Onan's Sin / Judah and Tamar
problem with people is not what they don't know
but that they know so much that ain't so.
- Josh Billings
In brief, when Judah sent his son Onan to impregnate his dead brother's wife Tamar, he committed coitus interruptus and spilled his semen to avoid conception. Yahweh was not pleased and killed him. From this story, onanism has become synonymous with masturbation and coitus interruptus.
There have been a variety of interpretations why Yahweh was not pleased. Onan has been accused of covetousness and theft for disobeying his father Judah. He had no intent to reproduce. He showed selfish intent by denying offspring to his brother's widow, and by employing an unnatural method. He refused to carry the royal line of Judah to David. He destroyed his seed. He was willfully disobedient towards Yahweh. Though Onan hasn't been accused of homosexuality, the act of spilling semen stretches to homosexuality. In sum, religionists have applied the story of Onan to practically every form of male non-procreative sex.
But most of all, Onan's curse supported a widespread fear of masturbation, primarily in the 1700s and 1800s. It was believed by doctors of theology and medicine to lead to mental and general health illnesses, like vomiting, nausea, indigestion, epilepsy, pimples, blindness and insanity. In fact, John Harvey Kellogg the founder of the cereal company that bears his name, developed corn flakes in the belief that his "science" and wholesome food could steer young minds away from unclean thoughts. There have even been a slew of inventions designed to discourage masturbation. I would have thought by now that religions have outgrown their concerns about masturbation, but apparently the Mormon Church thinks it "is a sinful habit that robs one of the Spirit and creates guilt and emotional stress."
Genesis 38 is ordinarily treated as if it contained two distinct stories, the first about Onan and the second about Judah and Tamar. Actually, Onan's role is contained within the story of Judah and Tamar. It is not until we get to the end of the story when the real reason for Onan's death becomes apparent.
Every interpretation I've seen relates Onan's demise to coitus interruptus. This report argues that he wasn't killed for reason of coitus interruptus. He was killed because of what he did before he committed coitus interruptus. That is by penetrating her, he consummated the marriage. Because Judah had married a Canaanite woman, Onan was half-Canaanite. Thus he blocked Judah's name from the tribes of Israel.
The object of the story is to have Judah produce offspring with pedigree bloodlines. Unlike Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who married within their family, we are not told anything about Tamar's background; but her behavior is flawless. There is a parallel to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The OT writers don't portray their heroes as perfect, but neither are they condemned. Judah made the mistake of marrying a Canaanite woman. Onan and his older brother Er paid with their lives, but Judah saved his third son by keeping him away from Tamar. Even Judah's Canaanite wife died prematurely, leaving Judah a widower.
This left an opportunity for Tamar to save Judah's name. She was still young enough to bear children, and beautiful enough to lure Judah by dressing as a harlot. All ends happily when she bears twins.
There is a moral to this story. Ancient Hebrew law held that the next surviving brother shall take the widow of his deceased brother as his wife. He shall bear children to the name of the dead brother so his name may not be blotted out of Israel. Yahweh's intervention preserved Judah's pedigree name. Judah's half Canaanite son has children by another woman and is never mentioned again.
Summary - Genesis 38:1-10
Judah, son of Jacob, married the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua and conceived three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah took Tamar to be the wife of his first-born son Er, but Yahweh killed him for his wickedness. Judah sent Onan to Tamar to perform the duty of raising children for his brother. Not wanting to raise children for his brother, Onan went into Tamar but withdrew and spilled his semen on ground. This displeased Yahweh, so he killed him.
Judah went to Adullam to meet his friend Hirah. There he saw the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua. He married her and they tried to have children right away.
She conceived three sons. Er first, then Onan, then Shelah.
Judah chose Tamar to marry his first-born son Er. But Yahweh killed him because he was wicked.
Then Judah told Onan to take his older brother's place and produce an offspring for him.
But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. After he penetrated Tamar, he pulled out and spilled his semen on the ground. -There were two actions. First he penetrated Tamar; then he withdrew and spilled semen on the ground. By penetrating her he became the rightful husband.
But Yahweh was displeased for what he did, so slew him.
