Sin of Onan, Respecting Ethics (sort of)

In the Genesis tale of Joseph, the plot is interrupted with the subplot regarding Onan, a son by Joseph’s half-brother Judah by a Canaanite woman named Shuah (Genesis 38:2).  Shuah had already borne another son by Judah, and that firstborn son was named Er; and she would bear a third son named Shelah.  This typical “begatting” was cut short in this storytelling, and by verse seven the son Er was found to be “…wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.” 

The theory of primordial man, according to the priest authors of biblical tales, was that every woman must be made pregnant.  But when Er died from God’s alleged displeasure, he had not yet sired any offspring.  This was propagandized as an almost shameful situation.  One must alway increase the herd, so to speak, if you wish to achieve wealth and authority in the world.  Thus, since Er died without progeny, Judah charged his second-born son, Onan, with the duty of impregnating Er’s wife, Tamar, so that Onan’s seed might be raised up to represent Er. 

Like most biblical characters, ethics was not a strong point with Onan, but he did not see that impregnating his brother’s wife was a particularly wise ambition.  But Tamar was attractive, and his big brother was dead, so he did take advantage of the opportunity.  Only at the orgasmic moments Onan”…spilled his seed on the ground.”  For this alleged “sin,” Onan is alleged to have been put to death (Genesis 38:6-10).

Here we are allowed to see how interpretation by Bible fanatics can so often go absurdly astray.  Although this myth says that Onan did cohabit with Tamar, his alleged “sin” was that he simply avoided impregnating his sister-in-law.  So the priest-authors say that God killed him for this!  To compound the absurdity of the alleged “sin,” Onan’s method of avoidance of impregnating his sister-in-law, coitus interruptus, came to give  rise to the term “onanism,” and half-baked Bible enthusiasts then chose to believe the word was a synonym for masturbation.  To this day these Genesis verses are pointed to by fundamentalists as indicating heavenly condemnation of autoeroticism.

Missing the point is a fundamentalist’s habitual means of carrying on a tirade.  In the erroneous interpretation of  “onanism” as signifying masturbation, the main point of the priest-author’s tale is disregarded, for, to the distress of the fanatics, Onan’s alleged “sin” was not sexual.  Onan was punished for being deceptive: he dared to refuse to fulfill the obligation of levirate marriage, meaning impregnating his dead brother’s wife to ensure the continuation of his brother’s family line for the purpose of inheritance.  This primitive tribal mode of reasoning, levirate marriage, is also addressed in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and in Ruth 4.

The average interpreter of biblical texts does not understand that the Bible’s theme is Creation.  When recognizing this theme, the character of Onan properly personifies what may be termed the genetic principle active in life, thus he can also be said to represent the Creator.  Onan therefore refused to crossbreed, which is in agreement with the earlier Genesis command that every living thing was to bring forth after his own kind—not after his brother’s  kind.  And yet, by priest-author interpretation, “God slew him…” for following genetic purity!  The rest of chapter 38 expands upon this contorted version of the genetic process in a spicy episode of having Tamar play the harlot in order to lure her father-in-law, Judah, into misconduct and thus conceive an heir by him.  By her act, Tamar was, by tribal law, supposed to be burned alive for playing the harlot.  Of course when Judah found out that he himself was the one who had impregnated his daughter-in-law, he said that she had been more righteous than he!  The story is left to hang there, telling only that Tamar bore twins, and readers are left to wonder why those in authority are allowed to sidestep responsibility imposed upon others.  No wonder the fundamentalists and those who seek to make the Bible the model for government claim such abiding love for this book.

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2 Responses to “Sin of Onan, Respecting Ethics (sort of)”

  1. Very interesting article, thought provoking, thank you, Chris

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