by Al Maxey

Issue #632 ------- September 4, 2014
He that imposes an oath makes it,
Not he that for convenience takes it.
Oaths are but words, and words but wind.

Samuel Butler (1612-1680)

The Hand-Under-Thigh Oath
Pondering Puzzling Patriarchal Pledges

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), in his play "As You Like It," spoke of a quarrelsome, bearded soldier who was "full of strange oaths." Well, those oaths couldn't have been any stranger than one found twice within the pages of the Old Testament book Genesis. As most of us know, the Bible is filled with some very unusual events and practices, a few of which have puzzled people for centuries. I can't help but think of "The Case of the Flung Foreskin" (Reflections #34), the odd and troubling story of "Baldy, the Brats, and the Bears" (Reflections #129), and the bizarre tale of "Five Golden Hemorrhoids" (Reflections #135), just to name a few. But these somewhat pale when compared with the mechanics of an oath sworn by Eliezer to Abraham and by Joseph to Jacob. Indeed, some biblical commentators through the centuries have found this so troubling, and even disgusting, that they've refused to discuss or even mention it in their commentaries. So, in this issue of my weekly Reflections I shall dare to go where few men have gone before: swearing an oath to a man while touching his genitals. Yes, a revolting thought; yet, "it's in the Bible," so there must be some point being made and some lesson to be learned, which we shall seek to discern in this study.

As previously noted, there are two places in Genesis where a very strange practice is related. The first is found at the beginning of Genesis 24, which "is the longest chapter in the Book of Genesis, and it tells a story that has charmed and enthralled readers for generation after generation. Entire books have been written around this one chapter. Not only is it a heart-warming love story, but it chronicles a very important episode in the history of man's redemption" [Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings, p. 391]. It is the story of the search for a wife for Abraham's son Isaac, and details how he came to be with Rebekah, a couple from whom would one day come the Messiah. It is a wonderful love story, as already stated; a story with which most of us are quite familiar. As the chapter begins we find that Sarah is now deceased (Genesis 23) and "Abraham was now old and well advanced in years" (Gen. 24:1). He was around 140 years of age at this time (he died at the age of 175 -- Gen. 25:7), and Isaac also was advancing in years (he was 40 years old when he married Rebekah -- Gen. 25:20), therefore Abraham realized it was time to secure a wife for his son in order that God's covenant promise to him might come to fruition through his descendants.

Therefore, Abraham called for "the chief servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had" (Gen. 24:2a). Although this chief servant is not named in this chapter, most scholars believe it was most likely Eliezer of Damascus, who would have been his heir had Abraham never had a son (Gen. 15:2-3). "The bride selected for Isaac had to be chosen with particular care since she would be the mother of the multitude of nations which God had promised would come through Abraham's seed, through which the promised Savior would come, and in which all nations of the earth would be blessed" [Morris, p. 391]. This was such an important mission, with far reaching implications, that Abraham felt it was necessary to compel his chief servant to swear a solemn oath that he would diligently carry out this task. Thus, Abraham said to him, "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" (Gen. 24:2b-4). After asking a few questions of Abraham about this task (this was a journey of more than 500 miles, by the way), "the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter" (vs. 9). The only other occurrence of this strange "hand under the thigh" oath is found in Genesis 47. "Jacob lived in Egypt 17 years, and the years of his life were 147. When the time drew near for Israel (Jacob) 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, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.' 'I will do as you say,' Joseph said. 'Swear to me,' Jacob said. Then Joseph swore to him" (vs. 28-31). These are the only two places in the Bible where this unusual practice is mentioned, nor does one find any example of it outside the Scriptures. Thus, as one can easily imagine, "This form of swearing has greatly puzzled the commentators" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 1, p. 146].

What exactly is meant or signified by this act of placing one's hand under the thigh of another as one makes a solemn pledge to that person? Although there is quite a bit of speculation among biblical scholars, as well as some rather interesting theories, most reputable scholars, and this includes the ancient Jewish rabbis, believe the phrase "was a euphemism for the procreative organ" [Ryrie Study Bible, p. 38, 79]. It was "a euphemism for genitals" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 478]. One Jewish web site declared, "According to Rashi, based on the Midrash Rabbah, it does not mean literally the thigh, it means the Milah (the organ of circumcision)." In an article on this strange practice in the June, 1976 issue of Biblical Archeology Review, the author wrote, "Talmudic tradition takes these verses to indicate that the oath was sworn while the circumcised membrum of the Patriarch was held in hand, and from this interpretation is derived the rule that all Jewish oaths must be sworn while some ritual object is held in hand. Ordinary people must hold a Torah scroll; scholars may hold any ritual object" [R. David Freedman, "Put Your Hand Under My Thigh" -- The Patriarchal Oath]. "The so-called bodily oath was no doubt connected with the part from which the posterity issued; ... the early Jewish commentators supposed it to be especially connected with the rite of circumcision" [Drs. Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1, p. 257].

"The word 'thigh' (Hebrew yarekh) is frequently also translated 'shaft' ... and obviously refers to the procreative system. All the ancient Jewish commentators understood this promise to be a euphemism for placing the hand under the male genital organ. ... It was a most solemn oath, and clearly was related to God's promise in connection with both the promised land and the promised seed" [Morris, p. 394]. Thus, in a very real sense, both of these oaths that were sworn all those centuries ago, were sworn in such a manner that it pointed to the promised appearance of the Messiah, and involved the very ones through whom that Messiah would come: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! It also was a literal placing of one's hand upon the mark/sign of the covenant (circumcision) that God had made with Abraham concerning this Coming One through whom mankind would be redeemed. Theologians such as Jerome, Luther and Augustine, just to name a few, regarded this oath as being "equivalent to a swearing by Him that was to come," pointing to "the promised seed" of Abraham's (and Jacob's) loins [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 1, p. 297]. Eliezer and Joseph placed their hands on "the part that bore the mark of circumcision, the sign of God's covenant, which is tantamount to our laying the hand upon the Book: the New Testament or New Covenant of our Lord Jesus Christ" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 1, p. 147]. "Our ideas of delicacy may revolt from the rite used on this occasion, but when the nature of the covenant is considered, of which circumcision was the sign, we shall at once perceive that this rite could not be used without producing sentiments of reverence" [ibid].

