Sin of Onan

*** Caveat ***

Onan’s sin was something disgusting, something that displeased God, and for which Onan was slain. The reason I’m spending a whole post on this topic is that recently some Roman Catholics have been trying to use the issue of Onan’s sin as some sort of argument that “Protestant” folks are unwilling to consider Scripture.

I realize, as well, that there are some Roman Catholics for whom this is not a matter of serious consideration. They have a theology that their church has given them (or so they think) and they are going to stick with that, regardless of what Scripture says or doesn’t say.

I also realize that some of them think that it is a notable matter that many of the Reformers held over some traditional ideas that influenced their view of what Onan’s sin was. Apparently, for them, it is a significant issue if our understanding of the text is different than the majority view of the text from relatively early in the patristic period through at least the first two centuries of the Reformation era.

Finally, of course, I’ve tried to use euphemism in the following discussion, for reasons that should be apparent to any adult. If you decide to comment on this post, keep in mind that if your comments are explicit, I will censor them.

*** End of Caveat ***

What is the sin of Onan? Many Roman Catholics today argue against certain contraceptive activities on, among other things, the idea that this is condemned as the sin of Onan in Genesis 38:9. The following is a response to that idea.

First, the text:

Genesis 38:9 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.

Next, the text in context:

Genesis 38:6-11
And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar. And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him. And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. 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. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also. 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) Genesis 38:9 does not provide any universal moral commandment.

The wording of the verse itself should be a clue to that. Also, of course, the context of the verse should be a clue. The verse is worded in that God was displeased by what Onan did and slew Onan. Furthermore, this discussion is not given in the context of a set of laws, but rather in the context of an historical account.

ii) Genesis 38:9 is susceptible to several possible interpretations, because it merely states that the thing that Onan did displeased God and that consequently God slew him.

There are several possible things that displeased God about what Onan did. The thing that displeased God could be:

1) Because Onan slept with his brother’s widow.

2) Because Onan spilled his seed on the ground.

3) Because Onan refused to raise up seed to his brother.

4) Because Onan disobeyed his father.

We can rule out (1), because Judah had commanded Onan to do this, and Judah’s command is supported by the later Mosaic codification of the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

If (2) is correct (and, in a sense, it is correct), the question is why? The only clear answer is …

That (3) is correct. The reason that spilling the seed on the ground was wrong was because it was a refusal to perform the duty required by Judah and later codified by Moses. Onan failed to honor his father, and God slew him.

We might add (4) as well, but (4) is correct inasmuch as (3) is correct.

iii) Several less general principles can be drawn from this passage.

It is dangerous to rush to generalizations from a single passage. There are several generalizations that could be made from this text, in view of the meaning of the text.

1) That disobedience to parents is wrong.

2) That failure to obey the levirate law is wrong.

3) That levirate relations should be procreative only.

4) That marital relations should be procreative only.

Given the level of detail provided in the text, (1) seems to be unsatisfying. It does not seem that God was simply displeased because Onan disobeyed his father, but over the manner in which he did so.

The fourth option (4) is much too general. The fact that this was a levirate relationship is significant to the flow of the text, and a generalization that fails to account for this seems to fail to identify the true issue.

The remaining options are (2) and (3). These are not far apart. Nevertheless, we can distinguish between the two. The issue is not one in which Onan obeyed the levirate law and then did something else in addition, instead it is one in which he refused to obey the levirate law. Thus, (2) is the better answer than (3).

iv) The fact that Calvin (and Luther?) viewed Onan’s activity to be inherently displeasing to God does not make it so.

A surprising number of people think that it is significant that Luther (?) and Calvin generalized Onan’s sin rather differently than we do. Nevertheless, Luther and Calvin agreed with us that their views ought to be held up to the light of Scripture. Since their views of this particular text do not seem to be sustainable exegetically, we are justified in departing from their position on this issue.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that if we say Luther/Calvin/whoever misunderstood this text, we’re saying they were unsaved. Certainly that is not what we are saying. The fact that people disagree with the best exegesis of the text does not mean that those people are not Christians.

v) Does Onan’s intent matter?

In seeking to generalize the teaching of the verse differently, some have asserted that Onan’s intent in doing what he did was unimportant. It didn’t really matter (say they) that he was seeking to avoiding raising up children to his brother. I find this idea strange. Intent is normally highly significant. Furthermore, the text makes a point of telling us Onan’s intent.

If we ignore Onan’s intent, we would be in the position of saying that even if Onan simply spilled it accidentally, God would still have slain him and that Scripture uselessly provided us with this information about what was going on inside Onan’s mind. Can any reasonable person think that is the case?

vi) What about Er?

Note that Er was also wicked and was slain by God. We’re not told what Er did, and yet we know Er didn’t have children. Some have interpolated this to mean that Er was doing the same basic act as what Onan was doing, and have attempted to use this to justify generalizing beyond the levirate situation.

