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When the righteous have the opportunity to dispose of gods they do so. For example:

  • Jacob buried alien gods under the terebinth in Shechem (Gen 35.4).
  • Moses burned the golden calf, ground up its ashes and had Israel drink the resulting powder (Ex 32.20).
  • Hezekiah destroyed Moses' bronze serpent after Israel started worshipping it (Kings 2.18.4).

When Rachel found her father's gods she chose to steal them instead of destroying or otherwise disposing of them (Gen 31.19). Such behavior seems much more like that of the Danites (Judges 18.17) than that of Jacob, Moses and Hezekiah. Unlike the Danites, Rachel is remembered as a righteous person (Jer 31.15; Ruth 4.11), so the reader is left wondering why she stole her father's gods. The explanations in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer are as follows:

לפ'כ גנבתם רחל שלא יגידו ללבן שברח יעקב ולא עוד אלא להכרית ע'ז מבית אביה

The first explanation is given in Tanhuma while second explanation is used in Genesis Rabbah. ּBoth of these explanations are negative - Rachel thought it would be harmful for her Jacob and for Laban if Laban continued to possess these gods. Neither explains why Rachel stole them instead of merely disposing of them or destroying them.

After posting this, I saw that a nearly identical question already exists on this site. The asker there assumes that Rachel had to either steal or destroy her father's gods. I am not convinced she had to either so perhaps my question is sufficiently different to be considered a separate question.

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    – msh210
    Jun 14, 2023 at 20:52

1 Answer 1

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Some say she stole them in order to wean Lavan off of idolatory (e.g. Rashi).

Ibn Ezra asks a kasha on this:

That teraphim are idols can be ascertained by Laban’s referring to them as gods (v. 30). Some say that Rachel stole the teraphim in order to keep her father from idolatry. If this were the case, why did she take them with her and not bury them on the way?

The most likely reason that Rachel stole the teraphim was that Laban, her father, was an astrologer, and Rachel feared that he would look at the stars and discover which way they fled.

Radak says on this:

According to Ibn Ezra each tablet had the face of a human being and was presumed to get inspiration from celestial regions. Rachel’s objective in stealing the Teraphim was to deny Lavan knowledge about the route Yaakov had taken when he left.

So, according to this, she stole them in order to prevent Lavan from using them to find Yaacov.

However, there is still a case to be made about "weaning off idolatory", from Rabbeinu Chananel:

ותגנב רחל את התרפים אשר לאביה; she stole them in order that he would reconsider his actions, saying to himself that any deity which allows itself to be stolen surely cannot be much good to anyone. The same argument had been used by Yoash who said if baal was really capable of avenging himself, he should do so himself instead of letting his human worshippers become his defender (Judges 6,31). Similar arguments are reflected in Ezekiel 28,9 where the prophet predicts the downfall of the King of Tzor (Tyre) who had declared himself a god. He ridicules this “god” as saying to his murderer: “I am a god!” (quoted by Rabbeinu Bachya).

It seems that he is saying that if they were destroyed, then fine - there are ways of accomplishing that would have made sense to Lavan. But them being stolen is something that would make him realise that they are powerless.

Rav Hirsch also emphasises this by saying "they had to make it clear to Lavan they were powerless".

This still doesn't answer why she didn't have an obligation to destroy/bury them. An answer brought by Ramban is that they were not necessarily only idols. Tur HaAroch says:

Ramban admits that it is possible that Lavan had been using the teraphim in his worship of idolatry. It is however by no means certain that teraphim served only as idols. We certainly would not expect to come across idols in King David’s residence, and yet we are told in Samuel I 19,13 that Michal, David’s wife placed such teraphim in David’s bed, feigning that it was he who was sleeping in that bed. Surely, David did not keep idolatrous figures in his home. It is most likely that the teraphim were objects which enabled people to know the time of day, and in that connection they were also used to help them to predict future events...

She likely wasn't under obligation to destroy them as a result, which helps fill in the holes left by the previous answers. They were "inaccurate prediction devices, similar to clocks", and therefore they are permissible to use by someone who knows they have no power of their own and puts her trust in Hashem.

However, he goes on to argue against the above explanations:

...Some commentators believe that Rachel stole the teraphim in order to wean her father from practicing idolatry. If that were so indeed, why did she keep these teraphim with her instead of at least burying them? It is far more likely that Rachel, being aware that her father was an astrologer, was afraid that by a combination of astrology and the teraphim he would succeed in tracking the movements of Yaakov and his family and he would overtake them in short order. Another view is that she took the teraphim so that these would not reveal to him where Yaakov was at that time.

Surprisingly, he seems to be saying that she was simply denying him use of them, rather than trying to prove any sort of point. I would imagine she didn't have any obligation to destroy them, so the quickest thing to do in that shaas hadchak was to shove them into a bag and run.

Pirkei D'Rebbi Eliezer 36:14 combines both answers:

On that account had Rachel stolen them, so that they should not tell Laban that Jacob had fled, and not only that, but also to remove idolatrous worship from her father's house.

Sefer HaYashar Bereshit Vayetze 5 notes that it was, ultimately, pointless:

And Rachel stole those images of her ‎father so that he should not be able to ascertain whither Jacob had gone. And when Laban ‎returned home he asked for Jacob and his household and they could not be found, and he ‎went seeking his images to find out whither Jacob had gone. And Laban went to other images ‎and making inquiries they told him that Jacob had fled to the house of his father in Canaan.‎

So, yes. This is a very good question, controversial amongst the commentaries and hard to see if we really do have a good answer. Still, there's a strong case to make that she had no obligation to destroy them, and stealing them was more effective in weaning her father off of them, which hopefully answers the main thrust of your question.

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  • If the gods were a tracking device and Rachel knew this then her intention must have been for Laban to successfully find them. Do any commentators say such a thing?
    – user19234
    Nov 27, 2022 at 16:31
  • @MosheWise Not that I've seen. I haven't even seen any commentaries that say they are a tracking device - they are devices used to track, not be tracked
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Nov 27, 2022 at 16:32
  • 'idolatory' should be 'idolatry'
    – user19234
    Nov 27, 2022 at 19:58