Definitions

teraphim

teraphim

[ter-uh-fim]
teraphim, in the Bible, a plural term of uncertain origin referring either to household idols or to idols set up in a local sanctuary, or consulted for purposes of divination. Little is known regarding their form, except that they could be of a person's size, or small enough to be carried by hand.
Teraphim is a Hebrew word from the Bible, found only in the plural, of uncertain etymology. Despite being plural, Teraphim is thought to refer to singular objects, using the great plural of Hebrew which implies magnificence not plurality (cf. Elohim for El). The word Teraphim is explained in Classical Rabbinical Literature as meaning disgraceful things (dismissed by modern etymologists), and in many English translations of the Bible it is translated as idols, or household god(s), though its exact meaning is more specific than this, but unknown precisely.

Although the meaning of the phrase is unexplained in the text, some details can be ascertained by its use. In the Book of Genesis, Rachel takes the Teraphim of Laban, and hides it in a saddle bag, while in the Books of Samuel, Michal tricks Saul's men into thinking that a Teraphim in her bed is actually David; from these details some limits can be put on the size of Teraphim. Additional details can be gathered from the Septuagint translation of Teraphim; for its occurrences in Genesis it becomes images; for its occurrences in Samuel it becomes images and idols; for its occurrences in Ezekiel it becomes carved images; in Zechariah it becomes oracles and idols; in Hosea it becomes manifest objects.

In the narrative of Michal tricking Saul's men, it appears that, in the era of the narrative, there was a place for Teraphim in every household. In Hosea the Teraphim is described as being as essential as the ephod in national worship, but Biblical texts traditionally ascribed to later prophets seem to treat the Teraphim as something to be prohibited. In Genesis, Jacob takes the Teraphim of his household, and buries the Teraphim under the Oak of Shechem, which is clearly indicative of the Teraphim being something associated with Aramaean religion that was being given up; textual scholars attribute this passage to the Jahwist, whose religious prejudices are thought by textual scholars to have been far more conservative than those of Hosea, and potentially later than the relevant source of the Books of Samuel(though not its editing together with other sources to create the Books of Samuel).

The Teraphim would seemingly have been finally outlawed in Josiah's reform. However, Josephus mentions that there was a custom of carrying housegods on journeys to foreign lands, and it is thus possible that the use of Teraphim continued in popular culture well into the Hellenic era and possibly beyond

In the narrative of Micah's Idol, and in Hosea, the Teraphim is closely associated with the ephod, and both are mentioned elsewhere in connection with divination; it is thus a possibility that the Teraphim were involved with the process of cleromancy. That they were used for divination is suggested by Zechariah, which in the Septuagint often translates Teraphim as oracles, and in both Septuagint and masoretic text, evidently viewing them as somewhat negative, states for the [Teraphim] have spoken vanity, and the diviners have seen a lie; and they have told false dreams.

That Micah, who worshipped Yahweh, used the Teraphim as an idol, and that Laban regarded the Teraphim as representing his gods, is thought to indicate that they were evidently images of Yahweh. The implied size and the fact that Michal could pretend that one was David, has led to the Rabbinical conjecture that they were heads, possibly mummified human heads. According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first born male adult humans, shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate; it was believed that the Teraphim, mounted on the wall, would talk to people. During the excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon, evidence of the use of human skulls as cult objects was uncovered, lending credence to the Rabbinical conjecture. It is considered possible that they originated as a fetish, possibly initially representative of ancestors, but gradually becoming oracular.

See also

Citations and notes

Search another word or see teraphimon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2014 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature