Abraham’s Oath Upon his Thigh

Abraham's Servant Swears Upon His ThighA few months ago, I stalled on Genesis 24: it was too complex a chapter to comment on and instead of commenting, I found other things to write about until real life caught up with me. I’m determined to continue, so let’s start at the beginning.

Genesis 24 begins with a very odd oath. Abraham is too old to go off to find his son a wife on his own, so he sends his faithful servant to do it. But before he leaves, he asks his servant to “put […] thy hand under my thigh. And I will make the swear by the Lord” (Genesis 24:2). Why does this swearing on a thigh come from and what does the bible have to say about it? Sounds like a great topic to dig into a little more! (Hint: It may involve testicles.)

Before we can look at this further, here’s the full quote (KJV):

And Abraham was old, well stricken in age; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things. And Abraham said unto his servant, the elder of his house, that ruled over all that he had: ‘Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh. And I will make thee swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, even for Isaac.’

Genesis 24:1-4

I’ll dig into whether Abraham’s dating service was unusual some other time, but the point that I am drawn to is that it is a solem oath, and perhaps the most important possible oath for Abraham since it is about his descendants. If the servant were to falter in his mission, God’s promise would be lost. Why couldn’t Abraham go himself? The text isn’t clear why. Perhaps Isaac hasn’t forgiven him for the whole “sacrifice on the mountain” thing, but Abraham probably isn’t too frail to do it himself: He remarries in Genesis 25 and has six more kids so he’s not over the hill yet.

The bible has tons and tons of oaths. My concordance lists the word “oath” 45 times in the Hebrew bible and a further 17 in the New Testament. The word “swear” is in there 68 times. And yet, there are only two examples where an oath is sworn on a thigh, both in Genesis. The second was Jacob, on his deathbed:

And the time drew near that Israel must die; and he called his son Joseph, and said unto him: ‘If now I have found favour in thy sight, put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt.

Genesis 47:29

While Jacob (here called Israel) was about to die, he asked his son Joseph to ensure that he would be buried in his own land. After this, the practice is not mentioned again. Perhaps it was an aspect of Israelite culture that did not make it through the years abroad. I’ve been digging both in the bible and other sources and there is no consensus what swearing on a thigh really means. Here are a few examples:

Swearing on Abraham’s Circumcised Penis

Yeah, I’m not going to beat around the bush: many sources believe “thigh” is a euphemism for something in that part of the male body. No sense getting squeamish about it. Rashi, always my first choice for commentary, had something to say about this:

Since one who swears must take with his hand an article related to a mitzvah such as a Torah scroll or Tefillin, and circumcision was his first mitzvah, and he had fulfilled it with pain, it was dear to him; so he took it.

Abraham’s circumcision signified his bond to God and His promise that his son would inherit a kingdom. Perhaps even the act of joining in this covenant made Abraham see the circumcision as somehow holy. The symbolism is deep, though it misses one aspect: Abraham was circumcised at the same time as Ishmael, not Isaac, according to Genesis 17. But the promise had moved into his second son and this mark represented the covenant now with the second son.

Rashi maintains that this reasoning works for both Jacob and Abraham, but I’m not so sure about that. Was returning Jacob’s body to Israel fulfilling part of that covenant? Or is the symbol still strong even if it doesn’t have that direct connection? My feeling is that if this were the case, Jacob would be using this powerful symbol of community to encourage Joseph to promise that his descendants will return to Israel. Instead, this oath almost seems selfish. And yet, it’s not impossible that Jacob too reserves this symbol for the most powerful of oaths, though he just cares more about his burial than I believe.

Swearing on Abraham’s Testicles

Other commentaries, for example this one and this one, posit that Abraham’s “thigh” was actually his testicles. This makes some amount of sense for many of the same reasons that circumcision makes sense. Testicles represent both a man’s potential for offspring as well as his vulnerability. This mission for Isaac represents something of the promise of testicles, to be blunt about it, in that without finding a mate Abraham’s line would end. In that way, they would be a fitting symbol for an oath.

Would this make sense for Jacob as well? Not quite. Jacob was swearing an oath with his son, not about his future line. The symbol doesn’t match up as well. It could still represent trust and vulnerability, but I suspect that if it were a common practice without special significance, we would have seen it elsewhere. This is all conjecture, of course.

There is always the third option…

A Thigh is Just a Thigh

As Freud once supposedly said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” That may be the case here. While there are no other examples of swearing oaths on body parts in the Hebrew bible, the New Testament mentions the practice:

But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

Matthew 5:34-36

In this quote, Jesus is telling the assembled not to swear false oaths. While the Jewish practice might have been to swear on something holy (we still say “swear to God” and on bibles, after all), Jesus says that you should not “swear by thy head”. Was this practice of swearing upon ones head a distant descendant from the pre-exile practice? Was it something from elsewhere in the Greek, Roman, or Mesopotamian worlds? After all, by the time of Jesus, cultures has blended and changed many times over. Again, I can only conjecture.

There is one other possibility: perhaps the thigh really does have some special importance to the early Hebrews. God seemed to think it did:

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. […] And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.

Genesis 32:26, 32-33

When Jacob and God (or an angel) wrestled at night, God was apparently forced to end the fight by wounding Jacob’s thigh, which the text implies may have been out of bounds (He could not “prevail” any other way). While I might have some words on the absurdity that God (or an angel) couldn’t beat a man in mere fisticuffs, the text imparts special significance on the thigh from then on. Jacob limped away from the fight– could he have been swearing to Joseph on his old battle wound, a reminder of his own covenant with God? It’s possible! Abraham and Jacob could have been swearing on their “thighs”, each for very different reasons.

Coming Up…

An explanation post and some thoughts into how the blog will progress from here. And then digging into some other aspects of Genesis 24.



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