Biblical scholars have long puzzled over the nature and function of objects referred to as “teraphim” in the biblical record. A recent study of divination practices in the ancient Near East notes that the term “is of disputed derivation and uncertain meaning” and that in the biblical text it “does not consistently designate the same type of object.” Yet evidence in Hosea 3:4 (8th century B.C.) suggests that, in the preexilic Israelite religion, the teraphim may once have been considered “a legitimate method” of divination until they were taken away from Israel during a period of discipline.1
In a recent study, Cornelius Van Dam argues that in ancient Israel the teraphim were a substitute for the Urim and Thummim and may have functioned in a similar way. He suggests that teraphim (plural of terep) derived from the root rpp, which corresponds to the Arabic root raffa (“quiver”) but can also mean “shine, glisten.”2 If so, teraphim, like the Urim and Thummim, “may have been made of a precious stone with light-reflecting qualities.”3 Van Dam thinks that teraphim had a revelatory function in early Israel and that they may later have been replaced by the Urim and Thummim, or “perfect light.”4
Similarly, the Book of Mormon prophets associated the Nephite interpreters (two stones consecrated to God for revelatory purposes) or their function with the concept of light. For example, we read about “Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light” and “bring to light” all the secret abominations of the people who possessed the land (Alma 37:23, 25). Moroni used similar language in describing how the Nephite record would be brought forth in the latter days (Mormon 8:15–16).
Other biblical scholars suggest that teraphim is the altered metathesized form of an earlier term, petarim, from the verb ptr, “to interpret.”5 This would mean the teraphim were originally called “interpreters.” Under this theory, while the use of teraphim may have been a legitimate method of divination in early Israelite times, later biblical writers gave these oracular instruments a name with a more negative connotation, teraphim.
In addition to its similarities to Aramaic psr and Arabic fassara, both of which can mean “interpret,” ptr appears to be related to the Egyptian verb ptr, “to see.”6 Both meanings are consistent with Ammon’s explanation in Mosiah 8:13 of the sacred instruments that King Mosiah used to translate ancient records.
In contrast to biblical commentators of the day, who viewed teraphim only as idolatrous images,7 early Mormon writer W. W. Phelps suggested that teraphim may have sometimes fulfilled a positive role and were similar in form and function to the Urim and Thummim possessed by Israel’s high priest. In the light of more recent studies of these objects, Phelps’s suggested connection between the Old Testament teraphim and the Book of Mormon interpreters utilized by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the translation of the Book of Mormon seems entirely plausible.8
1. Ann Jeffers, Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria (1996), 222–27.
2. Cornelis Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Study of an Old Testa-ment Means of Revelation (1997), 228–29.
3. Ibid., 229. See John A. Tvedtnes, “Glowing Stones in Ancient and Medieval Lore,” appendix 2 in The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books (2000), 195–225.
4. Van Dam, Urim and Thummin, 229.
5. C. J. Labuschagne, “Teraphim: A New Proposal for Its Etymology,” Vetus Testamentum 16 (Jan. 1966): 115–17.
6. Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache (1935–53), 1:564.
7. Thomas C. Upham, Jahn’s Biblical Archaeology (1823), 528–29.
8. W. W. Phelps, “Hosea Chapter III," Evening and Morning Star 1/2 (July 1832): 6; “Despise Not Prophesyings,” Times and Seasons 2/7 (1 Feb. 1841): 298. See Tvedtnes, "Glowing Stones,” 209–10.
By Matthew Roper