The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 4 of 5

Continued from Part Three.


The Teraphim against The Promise

The Hebrew Bible presents the divinatory cult of ancestors in the ancient Near East –present also in Israel, and widespread enough to warrant later legislation against it (see Deuteronomy 26:12-14, commanding that no portion of a temple offering can have been given to one’s ancestors, vi&, “the dead”)– as having notably similar tendencies to the divisiveness of heirlooms in Beowulf.

In the ancient Near East, ancestors appear to have been somehow preserved or mummified, to have been installed in special places within the home, and to have been consulted, or otherwise used, in magical rites. (There are cultures that do things like this today, totting out their mummified family members on special days and dressing them up.) In the Hebrew Bible, there is a word “teraphim” that seems to refer to these mummified ancestors (though there is not agreement on this point among scholars — see also the canvas of 20th century opinion of this on pp.37ff. of Rainer Albertz).

These teraphim are often rendered as “idols” in our English translations, but it is my contention that they are not to be sorted so easily into the category of graven or molten images. In chapters 17 and 18 of the Book of Judges, the teraphim are differentiated from both of these kinds of images, and are associated with divination together with another item, the ephod. [1] (Zechariah 10:2 also suggests that the teraphim are used in mantic oracles, answering questions put to them. [2]) In Judges 17 & 18, teraphim owned by members of the tribe of Ephraim are stolen by raiding members of the tribe of Dan. The original Ephraimite owner of the teraphim is, ironically, willing to die for them in a hopeless attempt to reclaim them, together with his household, outmatched by the invading tribe; the dead teraphim become merely an occasion for death.

There is also good reason to think that the teraphim were not merely ancestors, but deified ancestors, “elohim” and “teraphim” being largely synonymous. [3] As “family deities” or “house gods,” the teraphim are apparently connected to the horizon of the family’s concerns, having the family, or the clan, as their milieu.


The first occurrence of the word “teraphim” in the Hebrew Bible is in chapter thirty-one of the book of Genesis. Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, has just labored fourteen years to marry Rachel, the younger daughter of Jacob’s uncle, Laban. Laban agreed to give Rachel to be Jacob’s wife in exchange for seven years of Jacob’s labor; after Jacob had completed his agreed-upon term of service, Laban tricked him by offering his oldest daughter, Leah, to Jacob on the wedding night that was supposed to be for Jacob and Rachel. Laban justified this on the pretext that it wasn’t a ‘done thing’ to marry the younger daughter before the older. Jacob still loved Rachel; Rachel’s father used this to extract another term of seven years of service from Jacob, this time in exchange for Rachel. Jacob fulfilled his time, and married Rachel, too. He had children by them (again: more complicated in the text), and continued working for Laban, at which he was very successful. Laban’s sons became upset at Jacob’s success, and the rich yield it brought him and his family (though there is, again, more to the story than this, it’s not relevant here); Laban began to sour on Jacob. In a call that might remind us of the call of Abram that we looked at in the second post to this series, an angel appeared to Jacob and commanded him to “arise, [and] go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred”; Jacob then told his wives, who said that their father had basically swindled them, and “has indeed devoured our money”. Then they all left, unceremoniously, without a goodbye to Laban.

Just before leaving, while her father Laban was out of the house, Rachel stole the “teraphim” belonging to him. Laban later calls them “my gods,” and Jacob, speaking with Laban, calls them “your gods.” Targum Neofiti (the Targumim are basically Jewish paraphrases of books of the Hebrew Bible) has this to say about Laban’s teraphim:

When Laban had gone to shear his flock, Rachel stole the images. For they would slay a man a first-born, cut off his head and sprinkle it with salt and spices. They would write magical formulas on a plate of gold and put it under its tongue. Then they would set it up on the wall, and it would speak to them. And it was to these that [Rachel’s] father [Laban] bent down. [Targum Neofiti on Genesis 31:19]

The degree to which this passage is historically precise is irrelevant. If the teraphim can be worth going to war over, as we saw in the Ephraimite-Danite conflict in Judges 17 & 18, even when the cause is futile, we can see even more clearly an image of how divisively and violently this can play out in chapter thirty-one of the book of Genesis. Laban has his “elohim” stolen from him by his daughter Rachel while she is fleeing from him together with Jacob and all his house. Here, the Genesis author makes his vision clear: to be involved with these teraphim is to seek refuge in a spider’s-web. (It seems almost ironic that these teraphim –assuming that they were deified ancestors– were offered food. [Deut 26:14] They seem to feed instead on those who feed them, as though they themselves were the spiders in this web.) If it were not for the Lord’s appearing to Laban in a night vision and issuing him a command about how he was to behave toward Jacob, these teraphim, Laban’s “gods,” would have become the occasion for violence just as the heir-looms mentioned in Beowulf.

