entire tribe of Israel. This is very much as at present some forms of image-adoration are blended with the service of God. That such will- worship, however, was only comparatively innocent, and originated in an obstinate pruritus of improving rather than obeying God's revelation, Samuel clearly expressed tin reproving Saul (1 Samuel 15:23), "Stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry" (literally teraphim). We do not read that the stubbornness of Saul led him actually to worship teraphim. However, his daughter possessed teraphim, as; we shall see presently.
3. The next notice of teraphim which we find is in 1 Samuel 19:13-16, where Michal, to give David more time to escape, deceives ‘ the messengers of Saul by putting the teraphim" in his bed," with a pillow of goats'-hair for his bolster." The use of the article shows that "the teraphim" was something perfectly well known (Thenius, ad loc.); and the fact that we thus find it (or them.) in the house of a man so pious as David entirely confirms our inference as to the prevalence of these images. The suggestions of Michaelis that Michal may have worshipped them unknown to David, and that barren women were especially devoted to them, are wholly without foundation. The article (הִתְּרָפַים ) explodes; the arguments of Michaelis (De Theraphis, Comment Soc. Gö tt. 1763), Bochart (Hieroz. i, 623), etc., that the teraphim in this instance was a mere hastily made doll of rags; in fact, a sort of malkin. We may legitimately infer from the passage that they had some rude resemblance to the human shape, being, perhaps, something like the Hermae; hence Aquila in this place renders the word by προτομαί . The Sept. rendering κενοτάφια very probably points to the belief that the teraphim were images of deceased ancestors (κενοτάφιά τινα ησαν ἑλισσόμενα ὡς τύπος νεκροῦ . Suid. vid. Bo- chart, Hieroz. I; 2, 51); and the rendering' of put a pillow of goats'-hair for his bolster" by καὶ ηπαρ τῶν αἰγῶν ἔθετο πρὸς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ, "she placed the goats' liver at his head," shows that they read כְּבִר . "liver," for כְּבַיר, "mattress." Now if this ancient reading were correct, it brings the passage into remarkable parallel with Ezekiel 21:21, where Nebuchadnezzar is said to have decided his course by belomantia, together with consultation of teraphim and looking into the liver (extispicium). It is possible that Michal may have been divining by means of a sacrifice to the teraphim: when Saul's messenger arrived, and that she put the yet palpitating liver on the bed with the image, which in a small, dark, narrow recess might well enough pass for a human being. Josephus, with his usual want of honesty, omits all mention of the teraphim, and only says that she put the liver under the bedclothes, hoping that its motion would make the men more easily believe that David was gasping! (Ant. 6:11, 4). Theodoret (Quaest. 49, in 1 Reg.) repeats this preposterous notion.
On every revival of the knowledge of the written Revelation of God the teraphim were swept away, together with the worse forms of idolatry (2 Kings 23:24): "The workers with familiar spirits, and the wizards, and the images (teraphim), and the idols, and all the abominations that were spied in the land of Judah land in Jerusalem, did Josiah put away, that he might perform the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord."...
