Family gods or idols. (Ge 31:30, 34) Although in the plural, the designation “teraphim” can also apply to a single idol. At least some of these idols may have been the size and shape of a man. (1Sa 19:13, 16) Others must have been much smaller, able to fit inside a woman’s saddle basket. (Ge 31:34) The teraphim were, on occasion, consulted for omens.—Eze 21:21; Zec 10:2.
The findings of archaeologists in Mesopotamia and adjacent areas indicate that the possession of the teraphim images had a bearing on who would receive the family inheritance. According to one tablet found at Nuzi, the possession of the household gods could under certain circumstances entitle a son-in-law to appear in court and claim the estate of his deceased father-in-law. (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. Pritchard, 1974, pp. 219, 220, and ftn 51) Perhaps Rachel, with this in mind, reasoned that she was justified in taking the teraphim because of her father’s deceptive dealings with her husband Jacob. (Compare Ge 31:14-16.) The importance of the teraphim with respect to inheritance rights would also explain why Laban was so anxious to recover them, even to the point of taking his brothers with him and pursuing Jacob for a distance of seven days’ journey. (Ge 31:19-30) Of course, what Rachel had done was completely unknown to Jacob (Ge 31:32), and there is no indication that he ever attempted to use the teraphim to gain the inheritance from Laban’s sons. Jacob had nothing to do with idols. At the latest, the teraphim would have been disposed of when Jacob hid all the foreign gods turned over to him by his household under the big tree that was close to Shechem.—Ge 35:1-4.
In Israel the idolatrous use of teraphim existed in the days of the Judges as well as the kings. (Jg 17:5; 18:14, 17, 20; Ho 3:4) It is not likely, though, that the teraphim served for purposes of inheritance in Israel, in view of God’s express command against the making of images. (Ex 20:4) Also, the prophet Samuel spoke of teraphim in parallel with uncanny power, comparing the use of both to pushing ahead presumptuously (1Sa 15:23), and the teraphim were among the appendages of idolatry cleared out of Judah and Jerusalem by faithful King Josiah. (2Ki 23:24) Hence, the fact that Michal, the wife of David, had a teraphim image among her possessions suggests that her heart was not complete with Jehovah and that David either did not know about her having the teraphim image or else tolerated it because she was the daughter of King Saul.—1Sa 19:12, 13.