Assuming I am correct about the teraphim, it is curious that Laban interacts mantically with his ancestors to the end of predicting future events [Gen 30:27] while neglecting to care for those living humans who are his actual future, and who are present-here-and-now with him — his nephew Jacob, the two daughters he has married to Jacob, and their swelling clan. The teraphim thus appear as a rearward-whispering sink, drawing attention away from both the forwardness of life and the forward hope of the divine promise, all the while ensnaring one and one’s family in death. Laban used his daughters merely as a means to secure for himself alone the blessings that came from Jacob’s hand. It was not in love or repentance that Laban pursued Jacob when the latter fled from him, to make good of the occasion by providing a proxy for the very festive fare-well that he said he would have otherwise sent Jacob off with. Instead of this, instead of equipping him with gifts, he accuses him of treating his daughters as cattle or slaves of war [Gen 31:26] and of taking his “gods.” His gaze is petrified over-the-shoulder, as it were; he has devolved into himself, and is dissolved among the dead. There is no forward direction for Laban, he sees only backwards.

The suggestion of the biblical author is that the teraphim do not even provide life and unity within a family, let alone the community at large – for Laban set out for his nephew Jacob and his own daughters, ready to go to war for his “gods”. The teraphim, and the concerns that cluster around them, cause division and violence – cause death. (Appropriately, when Rachel hides the teraphim, she hides them under a pillow upon which she is menstruating. Ancient Israelite culture associated menstruation with death, with the departure of blood, which was thought to carry life. [Leviticus 17:11,14] That a deified ancestor did not provide offspring for Rachel –God did– and that she then sits atop the mummified ancestor while in a state of ritual impurity, while in a state of what was then considered miasmic deathliness, certainly seems like some heavy-handed satire against the teraphim.)

There is a kind of veneration of the patriarchs in the biblical text, but it is not like –or not supposed to be like– this engagement with the teraphim. There is a kind of memory that points to the future, as it moves from exile into a promised future, and there is a kind of memory that is a sort of slavery to the dead, one that prevents good futures from opening up, one that aborts a genuine novelty before it arrives — sometimes precisely because it is new. We are not surprised to hear someone say that our religious traditions cannot simply be repeated and be expected to be healthy. So Jaroslav Pelikan on religious tradition:

Tradition is not fixed for all time; on the other hand, it is not completely subject to historical vicissitudes. It is the perpetuation of a changing, developing identity. Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering we are where and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition. Of course, that doesn’t stand up under any kind of honest and critical historical scrutiny, because the more you poke around, the more heterogeneous this supposedly homogenized tradition is.

[…] It’s clear that you can’t freeze the consensus of a particular moment in history. You are true to the tradition so long as you look at it honestly and critically. You must never say to any moment, “Now remain. You are so beautiful. I don’t want anything ever again to move.” [U.S. News & World Report, June 26, 1989, HORIZONS; CONVERSATION; Vol. 106, No. 25; Pg. 57]

Pelikan’s description sounds much like Laban’s mindset towards his daughters and Jacob — destroying the present and future for the sake of the past. It is not only religious traditions, though: even our accumulated political wisdom, or our moral principles must be understood and discerned and adapted if they are to be received faithfully, and if they are to secure wisdom against folly, or harmony against discord, or life against death; everything life-giving that is born within time is susceptible to becoming like the teraphim. Improvisation without reference to the main melodic line or the notes that have been played before or the chord changes that are occurring only results in a mess, so there is some continuity that is real, possible, and necessary. There are principles beneath the changes, even if we can’t see them, or are mistaken about them, and need to better sort what they are in the light of what is occurring.

So, what of our accumulated goods? What are we to do with them? –what of our previously-negotiated collective political and cultural identities, how are we to engage with them? In addition to whatever religious merits they have (or don’t have), the Beowulf text and Genesis offer helpful models for reflecting on our current cultural and political context. Some things may be necessary to maintain (in the biblical text, this is the memory of, and trust in, the divine promise), and some to jettison (in the biblical text, anything like the cult of the teraphim), but what? What brings death, and what opens up the future?




[1] Thus, in Judges 17:4-5: “the silversmith […] made [the silver the Ephraimite Micah’s mother gave to him] into a graven image and a molten image; and it was in the house of Micah. And the man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and teraphim, and installed one of his sons, who became his priest.” Micah also installs a Levite “to be to [him]  priest and father”. Later, when the Danites are marauding through Ephraim, the spies note that in the houses of Micah are “an ephod, teraphim, a graven image, and a molten image.” [Judges 18:14]

The teraphim of one Ephraimite family are seemingly taken captive here by members of another tribe, that of Dan. Further, in the text, the Levite divines (presumably via the ephod and the teraphim) that “the journey on which [the Danites] go is under the eye of the LORD” [Judges 18:6, RSV]. If I am right about this divining, that would mean that a teraphim from an Ephraimite family gives an oracle, by a Levite, to Danite scouts for a Danite raiding party, in favor of the Danite tribe’s conquest of the Ephraimites. This seems to be satirical on the part of the writer.

Whether house-god statue or mummy, the teraphim are not, for the author of the book of Judges, what secures blessing and continuity or even familial identity and continuity. The Danites take the Ephraimite teraphim, ephod, molten and graven images formerly belonging to Micah, and the Levite, which all become theirs.