4. The next passage in historical order about the teraphim is Hosea 3:4, which is encompassed by difficulties. The prophet, purchasing Gomer to himself, bids her be chaste for many days, "for the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a sacrifice, and without an image (matsebâ h), and without an ephod, and without teraphim." Here it would certainly be the prima facie impression of every unbiased reader that the matsebâ h and the teraphim are mentioned without blame as ordinary parts of religious worship. Without, however,-entering into the question (which, perhaps, cannot be decided) whether Hosea did or did not mean to commend or tolerate these material adjuncts to a monotheistic worship, it is certainly not surprising that the reverence paid to the teraphim should have continued in Israel side by side with that paid to the calves, which beyond all doubt: were intended to be mere Elohistic symbols; and this is the less surprising when we remember that one of these cherubic emblems was set up in the very city (Dan) to which the teraphim of Micah had been carried; and probably, indeed, because of the existence there of the irregular worship established by Moses' grandson. But here, again, the Sept. version is curious and perplexing, for it uses the word δῆλοι (sc. λίθοι, bright gems), a word which, like δήλωσις, it uses elsewhere of the Urim and Thummim (Numbers 27:21; 1 Samuel 28:6); and Aquila seems to have had the same. notion in adopting the word φωτισμούς, and it is even countenanced by Jerome, who in this passage includes the teraphim among the "instrumenta sacerdotalis habitus." This is one starting-point for the theory, supported with such a mnass of splendid but unconvincing learning by Spencer (De Legg. Hebr. lib. 3, dissert. 7 p. 920- 1038), that the teraphim and urim were identical. He argues not only from this rendering δῆλοι, but also
(1) from the frequent union of ephod with teraphim;
(2) from the supposition that urim means "fires," and that teraphim means the same, being a mere Aramaic equivalent for seraphim, the burning ones
(3) from the constant use of terapihim for oracular purposes.
He concludes, therefore, that they were small images, permitted as a kind of necessary concession to deeply rooted idolatry, placed in the folds of the ephod and believed to emit predictions of the divine will. How ill the theory accords with the data before us will be obvious at once. This passage seems to indicate that as the use of teraphim, like that of the Penates and Lares among the Romans, was connected with nationality, it necessarily perished with; the nationality itself.
5. The teraphim were consulted even after the Captivity by persons upon whom true religion had no firm hold, in order to elicit some supernatural omina, similar to the auguria of the Romans. Thus (Zechariah 10:2): "For the idols (teraphim) have spoken vanity," etc. In like manner at a previous age, in connection with the haruspicia instituted by the king of Babylon, we read (Ezekiel 21:21; Ezekiel 21:26) that he consulted images (teraphim).
The main and certain results of this review are that the teraphim were rude human images; that the use of them was an antique Aramaic custom; that there is reason to suppose them to have been images of deceased ancestors; that they were consulted oracularly; that they were not confined to Jews; that their use continued down to the latest period of Jewish history; and lastly, that, although the more enlightened prophets and strictest-later kings regarded them as idolatrous, the priests were much, less averse to such images, and their cult was not considered in any way repugnant to the pious worship of Elohim; nay, even to the worship of him "under the awful title of Jehovah," as in the case of Aaron, Jonathan, Uriah, etc. (See some acute remarks on this subject in Nicolas, Etudes Crit. sur la Bible, p. 129-135.) In fact, they involved a monotheistic idolatry, very different indeed from polytheism; and the tolerance of them by priests as compared with the denunciation of them by the keener insight and more vivid inspiration of the prophets offers a close analogy to the views of the Roman Catholics respecting pictures and images as compared with the views of Protestants. It was against this use of idolatrous symbols and emblems in a monotheistic worship that the second commandment was directed, whereas the first is aimed against the graver sin of direct polytheism. But the whole history of Israel shows how early and how utterly the law must have fallen into desuetude. The worship of the gold pin calf and of the calves at Dan and Bethel, against which, so far as we know, neither Elijah nor Elisha said a single word; the tolerance of high places, teraphim, and baetytila; the offering of incense for centuries to the brazen serpent destroyed by Hezekiah; the occasional glimpses of the most startling irregularities sanctioned, apparently, even in the Temple worship itself, prove most decisively that a pure monotheism and an independence of symbols were the result of a slow and painful course of God's disciplinal dealings among the noblest thinkers of a single nation, and not, as is so constantly and erroneously urged, the instinct of the whole Shemitic race; in other words, one single branch of the Shemites was, under God's providence, educated into pure monotheism only by centuries of misfortune and series of inspired men. In fact, we have most remarkable proofs that the use of teraphim coexisted with the worship of Jehovah even in comparatively pious families; and we have more than one instance of the wives of worshippers of Jehovah not finding full contentment and satisfaction in the stern moral truth of spiritual worship, and therefore carrying on some private symbolism by fondling the teraphim. It seems, however, that this swerving from truth was comparatively innocent. It was never denounced and suppressed with the same rigor as the worship of Moloch. There is, in fine, no positive evidence that the teraphim ever were actually worshipped. They seem rather to have been cherished as talismans than as idols. (See MAGIC).
