Genesis (Part 95)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis: 24:1-9

24 Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. 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, 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, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.

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We can get a sense of how old everyone is based on the age we were given for Sarah in the previous section. Sarah was 90 years old when Isaac was born. She was 127 years old when she died. That means Isaac was 37 years old when his mother died. His father, who was 137 years old when Sarah died, has decided to find his son a wife.

From the text:

old = זָקֵן zâqên, zaw-kane’; a primitive root; to be old:—aged man, be (wax) old (man).

well stricken / well advanced = בּוֹא bôwʼ, bo; a primitive root; to go or come (in a wide variety of applications):—abide, apply, attain, × be, befall, besiege, bring (forth, in, into, to pass), call, carry, × certainly, (cause, let, thing for) to come (against, in, out, upon, to pass), depart, × doubtless again, eat, employ, (cause to) enter (in, into, -tering, -trance, -try), be fallen, fetch, follow, get, give, go (down, in, to war), grant, have, × indeed, (in-) vade, lead, lift (up), mention, pull in, put, resort, run (down), send, set, × (well) stricken (in age), × surely, take (in), way.

in age = יוֹם yôwm, yome; from an unused root meaning to be hot; a day (as the warm hours), whether literal (from sunrise to sunset, or from one sunset to the next), or figurative (a space of time defined by an associated term), (often used adverb):—age, always, chronicals, continually(-ance), daily, ((birth-), each, to) day, (now a, two) days (agone), elder, × end, evening, (for) ever(-lasting, -more), × full, life, as (so) long as (… live), (even) now, old, outlived, perpetually, presently, remaineth, × required, season, × since, space, then, (process of) time, as at other times, in trouble, weather, (as) when, (a, the, within a) while (that), × whole ( age), (full) year(-ly), younger.

Starting in verse 2, we get to the action of these verses. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(2) Unto his eldest servant of his house.—Heb., his servant, the elder of his house. It is the name of an office; and though one holding so confidential a post would be a man of ripe years, yet it is not probable that Abraham would send any one who was not still vigorous on so distant a journey. Eliezer of Damascus had held a similar office fifty-five years previously (Genesis 15:2), but this was probably a younger man.

Put . . . thy hand under my thigh.—As Jacob requires that Joseph should swear to him in the same manner (Genesis 47:29), this form of oath was evidently regarded as a very solemn one. The meaning of it has been much discussed, but we find the thigh in Genesis 46:26Exodus 1:5—in both which places it is rendered loins—used as the source of posterity. Probably, therefore, as Tuch argues, it is an euphemistic manner of describing the circumcised member, which was to be touched by the hand placed beneath the thigh; and thus the oath was really by the holy covenant between Abraham and God, of which circumcision was the symbol.

Beware thou that thou bring not my son thither again.—The betrothal of Isaac and Rebekah is told with the utmost exactness of detail, because it contained two principles of primary importance to Abraham’s posterity: the first, that they were not to allow themselves to be merged among the Canaanites, but remain a distinct people; for this intermarriage with women of their own race was only a means to an end, and not a binding law, to be observed for its own sake. And secondly, that under no circumstances might they return to Mesopotamia, but must cling devotedly to the land of which God had promised them the possession. We learn from Genesis 24:8 that this second point was regarded by Abraham as even more important than the first; and with reason. For the race might remain distinct even if Isaac took a woman of Palestine to wife, though there would be the risk of religious deterioration; but if they returned to Padanaram they were certain to be absorbed, and could look for no higher lot than that attained to by Laban’s descendants.

Land of my kindred.—Rather, of my nativity; and so in Genesis 24:4. (See Note on Genesis 12:1.) It is a different word from that rightly translated kindred in Genesis 24:38. Jewish interpreters say that by his father’s house here, and by his country in Genesis 24:4, Abraham meant Charran: but by his birthplace he meant Ur of the Chaldees. If, therefore, the servant failed in obtaining a wife at Charran, he was to continue his journey to Ur, where Abraham, doubtless, had many relatives.

We are told that an unnamed servant is called to Abraham.

servant = עֶבֶד ʻebed, eh’-bed; from H5647; a servant:—× bondage, bondman, (bond-) servant, (man-) servant.

We know from Genesis 15:2 that his top ranking servant, many years ago, was Eliezer of Damascus. We do not know whether that is still the case or whether a younger man now occupies that job.

Genesis 15:2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

The note above describes “put your hand under my thigh.” It is a form of an oath we see a few times in the Bible.

