Sitting on the Household Gods

Today's Hymns:

God Reigns o'er All the Earth


We Love Your Realm, O God


If You But Trust in God to Guide You


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Scripture: Genesis 31:25-25

Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsfolk camped in the hill country of Gilead. Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You have deceived me, and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword. Why did you flee secretly and deceive me and not tell me? I would have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre. And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? What you have done is foolish. It is in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Take heed that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.’ Even though you had to go because you longed greatly for your father’s house, why did you steal my gods?” Jacob answered Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsfolk, point out what I have that is yours, and take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods. So Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the tent of the two maids, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah’s tent, and entered Rachel’s. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them. Laban felt all about in the tent, but did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.” So he searched, but did not find the household gods.

"Sitting on the Household Gods"

Genesis. In the beginning… In the beginning God not only created the families of the earth, but God worked God’s very essence into the innards of those families. Sometimes that God-essence was the lifeblood of the biblical narrative, and sometimes the God-essence was drained away by the willful foolishness of the players in the drama of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Israel’s oldest family stories.

We sift through these biblical family stories like a pile of old photographs, searching through the camera roll as we try to discern where the family reveals God and where the family obscures God.

We hold up one photograph of Abraham and Sarah tuning into that God-essence as they embark on their journey from the familiar to the unknown their faces turned toward the stars in hope for their future; a journey characterized by adventures, mishaps, and brushes with danger. There were a few unfortunate episodes along the way: here is a picture of Abraham trying to pass off his beautiful wife Sarah as his sister in order to protect his own bad self from powerful Pharaoh, and another of Sarah’s frantic efforts to produce a baby for the family by pushing her maid, Hagar toward her husband, with heart-breaking results for Hagar and her child Ishmael. There is that complicated photo of Abraham binding his son, Isaac’s face bewildered as he sees the tears on Abraham’s face.

We see a later family portrait of Isaac, his arm around his beloved Rebekah, their two sons, Esau and Jacob, standing awkwardly in front of the couple. Though twins, the boys are as different as night and day. Even though they are small, we can look into the faces of these boys and almost see their complicated relationship playing out into conflict, alienation, and cut-off, which will take years to heal.

Of the many photographs in the pile there is one that catches my eye. Jacob is much older now, his brother nowhere in sight. Jacob looks angry, defensive, glaring at his father in law Laban as if to dare him to make him stay. Laban’s face is red with anger, his older daughter Leah looks on in fear, and his younger daughter Rachel is sitting on her saddlebags in the door of her tent, looking like a broody hen on a pile of eggs. Rachel is unmoving and unmovable; she looks up at her father, her face pale and defiant. This picture is worth a thousand words, for the story behind and in front of it is long and complicated. This is the family photo that captures my imagination and makes me want to know more.

There are many layers of meaning in the story we heard read from Genesis this morning. It is a complicated family story, complete with whispers, lies, and secrets.

You may remember that Jacob, the twin of Esau, tricked his brother out of the family inheritance and then fled for his life when Esau found out about it. Jacob made his way to “the land of the people of the east,” where he falls in love with the beautiful Rachel. But Jacob, the trickster, has met his match in Laban, his future father in law. Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years to earn the hand of Rachel in marriage, but Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah the older sister first.

Years later, Jacob hears God calling him to leave and return to his home, a place where he has cut ties long ago. When Jacob announces his intentions to leave, a series of complicated maneuverings between Jacob and Laban ensue, and ultimately Jacob sneaks away with his wives, Laban’s grandchildren, and a wealth of animals. Unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel has stolen her father’s household gods, idols or statues that are small enough to fit into her camel’s saddlebags.

Enraged, Laban follows, confronts Jacob, and searches their tents for his gods. Jacob, who doesn’t know that Rachel has stolen the gods, swears whoever has taken the household gods will not live. The drama intensifies as Laban comes to Rachel’s tent. We wonder if she will be caught, but the canny Rachel says that she can not get up because she is having her period, an excuse guaranteed to make the men leave her alone. The gods are undiscovered, they leave her father’s land behind, and move into the future that awaits them, led by a God who can not be confined to a saddle bag.

