Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
In Genesis 31, Jacob calls his wives Rachel and Leah out to the field and confidentially expresses his desire to return to Canaan. Vataan Rachel v’Leah (31:14): Rachel and Leah respond in one voice–as indicated by the singular verb form–expressing a shared anger against their father and a willingness to leave Haran. Jacob then gets up, places his wives and sons on camels, carries off his cattle and other property, and departs.
At first, Jacob appears as the central actor in this narrative. Everything is said and done in relation to him, stated in masculine possessive terms. In 31:19, however, Rachel seizes the opportunity afforded by Laban’s going off to shear his sheep to steal her her father’s t’rafim. Until this point, Rachel and Leah followed a course initiated by Jacob and his concerns. Here, however, Rachel initiates and plots her own destiny. So much so that in the next verse Jacob is seen as following Rachel’s lead: Rachel stole the t’rafim (v. 19) and Jacob “stole the mind (literally: heart) of Laban the Aramean” (v. 20).
Jacob re-assumes center stage in the narrative when Laban overtakes him on his journey and the two men begin to air their respective grievances. But from the moment Rachel steals the t’rafim, Jacob ceases to control the action or facts. It is in a condition of ironic ignorance that Jacob makes his rash pronouncement v. 32): “But the one with whom you find your gods shall not live.” (Compare Jephthah‘s vow in Judges 11:30 to sacrifice the first to come out to meet him, a vow that leads him to sacrifice his daughter.)
Several midrashic sources contend that Jacob’s death sentence for the theft of Laban’s t’rafim is borne out in Rachel’s tragic death after giving birth to Benjamin (for example, Bereishit Rabbah 74.32). According to a plain reading of Genesis 31, however, Rachel emerges from the episode victorious and unscathed. After all, Jacob’s curse is conditioned upon Laban actually finding the t’rafim in someone’s possession–something that Laban never accomplishes.
Laban conducts a thorough search of Jacob’s camp: Jacob’s tent, Leah’s, the two maidservants’, and Rachel’s–v’lo matza (and he finds nothing), a verb construction that appears three times (31:33, 34, 35).
What has Rachel done to elude her father? She has placed the t’rafim in a camel’s saddle (echoing how Jacob put his wives and sons onto camels in v. 17) and conceals them by sitting on this same saddle. She then shrewdly apologizes to her father for nor obeying usual custom and rising before him as he searches her tent. “The way of women is upon me” (31:35), Rachel claims, cunningly manipulating the (male) menstruation taboo to her own advantage.
What are these t’rafim that Rachel risks so much to steal? What did they stand for in Rachel’s time, and what do they mean for us today?
According to Rashi, the 11th-century commentator, the t’rafim were household idols that Rachel steals from her father for pious, monotheistic reasons: “in order to distance him from the practice of idol worship.” This interpretation clearly stems from rabbinic discomfort with the idea of Rachel as idol worshiper.
But if Rachel were so angry with her father as to be willing to leave his house forever without so much as a goodbye, would she really care about his spiritual fate? Based on other instances in the Bible where the same word appears, other traditional exegetes identify the t’rafim with the practice of divination. Thus, Rachel steals the t’rafim, which were used by ancient magicians as a means of telling the future, in order to prevent Laban from knowing Jacob’s plans or whereabouts. If that were the case, however, Rachel should have simply broken them. Why does she go to the trouble of stealing them, hiding them in a saddle, and tricking her father?
Several contemporary biblical scholars have argued that possession of the “household gods” was related to issues of clan leadership or inheritance. Accordingly, the t’rafim are symbolic tokens that indicate Rachel’s right to take her children and possessions away from her father and hand them over to her husband. And yet, Rachel’s decision not to inform Jacob of her theft of the t’rafim suggests that she acts for her own sake, not Jacob’s.
Along these lines, feminist biblical scholar J. E. Lapsley argues that Rachel steals the t’rafim because her status as a woman in a patriarchal household prevents her from confronting her father with her own grievances about her rightful inheritance. “Therefore, she goes about getting justice from her father through devious and extra-legal means” (“The Voice of Rachel,” Genesis: A Feminist Companion to the Bible (Second Series), ed. Athalya Brenner, ‘998, p. 238). In telling her father that she cannot “rise before” him because the “way of women is upon her,” Rachel is “speaking two languages simultaneously.” Laban hears Rachel as saying that she cannot honor him by standing because she is menstruating. But Rachel’s speech also reads as a complaint that she has no forum for rising before her father and pleading her case for inheritance; the social “way of women” constrains the possibilities for speech, advocacy, and direct action. According to Lapsley, Rachel’s “subversive action in stealing the t’rafim is matched by her equally subversive undermining of male definitions of women her creation of new meanings out of male-generated language” (p. 242). According to this interpretation, Rachel steals not only the t’rafim but also the language that has been used by this patriarchy to define her as woman and limit her access to culture and law.
Rachel thus emerges from this story as an archetypal feminist writer, who dares to steal across the border of masculine culture, seize control of her cultural inheritance, and make it her own. In this way, the theft of the t’rafim becomes a story of women’s potential to use and craft language, holy and mundane, in all of its many meanings, to speak potently–and cause others to listen.
The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis–all of them women–The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.