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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words

Idol

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Terâphı̂ym (תְּרָפִים, Strong's #8655), “idol; household idol; cultic mask; divine symbol.” This word is a loanword from Hittite-Hurrian (tarpish) which in West Semitic assumes the basic form tarpi. Its basic meaning is “spirit” or “demon.” Biblical Hebrew attests this word 15 times.

Terâphı̂ym first appears in Gen. 31:19: “And Laban went to shear his sheep: and Rachel had stolen the [household gods] that were her father’s.” Hurrian law of this period recognized “household idols” as deeds to the family’s succession and goods. This makes these terâphı̂ym (possibly a plural of majesty as is ’elohim when used of false gods; cf. 1 Kings 11:5, 33) extremely important to Laban in every way.

In 1 Sam. 19:13 we read that “Michal took the terâphı̂ym [here a plural of “majesty”] and laid it on the bed, and put a quilt of goat’s hair at its head, and covered it with blankets” (author’s translation). In view of 1 Sam. 19:11, where it is said that they were in David’s private quarters, supposing that this terâphı̂ym was a “household idol” is difficult, although not impossible. Some scholars suggest that this was a “cultic” mask used in worshiping God.

Either of the former suggestions is the possible meaning of the word in the Micah incident recorded in Judg. 17-18. Notice in Judg. 17:5: “… Micah had a house of gods, and made an ephod, and terâphı̂ym and consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest.” In Judg. 18:14 terâphı̂ym appears to be distinguished from idols: “… there is in these houses an ephod, and terâphı̂ym, and a graven image, and a molten image?” The verses that follow suggest that the graven image and the molten image may have been the same thing: Judg. 18:17 uses all four words in describing what the Danites stole; Judg. 18:20 omits “molten image” from the list; and Judg. 18:31 reports that only the graven image was set up for worship. We know that the ephod was a special priestly garment. Could it be that terâphı̂ym was a “cultic mask” or some other symbol of the divine presence?

Thus terâphı̂ym may signify an “idol,” a “cultic mask,” or perhaps a “symbol of the divine presence.” In any case the item is associated with pagan worship and perhaps with worship of God.

'Ĕlı̂yl (אֱלִיל, Strong's #457), “idol; gods; nought; vain.” The 20 occurrences of this noun are primarily in Israel’s legal code and the prophetic writings (especially Isaiah). Cognates of this word appear in Akkadian, Syriac, and Arabic.

This disdainful word signifies an “idol” or “false god.” 'Ĕlı̂yl first appears in Lev. 19:4: “Turn ye not unto idols, nor make to yourselves molten gods.…” In Lev. 26:1 the ’elilim are what Israel is forbidden to make: “Ye shall make you no idols.…” The irony of this is biting not only with respect to the usual meaning of this word but also in view of its similarity to the usual word for God (‘elohim; cf. Ps. 96:5): “For all the gods [‘elohim] of the people are idols [‘elohim] …” (1 Chron. 16:26). Second, this word can mean “nought” or “vain.” 1 Chron. 16:26 might well be rendered: “For all the gods of the people are nought.” This nuance appears clearly in Job 13:4: “But ye are forgers of lies; ye are all physicians of no value [physicians of vanity].” Jeremiah told Israel that their prophets were “prophesy [ing] unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought …”. Gillûl (גִּלֻּל, Strong's #1544), “idols.” Of the 48 occurrences of this word, all but 9 appear in Ezekiel. This word for “idols” is a disdainful word and may originally have meant “dung pellets”: “And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you” (Lev. 26:30).

This word and others for “idol” exhibit the horror and scorn that biblical writers felt toward them. In passages such as Isa. 66:3 the word for “idol,” ‘awen, means “uncanny or wickedness.” Jer. 50:38 evidences the word ‘emim, which means “fright or horror.” The word ‘elil appears for “idol” in Lev. 19:4; it means “nothingness or feeble.” 1 Kings 15:13 uses the Hebrew word, mipletset, meaning a “horrible thing, a cause of trembling.” A root signifying to make an image or to shape something, ‘tsb (a homonym of the root meaning “sorrow and grief”) is used in several passages (cf. 1 Sam. 31:9).

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Idol'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/vot/i/idol.html. 1940.

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