Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Why did Rachel steal the idols, continued
We're continuing to study Rachel this week, and we're focusing on why she stole those household idols from her dad, Laban. I thought a little background might help us to better understand what this story is about . . .
Household gods, or teraphim, were common in the homes of this era. Their name could be translated "figures" or "images" or even "oracles." Some of them were fairly large, as seen when Michal, David's wife, uses one to make it look like David is asleep in his bed (I Samuel 19). Others, as in our story now, were smaller -- these were small enough to be hidden under the saddle for Rachel's camel. These figures were thought to provide protection, and also answer questions (divination). Kind of like an ancient ouija board, I guess. (Grin)
Some people have guessed that Rachel may have been looking around inside her father's tent before she left. In much the same way that we might look around in the house our parents lived in for years, and that perhaps we grew up in. Memories pop up with each glance around the rooms. Rachel was leaving home, and she had no way of knowing if she would ever see her father again. Perhaps she wanted to take something with her that reminded her of him and of her childhood. On the spur of the moment, she grabbed the images and left home.
I think the household gods had too great a daily significance to be something she took as a simple keepsake. Let's keep looking . . .
Was she worried that the idols might tell her father where they were headed? Perhaps they might assist Laban in tracking down Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, and all the children, servants, and the flocks. They were, in essence, running away -- would the idols tell Laban where to look?
This doesn't sound right, either. Laban, as an experienced cattle and sheep herder, would know in what direction they had gone . . . there would be no way to disguise the tracks of the immense herds of cattle and sheep, the tracks of the ox carts carrying belongings, the prints of the camels in their slow plodding across the sandy soil. It would be very easy to follow them, and to catch up.
Perhaps she was taking them as an insurance policy, of sorts. Of course, she loved Jacob with all her heart, and had all the confidence in the world in his ability to care for her . . . but hoping that all will go well doesn't insure a comfortable financial future. If famines were to come, and perhaps the cattle dwindled away, or if enemies stole the stock, the household gods could help. Why? Because these idols were often decorated with precious gem stones, and in an emergency, those could be sold.
Other scholars discuss a legal reason for Rachel's actions. Some ancient records seem to say that the household gods were sometimes symbols of property rights and family status. Having them in one's possession could indicate that the keeper had certain important privileges. I guess it was like who has the scepter of a kingdom, or to whom did they give the key to the city? (Grin) So, if Jacob had possession of the idols, it might prove that he was no longer in servitude to Laban. It could even mean that he was entitled to a portion of his estate. Jacob might already have attained this position, but perhaps Rachel wanted to make sure -- to give it a stamp of approval.
We've already seen Rachel as a charming and beautiful woman who won Jacob's heart at their first meeting at the well. We've seen her as a desperate woman, agonizing over the fact that she was barren. We've seen her jealousy of her sister, and we've seen her as a schemer who used her husband as a bargaining chip. Now we see that she is an independent and resolute woman. She has seen the relationship between her father and her husband becoming more strained, and she is taking the lead over her sister by siding with her husband. In the moment that they were leaving, she is motivated to take a most decisive action -- she is taking what she believes to be the law into her own hands.
This might be the reason she stole the idols. Jacob certainly was clueless. He either wasn't paying attention to the legal stuff, or he wasn't aware that she was going to do something impetuous! He did, however, make an extreme (and ultimately tragic) oath. He vowed that whoever was found holding the idols would be killed (verse 32).
I think there is one more possibility for why Rachel stole the household gods . . . we'll look at that when we conclude our study tomorrow.