Contributed by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis
The etiology of the word itself is subject to debate. It may be a derivation of the Hittite tarpi, meaning "spirit," of possibly from the Arabic, raffa, "shine." Teraphim were small figurines, evidently representations of either gods or ancestors, kept in the homes by the Semitic peoples. Teraphim were clearly regarded to be objects of power, as illustrated by the determination of Laban to retrieve the teraphim removed by his daughter Rachel when she departed with Jacob.1 Scholars speculate that teraphim may have been part of a complex of beliefs concerning the deified dead among the western Semitic peoples, including the Hebrews.
The Hebrew Scriptures clearly associates teraphim with mantic practices.2 The exact manner of their divinatory use is unclear, though Ezekiel 21:26 raises the possibility that arrows or other sticks may have been cast in front of the statues. The teraphim had some connection to the Urim and Thummim used by the Israelite priesthood. Both were used for divination, but some speculate they resembled each other in form as well as function. There is some evidence that some teraphim were made from alabaster or some other stone that would interact with light and may be related to the luminous elmeshu stone mentioned in Mesopotamian sources.
Article copyright © 2004 Geoffrey Dennis.