“Put your hand under my thigh” — What is that all about?

If one man said to another man, “put your hand under my thigh,” that request probably would not seem very strange in today’s openly sinful homosexual culture, but for one of God’s chosen people to do so would be rather weird. However that is exactly what happened in ancient Bible times, so there must be a logical explanation, right? Well, there is. “Putting one’s hand under another person’s thigh was an action used when swearing an oath.”1

In the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, Abraham wanted his son to have a wife from his native land, so he had his chief servant vow to find such a woman for Isaac. Here is a partial quote from the book of Genesis.

Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live…So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter. (Genesis 24:2-3, 9)2

Another story from Genesis explains that at the age of 147, after being in Egypt for 17 years, Jacob urged Joseph to swear he would not bury him in Egypt, but in the land of his ancestors. “When the time of Israel’s death drew near, he called his son Joseph and said to him, ‘If I have found favor with you, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal loyally and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt.’” (Genesis 47:29)

Why the thigh?

A euphemism is an inoffensive expression which is substituted for one that is considered offensive,3 and that is certainly true for the word “thigh” which, in these instances, indicates the body’s generative parts — the loins.4 The majority of translations state “under my thigh” but a search will indicate there are a few versions with different wording, such as “between my thighs” (Berkeley), and “under my leg” (Good News).5

It is true that a reference to this body part, the actual upper part of the leg, is sometimes simply physical. The thigh (the literal thigh) was chosen as a sacrificial portion of animals. Although now often eaten as food, it is not unusual that the thigh is a forbidden food among certain peoples, even today. More often however, it is regarded as the seat of procreation, the source of offspring. The “hollow of the thigh” (Genesis 32:25, KJV) is the hip socket or groin and is therefore associated with life.6

It was during the patriarchal period in the Bible that oaths were taken by placing a hand under the reproductive organ, or “thigh” as stated in scripture. “The English terms ‘testify’ and ‘testes’ witness a similar relation.” This action may represent the calling of one’s descendants as witnesses of the oath.7 When the hand is placed under, near, or upon the sexual organs, it created the sense that the oath was “being made in the presence of one’s descendants, with them as witnesses to the vow.” Some other interpretations “suggest that the powers associated with the loins are invoked in the taking of the vow, or that the covenant of circumcision is connected with the covenant established by the oath.”8 Paul Achtemeier, who was a professor of biblical interpretation at Union Theological Seminary, stated that some believed “punishment from God for breaking such an oath might include the death of one’s offspring or the fate of dying childless.”9

According to one of the most influential Jewish commentators in history, Rashi,10 the “thigh” in these Bible verses definitely does not mean the literal thigh, but means the organ of circumcision — the penis. “The reason is because one who takes an oath must hold in his hand a sacred object, such as a scroll of the Torah or phylacteries.11 And the circumcision was his (Abraham’s) first commandment and came to him through suffering. And it was beloved to him. And (therefore) he chose it (as the object upon which to take the oath).”12

Catholic biblical scholar, Taylor Marshall, has a slightly different opinion. Rather than the penis, he believes the thigh refers to swearing upon the testicles. He further shows this connection by mentioning the association between testicles and testimony being not just Semitic or Jewish. “This etymological connection between testicles and witnesses is also found in Greek, French, and obviously English.”13

Although interlaced with some controversy, there is much evidence indicating taking an oath involved touching or displaying the testicles during the Roman empire. “It is stated that under Roman law no man was admissible as a witness unless his testicles were present as evidence or ‘witnesses’ of one’s virility because only verified men were allowed to give a witness, or to testify, in legal matters. To swear by one’s testicles was an ancient form of an oath. To detest [was] . . . ‘to bear witness against;’ therefore, to curse, and implicitly, to hate to the bottom of one’s testicles.”14

Oaths Today

Today, many Christian societies use a Bible when making a legally binding oath, such as in a court of law or during a ceremonial event, while other religions use holy books of their own faiths. Basically, by placing your hand on these books, you are swearing or affirming your oath on a sacred document and although these documents are unlike the object used by Abraham, the idea is not all that much different. “The essence of a divine oath is an invocation of divine agency to be a guarantor of the oath taker’s own honesty and integrity in the matter under question. By implication, this invokes divine displeasure if the oath taker fails in their sworn duties.”15