The problem with such a claim is that the extent of our knowledge is that Onan’s older brother Er was wicked and was slain by God. We’re not told why or what he did. We are not told that he did anything remotely similar to what Onan did. Furthermore, Judah’s concern regarding Shelah does not seem to be motivated by a fear that he will do the same thing as Onan, but more of essentially a fear that Tamar was “bad luck.”

Likewise, the larger context (which I have omitted for brevity) adds that Judah ultimately blocked Onan’s younger brother from marrying Tamar (Er/Onan’s widow). Subsequently, Judah himself did (unintentionally) raise up seed to his son, by sleeping with his son’s widow (whom he thought at the time was a prostitute). It should be noted, however, that the children of that union are never attributed to Er, but always to Judah.

vii) But is the death penalty the appropriate punishment for violation of the levirate law?

While Moses did not appoint death for violation of the levirate law, God is free to sentence to death everyone who violates His law in any degree (James 2:10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.) And, in any event, dishonoring one’s parents was a capital crime under Mosaic system, and the command here was a command of Onan’s father.


13 Responses to “Sin of Onan”

  1. Craig French Says:

    I'm not sure where you stand on the issue of contraception, but can a positive case be made for man interfering with conception?What of the sexual sin of Judah? I think it would be a strange reading to divorce the sins of Judah and Onan…this is a history of sexual sin. Judah visited what he thought was a prostitute (probably not a first) and his son spilled his seed…Er did who knows what (maybe something sexually perverse). Viewing these scenes as if isolated seems a bit stilted.

  2. Turretinfan Says:

    What are the sins?1) Er's unnamed sin. Perhaps connected with Tamar, we don't know. That would explain why Judah viewed Tamar as a jinx, but we just don't know what the sin was.2) Onan's sin (discussed above).3) Judah's sin in refusing to give Tamar, Shelah.4) Tamar's sin in fornication/harlotry/incest.5) Judah's sin in fornication/soliciting harlotry/(incest in ignorance).

  3. Turretinfan Says:

    As to the positive case, why would we need a positive case?Also, while contraception is one issue on which this passage is brought to bear, keep in mind that some view Onan's sin extremely broadly to include acts that involve only one person.

  4. Craig French Says:

    What are the sins?I would agree with the list you came up with, but I would also include Onan's spilling of his seed being in itself, sinful…not the mere emission of a fluid, but the act of interfering with conception. It's "doubly" wicked because his crass act was a sin against his brother and Tamar.I don't hang my hat on the Onan incident since I believe covenant theology can't consistently accept "seed spilling". keep in mind that some view Onan's sin extremely broadly to include acts that involve only one person.I wouldn't use Onan as a proof text, but I think the crassness of it is captured there in it's wicked nature.

  5. Turretinfan Says:

    There's really no doubt that he did what he did to avoid conception. Onan was commanded to conceive a child, and he sought to disobey that command.It was similarly disobedient for Judah to refuse Shelah to Tamar, however. That was not specifically done to avoid conception, but it was disobedience to the levirate law.In short, whatever one may think of Onan's approach, one would not hold him guiltless if he refused to go into his brother's widow. Still, it was more heinous to go expose her nakedness without performing the levirate duty properly.In other words, it was not just that he avoided conception, but that he did so when conception was specifically commanded.***As far as covenant theology goes, I don't see how you'd connect that except through equivocation over the term "seed."

  6. Alex Says:

    There are numerous problems with your analysis. I'm not going to go through all of them because I do not want to take the time doing it knowing that my comment will not likely be posted. Anyhow, I can briefly state that under you theory God had condemned only the act of disobedience, meanwhile Jews and then Christians universally understood coitus interruptus as being immoral until very recently with Protestants now accepting it. Not only is your theory novel, but if I were to accept it I also must accept that God did a very poor job getting the message across for quite a number of centuries. So much for the perspicuity of Scripture.

  7. Turretinfan Says:

    Alex,Excuses, excuses. You have an open forum where you could post a rebuttal if you wanted to. You could blog it on your own blog, if you wanted to.But you are being rather disingenuous. You very well know that the doctrine of perspicuity relates to those things that are necessary for salvation. This (it should be obvious) is not such a thing.Lastly, who cares if your characterization of history were correct? The fact that something was widely held doesn't make it right. Scripture, not majority vote, is our rule of faith.

  8. Craig French Says:

    In other words, it was not just that he avoided conception, but that he did so when conception was specifically commanded.I completely agree.As far as covenant theology goes, I don't see how you'd connect that except through equivocation over the term "seed."I'm not sure I'm following you, but I do know I'm not able to begin explaining/arguing my case…too much to do in real life-ville. I will say that the Bible, being the perfect Word of God, has a much grander view of sex than everyone…it's for pleasure, and for fruitfullness…and the two are related. The fruit of the pleasure is more pleasure.Add to that the command to be fruitful and multiply…when we purposefully block procreation, we are violating a command rooted in Creation.

