Israelite Divination and the Mysterious Teraphim

My latest video is on the story of King Saul and his visit to the so-called Witch of Endor to summon the spirit of dead Samuel. It’s based on an article I wrote several years ago, but as usual, I’ve added some new material.

A biblical topic that intersects the practice of necromancy—though not specifically the ritual at Endor—is that of the teraphim. These religious objects play a minor role in several stories and are also occasionally mentioned by the prophets, but their physical appearance and their purpose remain conjectural. Based on parallels in neighboring cultures, scholars have often thought that they were household idols of some kind, inherited from one generation to the next. Knowing more about them could be the key to a better understanding of Israelite folk religion. Let’s take a look at some key passages.

Rachel the Burglar

In Genesis 31, Rachel steals the teraphim belonging to her father Laban while her husband Jacob is preparing to secretly relocate his family to Canaan. Later, Laban pursues Jacob’s caravan to Gilead, and when he catches up, he searches the tents of Jacob’s household for the stolen goods. The theft is regarded as so serious that Jacob agrees to kill whoever is responsible. Rachel, however, conceals the teraphim under some camel cushions and sits on them, so they are never discovered. Quick thinking, Rachel!

This story highlights the importance of teraphim to their owners, and it seems to be taken for granted that Laban would own some. Rachel’s purpose in stealing them has confounded interpreters for millennia, as the text itself gives no reason. However, the context concerns the fact that Jacob has grown wealthy at Laban’s expense—a fact that has soured their relationship (31:1–2). Rachel’s stealing the teraphim might just be another example of wealth being transferred from Laban’s household to Jacob’s.

Some interpreters, however, think that a more practical motivation underlies the theft. Several ancient rabbis (including Rashbam and Ibn Ezra) argued that Rachel stole the teraphim to prevent Laban from divining her family’s whereabouts. In other words, the teraphim could be used for divination—a possibility we’ll examine below. Esther J. Hamori thinks it’s the other way around—that Rachel intended to use them for divination herself (Hamori, pp. 191–192). After all, did not her son Joseph grow up to become a famous diviner of dreams?

Yet another possibility is raised by Erin D. Darby in an article at She thinks that Rachel, as the mother of Joseph, represents the northern kingdom of Israel, and her theft provides a basis for the teraphim at the northern temple in Dan—though in my view, there is nothing in the story to suggest this. However, this idea ties into the next teraphim story.

Rahel verbirgt die Idole (“Rachel sits on the idol”), fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1726-1728, photograph by The Yorck Project

The Pillaging of Micah’s Temple

Judges 17 and 18 tell the odd tale of an Ephraimite named Micah who procures a silver idol, a teraphim, and an ephod (not the later priestly garment called an ephod but some kind of box or portable shrine), and he uses these to furnish a temple that apparently belongs to him. He even hires a wandering Levite to serve as priest.

Then, one day, a band of Danite warriors passing by Micah’s house decide to steal his idol, teraphim, and ephod, and lure away his priest. They bring these items to their newly conquered homeland and use them to establish their own temple to Yahweh. It is widely understood that the purpose of this story was to explain the origins of the Danite temple and its cultic objects. The description of Micah’s temple as bet elohim (house of God) and its location in the Ephraim hill country suggests a hidden polemic against the sanctuary at Bethel as well (Edelman 2021, p. 63).

Here, the teraphim’s purpose is connected with a temple cult. Furthermore, we know from Hosea 3:4 that the teraphim and ephod belonged together as cultic objects in the temple. The immediate impression is that it serves a different purpose than the teraphim that Rachel stole. At any rate, there is an explicit link with divination this time, since in Judges 18:5–6, the spies who precede the Danite army ask Micah’s priest to perform divination on their behalf to determine if their mission will succeed. (As it turns out, we learn that Yahweh has blessed their mission.) It seems logical that this ritual was performed using the ephod and teraphim.¹

Palace Guards Hate This One Trick

The story of Michal helping David evade Saul’s guards by putting a teraphim in his bed, dressing it up to look like him, and then telling the guards David is sick (found in 1 Samuel 19:11-16) while David escapes out the window does little to inform us of the teraphim’s purpose. It simply suggests that teraphim could be nearly life-sized, and that it was not unusual for a household to have one around.

“David Escapes”, The Bible Panorama, or the Holy Scriptures in Picture and Story (1891), William A. Foster

Other References

Prophetic references to the teraphim are found in Ezekiel 21:21 and Zechariah 10:2. In both instances, they are connected with divination. In the case of Ezekiel, it is the king of Babylon who is described as using a teraphim for divination.

We also find a condemnation of teraphim in 1 Samuel 15:23 in connection with divination as a rejection of Yahweh’s word (which would also be obtained through divination, implying a contrast between acceptable and unacceptable divination methods), and in 2 Kings 23:24, where the teraphim is associated with necromancy.

Domestic Cult or Temple Cult? 

The main problem with how teraphim are depicted in the Bible is described as follows by Karel van der Toorn:

Summing up, the following picture emerges. The teraphim are cultic images of usually-modest proportions, appearing in two capacities. In some texts they are religious items belonging to the household; in other texts they are resorted to for purposes of divination, with nothing suggesting a connection with the domestic realm (Van der Toorn 1990, p. 215).

