Onan The Barbarian

Yesterday afternoon in the Speaker’s Workshop, someone said of my sermonette that it made a few of the ladies uncomfortable, dealing with the awkward and unpleasant examples of rape and incest, although I did not dwell on them.  As someone who has had to deal with the unpleasant repercussions of these matters in my own life, I tend to be rather tough-minded when it comes to addressing them, as any search of this particular blog will reveal that rape and rape culture and power rape and related subjects that discuss matters of abuse and exploitation are regular aspects of my “beat” as a writer and thinker and reader.  Perhaps some people do not want to think of these matters, but as these are aspects of reality that a substantial number of people have to deal with, I tend to think it worthwhile to deal with them openly and honestly and compassionately, as a way of acknowledging that reality for those who might struggle with a sense of shame thanks to their personal experiences and the way such matters are often under rug swept.

Be that as it may, one of the follow-up comments struck me as particularly interesting, as it was noted by our pastor that there were some stories of the Bible that were rather unpleasant and made people squeamish and that it was the advice during his day in learning how to speak at Ambassador College to avoid dwelling on the sin of Onan.  I had to smile, perhaps in spite of myself, upon hearing this reference, because while the sin of Onan is something that I have written about before [1], it is something that I do not think many people know very well.  It is likely that people have an idea of what Onan’s sin was–Onanism has entered the English language as an obscure word for masturbation–and it is certain that references to Onan’s sin would make others squeamish, but it is very likely that a poll of my local congregation would reveal that perhaps scarcely a dozen people in the entire congregation would even know who Onan was, much less why his sin was so horrible that it merited being struck down by God in direct judgment.  It is also axiomatic that it is very unlikely that anyone would know why such a sin and such a judgment would relevant in our own time as well.  So, taking the invitation, let us dwell a bit on Onan and his sin, and its implications for us.

Onan is a very small bit player among the family of the patriarchs, but what is worthwhile and notable about his life is contained in a single passage, Genesis 38:6-11:  “Then Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.  But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord killed him.  And Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.”  But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother.  And the thing which he did displeased the Lord; therefore He killed him also.  Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house till my son Shelah is grown.” For he said, “Lest he also die like his brothers.” And Tamar went and dwelt in her father’s house.”

It is especially unfortunate that Onanism should have been equated in the popular mind with the issue of masturbation, one of those issues that few people want to talk about (and quite understandably so).  The sin of Onan is different, but is easy enough to understand if one takes the time to read the passage thoughtfully.  After being married first to Judah’s oldest son Er, who was struck down for some unspecified but obviously pretty horrible sin, Tamar was given to Onan, the next oldest brother, in a levirate marriage.  In this marriage the man was obligated to raise up an heir for the deceased relative so that his name would not die and so that he would have a descendant counted in future generations and be able to inherit accordingly.  Onan knew that the expectation was that he would have sex with Tamar as her husband, and that the first son that Tamar bore would count as his older brother’s son and would inherit the share of the firstborn.  While Onan was quite content to have sex with Tamar, he did not want her to get pregnant and thus disinherit him as the firstborn, and so he engaged in a fairly common premodern practice of premature ejaculation to ensure that she would not get pregnant.  This particular method of avoiding impregnation was one of the more common ways that people who kept various unfree women (or had sex with prostitutes) attempted to use to avoid having unwanted children to deal with as well, and was an attempt on the part of Onan to enjoy the pleasures of sex without the chance of procreation.  For this sin, and neglecting his duty to father an heir for his elder brother, God struck him down.

When we properly understand Onan’s sin, it becomes immediately more relevant in at least two ways.  One of these ways is within the story itself.  As Onan’s method of contraception (for that is what it was, in an albeit primitive form) was related to the exploitation of women as prostitutes and the attempt to separate sex from procreation, the incident helps the reader to understand the way in which Tamar, a virtuous young woman, was largely taken advantage of and exploited by Judah and his sins in ways that were flagrantly unrighteous.  Since Judah later on would mistake Tamar for a prostitute and give her his signet ring and staff as collateral for her price, and then would attempt to have her killed when she became pregnant with his children, Onan’s treatment of Tamar like a prostitute would merely be acting like a chip off the old block.  Like father, like son it can be unkindly said.  Fortunately, evidence suggests [2] that not everyone in the family was a moral pygmy, as Tamar’s reputation enjoyed a great restoration later on as she was hailed for her creativity and guts in ensuring herself an honorable place and in obtaining the children she sought from Judah’s family, even if in unconventional ways.

When we look at the sin of Onan in attempting to separate the enjoyment of sex from the responsibility of bearing children and taking care of them, we may see a characteristic sin of our time.  The Bible views the opening and the closing of wombs as the responsibility of God, and views as a sign of wickedness the attempts by mankind to control pregnancy through various means of birth control.  To enjoy sex without wishing to take upon oneself the responsibility of parenting, or the desire to avoid the risk of unwanted offspring, is to sin against a God who desires godly offspring and who has tolerated the channeled the sexual urges of people into heterosexual marriage for the purpose of having godly offspring to be a part of His family.  This is one of the more pointed stories that indicate the hostility that God has to attempts by mankind to shirk the responsibility to be fruitful and multiply.  And while masturbation is indeed sterile from the point of not bearing seed, it is rather the attempt of Onan (and many in the contemporary world) to enjoy the pleasures of sex while seeking to avoid the responsibilities and the repercussions of childrearing that earn God’s judgment.  And if people are not struck down nowadays in the manner that Onan was, that is a matter of God’s mercy rather than His change of opinion about such matters.  Perhaps it would be wise for us to dwell a bit more often on the sin of Onan, seeing as it speaks very much to our own age and its rebellious attitudes to the first command given to mankind to be fruitful and multiply, a commandment that our age rebels against at every turn.

[1] See, for example:


[2] Notably, 1 Chronicles 4:21-22 tells us the following about Shelah:  “ The sons of Shelah the son of Judah were Er the father of Lecah, Laadah the father of Mareshah, and the families of the house of the linen workers of the house of Ashbea; also Jokim, the men of Chozeba, and Joash; Saraph, who ruled in Moab, and Jashubi-Lehem. Now the records are ancient.”  The fact that Shelah had, according to ancient records, a son named after his elder brother suggests that after the birth of Tamar’s twin sins by Judah that Tamar was given to Shelah as a wife and Shelah raised up the eldest son in the name of his deceased eldest brother, thus fulfilling his responsibility to his brothers’ widow.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Onan The Barbarian

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Onan’s sin of premature withdrawal was done because of his attitude against God. He despised the inheritance of his brother, the firstborn, and died because of it. Today’s attitude of rampant sexual activity as “responsible” because the parties are using birth control would be comparable to Onan. Birth control is often necessary within a marriage because couples must defer having children due to finances, or they cannot support a larger family than they already have. With regard to Christians in this situation, their actions are not done in rebellion against God. They are not despising the inheritance of the Firstborn. in fact, they are behaving in such a way as to not becoming a burden on the government or the church.

    • There are certainly some people whose actions are based on a rebellion against God, but I do agree that there are many whose restraint is not based, as Onan’s was, on rebellion against the responsibility Onan had to raise up a son for his dead older brother. That said, to separate the pleasure of sexuality from the divine plan of propagating godly offspring is a dangerous place to go.

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