III. Opinions of Later Scholars. — Besides Spencer's theory, to which we have already alluded, we may mention others, utterly valueless indeed, yet curious as bearing on the history of the subject.
1. Rabbins. — According to the great rabbi Eliezer, who was the son of Hyrcanus and the brother-in-law of Gamaliel II, who seems to have been the tutor of Paul (in Pirke Aboth, and the Targum of Jonathan on Genesis 31:19), the worship of teraphim was connected with atrocities. "The makers of teraphim slaughtered a man who was a first-born, cut his head off and salted it, and cured it with spices and oil. After this, they wrote the name of an impure spirit and sentences of divination on a golden plate, which they placed under the tongue of the head which was fastened to the wall, and lighted lamps before it, and knelt down in adoration, upon which the tongue began to utter divinations." Rabbi Salomo, or Rashi (2 Kings 23:24), says, "The teraphim uttered divinations by magical and horoscopic- arts." ‘ On 1 Samuel 19:13 sq., he adduces the opinion that the teraphim were horoscopic and astrological instruments made of brass; but he confesses that this opinion, to which he is himself much inclined, is not consistent with the account of Michal, from which it is evident that the teraphim had the shape of man. On Genesis 31 Aben-Ezra adduces the opinion that the teraphim were automata, made by astrologers so as to show the hours and to mutter divinations. Hence the Persian Tawas in Genesis 31 translates astrolabia. Aben-Ezra also adduces the opinion that Rachel stole the teraphim of Laban in order to prevent him from idolatry, and from asking the teraphim whither his children had fled. Rabbi Levi ben- Gersom (on Genesis) states that the teraphim were human figures, by which the imagination of diviners was so excited that they supposed they heard a low voice speaking about future events with which their own thoughts were filled, although the image did not speak, an. operation which can only be performed by such natural organs as God has provided for that purpose.
2. Moderns. — Michaelis, in Commentationes Societati Gö ttingen si oblatae (Brem. 1763), p. 5 sq., compares the teraphim to the Satyri and Sileni, referring to the statement of Pausanias (6, 24, 6), that there were graves of Sileni in the country of the Hebrews; and alluding to the hairy ones ("devils," שְׂעירים ) of Leviticus 17:7. Creuzer asserts that the teraphim had something of asses in them (Commentationes Herod. 1, 277; Symb. 3, 208 sq.); and refers to the old calumny that the Jews worshipped the head of an ass (Tacit. Hist. 5, 4 Rutilius, 1, 387). Creuzer appeals also (Symb. 2, 340) to Genesis 31 in order to prove the fertilizing, or rather fecundizing, power of the תרפים, which scarcely can be proved from Genesis 31:19 (comp. here Rosenmü ller Scholia; Jahn, 3, 506 sq.).
IV. Recent Illustrations. — M. Botta found in cavities under the pavement of the porch of the palace at Khorsabad several small images of baked clay of frightful aspect, sometimes with lynx head and human body, and sometimes with human head and lion's or bull's body. Some have a miter encircled at the bottom with a double pair of horns, and others have their hair rolled in large curls. In front of several doors he saw the same cavities, of the size of one of the bricks, and about fourteen inches in depth, lined with tiles, and having a ledge round the inside, so that they might be covered by one of the bricks of the pavement, without betraying the existence of the cavity. It has been suggested that these images are the teraphim, or household gods, of the ancient Assyrians, which, being secreted under the pavement near the doors, were intended to protect the entrances of the palace from the admission of evil. See Bonomi, Nineveh- p. 156.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Teraphim'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/t/teraphim.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.