The solution, Van der Toorn believes, is that the teraphim represented dead ancestors who had been raised to the status of semidivine beings, which made them useful in both domestic and temple settings. He makes the comparison to Catholic images of saints, which can be found in people’s homes as well as in churches. Because they represented a lower class of being, they would not have been seen as competition for the veneration of Yahweh.

Van der Toorn believes a close parallel can be found among the Assyrian cuneiform documents, which describe practices intended to please the spirits of dead ancestors. Evidence for similar household ancestor cults is found at Nuzi and at Emar (Van der Toorn pp. 220–221), important archaeological sites in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and Syria.

Recent scholarship generally agrees with Van der Toorn’s view, including that of Hays (2011), Hamori (2015), and Cox and Ackerman (2012). Cox and Ackerman take this theory even further, arguing that a teraphim was intimately connected not only with the dead ancestor it represented but also with that family’s burial ground and, more generally, the concept of household inheritance. The Judges story implies that Micah’s father has recently passed away, and Cox and Ackerman propose that Micah’s new teraphim is actually a representation of his father.² Thus, what the homeless, inheritance-less Danites steal is their own connection to the ancestral spirits of the land.

Seen in this light, the Rachel story can also be understood as Rachel reclaiming the inheritance of Abraham’s family from Terah for her own family, and relocating it to the Promised Land.

You Can’t Just Say the Word ‘Necromancy’ and Expect Anything to Happen³

So let’s accept the general view that the teraphim (1) were idol-like objects that represented and/or embodied ancestral spirits, and (2) were used for ancestral devotion and divination. The first part is easy to understand. You can put the teraphim a place of honor, say prayers, and present it with offerings like food, drink, and incense. There are plenty of cultures that still do these things today.

But using a teraphim for divination—how does that work, exactly? It’s not as if one could just ask the teraphim questions. Unless you have a spirit-diviner handy who can “tell” you what the spirit is saying, you’re not going to have much luck. As Van der Toorn himself admits, “The actual method of obtaining an oracle from the teraphim eludes us” (p. 215).

Other divination methods described in the Bible are more straightforward. One is casting lots (cleromancy), which in some cases was done with two stones or dice-like objects called the Urim and Thummim, and in other cases was done with something called goralot, which were probably divination pebbles  (Cryer 1994, pp. 273ff). Another is dream divination (oneiromancy), which would typically involve the dream of one person being interpreted by another person, a dream specialist. The obvious biblical examples are Daniel and Joseph, both of whom serve in a foreign court as dream interpreters. Several Neo-Assyrian texts suggest that a dream omen could be solicited by burning incense as an offering to the dead. The act of interpretation might involve learning a system of rules; the Assyrian Ziqiqu Tablet IX, for example, gives a long list of elements that might occur in a dream along with their associated meanings (Rochberg, pp. 83ff).

Perhaps—and this is just an uninformed guess—the teraphim worked in tandem with another method, like dream divination. The diviner could offer prayers or incense to the spirit of the teraphim and hope to receive an interpretable dream in return—in which case, the services of a specialist, like a priest, would also be required.


  1. David and Saul are also described as using an ephod to perform divination on several occasions. Should we assume that this ephod (possibly the same shrine as the Ark of the Covenant) contained a teraphim?
  2. Among other things, they show that the temple is assumed to be a pre-existing structure that must have served the veneration of earlier ancestors. The reason for Micah initially installing his son as priest is that Micah himself had been the priest of the temple while his father still lived.
  3. My apologies to the three of you who haven’t watched The Office.

Works Cited


Special thanks to John Kesler for proofreading and feedback.

5 thoughts on “Israelite Divination and the Mysterious Teraphim

    • Yeah, they’re all interesting stories in their own right, and they give us viewpoints that we don’t really get from the religiously stricter Priestly writer—who never mentions teraphim, or sheol, or anything related to the afterlife.


      • And I’m back. Though I doubt I’ll really ever do it this is one reason I would really like to learn Hebrew. I checked various translations and they were inconsistent on what they translated terephim in these different locations so I would never have seen the connection. I was wondering why I had little memory of the Rachel story and there most translations called it “household gods” and therefor cast it as automatically negative. David is swapped out for “an idol”, and then in Ezekiel and Zachariah they keep the word Terephim (at least in the NRSV).

        I watched your “Witch” of Endor video. Excellent content. Even as a child I was always thrown off by that story as it seemed so out of place. I’ve read some strained interpretations to make it fit more modern evangelical interpretations including that it wasn’t really Samuel who emerged but a demon pretending to be Samuel and then my favorite, the reason the woman calls it in fear is because she was really a fraud and was shocked it actually worked!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting that you point out the inconsistent Bible translations. Before Van der Toorn’s research (cited above), the usual assumption was that teraphim were “household gods/idols”, so I think Bible translators were trying to distinguish between domestic teraphim and temple/divinatory teraphim. And in the case of Judges 17–18, the teraphim and the idol are separate objects in Micah’s temple.

          Regarding the video, I considered getting into that aspect but decided it would make the video too long. Yeah, in churches today and even throughout history, people have tried coming up with excuses that let the story be true without necromancy being true. “A demon did it” is a common one, and “God intervened this one time to make Samuel appear” is another. All those explanations contradict the story as told and are not needed by the story’s historical and literary context.


  1. I never thought there would more to the Terephim, definitely more than simply “household gods” as the NRSVUE translates the word in Genesis 31:19.

    Liked by 1 person

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