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Genesis 38:6-11 (NJPS):

Judah got a wife for Er his first-born; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the Lord, and the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Join with your brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law, and provide offspring for your brother.” But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and He took his life also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”—for he thought, “He too might die like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.

So Er died for "displeasing" the Lord and Onan died for "displeasing" the Lord too. While we don't know what Er did, we can see what Onan did in the bolded section. I've seen this interpreted as a condemnation of:

  1. Masturbation
  2. Theft of Tamar's child
  3. In-chastity within marriage (this option is confusing to me)
  4. Not performing his Levirate duty

I wouldn't be surprised if there were other interpretations. But what, if anything, does the text say Onan did wrong? Is it possible to draw a larger principle from this passage?

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By the way, I'm asking because of the Christianity.SE blog that, Lord willing, will start in March. Our topic is contraception and the authors we have so far are all male! We are looking for the female perspective (whether Christian or not) to contribute. –  Jon Ericson Feb 23 '12 at 23:56
I've removed a tag based on this but then realised we really need to think this approach through together as community - please join me in chat when you get the chance and are willing to contribute to the discussion –  Jack Douglas Feb 24 '12 at 10:27

1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

A straight reading of the text suggests that he withdrew during intercourse before climax. A note here provides some references to rabbinic interpretations; see below. I know that masturbation is a popular interpretation, but as I understand the anatomy, this could not refer only to that because then there wouldn't be much he could do "whenever he joined with his brother’s wife". So possibly he did both, but the text doesn't tell us.

By doing this he deprived Tamar of the child that was the whole point of the levirate marriage, so it is possible that God was angered by the deception rather than (or in addition to) his specific act. Onan could have declined the levirate marriage (the torah provides for that) and then Tamar would have been free to marry someone who could give her a child; instead he married her but sabotaged the union.

It seems plausible to me that his primary sin was this deceptive marriage and not the specific means he employed, particularly because the text tells us why he acted ("knowing that the seed would not count as his").

Rabbinic interpretations

Note: you asked what the text says and that's what I tried to answer above. Here is some additional food for thought.

The talmud, in Yevamot 34b, says (my notes in braces):

An objection was raised: During all the twenty-four months {after a birth, when a mother is nursing} one may thresh within and winnow without {see below}; these are the words of R. Eliezer. The others said to him: Such actions are only like the practice of Er and Onan! -Like the practice of Er and Onan, and yet not [exactly] like the practice of Er and Onan: ‘Like the practice of Er and Onan’, for it is written in Scripture, And it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilt it on the ground; and ‘not [exactly] like the practice of Er and Onan’, for whereas there it was an unnatural act, here it is done in the natural way.

From the footnotes in the Soncino translation: "thresh within and winnow without: Euphemism. This would prevent possible conception which might deprive the young child of the breast feeding of his mother."

It seems from this that the rabbis understood Onan to have withdrawn. B'reishit Rabbah 85 concurs. (The third source cited in the link addresses masturbation.)

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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By the way, I value the rabbinic sources since they come from within the culture that was shaped by the stories. I feel we are much closer to the text itself because there are fewer cultural gaps. Plus the rabbis were funny! Is it just me or is that "euphemism" more vivid than what it describes? –  Jon Ericson Feb 24 '12 at 17:27
@GoneQuiet-Could it be G-d was angry at Onan's disregard at G-d's command to "...be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth"? Not only was he(Onan) depriving Tamar(a daughter in law Judah loved) her inheritance, but G-d was also denied an inheritance of a great nation He intended to fulfill. –  Tau Dec 20 '13 at 4:26
@GoneQuiet: By adding "rabbinic interpretations," doesn't that contradict the disclaimer you wrote at the end of your post? How can the reader not interpret your post in the context of Jewish doctrine or belief when you include rabbinic interpretations (i.e., the interpretations of Jewish rabbis)? I don't mean to be confrontational at all. I'm just curious...because it seems almost impossible to do so. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Dec 20 '13 at 5:34
@H3br3wHamm3r81 I reported rabbinic interpretations, just as I would in an academic setting studying these texts, and just as some report Tanakh interpretations from the church fathers etc. By labeling it clearly, writing descriptively rather than truth-assertingly, and separating it in my answer, I've represented it accurately I think. –  Gone Quiet Dec 20 '13 at 13:52
The Gemara at Yevamos 34b also suggests that Er and Onan also committed sodomy with Tamar, in addition to pre-mature withdrawal. Er because he did not want to spoil Tamar's beauty by letting her get pregnant. Onan's reason was that he didn't want to father her child if the baby would follow Er's name. –  Bruce James Dec 20 '13 at 15:45

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