“Swear to me, Joseph—promise me this,” Jacob said. “Place your hand under my thigh and swear.” Making promises to the dying is nothing unusual. That is still done today. Frequently I have heard spouses or children tell of promises they made to a dying mate or a parent. But what about this strange gesture of placing one’s hand under the thigh of another? What’s that all about?
Brown, Driver, and Briggs, old but still reputable authorities on the Hebrew text, suggest that this sealing of the promise was done by placing the hand beneath the lower back or beneath the buttocks. Joseph promised to do as his father asked, and he also indicated this symbolically by placing his hand under Jacob. It was an oath-taking posture common at that time.
“Promise me before our God, Joseph, that you will bury me back in my father’s land. Promise to bury me over there in Canaan, the land of our people, not here in Egypt. God brought us to Egypt so we could survive the famine, but I want to be buried in the land of our forefathers, along with Abraham and Isaac and Leah. Take me back there. Don’t bury me in Egypt. Swear before God that will not happen.” And Joseph swore to keep this promise to his father.
On Jacob’s tombstone, Joseph could have placed the words: “He worshiped.” Years earlier, of course, “He deceived” might have seemed more appropriate, but now that Jacob was almost a century-and-a-half old, he had come a long way with God. At the end of his life, one of his final acts was to worship the God he had both wrestled with and served. In his old age he urged Joseph to remember that Canaan—not Egypt—was the Promised Land, so he made his son promise to make his final grave there.