Copyright © 2018, Dr. Ray Hermann

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References & Notes

  1. “Thigh,” Barry, John D., et al., eds., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  2. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed., (USA: Oxford University Press, 2008 [revised]).
  4. Strong’s Hebrew word #3409: יָרֵךְ yârêk, yaw-rake’; from an unused root mean. to be soft; the thigh )from its fleshy softness(; by euphem. the generative parts; fig. a shank, flank, side:— × body, loins, shaft, side, thigh.
    Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).
  5. Horton, Stanley M., ed., The Old Testament Study Bible, Genesis, (Springfield, MO: World Library Press, Inc., 1994), The Complete Biblical Library, vol. 1, p. 199.
  6. Orr, James, et al., eds., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), p. 2972.
  7. Brand, Chad, et al., eds., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), p. 1592.
  8. Duriez, Colin, et al., eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 864.
  9. Achtemeier, Paul J., ed., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), p. 1066.
  10. Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Shlomo Yitzhaki), known as Rashi (based on an acronym of his Hebrew initials), is one of the most influential Jewish commentators in history.
    Ratz, Hila, “Who Was Rashi?” (My Jewish Learning, retrieved 2 September 2018), https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/who-was-rashi/
  11. Phylacteries: These are boxes containing Torah verses worn by some Jews when praying; also amulets or charms, worn for supposed magical or supernatural power.
  12. “Genesis 24: 2-9 – Put your hand under my thigh,” (Yeshiva: the Torah World Gateway, retrieved 30 August 2018), https://www.yeshiva.co/ask/?id=4798
  13. Marshall, Taylor, “Testimony and Testicles – The Oath of Abraham’s Servant,” (Taylor Marshall PhD, retrieved 3 September 2018), https://taylormarshall.com/2008/10/testimony-and-testicles-oath-of.html
  14. “Testi Words,” (Word Quests, retrieved 3 September 2018), http://wordquests.info/cgi/ice2-for.cgi?file=/hsphere/local/home/scribejo/wordquests.info/htm/L-Gk-testi.htm&HIGHLIGHT=test
  15. “Oath,” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 9 July 2018), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oath
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23 thoughts on ““Put your hand under my thigh” — What is that all about?”

  1. Hello Ray, Thank you so much for doing all the research, etc., to write this EXCELLENT article! My wife & I are Jewish believers in Messiah Yeshua, i.e., born again believers in The L-RD Jesus Christ. As a Jewish believer in Jesus, I probably spend more time reading the Tanakh (the “Old Testament”) than the many Christians who aren’t Jewish.

    This often gives me the benefit of being familiar with customs & practices of people in ancient lands, but I didn’t know much about the custom of swearing an oath while placing one’s hand under the “thigh” of the person to whom the oath was sworn. I suspected that the custom had something to Do with what you wrote in the article, but I had no idea about much of what you wrote in this EXCELLENT article! You brought up some amazing points (e.g., the connection between testify and testes).

    Thank you again for the great article and for the education you provided for us! Shalom & Blessings! –RS

  2. thanks for a well researched article that answers the query, well i was reading it (though myself a christian believer from India-where we are a small minority) since i saw one post on our college alumni whatsapp group which nowadays is also a vehicle for spreading phobia and hatred with half baked information; the way the post was written tries to show how weird the Bible is- i know this because after the islamophobia, other minority are christians esp when the state is pushing all resources to become a hindu nation in the disguise of nationalism. IT is very tough to counter such propaganda esp in a society where not every single person would verify a post in such an inquisitive way- they would rather believe the intended meaning and will move on, with that tiny seed of mistrust for the Bible in their subconscious which will later on along with other such posts will manifest one day in election results.

