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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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2 Answers 2

The answer to your question is best examined by looking at Onan's sin in the context of the exchange between Judah and Tamar and requires a good understanding and background of the place of women in ancient middle eastern culture and the purpose of Leverite marriage practices.

We must remember that this culture had no medicare and no social security. Therefore, what was a widowed woman to do if she had no sons to provide for her financially and care for her in her old age after she was unable to tend a field or do any type of manual labor? As a woman, a widow would be unable to own property and had no standing in the courts and very little rights of any kind. In such a patriarchal society, being a woman was a losing proposition and a male offspring was necessary for the providence of the widowed.

Therefore, the humanitarian practice of Levirite marriage was developed to ensure that these women were provided and cared for in their old age.

Now, armed with this as context, we can see that by failing to give his youngest son Selah to Tamar as a father and husband, Judah was shortchanging a poor widowed woman - not a very classy move. Later in the text, Tamar tricks Judah in to fathering her child. As the patriarch of the family, it was Judah's moral duty to see that Tamar would be cared for and provided for and by withholding his son he was failing this moral obligation. This is why, in verse 26, upon the realization that he has been duped and is the father of Tamar's child, Judah goes from wanting to burn her to saying "[Tamar] is more upright than I am, because I wouldn’t give her to Shelah my son."*

He realized that it was his moral obligation to provide for Tamar and he had failed in his duty. Most people get hung up on the prostitution bit, but fail to realize that 1) the text doesn't condone this and 2) prostitution hadn't been explicitly forbidden yet because the law of Moses had not yet been given. Therefore, while frowned upon, the prostitution in the text isn't nearly as big of a deal as Judas flagrant disregard for the plight of his widowed daughter-in-law.

Understanding this, we can then see that Onan's sin wasn't spilling his seed per-se, but in failing to provide for his widowed sister-in-law just as his father fails to do later in the story. Furthermore, Onan does this out of greed and/or laziness which the text implies by saying "the seed would not count as his". In other words, he would only be a trustee of his brother's estate, but would not really get to benefit from the wealth. This activity had it's benefits for the guardian-redeemer, but it also had it's drawbacks. (See Ruth Chapter 4; in fact, just read the whole book - it is short and very relevant to this passage).

For taking this matter into her own hands and acting in such an admirable fashion, Tamar is provided as a role model and was revered and is one of the very few women who makes it into the genealogy of Jesus (a great honor) and truly was "more righteous". This passage is actually very progressive and feminist in nature in this regard once you understand all of the nuance - it provided female empowerment as a virtue and example.

Therefore, the text says that Onan's sin was #4, "Not performing his Levirate duty" (or better restated in context of our current culture, "screwing over a poor old widow")

*Note: as an aside, the motivation for Judah's failure to give his son to Tamar is superstitious. In this culture, they believed in curses, and Judah likely believed Tamar to be cursed and killing off his sons. It was typically believed that tragedies and maladies were caused by sins or curses (curses often caused also being caused sins or wrongdoings that angered some supernatural entity, which could be Yahweh himself.) This is why in John 9 the disciples inquire of Jesus regarding a blind man "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?".


In regard to the first question: "What, if anything does the text say that Onan did wrong?" The answer to that is in Genesis 38:9.10 which states "And Onan knew that the seed should not be his......he spilled his seed on the ground lest that he should give seed to his brother." He refused to fulfill the so-called Law of The Manchild, to give his seed to his sister-in-law to raise up a male child to his brother's memory. God slew Onan. It would appear that Onan's sin was that of "will worship" condemned by Paul in Col.2:23. In the NT Greek, the word for it is "ethelothreskeia" with "ethelo" meaning "to will", and "threskeia" which infers "religious worship". Thayer inferred that "ethelo" implied a voluntary impulsive inclination, a prefix implying voluntary action. The implication is that of worship of self or self-will over the will of God: in other words, idolatry.

In regard to his second question: "Is it possible to draw a larger principle from this passage?" I believe so, for in Romans 1:18-28 The Holy Spirit through Paul discusses men and women given over to vile affections. In verse 26 he discusses women who gave up, voluntarily, the natural use of the man, women lusting for women. In verse 27 it refers to men leaving the natural use of the woman, men lusting for men. Notice that the scriptures establish that there is a natural use of the sexual organs implied which is vaginal penetration and ejaculation of the male into the female vagina...God ordained. The use of the term natural use implies that there is an unnatural use. Certainly that would be same-sex sexual activity, unnatural sexual activity such as sodomy, in which the sex organs are used for a purpose which God never intended, or failure to complete the sex act between a married male and female. The latter would refer to coitus interruptus or interrupted intercourse as was performed by Onan. There are those that say that his sin was not masturbation, but disobedience to the Law and rebellion against God. What most people fail to realize is that the very act of coitus interruptus or interrupted intercourse, for the purpose of preventing ejaculation into the vagina reduces the act to mutual masturbation, at least on Onan's part, for the act was purposefully entered into,by him, with an impulsive will to withdraw. She, although a victim with no intent to agree or approve of Onan's action, was reduced by Onan to the level of a masturbator/sex object, although passively and circumstantially. When two willing sex partners, male and female, are willing to practice coitus interruptus as a form of birth control, they are reducing the sex act to mutual masturbation and they are against Divine purpose, as Paul noted in using the words "natural use". The sin is that of "will worship".

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Welcome to Stack Exchange. If you haven't done so already, check out the site tour. In particular, be sure to read the section on what constitutes a good answer and revise your post to cite references that back your position. Please note that "showing your work" is required on this Stack Exchange - don't tell us what you know/believe tell us how you know it. –  ThaddeusB Jul 26 at 4:28
Where's your evidence that Paul would've thought coitus interruptus counted as 'unnatural use'? Onan's acts shouldn't cannot be generalised to every other situation. –  curiousdannii Jul 29 at 9:26
Relating greek phrases to the hebrew phrases is tenuous at best. Furthermore, the text you are referring to uses the term "para physis" - or use which is in excess of natural, not "unnatural". Vs. 22 of Romans 1 makes it clear that those participating in the use "beyond nature" are idolaters who "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles." He appears to specifically be referring to either the followers of Aphrodite or Dionysus who would engage in ritual orgies in the month of April as a form or idol worship. –  James Shewey 45 mins ago

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