[2] Zechariah 10:2 reads that

the teraphim speak iniquity, / And the diviners see lying visions / And tell false dreams; / They comfort in vain. / Therefore the people wander like sheep, / They are afflicted, because there is no shepherd. [NASB]

This judgment is not nearly as clear and pronounced in Hosea 3:4-5, written centuries earlier:

For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king; and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days. [RSV]

(Isaiah 19:3 looks poorly on this practice, as though seeking the dead were a futile and necrotic attempt to circumvent the God of life, and Deuteronomy 18:11 outright forbids necromancy.)

[3] In the first book of Samuel, Michal hides a teraph in her bed and puts a pillow of goat’s hair on its head to disguise it as David. [1 Samuel 19:11-17] I write teraph, even though the singular is “teraphim” in the Hebrew: i.e., it is in the plural, just as the dead prophet Samuel is referred to as an “elohim” (plural of “god”) when he is summoned from the dead by the Ghostwife (she is “Ghostwife”, not “witch”) of Endor. The two do not appear to be entirely disconnected, as the dead are treated as gods within the household cultus. That the dead might be considered gods by some is not unknown to Isaiah, who associates the link with necromantic practices:

And when they say to you,

“Consult the Necromancers and the Soothsayers who chirp and mutter
– should not a people consult their gods,
the dead on behalf of the living?”

To the teaching and to the testimony!
Surely for this word which they speak there is no dawn. [Isaiah 8:19-20.]

This is, unfortunately, not how most translators take the sense of “elohim” here, reading it as a name for God, rather than the household gods that it clearly refers to as part of necromantic practice. They do this because they end the quotation earlier: “when they say to you ‘consult …’ Should not a people consult their God, the dead on behalf of the living?” This way of translating the passage makes the suppliants dead, and God the god of life. This is not the sense of the passage in its context, however, as this polemic is continued in the following verses, where the gods of the necromancers, which are mummified and deified ancestors, are associated with “the earth”, to which the people look.

13 thoughts on “The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 4 of 5

  1. I am eagerly anticipating the next (and final?) installment of this series. It’s offered some deep consolation in the midst of my own confusion. . . the sort of confusion that arises whenever one returns to teaching Plato to undergraduates. Indeed the gadfly is always with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so happy it’s been a consolation for you, Peregrinus. Do you mean the undergrads stir up confusion in you? I can certainly see how they could. Teaching them is tough work, but a very valuable struggle: soldier on, friend!


      • In part, yes – undergrads confuse me! But there’s also that sort of nagging “you are never too good for the basics” feeling I get when I go back to, for instance, Socrates’ Apology. That sort of intuitive, primordial sense of “not knowing but wanting to know” invariably accompanies my return to such texts.

        Your exegetical discussion of tradition vs. traditionalism brings to mind Socrates’ defense before the city of Athens. Traditionalism is clinging to perishable goods, ancestor worship – false knowledge and false happiness. Tradition is a paradoxical anamnesis of an imperishable pledge, true knowledge and true happiness. (Though this may be an eschatological factor which is missing from Plato? Indefinite, or rather infinite finality, that is.) What strikes me is the loneliness of such gadflies in history – Socrates, Abraham. They appear as flashes of lightening in order to move us to repentance from idolatry. It is, as it were, a vocation for the few as opposed to the many.

        Now, I am no Socrates, no Abraham. But if it is simply the case that the life of faith entails a certain kind of destitution, desolation – then I find this consoling.

        Liked by 1 person

    • It could be construed that way, certainly! I should emphasize, however, that there is something much stronger than prayer going on here — prayer lives in the optative, in earnest comportment, in transporting engagement, and –even during accusations and hostility– in a kind of resignation, even in the most forceful optative. One has power to engage, but not to effect — it is optative, even in the imperative mood; it is optative, even when it is in the first person active indicative. Insofar as elements of this are going on in the consultation of the teraphim, then it can be considered prayer.

      The practice of divination _via_ the teraphim goes much further than prayer, however: it is oracular, much closer to a Magic 8 Ball, or a Ouija Board, in that there is, presumably, a set of objects set apart whereby the dead –whose mummified bodies are present– can speak back to the living, assuming that the living pose the questions rightly. It’s more like a consultation with the tribal chieftans who can only speak an arcane language that requires highly-precise translation, and those who are well-versed in the technology specific to this translation technique.

      And yes: this latter is _fascinating_!


    • Cayce? Yes: something like that. Cayce grew up in the wake of the American Civil War, and his middle adult years were during, and then in the wake of, the Great War. Lots of dead kids in both cases.

      I remember once reading in a scholarly article –an article which had done the historical footwork– that a desire to commune with the dead _via_ some kind of séance is most common after wars where many young people die, and many of the older generation –particularly mothers and older wives– are left behind. Makes sense. Of course, that assumes that they didn’t hate their sons and husbands — I don’t think those mothers and wives were really the target demographic, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Burden of Unfinished Things | Into the Clarities

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