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?


Onan's sin was entirely related to his refusal to perform his levirate duty.

Quickly about the other three:

  1. Coitus interruptus is not masturbation. It is a (very unreliable) method of birth control. Onan was attempting not to get Tamar pregnant because he did not want to provide an heir for his deceased older brother.

  2. It was not "theft of Tamar's child." Rather, it was (once again) refusal to provide his deceased brother, Er, with an heir under the law of levirate marriage.

  3. Though marrying a brother's wife was normally prohibited (see Leviticus 18:16; 20:21), the law of levirate marriage was an exception to that rule. Marrying a deceased brother's wife under this law was not considered adultery or inchastity. And the rules of "inchastity" for men were rather lax in those days anyway.

The law of levirate marriage is stated in Deuteronomy 25:5-10:

5 "If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. 6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 And if the man does not wish to take his brother's wife, then his brother's wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, 'My husband's brother refuses to perpetuate his brother's name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband's brother to me.' 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, 'I do not wish to take her,' 9 then his brother's wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, 'So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house.’ 10 And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.'"

Although this law was recorded several centuries after the time of Onan, as with many statutes in the Mosaic Law it was a codification of a law that was already in effect long before the time of Moses, and that was common to many ancient cultures. For more on the law of levirate marriage, see: Jewish Encyclopedia -> Levirate Marriage (Hebr. "yibbum").

The law of levirate marriage was, however, complicated in its application, and has been the subject of much debate and varying interpretation since ancient times. Having said that, here is a summary of the key events in the passage, followed by the most likely scenario of precisely what Onan's sin consisted of.

At the time of the incident of Onan in Genesis 38:6-11, Judah had fathered three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah (see Genesis 38:1-5). Er, the eldest, had received the punishment of death from the Lord for unknown offenses. Judah then instructed his second son, Onan, to fulfill the law of levirate marriage for Er, his deceased elder brother, and provide an heir for him. Onan went through the motions of doing this, but avoided actually getting Tamar pregnant by the practice of coitus interruptus, termed in the Biblical account "wasting his semen on the ground."

The text states Onan's purpose for doing this as follows:

But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother's wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. (Genesis 38:9)

This was why the Lord carried out a sentence of death on Onan:

And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. (Genesis 38:10)

Why did Onan marry Tamar, but then avoid getting her pregnant, and why was this an offense punishable by death in the Lord's eyes?

By going through the motions of taking Tamar as his wife, and thus appearing to fulfill the law of levirate marriage, Onan would become the heir to his deceased brother's current possessions. If he refused to fulfill his duty under the law of levirate marriage, he would not receive his brother's property. So he had a financial incentive to at least appear to fulfill the levirate law.

However, if he got Tamar pregnant, and she bore a child, especially if it were a male child, that child would inherit:

  1. The primogeniture that would have gone to the first biological male child of his Levirate, or legal father Er, Judah's eldest son—which would cause the leadership of the clan to pass to the child, and
  2. A double inheritance from Judah, their father, which the firstborn son was entitled to by long custom (see, for example, Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

As mentioned above, Onan would have already received his deceased brother's property by taking Tamar as his wife. However, if he impregnated her and gave her a child, especially if it were a male child, he would lose both the primogeniture and the double portion of the inheritance from their father Judah.

A bit of simple math shows that assuming Judah fathered no more children, this would cut Onan's inheritance from two-thirds to one-fourth of his father's total wealth when his father died. And of course, it would deprive Onan of the primogeniture, or leadership of the clan, that would otherwise pass to him because his elder brother would have had no heir.

Additional source for the above: Jewish Encyclopedia -> Inheritance ("yerusbah," "naḥalah") -> Levirate Connections

The sin of Onan, then, for which the Lord punished him with death, was that of going through the motions of obeying the law of levirate marriage in order to obtain his deceased brother's property, but not actually performing his duty under that law—that of providing an heir for his brother—in order keep for himself both the primogeniture and the inheritance of a double portion of the wealth of their father Judah.

Short version: Onan made a pretense of following the levirate law, but in fact shirked his obligations to his family and clan under the law, all from motives of greed and desire for power.


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?".

