Hebrew In Israel | Fear of Isaac? – Learn Torah

Hebrew In Israel | Fear of Isaac? – Learn Torah

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A question is raised on the following verse:

אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלֹהֵי נָחוֹר, יִשְׁפְּטוּ בֵינֵינוּ–אֱלֹהֵי, אֲבִיהֶם; וַיִּשָּׁבַע יַעֲקֹב, בְּפַחַד אָבִיו יִצְחָק

“May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.”  So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac. Gen 31:53

The word in question is פחד, which in its normal sense would mean “fear”.  Most commentators translate the word to mean that Yaakov is taking an oath in the name of the God which his father fears.  The problem with this is that we do not find any element of fear when it comes to the description of God and the patriarchs.  Hence fear would be a problematic interpretation, and would possibly mean that it is not referring to God.

A possible meaning could be understood from the Aramaic setting of the story.  Yaakov lived in an Aramaic speaking culture, and Lavan himself is called an Aramean and speaks Aramaic when he names the stones “יגר שהדותא”, which is the Aramaic equivalent of “גל עד” in Hebrew.  What scholars want to claim is that the word פחד is not Hebrew and is derived from an Aramaic root pḫd which means “thigh”.

The argument made is that Yaakov was “invoking” an ancestral concept through the mentioning of the thigh of Isaac.  The reason this is done is because any case where the line of a man (in this case Lavan and Yaakov) and his heritage is in jeopardy, he would invoke a thigh oath which is linked to the reproductive organs and by that he invokes the ancestors to protect the line (see verse 50).

The way this oath is made is by actually grabbing the private parts of the invoker and speaking the words.  This understanding would also shed light on what happened with Avraham and his servant who, if this interpretation is correct, actually did grab hold of Avraham.  In both the case of Avraham and Yaakov, we find an oath to not marry outside of the family.  Lavan was protecting his line through his daughters by enforcing an oath on Yaakov that he would not marry anyone else, while Yaakov was invoking his family line to protect his interest.  Both wills were achieved with one oath taken by Yaakov.

In an historical setting of this case, it is interesting to mention a thigh oath which was discovered in an inscription from Kisorah in south Iraq which reads:

“um-ma at-a-ma ma-ar ši-ip-ri-ka iš-ki-ya ủ i-ša-ri li-ṣi-ba-at-ma lu-di-ku-um ủ aš-šta-aq-bi-am bur-ri-i-a mᾱr mé-na-nu-um”

Translation: “I said/wrote to you messenger is to grab a hold of my testicles and member, only then will I give to you your wish.  In regards to what you had said to me therefore (I send to you) Buria son of Menanum”.

 

As can be seen in this text, the writer is telling the sender that his servant must grab a hold of his body and only then he will be willing to give whatever was requested.  This is understood to be a form of an oath which is taken to prevent any lying or cheating of the other party.  What this demonstrates is that such an oath is found, and in our case in Genesis could be a form of such an oath for a specific need with a symbolic meaning by grabbing a specific body part.  However, in our example from Kisorah there is no evidence that this was the same situation as in Genesis.  The main point is that we can find some parallels in the ancient world that might shed some light on what the Bible is saying.

Society Law and Custom in the land of Israel and the Ancient East, Malul Ramat Gan 2006

 

Originally Published: 17 December 2016

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