I find this story of Rachel sitting on the household gods to be a fascinating tale that raises more questions than it answers. The “household gods” were called teraphim. They may have been idols worshipping pagan gods, or a way of worshipping Yahweh that was frowned upon by the faith. There is some evidence that the household gods would be given by the patriarch of a family to the first-born as a sign of receiving the birthright blessing or family inheritance. Perhaps Rachel was maneuvering to make sure her husband Jacob would receive the inheritance from her father, in the same way that Jacob tricked Esau into receiving the family blessing.

Other commentators suggest that Rachel takes the teraphim so that they cannot tell Laban where Jacob and Rachel have gone. Like a Talking Head GPS system they may have whispered directions to Laban, so Rachel steals then and sits on them to silence the idols. In the end, it is ironic that if being female disqualified Rachel from receiving the teraphim legitimately, her womanhood keeps them safe.

The presence of the idols in this story is about as odd as is the absence of a condemnation of the idols from the biblical narrator. In an essay entitled “Rachel and the Household Gods: An Interpretation of Genesis 31” by Susannah Rutherglen, the author, suggests that Rachel’s impulsive gesture of stealing the household gods is about something else, it is about “the things that cannot be left behind.” Rutherglen writes

“… Rachel's theft of the idols… implies a powerfully felt, indeed instinctual, bond to Laban's habits of worship, to the customs of his home, to his spiritual tradition. This type of link, we know, continues to exist in the form of teraphim at least through the time of David. So the theological incongruity we immediately identify in the text actually functions as its central lesson: we cannot so easily separate our theology from our ancestors, or from their possibly divergent spiritual traditions. More broadly speaking, property and theological and lineal concerns do not run on parallel tracks; they emerge together from the mesh of family history, and cannot be disposed of even in the course of a dramatic breach such as that of Genesis 31.”

The image of Rachel sitting on the household gods seems to me a metaphor for the things a family gives us in our spiritual formation that we cannot leave behind us. When leaving her home, the place where she received her spiritual formation, Rachel reflexively takes the household gods with her, no matter what the cost to her. As Rutherglen suggests, this seems to me to be a universal image for the ways our family of origin shapes our theology and images of God, for good or for ill, and how we unconsciously carry those theological gods or idols with us, sometimes at our peril.

In The Birth of the Living God, Anna-Maria Rizutto writes that our earliest images of God are shaped in our family of origin by our experience of our parents or primary caregivers. We may take aspects of those elemental relationships and internalize them, making those aspects of our parents into something to which we ascribe ultimate value. These god images are formed in us so early that we arrive at church or synagogue with our “pet gods” already tucked under our arms. The rules, beliefs, scripts, and images of God that we adopt in our childhood persist into adulthood as we makes idols, or absolutes, out of our internalized family story. Pastoral theologian Merle Jordan writes, “It is generally not an easy process to become liberated and differentiated from internalized oppressive and neglectful authorities in your life. The process of becoming free from false absolutes…that have participated in developing your negative worldviews, distorted maps of reality, and erroneous beliefs about yourself and others is usually an enormous task. Your implicit spiritual drama that was formed out of your family experience tends to carry a dominating authority within it, as if it came directly from the hand of God rather than from the web of the relationships in your childhood family.” (Merle Jordan. 1999. Reclaiming Your Story: Family History and Spiritual Growth)

Trauma, abuse, neglect, or unresolved conflicts in our family of origin can all combine to give us a distorted view of ourselves and of God. We may cling to the image of God as wrathful, judging, and rejecting and make our misguided interpretations of God into ultimate authority, or an idol. Not the real God, who in the person of Jesus we see as offering us worth and value and unconditional love, but a false God or idol. An idol we are willing to take with us, even if it costs us our lives, our wellbeing.

God invites each of us to examine the beliefs, the “shoulds, oughts, and musts” that have been given to us by our earliest formation in light of the gospel of love and freedom in Christ. To name the internalized demons that we have elevated to the status of a god, an idol, in defining who we really are.

In her book Raw Art Journaling, writer and artist Quinn McDonald describes an exercise that makes me think of this passage. It is an exercise designed to help you to identity and dialogue with your Inner Critic. You write a description of your Inner Critic on a piece of paper, and when you go to do a creative task, you sit on the piece of paper, you sit on the Inner Critic, so you know where it is. It is like sitting on the household gods you have brought with you from your early life, gods that limit you rather than give you freedom.

Rachel may or may not have been freed from the idols she carried with her; we will never know her full story. But God invites us into freedom, to worship not the idols of fear and self-hatred, but to give our lives to the one true God of transforming and healing love. AMEN.