Abraham, Dead Animals, and Thighs

Igor from "Young Frankenstein"

Get it? RACKED brains!

So I racked my brains trying to think of a topic for my “writer’s choice” entry. I mean RACKED. Eventually I came around to an idea: customs. I stopped again. Another dead end, I thought, Customs are seen much more in the New Testament. What customs are in the Old? Then it hit me. There are plenty of customs in the Old Testament. What about all of the swearing? No, not like “$!%#”, but like oaths and stuff.

Abraham is a prime example of some oaths. We’re talking heavy-duty swearing here. For example, back when he was called Abram, God had him prepare some animals for an oath (Genesis 15:8-21). Now this whole scene will seem very odd to a modern American reader. Let us keep in mind that Abram and God were not modern Americans. This is the custom involved: one man would bind another to an oath by making walk between the halves of a divided animal carcass. The idea here, was that the one swearing an oath and walking between cow halves was swearing on his own life and, if he failed to uphold his end of the deal, would be put to death. Now Abram was expecting (as many of us do) that God would make him walk that path and put his life on the line—therefore the terror that descended on him. What actually happened was that God swore an oath and walked that path, putting His own life on the line. And as God does, He delivered.

After his name change, Abraham makes his servant swear an oath. In chapter 24, verses 1-9, Abraham has his chief servant place his (the servant’s) hand under his (Abraham’s) thigh. He makes him swear by the LORD that he would get Isaac a wife from his own country, and not from the Canaanites. Now this is just weird. Imagine your master telling you to put your hand under his thigh. What does that even signify? Well, this was a BIG task. Abraham wanted his son to have a wife (obviously), and he did not want a Canaanite wife for him, because that could lead him away from God. So whatever this means, it must be pretty weighty. I heard once, though I had never seen the research myself, that “thigh” was a euphemism for “genitals”. I am searching for a reference to this as I type this out. Why would your master ask you to swear on his genitals? If you fail your task, wouldn’t that bring the curse down on his junk? It would make much more sense to make you swear on your own. At least, in my mind. The closest evidence I can find to this is that words like “testimony” are derived from the Latin testis meaning “witness”, and this is the same word that “testicles” comes from. I have no further idea on the meaning of this, and, if anyone can point me towards some good resources on this, I’d love to hear it. (P.S. I would also like to see the research that has lead people to believe that “feet” also means “genitals”.)


2 Responses

  1. I was in graduate school with a guy who was interested in researching the gesture of putting his hand “under the thigh” of his master. He was even considering doing his dissertation on the subject–unfortunately I lost track of him and never heard his conclusions.

    I suggested that maybe, just as there are euphemistic expressions, there are euphemistic gestures; so that this gesture didn’t mean actually touching Abraham’s genitals but touching his body near them–the point of it probably has something to do with Abraham’s “seed” that would come from his own “loins.” Finding a bride for A’s son meant the seed would survive.

    I think as Bill suggested, ancient people were just like us in a lot of ways … but there certainly are some ancient customs that seem strange to us.

    Did any of you ever hear Andy Griffith’s “What it was was a football” — in which he describes the game as though he were observing it as an outsider.

    (By the way, the quarterback places his hands in a position that would seem–awkward–in other contexts.

  2. Mm…. guess I didn’t actually mention that… I didn’t think Eliezer actually fondled Abraham. The idea of a euphemistic gesture had occurred to me.
    But perhaps I was looking at it all wrong to begin with. Today, we swear on the Bible when on a witness stand. People swear by their mother’s grave, or their wife’s head, or whatever (once met an athlete who swore by a particular piece of athletic wear). But we aren’t calling down curses on those things if we fail.
    Exactly what we are doing, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe invoking judgment from them? Hand on the Bible, judgment from God; hand on the thigh, judgment from offspring?

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