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The Theft of the Terafim and the Covenant at Mitzpa-Gal’ed

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
Translated by Kaeren Fish
And Lavan went to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole the terafim that her father had. (Bereishit 31:19)
Although Yaakov is unaware of Rachel’s theft of Lavan’s terafim, this episode is bound up with the other instances of deception characterizing the relationship between Lavan and Yaakov. Rachel does not suffice with taking the terafim, but goes on to deceive her father:
Now Rachel had taken the terafim and put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat upon them. And Lavan searched all the tent, but he did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise up before you, for the way of women is upon me.” And he searched, but he did not find the terafim. (Bereishit 31:34-35)
What caused Rachel to take the terafim, thereby causing her own untimely death owing to Yaakov’s uncompromising verdict?
Rashi explains that Rachel wanted to disconnect her father from his idolatry. Support for his view is to be found in Lavan’s question – “Why have you stolen my gods?” This suggests that he is angry mainly over the insult to his deities. Indeed, Rabbenu Chananel, in his commentary on the Torah, explains that when an idol is stolen, its owner is forced to acknowledge that it is not a god. Thus, the theft of the terafim dealt a blow to Lavan’s religious world. Moreover, Rachel sat upon the terafim, effectively negating their divinity.
Most of the commentators (Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Chizkuni) propose a different explanation, based on the midrash:
Why did she steal them? So that they would not tell that Yaakov had escaped. (Tanchuma, Vayetze 12)
The midrash suggests that the terafim were a divining tool, and Rachel was afraid that Lavan might use them to discover Yaakov’s ruse.
I wish to propose a third possibility, which focuses not only the terafim themselves as idols or as instruments of divination, but rather on the implications of the theft. From Mesopotamian archaeological sources,[1] it seems that terafim, owing to their “sanctity” in the eyes of their owners, were used as receptacles for storing pledges and contracts of sales, loans, and other monetary agreements. The significance of storing such documents inside the terafim was that the “god” would testify in an argument between a creditor and a borrower who denied a loan and refused to pay, or between a buyer, who had paid the price of his purchase, and the seller, who denied the sale and was unwilling to hand over the field.
We might therefore propose that Lavan had placed somewhere inside the terafim the work agreement between himself and Yaakov, which Yaakov had now breached by fleeing from Lavan’s house. Lavan should have been able to take the agreement, which was a binding contract, follow Yaakov to wherever he went, and demand of the local judges that Yaakov be returned to his service – perhaps even that he become his eternal slave, in the wake of his violation of the agreement. In the haste of the escape, Rachel did not have time to search for this particular document; she took all the terafim, containing all of Lavan’s documents, to prevent this scenario from being realized.
If this is so, there is some similarity between what Rachel did and what happened at the time of the building of the Second Temple. King Cyrus (Koresh) gave the Jews permission to rebuild the Temple, but he or his successor later rescinded this license following slanderous reports by other inhabitants of the land. Some eighteen years later, the prophets Chaggai and Zekharia sought to continue the building, despite the rescinding of the license. When the governor of the neighboring province arrived, demanding explanations, the Jewish elders showed him the edict permitting the building – but said nothing of its later cancellation. A search of the archives of the king of Persia was conducted, but the document cancelling the license to the Jews had disappeared, and King Darius (Daryavesh) permitted them to continue the construction, even going so far as to provide support and aid. The happy ending came about thanks to a missing document.[2]
Here, too, the work agreement between Lavan and Yaakov disappeared with the theft of the terafim, and Lavan had no way of forcing Yaakov back into his service. But Rachel paid for this with her life.
And Yaakov answered and said to Lavan, “Because I was afraid, for I said perhaps you would take by force your daughters from me. Anyone with whom you find your gods – let him not live; before our brethren discern for yourself what is yours with me, and take it to you.” For Yaakov did not know that Rachel had stolen them. (Bereishit 31:31-32)
Yaakov did not know that Rachel had taken the terafim, but why did he speak out so harshly against whoever the culprit was?
