“Place your hand under my thigh and swear to me” (Genesis 47:29) This language reminds us immediately of another scene in Genesis, when Abraham made his servant Eliezer swear an oath to him in the same manner. That time is was for getting Abraham’s son a wife from the “old country”, not from among the Canaanites. Eliezer did so, and that’s the story of how Isaac married Rebecca. What ensued from that oath was a lot of deception – Rebecca favored Jacob, Isaac favored Esau, Jacob stole his brother’s birthright, and the father’s blessing at his deathbed.
We are at the deathbed of our last family patriarch, Jacob. This is the end of Genesis, and from here on out, in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we no longer tell the story of a family, a tribe. We tell the story of a nation. The Abraham, Isaac, Jacob saga ends here.
What is Jacob asking for in this scene? What is so important that he must have the solemnity of having a hand placed under his thigh? Jacob doesn’t want to be buried in Egypt. He wants to be buried in Canaan, and his son Joseph makes that promise to his father.
In the early part of the story, Abraham is concerned with the family line, “preferring family ties over those with the natives of the land…” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary p 116). But by the end of Genesis, the tribal ties don’t so much give way but take on a different role. Jacob wants to be buried back where so much of the family history took place, where his father and grandfather were buried. There were no Israelites back there. The nation had moved to Egypt, Joseph was comfortably ensconced in the culture, and the people were settled in the land.
Maybe Jacob knew what was coming, that a ruler would arise in Egypt who wouldn’t know Joseph. Maybe he knew that the people were going to need to be reminded where they were from. The story of Joseph being reunited with his family was sure to have spread across the community. They would also have known about Joseph traveling back to Canaan with his father’s body, to be buried in the family tomb.
Language is precise in the Torah. Words matter a great deal, and similar words matter where they occur in different settings. Perhaps this oath scene was a precursor to Moses leading the people out, preparing them for the message Moses was bringing them: not just they were to leave Egypt, but to go to a particular place where both history lived and the future waited.