Bible Review 17:4, August 2001

Whose Earrings Did Jacob Bury?

By Victor Hurowitz

When the patriarch Jacob returns to Canaan with his family after a 20-year sojourn with his uncle Laban, God instructs him to go to Bethel and build an altar (Genesis 35:1). Jacob immediately tells his entourage to rid themselves of the alien gods in their midst, to purify themselves and to change their clothes (Genesis 35:2)—all in preparation for building the altar to propitiate the one true God. Then comes this sentence: “They gave Jacob all their alien gods and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob buried them under the terebinth near Shechem” (Genesis 35:4).

Why earrings? Or better yet: Whose earrings?

The traditional interpretation is that the text refers to the earrings of Jacob’s family members: The earrings to be buried were those they wore in their own ears. Two explanations have been offered for why the earrings were given to Jacob and then buried along with the cult statues. Perhaps the earrings bore idolatrous pictures or shapes and were themselves objects of worship.1 Or perhaps, as some scholars have suggested more recently, the earrings were pagan amulets rather than mere jewelry.2

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