To answer this question, let us compare the response to the theft of the goblet belonging to Yosef, viceroy of Egypt. According to the text, the goblet, like the terafim, was used for divining:
“Is this not what my master drinks from, and what he uses for divining? You have perpetrated evil in what you have done.” (Bereishit 44:5)
The brothers are shocked at the accusation:
And they said to him, “Why does my lord say these words? Far be it from your servant to do such a thing… Whoever of your servants is found to be in possession of it – let him die, and we also will be my lord’s servants.” (Bereishit 44:7-9)
And how mortifying it was when the goblet turned up in the sack of Binyamin, son of Rachel, who had stolen the terafim
In any event, the brothers’ response to the accusation is swift and clear: the thief will be put to death, and all the rest will be servants of the owner of the stolen article.
Had Lavan found the terafim with Rachel, heaven forfend, she would have been put to death, and Lavan could have taken Yaakov and all his children as servants forever. Yaakov suspects Lavan of inventing the accusation about the terafim (as Yosef later deliberately planted the goblet in Binyamin’s sack) in order to force him back into his service. His response to the accusation expresses all his bitterness at Lavan’s duplicitous and exploitative treatment of him over the years.
But Yaakov is mistaken. In this instance, there is no scheme; the terafim have indeed been stolen. God warns Lavan, in a dream, against harming Yaakov or his family. However, the curse is uttered by Yaakov himself – and it comes to tragic realization with Rachel’s death on the way.
III. The Covenant of Mitzpe Gal’ed and Israel’s Border with Aram
The covenant between Yaakov and Lavan establishes the border between Israel and Aram:
And Lavan said to Yaakov, “Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have set between me and you: let this heap be witness, and let this pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and that you shall not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. May the God of Avraham and the god of Nachor, the god of their father, judge between us. And Yaakov wore by the Fear of his father, Yitzchak.” (Bereishit 31:51-53)
The covenant, forged also in the Name of God, establishes the border here at Mitzpa, at Gal’ed. It seems that this is the same place that is familiar to us later on in the story of Yiftach and the king of Ammon (Shoftim 11) – Mitzpe Gal’ed, which is perched above the wadi of Yabbok. This suggests that everything north of Yabbok, the mountains of northern Gil’ad and their center in Ramot Gil’ad, belongs to Aram and not to Israel.
Bnei Yisrael would therefore appear to have committed another deception in this regard. When they entered Eretz Yisrael in the days of Yehoshua, the covenant was violated and the mountains of northern Gil’ad, which belong to Aram, were conquered by Israel. Later, Achav, king of Israel, and Yehoshafat, king of Yehuda, fought a battle in Ramot Gil’ad, arguing that the area belonged to Israel (Melakhim I 22) and not to Aram. What about the covenant that Yaakov made with Lavan?
A look at Divrei Ha-Yamim may solve the riddle:
The sons of Menashe: Asriel, whom she bore (but his concubine, the Aramean woman, bore Makhir, father of Gil’ad). (Divrei Ha-Yamim I 7:14)
How did Menashe end up having an Aramean concubine, who was the mother of Makhir, his son?
Menashe, son of Yosef, lived all his life in Egypt. As the son of the viceroy, he may have had contact with other lands. He may have entered into a political marriage with the daughter of an Aramean nobleman, the head of a tribe or of a certain area, cementing and symbolizing the covenant between Egypt and this group. This Aramean woman might eventually have inherited northern Gil’ad, leaving it to Makhir, her son with Menashe. And indeed, Makhir, son of the Aramean concubine, receives Gil’ad as an inheritance:
And to Makhir I have given Gil’ad. (Devarim 3:15)
Later on, the northern Gil’ad was annexed to Eretz Yisrael, and the above scenario explains how this happened without violating the covenant with Lavan. This story of the inheritance of Gil’ad has important ramifications, and we will return to it be-ezrat Hashem in our studies of the other Chumashim.
Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1]  The Nuzi Texts. Archaeological excavation of Nuzi, a city located in today’s Iraq, has recovered documents including many laws in the spheres of government, economics, society, and family.
[2] See Ezra 5-6.