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    Good answer. FYI, I have posted this the the new answers to old questions chat room - feel free to use the room yourself in the future. I'm shocked it took three years for someone to finally provide the correct answer here. – ThaddeusB Aug 28 '15 at 15:54
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    It would help to quote Gen 38:8 so show that the Levirite duty did exist before the Law. – curiousdannii Aug 28 '15 at 23:59
  • Note that the "new answers to old questions" chat room has an excellent discussion between Lee and I regarding out differing explanations. – James Shewey Aug 29 '15 at 16:44
  • Your second paragraph is spot on, in my opinion. Keep up the good work. (BTW, I do not subscribe to the idea that the comment section is to be reserved only for suggestions for improvement and the like. An occasional "attaboy" or "nice going" is not going to bring the whole enterprise crashing down in a torrent of effusiveness. That, however, is just my perspective, for what it's worth--which probably isn't much!) Don – rhetorician Aug 31 '15 at 1:23

The first chapter of Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative (part of which is available on Amazon as a preview), uses the Tamar story to illustrate the interconnectedness of seemingly disjointed narratives. The final author of Genesis placed the story in the middle of the broader Joseph arc that ends with Israel's other children becoming servants of their younger brother. Joseph's viziership cements a central theme of Genesis: the disruption of primogeniture in the lineage of Abraham. Judah's lineage is complicated: he fathered twin boys with his daughter-in-law and the birth order is abmigious.

Genesis points to no specific actions that marked Er as wicked:

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.

Er had every reason to provide Tamar with a son, which would solidify his line. But for whatever reason, he was unable to do so before his untimely death. Since it was Judah who picked his wife, it's possible Er prefered other partners to his wife. But the text is deliberately terse. Jumping forward to Judah's reaction to Onan's sin:

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.

Judah puts off Tamar by using Shelah's age as an excuse. But inwardly, he's worried about losing his third and final son. It seems that Judah attributes Er and Onan's death to Tamar and not any specific sin. Certainly, he would not have known about Onan's actions unless Tamar told him, which seems unlikely. The only other person who knew of Onan's refusal to impregnate Tamar was the Lord:

What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and He took his life also.

Exactly how the thing Onan did was evil is left vague. However, his death is narratologically significant because it cuts off one more solution to Judah's inheritance problem. Or rather two in that Judah refuses to give Tamar offspring by his final remaining son. It would seem that Tamar has been cut off from having a son—consistently the primary concern of wives in Genesis.

At this point, we should note that Levirate marriages predate the Mosiac law. In this case, however, Onan's duty came not from a written law or even a cultural tradition, but was the direct order of the patriarch (Genesis 38:8). However, once the promise was made, Judah had an obligation to Tamar that he did not fulfill of his own volition:

Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again.

This recognition and confession serve as a fitting conclusion to the Tamar subplot of Genesis. Onan's role, narratively-speaking, was simply to bring Judah to this moment, which looks forward to Judah's plight in Genesis 44. His sin could have been left unspecified, like Er's was. But the image of Onan's seed falling impotent powerfully reinforces the theme of precarious inheritance. In the context of the narrative, the account of his sin is included not as a polemic against masterbation, but as a plot complication and illustration of the central theme.

That said, the victims of Onan's sin were Tamar and Judah. He deceitfully deprived them of offspring. That is what displeased the Lord.


i believe the Bible is a record of God's actions to save his creation and restore the intimacy of the relationship between him and people enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. God's method was through his "chosen people" (Later, following Christ's saving act, all people are the chosen people, but in the Old Testament it was the Hebrews). To interrupt the lineage of the chosen people would thwart God's plan, and that was what Onan's action did, and what angered God to the point of killing him. In a related issue, the whole notion of "positive pro-natalism" in the bible is related to God's chosen people salvation plan and the need for the Hebrew tribe to exist so he could save the world through it. When the Hebrews were one warring tribe among many, with defeat meaning the thwarting of God's plan, survival meant having soldiers and mothers of soldiers, meaning lots of babies raised in a family setting. This meant survival then. Today, in an overpopulated planet, God's will is more likely to be thwarted by the effects of climate destruction or nuclear war, thus today it is God's will to NOT have all babies that can be conceived and born, thus today it is God's will for there to be contraception and abortion to prevent unwanted babies. God's will is for us to be loved and supported so we can be the loving people God intends us to be. He invites us to join in his saving work. We should seek to have "wanted" babies, those we can provide the love and support necessary for them to become the good people God intends us to be.

  • Yes, Onan was killed for not fulfilling his Levirate duty (to provide an offspring through Tamar) and for disobeying God. – XegesIs Mar 3 '19 at 22:44

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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    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 '15 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 Aug 28 '15 at 8:52
  • @JamesShewey Saint Paul emphasizes the homosexuality of their behavior, not the orgaistic nature of it. The fact that it was orgiastic is irrelevant to Paul's point, and message of the text, and Bern's answer. – CMK Aug 13 '19 at 18:14

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