  9. BJ Buracker Says:

    TurretinFan,I recently posted a similar a thread on my blog, StupidScholar. You can find it by clicking here. I offered similar possibilities about Onan's sin, but concluded that the text itself is ambiguous. I'd be curious about any additional thoughts or criticisms you or your readers might have of my post.On the rest of your post, I'm in full agreement. Not too surprising I suppose.Thanks and God bless,BJStupid Scholar

  10. natamllc Says:

    It seems to me, the more I know myself, "thank you God" for causing Your Law of Righteousness to bring me into Your Light of Righteousness, Peace and Joy, that the issue is not "the kind of sin" committed, even though it is repulsive to me to read about this sort of thing, but that this sin was committed and the lasting effects of the rebellion inherent in "who" sinned against "who".All sin is against God. God's remedy for sin is different. Its who is sinning, why and what effects that come with it in God's Kingdom that is important, in my opinion. Sin within the world system is treated by God differently than sin within the Kingdom, then, now and to come.The two great Commandments are "eternal" in nature and scope.One, creatures are to Love the Creator, Our Triune God, with all their being.Two, creatures are then to Love all other creatures from this Love of the Triune God, also.These Truths are Eternal in scope.It is plain to me when taking the broadest frame of reference with regard to this particular sin, the "Sin of Onan" and who is sinning against who, that God is not so much making a distinction about the "sin" itself and this sort within the world we find ourselves, but rather, within the organization this sin was committed.All sin is an act of unbelief for humanity. This is the "highest" and most evil sin, unbelief. It takes on various forms and methods. This is not the case with fallen angelic beings, Satan as the head of all fallen creatures.The greater sin, if one would be permitted to describe it as such, is the sin of unbelief against God.The next sin, in this sort of descending order, was committed against the brother's wife and her parents and siblings, who were entitled to have children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews whose children would have their inherited "place" among God's special people too, in this life and in the next.The world doesn't center their actions, sins, in pleasing God, fulfilling His Word.Then, of course, all sin is against ourself. We all sin against our self life when we sin to one degree or another, daily. The sin of immorality is always against one's own soul, the Apostle Paul teaches, while other sin is outside the body.So, for me, the line of reasoning that goes before this comment, isn't the most important line of reasoning, as the line of reasoning just expressed.God, it seems, makes a distinction between the two special groups of people identified in Scripture from the children of the world. The children under Grace and the children under the expressed laws given to Moses have a higher standard of morality than the world.Also, it seems to me, one needs to let the words captured many millenium later help us understand just how relevant the sin of Onan was in his day and is in our day. Those words are these:::>1Co 6:8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud–even your own brothers! 1Co 6:9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 1Co 6:10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 1Co 6:11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. And prior to establishing that relevant message, the Apostle made this distinction clear as well, which seems to me is really what was happening then and now with regard to God, who will judge all mankind and fallen angels:::>Cf 1 Cor. 5:8-13.

  11. Mamie Farish Says:

    I think the sin of Onan involves two parts: 1) Onan used Tamar for his own pleasure, thus treating Tamar as an object rather than a person created as his own equal, and 2) the consequence of this sin is death. I think this is a type pointing to a reality.It explains what happens when the two purposes of marriage is disconnected. As we can see in our society, contraceptives has led to numerous societal problems, high divorce rate, single parenting, etc. Eventually separating the two purposes of marriage will weaken families so much that it will result in the death of a culture. It is interesting to note that the line of Jesus comes from Judah and Tamar–Perez. What a consolation to know that Tamar, having been so unfairly treated and thought lower than a person, yet how God honored her. It was her womb that carried the line that would eventually bring us Our Savior, Jesus. It says a lot about God's love for fallen humankind and his great love for women!

  12. Mamie Farish Says:

    The sin of Onan is that he used Tamar for his sexual gratification. He treated her as an object for his own pleasure. One is never to use another person as an object, but to always respect the person; we are all created equal in the eyes of God, male and female. The consequence of this sin is death. This points to a reality that when the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage are disconnected, the family weakens. Eventually this will lead to the destruction of the society, which I believe is evident in our society today. With the acceptance of contraceptives in the 1960s. we have had a seismic attack against marriage and family: higher divorce rate, single parenting, higher abortion rate, increase in STDs, premarital sex, pornography, substance abuse, domestic abuse and cohabitation. It is interesting to note that Jesus' lineage is traced through Tamar and Judith. It is a consolation that Tamar–though badly mistreated– was graced by God to be part of the lineage of Jesus Christ, our Savior.

  13. Turretinfan Says:

    Ms. Farish,There's no mention of pleasure in the text. There's no strong exegetical reason for arriving at the conclusion that Onan's sin was the one you picked.Furthermore, it is right and proper (according to Scripture) for husbands and wives to use one another for sexual gratification. Proverbs 5:18 Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Proverbs 5:19 Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love. (And let me tell you, the breasts aren't involved in procreation. And "all times" doesn't mean "just when procreation is possible.")-TurretinFan

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