Published: 21 March 2022

“Put Your Hand Under My Thigh”

Put Your Hand Under My Thigh

2 And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh, 3 that I may make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, 4 but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” (Gen. 24:2–4 ESV)

There are a lot of things in the Bible that are strange and outlandish to us. The traditions and cultures of people in the ancient Near East who lived thousands of years ago were, needless to say, very different from our own. For us it is common to place our right hand on a Bible to take an oath. Abraham had his servant swear by putting his hand under Abraham’s thigh. This is probably one of the most unusual customs in the Bible.

Oath by the thigh

We know very little about this practice of swearing an oath by the thigh. In fact, it seems that every attempt at an explanation raises more questions than it answers. Swearing an oath by placing one’s hand under another person’s thigh only happens two times in the entire Bible. The book of Genesis contains both. 

What we know for sure

The first instance is the one quoted above when Abraham had his servant swear to get a wife for his son Isaac. The second time was in Genesis 47:29 when Jacob had his son Joseph swear to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah with his fathers.

In both of these cases both men were very old and near death. Abraham and Jacob were having others promise to do something for them which they knew they would not be able to do for themselves.

Both men who swore an oath were in positions of trust. One was Abraham’s servant; the oldest in his house and the one in charge of everything (Gen 24:2). We don’t know his name, but it would be a reasonable assumption that he was Eliezer of Damascus (Gen. 15:2). The other man was Joseph, the son of Jacob. 

Even though trusted, the matter under consideration was so important to Abraham and Jacob that they required an oath. Therefore, we can be sure that the “oath by the thigh” was for matters of the utmost seriousness.

The rest is speculation

What is the significance of the oath by the thigh? How did it originate? What was its meaning? Was this phrase meant literally, or was it a euphemism? These are all good questions that no one has a solid answer for. There are two schools of thought about what the phrase “put your hand under my thigh” meant. 

1. Literally, “put your hand under my thigh” 

Some scholars, both ancient and modern, assume that the oath taker’s hand was literally placed under the thigh of the one they were swearing to. If this was the case, perhaps the reference was to the strength of the thigh muscle. The muscles in the thighs are some of the strongest in the human body. 

Those who take the view that the phrase is literal consider this to be placing emphasis on an individual’s strength. A person with a handicapped thigh cannot walk well (Gen 32:25, 31) and can’t do any heavy lifting, nor quick movements. In addition, a person’s sword hung at their side over the thigh area – an image of strength and vigor. So, to swear by putting one’s hand underneath the thigh may be to place emphasis on their strength and determination to carry out their oath.

2. A euphemism for a different part of the body

Other Bible students (both ancient and modern) take a more figurative approach to this phrase. They argue that “put your hand under my thigh” was a euphemism for swearing an oath by grasping the male organ. 

“Among the Hebrews the thighs were associated with human vitality, perhaps because of their proximity to the reproductive organs. Thus children were regarded as offspring of the father’s thigh (yōṣᵉʾê yᵉrēḵô, Gen. 46:26; Ex. 1:5; etc.). The mother’s thighs were also associated with procreation, as is evident in the so-called jealousy ordeal (Nu. 5:11–31). A woman who was guilty of marital infidelity and was subjected to the ordeal could expect her thigh to “fall away” (v. 22). Precisely what was meant by this expression is uncertain, but it may have implied a miscarriage.

Because of the association of the thighs with procreation, an oath taken with the hand under the thigh (Gen. 24:2, 9; 47:29), i.e., in contact with the genitals, was sworn by the life-power of the individual who requested the procedure.”[1]R. K. H, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “T,” 4:839.

Swearing by a sacred object?

Customs for oath swearing, both ancient and modern, usually involve swearing on an object considered sacred or holy. The Jews also swore by sacred objects such as a Torah scroll. Why would anyone consider male genitalia sacred?

“Since one often holds a sacred object [chafetz shel mitzvah] such as a Torah scroll or tefillin when making an oath, and since the site of the circumcision is also sacred (because circumcision was the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people), it too could be held while making an oath.”[2]Katz, Ben Zion. “The Function of the Root Y-r-Kh in Genesis.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 37, no. 3 (July 2009): 189.

In other words, since God commanded circumcision, the Jewish circumcised membrum was considered an object sacred enough to swear by. “The ritual object is supposed to indicate the presence of God at the time of the swearing. Thus the gravity of the oath is impressed upon the one who swears it.”[3]Freedman, R. David. “”Put Your Hand Under My Thigh”—The Patriarchal Oath,” Biblical Archaeology Review 2, no. 2 (1976): 3–4.

This reasoning could be plausible if the Hebrews were the only ancient people to swear oaths in this manner. However, a discovery from the ancient city of Kissura in southern Mesopotamia shows this was not the case.

A rare discovery

Kissura was an ancient city about 120 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. A tablet was discovered there, written in Akkadian, describing a very similar oath making process. The relevant portion of the tablet reads as follows:

“Thus you (have said to me): “Let your envoy grasp my testicles and my penis, and then I will give (it) to you.” Concerning then what you have said to me, (I am dispatching to you) Burriya the son of Menanum.”[4]Malul, Meir. “Touching the Sexual Organs as an Oath Ceremony in an Akkadian Letter.” Vetus testamentum 37, no. 4 (October 1987): 491.

Commenting on the tablet, Meir Malu says:

“As is usually the case with this kind of ancient source, the letter is extremely laconic, leaving most of the picture in darkness. This much however, can be said: it appears that the sender had previously asked for something from the addressee, which the latter is willing to give on condition that an oath is taken by the sender’s envoy.”[5]Ibid. 492.

Thanks to this ancient Babylonian letter, we know that this method of swearing an oath was not exclusively practiced by the Jewish Patriarchs. As far as I have been able to determine, this is the only source outside the Bible which mentions swearing an oath in this manner. Nevertheless, it is enough to show that it was not solely a Jewish practice.

Therefore, we cannot assume that the male member constituted a “sacred object” on the basis that circumcision made it holy. Even if the men of southern Mesopotamia practiced circumcision (which is doubtful), it is certain they did not undergo the surgical procedure by the commandment of God.

What can we conclude?

As I said at the beginning of this post, there are more questions than answers. The Bible itself tells us nothing about the origin or meaning behind the oath by the thigh. The one extra-biblical source we have gives no additional insight. The one thing we can conclude is that when Abraham and Jacob said, “put your hand under my thigh” it was the ancient equivalent of placing one’s hand on the Bible in a courtroom. In the end, that is really all we need to know. It was a solemn pledge; a pledge one would keep because it was made in the presence of Almighty God.

References

References
1 R. K. H, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “T,” 4:839.
2 Katz, Ben Zion. “The Function of the Root Y-r-Kh in Genesis.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 37, no. 3 (July 2009): 189.
3 Freedman, R. David. “”Put Your Hand Under My Thigh”—The Patriarchal Oath,” Biblical Archaeology Review 2, no. 2 (1976): 3–4.
4 Malul, Meir. “Touching the Sexual Organs as an Oath Ceremony in an Akkadian Letter.” Vetus testamentum 37, no. 4 (October 1987): 491.
5 Ibid. 492.