What was the significance of making an oath by touching under a man’s thigh?

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Reading through Genesis over the past week has stemmed several questions and possible blog topics. The most intriguing question for me was associated with Genesis 24:2-4 which states, ” He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites,among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.”(biblegateway). This idea of placing your hand under a man’s thigh when giving an oath is also seen later in Genesis 47:29-30, “When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt,30 but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.”(biblegateway). These passages seemed very odd to me. What was the significance of the thigh?

Researching the significance of the thigh to Jewish culture I found some very interesting ideologies on the interpretation of the word “thigh” in these passages. According to Dr. Taylor Marshal, “The placing of one’s hand under the “thigh” is a euphemistic way to refer to swearing upon the testicles of the master.” (Taylormarshall.com) This hypothesis was obviously startling and brought several more questions to mind concerning this tradition. If this theory is true then this practice just became a whole lot weirder and a little gross. I did some digging into this idea and found several sources that back up Dr. Marshall’s theory.  GotQuestions.org states that, “The thigh was considered the source of posterity in the ancient world. Or, more properly, the “loins” or the testicles. The phrase “under the thigh” could be a euphemism for “on the loins.”(GotQuestions.org) With this euphemism theory becoming a distinct possibility, I looked into the significance of  touching a man’s genitals as a sign of promise.

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According to Dr. Taylor Marshall, “The testicles are the sign of Abraham’s descendants (they literally contained the “seed” that God had promised to bless in Genesis 15, 17, 22)” (TaylorMarshall.com) GotQuestions.org has two theories on the connotation of swearing on a man’s loins. The first being that, “Abraham had been promised a “seed” by God, and this covenantal blessing was passed on to his son and grandson. Abraham made his trusted servant swear “on the seed of Abraham” that he would find a wife for Isaac.“(GotQuestions.org) This promise of a seed is answered in part through Isaac. The covenant between God and Abraham was that through his seed would be a great nation. In order to complete this covenant, Isaac would also have to have children. In order for him to do so, he will obviously have to have a wife. If the promise made in Genesis 24 was made on the symbol of  Abraham’s seed, it would represent that his servant was promising to take part in the covenant coming to fruition by finding the woman who would bear Isaac’s children and by association, Abraham’s seed. The second theory of GotQuestions.org is that, “Abraham had received circumcision as the sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:10). Our custom is to swear on a Bible; the Hebrew custom was to swear on circumcision, the mark of God’s covenant.“(GotQuestions.org) This second theory I believe is the strongest. Swearing on the Bible for a Christian is the most sacred of oaths. One is literally swearing on the most sacred of physical symbols in the Christian religion. Likewise, at this time in history, the most significant physical symbol of their religion was circumcision. Promising on the circumcision shows that this was an act made not only before Abraham but also before Yahweh.

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The idea of an agreement being made in this fashion is also seen in another species. According to pychologytoday.com, “ Two male baboons who cooperate with each other by forming aggressive alliances against other baboons frequently fondle each other’s genitalia.” (Psychologytoday.com).  The author goes on to explain this phenomenon by saying that the baboons do this as a sign of both parties being exposed and trusting the other. (Pychologytoday.com) This idea in part coincides with the event in Genesis 24. Abraham allowing his servant to touch him in what was a very vulnerable place shows Abraham’s faith in his servant not to do wrong against him in a physical sense as well as showing his faith in this man to fulfill his promise.  This similarity gives way to the idea of touching a man’s loin as having a possible evolutionary or scientific backing instead of a cultural or religious one.

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Another interpretation is the literal one. The word used in Genesis 24 is thigh. If it does in fact mean simply “thigh” then what was the significance of that? According to rexcurry.net, “ That ritual might derive from the belief that the thigh is a center of power”. (rexcurry.net) In order to symbolize the seriousness of the oath the servant touched Abraham in a spot that was considered to hold the most power. Sadly, after hours of research, this was the only theory I could find that supported the idea of a literal interpretation.

In conclusion, when deciding the significance of an oath being made on the “thigh”, first the reader must decide how they will choose to interpret that word. I hypothesize that the evidence points to a looser translation. The word thigh should not be seen as literal but as a euphemism for the male genitalia region, whether that be the circumcised area or the testicles themselves. The evidence simply does not back up a literal interpretation. The question, therefore, that the reader is left with is “what was the significance of making an oath by touching this particular area”? Is it because of the promise of Abraham’s seed? The sacred symbol of circumcision? Or possibly an evolutionary or scientific meaning? Personally, I believe it was the ancient equivalent to swearing on the Bible to show how sacred the promise truly was and also to show that is was made before not only men, but also before Yahweh.

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