Genesis 47:29 offers one of the best examples of why knowledge of historical and cultural backgrounds helps readers of the Bible avoid (sometimes serious!) misunderstandings. I mean, imagine if you went to buy a car, and instead of asking for your credit information, the salesman asked you to put your hand under his thigh, well that’s just flat out creepy! It reminds me of the now famous airline passenger, who told the security officer who was preparing him for the “pat down” search: “You touch my junk and I’ll have you arrested!” All speculations aside as to why this passenger would speak disparagingly of his own private parts, the point is nevertheless clear: situations like that described in Genesis 47:29 (see also 24:2) strike the modern reader as . . . well . . . CREEPY! [at the risk of offending any who might misunderstand my motives, I’m leaving a whole lot of puns unsaid! After all, this is a touchy subject, so there is no need to expose my thoughts for open critique]
The setting in Genesis 47 has Jacob near death and his son, Joseph, at his side. Famine brought Jacob and his sons to Egypt, but Egypt is not the land Yahweh promised his grandfather Abraham . . . on oath. Now Jacob is urging his son Joseph to see that his bones will be buried in his homeland, and he asks him to seal this promise with an oath. That is the meaning behind the custom of “placing the hand under the thigh.” In context there is nothing sensual or sordid about this act AT ALL!
“Sealing the deal” with some kind of outward action is common to nearly every culture and time (even in our modern technological society), though the precise symbolism of the act may differ. Earlier in our nation’s history a person’s handshake was his or her bond. The “pinky promise,” used mostly by lovebirds today, has all but lost its original force, specifically, that the one who broke the promise would have his/her pinky cut off—thereby branding the person as unworthy of trust.
In ancient Near Eastern culture, the practice of placing the hand under the other party’s thigh was essentially saying, “if I do not make good on my promise, may your family wreak havoc on me.” Joseph does make good on his promise, and Jacob returns (well, at least his bones return) to the Promised Land.”
And just how was this land promised? Again, in ancient Near Eastern culture when two parties entered into an agreement concerning a matter of paramount importance and wide-ranging implications, each pledged his loyalty to the other and faithfulness to the agreement by walking in between two halves of a slain animal. The memory of walking together between the slaughtered guts of the dismembered animal (sorry if you are reading this before breakfast) seared into perpetual memory the thought of what would happen to the one who violated his side of the arrangement. Significantly, when God “cut” the covenant with Abram, only He (in the form of a smoking firepot) passed through the entrails (Genesis 15:17). This, of course, did not mean that Abraham and his descendents were not responsible to live up to their obligations as Yahweh’s progeny; it meant that God would respond with grace to failures repented. The same idea is present in all of the covenants God has established with humanity from Adam to Jesus! Is all about God’s GRACE!