Although, as Adam Clarke pointed out, we may tend to feel a bit squeamish about discussing the particulars of this swearing process as practiced by these ancient patriarchs, we can nevertheless perceive the beauty of the message conveyed thereby. One swears an oath upon something sacred, and what more sacred truth was there at that time, and among those particular men, than the truth, as promised by God, that from their own loins would come the Redeemer of mankind, the Lord of lords, the King of kings, the Savior of sinful man! Yes, the action itself may seem odd, and even offensive, to our modern sensibilities, yet what a powerful testimony to the eternal covenant of God who promised to step into time/space and bridge the gap that separated sinful man from His holy presence! Praise God for this unique, albeit unusual, testimony to His matchless grace!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

Your article "The Saving Grace of God" (Reflections #631) was another great one! Thank you for sharing it. By the way, I took special interest in your citing of Titus 2:13 -- "our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ." It would appear to me that Paul clearly thought Jesus was deity. Would you care to comment?

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

I am a subscriber to your Reflections, and I appreciate your passion for the Truth regardless of the consequences from fellow brethren. I have posed the following question to many of my brethren, and for the most part have only received vague answers. It is a straightforward question, and it deserves a straightforward answer. Here is that question: Was Cornelius a child of the devil, or a child of God, immediately prior to being baptized in water? What do you say?

From a Reader in Tennessee:

On reading your masterful essay "The Saving Grace of God" I had to write and recommend to you some of the works of Andrew Wommack; in particular, his book "Grace: The Power of the Gospel." While I did not agree with his every statement, he nailed this doctrine down with railroad spikes! He notes that we need to quit focusing on "What must we DO?" and pay more attention to "what Jesus DID." I'm now reading another of his many books: "Living in the Balance of Grace and Faith." I was enticed to order and read his books when I saw him criticized as "a crazy radical." I thought: I can identify with that! Al, I genuinely appreciate you and your work!

From a Reader in Alabama:

"The Saving Grace of God" was a beautiful article, my brother! Thank you for showering us with grace and love through your Spirit-filled writings!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Well done, Brother Al. This article ("The Saving Grace of God"), in my view, is the most important one you have ever done! If folks would only grasp the truth of what you have written, the world would be a happier place. I just can't understand how the simplicity of the message (saved by grace through faith) could have become so convoluted. It seems that "salvation by obedience" has trumped the simplicity of the real gospel. And furthermore, no one can ever list exactly what the "rules" are (ALL of them) that must be obeyed in order to be saved. It's like we have taken assurance and turned it into doubt. Blessings to you, my brother.

From a Reader in Barbados:

Thanks, Al, for a very inspiring and reassuring presentation of the glorious gospel of salvation in your article "The Saving Grace of God." It comes at a time when many things are being passed off as "the gospel." It is also a timely confirmation regarding a message I have prepared for this Sunday titled "So Great A Salvation." This Reflections, like so many I have read, gives an abundance of encouragement to all those who trust implicitly in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. Consequently, I take fresh confidence in the words of a hymn: "It is enough that Jesus died and that He died for me." I also hold strongly to the view that the transformation that comes through salvation is evidenced by the fruits of righteousness. I believe that it is impossible for this change not to be manifested in the born again believer. Continue the excellent work you are doing, and may God bless you and your family, and may He enrich your ministry.

From a Reader in Ohio:

Be honest, Al Maxey -- you're not a Restorationist, you're a Reformed Baptist in your teaching. You are trying to lead people into false doctrine. You probably even accept the use of instruments in worship. If you do, then you are not "Church of Christ." You are not even "Restoration Movement." Your views are just like those of the denominations.

From an Air Force Officer:

I came across your web site about a week ago, and I have to say it has been a real blessing to me! I have been reading a lot of your articles and see a lot of wisdom in them. I even ended up ordering and reading your book on baptism (Immersed By One Spirit). To see that you actually put one of your group's most cherished beliefs to the test, and were even willing to change your view on it over time, speaks clearly of the kind of man you are! I have to say it is always great to meet fellow believers who don't get caught up on those issues which are not critical to the faith (which, as you point out, are most of them), and that you also know how to be gracious to other Christians who differ with you. I was raised a Baptist, but my best friend during middle school and high school attended an ultra-conservative Church of Christ in Tennessee where we lived. We did not discuss our different doctrines very often, but when we did about the best we could ever do is both hold up our own proof-texts and tell the other guy he was wrong. After high school he attended a Church of Christ university in Florida and became an ultra-conservative Church of Christ preacher in Indiana, while I attended and graduated from the Air Force Academy. We did keep in contact occasionally, though over time it became less and less. Even so, I can't say that I never have passed a Church of Christ building that I don't think about him. Recently we made contact again, which is what spurred me to do some more reading into Church of Christ beliefs. That is how I ended up finding your web site. Brother Al, please just keep doing what you are doing! It gives me hope to see how God's Word can change someone caught up in the chains of legalism if they will only look at it with an honest heart and a sincere desire for Truth. I have seen that testimony from many of your readers both inside and outside of the Church of Christ. You have also reminded me to keep examining myself, and to remember I am fallible, just like all other people. May God continue to bless your ministry, and thank you for accepting my friend request on Facebook.

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