The word teraphim comes from the Hebrew word hatterapim that in the Bible usually refers to household idols or family gods. We first see this word in Genesis 31:19 when Rachel stole her father’s household idols as she fled with her husband and family back to Jacob’s homeland. Throughout the Bible, teraphim is used in conjunction with idolatry and pagan worship.
Judges 17 relates another example of the use of teraphim in the days when “there was no king in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes” (verse 6). A man named Micah took silver from his mother, had it made into an idol, hired a Levite to be his personal priest, and then declared that the Lord must be pleased with his self-defined religion (verse 13).
Even though teraphim were sometimes used by the Israelites to represent the Lord God, they were still idols. In the days before the temple was built and after the temple had been destroyed, Israel often resorted to bringing teraphim into their homes, while pretending that those idols represented God. In their self-deception, they wanted to cling to a form of godliness (2 Timothy 3:5) while defying the commandments of the Lord against making graven images (Leviticus 26:1; Deuteronomy 5:8). We see a form of teraphim worship in modern culture when people revere objects, photos, or statutes as though those things had supernatural powers within themselves. The revered or venerated object may be a crucifix or a painting of Jesus, but honoring physical representations of the Lord as though they were God Himself is idol worship (see 1 Kings 14:9 and Isaiah 37:19).
Since earliest times, mankind has wanted a physical god he could touch and see. The imaginary gods and goddesses of ancient mythology are symptoms of this fleshly desire. The use of teraphim in the Bible is evidence that even those who have interacted with Yahweh can be misled by a sinful longing for a god-object they can possess. Idols we can hold in our hands feel to us more manageable. We think we can understand and control a god we can hold. But teraphim have no power, even if they supposedly represent the Lord (Zechariah 10:2). God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Any other kind of worship is idolatry.