Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will get a wife for my son Isaac.” – Genesis 24:1-4 abbreviated (NRSV)
Well now, that’s one way to swear an oath: hand to thigh in the name of God. Quite different from right hand to the sky. Or hand to the Bible. Or hand on the heart.
The intimacy and power and high stakes of the whole scene might make us blush: The servant swearing the oath has his hand literally caught under the man with power over him. At the same time, Abraham has his life and legacy—his femoral artery, his loins—in the palm of his servant.
In the world of etymology, a theory exists that the word “testimony” shares a Latin root with the word “testicles”: testis, meaning “witness.” Some language lovers theorize that testis took on a figurative meaning: “testicles” as a “testament” to cis manhood.
This titillating word history may or may not be true—it’s not a stretch to say that Abraham’s testicles bear witness to the servant’s oath—but the real provocation of it all is the idea that we hold another’s vulnerability in our hands every time we make a promise. Every time we say, “I’ve got you on this,” we choose to be caught up in another’s wellbeing even as we cup their tenderness in our palm.
As I watch the swearing-in of witnesses before the U.S. House Committee investigating the January 6th insurrection, I yearn to believe that each person raising their right hand—and each person listening to their testimony—is intimately aware of the power and vulnerability at stake.
But much more than that, I yearn to believe, to know, to live in a world where we all recognize the very high stakes of holding and being held by one another’s lives.
You call us to love one another. Forgive us for too casually promising to care. Forgive us for too carelessly ignoring the stakes. Do not shield us from the intimate vulnerabilities of community.