In Judges, Micah has a shrine that includes an ephod and a teraphim – clearly cultic objects of some sort – that the Danites later steal. But what are they, exactly?
Many translations render the word “teraphim” in Judges 18:17 as “household gods,” and it is apparently the word used when Rachel steals the household gods from her father in Genesis 31. According to Wikipedia, the “-im” ending does not necessarily mean that the word refers to plural objects. Wikipedia goes on to say:
According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first born male adult humans, shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate; it was believed that the Teraphim, mounted on the wall, would talk to people. During the excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon, evidence of the use of human skulls as cult objects was uncovered, lending credence to the Rabbinical conjecture. The implied size and the fact that Michal could pretend that one was David, has led to the Rabbinical conjecture that they were heads, possibly mummified human heads.
Which is just totally metal!
So the teraphim remains something of a mystery, but what about the ephod? Well, we know from Judges 8:26-27 that it is a thing which can me made with recycled gold earrings. Both ephod and teraphim, then, seem to refer to idol-like cultic objects which, my study Bible writes, were “perhaps used for divination” (p.317). This is detail is supported by Judges 18:5, where the Danites ask Micah’s priest, who is in charge of the ephod and teraphim, is asked to “inquire of God” (something that would almost certainly be done through divination).
All our previous mentions of the ephod say that it is something a priest is supposed to wear. In Exodus 28:6-14, the ephod is to be made out of variously coloured yarns. It is to have shoulder pieces (onto which should be attached two onyx stones inscribed with the names of the tribes), and it is to be worn under the priestly breastplate (which contains the Urim and Thummim, which are almost certainly involved in divination). In Exodus 29:5, we are told that the high priest must wear “the tunic and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and [be girded] with the decorated band of the ephod.”
Similarly, in Leviticus 8:6-7, Moses places the ephod on Aaron, then binds it to him with the decorated band of the ephod.
What I get from this is that the ephod is an object that the Levitical high priest is supposed to wear strapped onto his body. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was worn by folk priests in the time of Judges, though. It could just as easily have been an object that was originally placed on a shrine and only incorporated into the priestly vestments at a later date. This is suggested by Judges 8:26-27, in which Gideon’s ephod is worshipped.