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Meditation 375
Interpreting Onanism

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Gather round children for a wonderful story from Genesis 38 (King James version) showing the mercy of the Lord and the lessons we can learn therefrom.

6. And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.
7. And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.
8. And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
9. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
10. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
11. Then said Judah to Tamar his daughter in law, Remain a widow at thy father's house, till Shelah my son be grown: for he said, Lest peradventure he die also, as his brethren did. And Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.

I find this an interesting tale because so many different lessons can be drawn from it. Yet how does one determine which lesson, if any, is the intended one.

The traditional lesson is that masturbation, at least for males, is wrong. (The writers of the Bible were ignorant about female sexuality.) The falsehood that masturbation will make you go blind is not enough. No - strengthen the message by threatening that God will slay you if you masturbate. And this passage is so closely linked to masturbation that onanism is a synonym for the act.

And yet, it is quite clear from the text that this is not about masturbation. So why is this text used for that purpose? Because those who sought an anti-masturbation masturbation message in the Bible could find no better passage than this. The Bible is silent on masturbation. Those who wanted to preach it is a sin could only seize upon the phrase "spilled it on the ground" and ignore the preceding "he went in unto his brother's wife."

Onanism has a secondary definition in the dictionary and that is coitus interruptus. It would seem quite obvious that this is the act Onan performed. Consequently, this passage is also used to make coitus interruptus a sin. By extension, all forms of birth control can be interpreted as sin. Then, by further extension, abortion can be interpreted as sin without the necessity of getting into the debate about when life begins.

So, is coitus interruptus the sin of Onan? Is this the act that caused God to kill him? Or is it also a selective reading of the text? Consider the following.

In many societies, it is the duty of a surviving brother to impregnate his sister-in-law if his brother did not leave an heir. If we look more fully at verse 9, we can consider that Onan's sin was not simply coitus interruptus, but coitus interruptus with his bereaved childless sister-in-law. When we look at verse 10 - "And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also." is the "thing" a few selected words in the previous verse, or is it the entire act encompassed by the previous verse? Given the primitive society at the time Onan (purportedly) lived, surely this was the intended message - you have a duty to get your childless bereaved sister-in-law pregnant. So, we can interpret that very specific and narrow failure as what caused God to kill him.

On the other hand, perhaps there is a more general message. Onan apparently decided it would be wrong to have a child by Tamar. Yet the society he lived in considered it right and mandatory. This passage can be used to demonstrate that you are not allowed to make your own moral decisions. You must abide by the morality of your society and your god, even if it seems to you to be wrong.

Then again, the passage may be about the proper position of women in society. Is Tamar involved in the decision at all? She is disposed of by Judah to Onan, and then when that does not work out, she is promised to the next son when he is old enough. Her place is apparently just to spread her legs and bear children. Is that the lesson to be drawn here?

Perhaps not. If you read further you find that when the promise of the third son is not fulfilled, Tamar actually takes matters into her own hands and fools Judah into impregnating her.

Interesting really. Er is killed by God because God considered him wicked, but the sin is not important enough to specify. Onan is killed by God because of (depending on interpretation) masturbation, coitus interruptus, or just not doing his duty by his sister-in-law. Which ever supposed sin it is, it is not a sin important enough to list elsewhere amongst all the other picayune rules listed in the Bible. Yet the knowing adulterer Judah, who thought he was hiring a prostitute and broke the 7th commandment got off scot-free.

The message I see here is a capricious God - killing people for some sins he had not identified, yet not for those specified as major sins.[1]

In the end, there is no inherent message in the tale of Onan. The message is in how it is interpreted. And that message is determined, not by some deity, but by the preconceptions of the one doing the interpretation.

And so it is for all the lessons one gets out of scripture.



  1. I recognize there is a timing problem here - this incident supposedly happened prior to the issuing of the 10 Commandments and all those other silly rules in Leviticus. Which raises the issue - before God handed out all the regulations, how was anyone supposed to know what were sins and what weren't?