Genesis 47:29 29 And when the time drew near that Israel must die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If now I have found favor in your sight, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt,

thigh = יָרֵךְ yârêk, yaw-rake’; from an unused root meaning to be soft; the thigh (from its fleshy softness); by euphemistically the generative parts; figuratively, a shank, flank, side:—× body, loins, shaft, side, thigh.

I looked for some explanation for this form of taking an oath. I found one at outlawbiblestudent.org:

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

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

“When your boss asks you to make a solemn vow.”

Returning to the text with the Pulpit Commentaries:

By the Lordthe God of heaven, and the God of the earth (a clause defining Jehovah as the supreme Lord of the universe, and therefore as the sole Arbiter of human destiny), that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son—not investing him with authority to provide a wife for Isaac in the event of death carrying him (Abraham) off before his son’s marriage, but simply explaining the negative side of the commission with which he was about to be entrusted. If it evinced Isaac’s gentle disposition and submissive piety, that though forty years of age he neither thought of marriage, but mourned in devout contemplation for his mother (Lange), nor offered resistance to his father’s proposal, but suffered himself to be governed by a servant (Calvin), it was also quite in accordance with ancient practice that parents should dispose of their children in marriage (cf. Genesis 28:2)—of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. Being prompted to this partly by that jealousy with which all pastoral tribes of Shemitie origin have been accustomed to guard the purity of their race by intermarriage, and partly no doubt by his perception of the growing licentiousness of the Canaanites, as well as his knowledge of their predicted doom, though chiefly, it is probable, by a desire to preserve the purity of the promised seed. Intermarriage with the Canaanites was afterwards forbidden by the Mosaic legislation (Exodus 34:16Deuteronomy 7:3). But (literally, for, i.e. the former thing must not be done because this must be done) thou shalt go unto my country (not Ur of the Chaldees, but the region beyond the Euphrates generally), and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac. Though enforced by religious considerations, this injunction to bring none but a relative for Isaac’s bride “was in no sense a departure from established usages and social laws in regard to marriage”.

Looking at the rest of this section from David Guzik’s Commentary:

And the servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I take your son back to the land from which you came?” But Abraham said to him, “Beware that you do not take my son back there. The LORD God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my family, and who spoke to me and swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land,’ He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. And if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be released from this oath; only do not take my son back there.” So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and swore to him concerning this matter.

a. Abraham said to him: Apparently, Abraham anticipated that he might die while his servant was gone, so the instructions were made perfectly clear.

b. Beware that you do not take my son back there: Isaac, the son of promise, never once left the Promised Land. His wife was to come to him, as Isaac stayed in the land of Canaan. This principle was so important that if the woman would not come with the servant, it was better for Isaac to not have a wife (only do not take my son back there).

c. To your descendants I give this land: Abraham insisted on this, because God made a covenant promise to Abraham and his descendants that the land of Canaan was theirs. Abraham understood that the covenant promise was passed on to Isaac, not Ishmael.

There is an article discussing this portion of the text at chabad.org by Jacob Isaacs. I have quoted some interesting portions below but I recommend the whole article.

For three years Sarah’s tent remained vacant. Gloom and loneliness prevailed where light and life had been pulsing before, as long as Sarah had lived.

Abraham was eager to have Isaac marry a woman of the character and stature of Sarah. Isaac himself was completely immersed in the study and in the service of G‑d. It was obvious to Abraham that he could not find a suitable girl for his son among the Canaanite neighbors. Their upbringing and way of life were too different from Abraham’s and Isaac’s, and none of them could ever become his son’s companion for life, and the true heiress of Sarah.

Abraham, therefore, decided to look for a daughter-in-law among the children of his brother Nahor. He called his trusted servant Eliezer, who had been in charge of Abraham’s household affairs ever since he had left Nimrod’s court. Abraham made Eliezer promise on oath that he would go to Nahor in Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac.

Taking ten camels, laden with the best of his master’s treasures, Eliezer left for Mesopotamia on his sacred mission.

The author above pulls details from outside of the text of Genesis. For instance, he cites definitively that Eliezer is indeed the servant who undertakes this mission. He also makes a reference to Abraham’s time in Nimrod’s court. If you are interested, I am linking information on that HERE and HERE.

The rest of the article covers events after the servant’s arrival in Abraham’s homeland. We will look at that portion of the story in the next set of verses.

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