  3. You won’t forget that moment the seriousness even holy.. in essence saying this is about my legacy my lineage, God’s destiny for mankind.. Abraham’s servant was given an in daunting task which you could see my the resolute nature of his expedience to fulfill the mission.

  4. Hi Ray,

    Thanks for the detailed research. I was listening to the bible reading on Genesis today and came across Abraham asked his chef servant to put his hand under Abraham’s thigh, I know that action is to ensure the servant is taking his order seriously thus, swear under the Oath. But, wanted to have a deeper understanding and i do now. Thanks to your research and article.

    Appreciated! Keep up the good work and have a beautiful weekend! 🙂

    Fr: Bay Area – California

      • Thank you for your response, this is great.

        Is there any reference in Genesis 32:25 to this custom. It is when Jacob wrestled with God

        • Hi. Thank you for posing a very interesting question. For readers not familiar with this verse, Jacob sends his wives and belongings across a stream, but before crossing himself, he encounters a stranger who wrestles with him. This stranger (our Lord) “touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint”. (ESV).

          Jacob was at the threshold of the land of promise and our Lord wanted to mark this spiritual change in a way to be remembered. During the event, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, he got our Lord’s blessing, and the limp Jacob got from the hip dislocation would be a constant reminder of his experience with our Lord and would carry influence beyond his own lifetime.*

          Was this event related to an oath? I never thought about this before, but in a way you could say, yes. Our Lord does bless Jacob and a blessing is a public declaration and prescribes obedience to receive. This, I guess, could be considered a contract with our Lord. Thank you for enlightening me.

          * Hamilton, Victor P., “Genesis,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Baker Reference Library, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), vol. 3, p. 30.

      • Hi Ray, I’m a minister in the Protestant church. To say that in homosexual culture it would not be strange to ask someone to grab your crotch is rather offensive. All homosexuals do not share their “wares” with everyone any more than do people in straight culture. To insinuate that the sexual sin of homosexuals is any more detestable than sexual sin and lust in straight culture is not biblically supported. All sin is detestable to God, according to His word. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”. You then go on to say that it would be strange among Gods chosen people as if there were no homosexuals among the Jews which
        is historically inaccurate; all sin, all need forgiveness. It is biblical to “gently restore” a fellow believer but it is biblically frowned upon, if not forbidden, to restore (judge) non-believers, as Peter and Paul both make clear. Paul, to the believers in Corinth says,
        “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church…”
        so, let us ‘watch ourselves or we also may be tempted’. Galatians 6:1

  5. This was certainly most interesting reading. Most religions and cultures seem to be obsessed with sex in some fashion or form by references to the sexual acts, etc., and some get extremely wacky.

    I have read about the mutilation of female genitals of young girls in Africa and also Muslin females in the western hemisphere and not only is it accepted by the parents it is encouraged by them as dictated by their religion. You may also remember another news event some years back where some cult members committed suicide with expectations of space travel after death and it was also revealed that they all had been castrated.

    It seems like they all lost track of what their religion was supposed to be about (appreciation or the worshiping of their God). I thank God every day just for my existence and hold back on all requests unless really needed. Sometimes I include a “Thank you” that I’m not part of one of these lunatic religions.

    P.S. Just looked at all the great cartoons… excellent! Made my day.

    • I thank you for taking the time to comment on this article. You are correct in suggesting that most religions today have “hang-ups” about speaking on sex-related topics. Even thousands of years ago, Jews and Christians would skirt around many such issues.

      Thanks, too, for your comment about the cartoons. For readers that haven’t seen them, please use the “pull-down” menu on “The Funnies” tab located on the top menu bar.

    • Thank you for your research. It was interesting and helpful. I’m reading the bible chronologically, so I came across this when Abraham did it. I was curious about it. My husband and I had a speculative conversation about it. Then I came across it again when Jacob did it. This time I couldn’t ignore it, I had to dig deeper. Thank you for providing the answer! It’s fascinating and gives a richer contextual understanding.

      • I’m happy that your curiosity led you to this website and thank you for taking the time to comment with your kind words. I pray that your Bible studies will continue to provide a deeper and richer understanding of God and his plan.


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