Summary - genesis 38:11-30
Judah consigned Tamar to live in her father's house until Shelah was of age, but he feared for the same fate as Shelah's older brothers. When Judah's wife died, Judah's remaining son Shelah had grown up, and he had not offered Tamar to him. Seeing Judah's reluctance, Tamar put on a veil and dressed as a harlot. She went to a place where she knew Judah would pass by. When Judah saw her, he stopped to ask for a sexual favor. She accepted his offer of a kid from his flock, but she held his signet, cord and staff as collateral until he could deliver the kid. Judah went into her and she conceived.
Judah tried to deliver the kid, but he could not find the harlot, not knowing it was Tamar. Three months later, Judah heard Tamar got pregnant by playing the harlot. He called for her to have her burned, but when she presented the signet, cord and staff to prove Judah was the father, he praised her superior righteousness; For Judah had withheld Shelah from marrying her. Tamar bore twins, Perez and Zerah.
So Judah consigned Tamar to remain in her father's house until Shelah grew up, but he feared Shelah would die like his brothers. - If it was a matter of Shelah avoiding the mistakes of his brothers, Judah might have nothing to fear. But if it had to do with racial purity, Shelah would face certain death.
In the course of time, Judah's wife died. He went with his friend Hirah to Timnah where his sheepshearers were. - We could argue that Yahweh killed Judah's wife too.
When Tamar heard Judah was going to Timnah to shear his sheep, she took off her widow's garments and put on a veil to cover herself. Since Shelah was grown up, and she was not given to him for marriage, she sat on the road to Timnah, waiting for Judah.
When Judah saw her, her veiled face led him to believe she was a harlot.
Not knowing who she was, he asked for sex, saying "Come let me come in to you." She asked "What will you give me, that you may come in to me?"
Judah offered a kid from the flock. Tamar wanted a pledge until he delivers the kid.
She accepted a signet, his cord and his staff. So he went in to her and she conceived by him.
When Tamar left, she put back on her widow's garments.
Judah wanted to deliver the kid but he could not find her.
About three months later, Judah heard how Tamar got pregnant by playing the harlot. "Bring her out, and let her be burned," said Judah.
Tamar came with the signet, the cord and the staff.
Judah acknowledged them and said she was more righteous than he because he did not give her to his son Shelah. He did not lie with her again. - He couldn't kill the mother of his children. Her righteousness was in preserving his name as one of Abraham's descendants.
When the time of delivery came, out came twins Perez and Zerah.
2728 29 30
The question is why was Yahweh displeased with Onan to kill him?
Technically, the laws of Moses did not apply to Judah, but they do provide a guide to the beliefs of those times.
1. The widow of one brother cannot marry outside the family. The next surviving brother shall take her as his wife and bear children to the name of the dead brother so his name may not be blotted out of Israel. - There was an ancient belief that as long as a man's name was remembered, he continued to exist.
56 (Deut. 25:5-6)
2. Judah could not marry Tamar because she was once at once a widow and defiled by Onan.
1314 (Lev. 21:13-14)
3. Semen discharge is unclean until the evening as long as it was washed with water. - In isolation, Onan's semen discharge would not provide grounds for killing him.
23 (Lev. 15:2)
1617 18 (Lev. 15:16-18)
4. Judah was one of Jacob's twelve sons and the patriarch of David's tribe.
5. By Judah marrying a Canaanite woman, their sons were half Canaanite. That this is mentioned was meant to draw attention to their alien background. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob married within the family.
Abraham married Sarai, his half sister.
Isaac married Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham's nephew.
Jacob married the daughters of his uncle Laban.
16 (Gen. 29:15-16)
6. We are not told Tamar's family and religious background; but it is not questioned. Judah thought her suitable to marry his son, and later called her more righteous than he for enabling him to honorably continue his namesake. She was to Judah as Mary was to Joseph.
7. Why did Judah fear his son Shelah would perish if he sent her to Tamar? Because he would have been killed before he had the chance to produce children. Numbers 26:20 calls him the namesake of the Shelanites, a clan not related to the Israelites. No matter who the mother of his children was, he could not carry the name of Judah into the tribes of Israel.
8. The story was written in such a way so Judah and Tamar would come out looking righteous because miscegenation with Canaanites was discouraged. Onan had the bad luck of having the wrong mother.