In Genesis 24:9, is putting one's hand under the thigh symbolic or a euphemism?:

Gen_24:9 And the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and sware to him concerning that matter.

I have read/heard that the thigh was considered the seat of generative power and I've also read/heard that it was euphemism for touching the scrotum.

Bonus: Also, I assume that since this was not prescribed in Torah that this is a Semitic custom. Is there any extra-biblical references to the practice, or any allusions to the practice elsewhere in the scriptures?

  • 1
    Does it need to be either/or? Seems to me it's likely both a euphemism and a symbol. It's a great question though, IMO, particularly re. the ANE background. See also Gen 47:29 for the ritual, Gen. 46:26 and Exod. 1:5 for the "generative power" of the "thigh". – Susan Jul 24 '16 at 19:13

As we see here, it is a euphemism:

the word does indeed mean thigh, but it also means the male genital region. The renowned Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna puts it this way: "Holding the circumcised membrum, called the “sign of the covenant” in 17:11, may invoke the presence and power of God as the guarantor of the oath." ...
Naturally, you can see why our translators decided to go with “thigh” rather than “circumcised penis”. Not only is it more family friendly, but it’s not necessarily important to understand the true meaning of the text here.

I would add to this that it accepting a person's word on oath involves a great deal of trust, balanced by the considerable trust in allowing him to hold your genitals.

David M. Friedman says (A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, page 17) there is no evidence the Greeks testified this way.

  • (+1) I've accepted this as the answer though in my heart of hearts I would like to hear an alternate view as ISTM that putting one's hand literally under the thigh might serve as a "euergo" for contacting his manhood ("euergo" is an ancient Greek word that I just made up). – user10231 Jul 24 '16 at 23:07

Since you asked for an alternative view--other than the view of Nahum sarna cited by Dick--i will present you with one.

The Ibn Ezra (ibid) actually writes that the expression is to be taken literal, and that abraham's slave put his hand under his master's thigh. He posits that the custom in the ANE was to show subjugation by putting ones hand underneath the body of the master as if to say "i am under your dominion, and you can do with me as you please". This made the oath more effective so to speak. He writes in the end that in the land of India (ארץ הודו) they still follow this custom. This is my only available extra-biblical evidence for this strange custom.

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