Genesis (Part 172)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 38:6-10

And 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 put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” 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. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.

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This is one of the weirdest episodes in the Bible and among the most awkward to discuss and understand. We’ll look first at the commentaries for direction. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 38:6

And Judah took a wife (cf. Genesis 21:21Genesis 24:4for Er his firstborn,—”by the early marriage of his sons Judah seems to have intended to prevent in them a germinating corruption (Lange)—whose name as Tamar—“Palm tree” (Gesenius). Though the name was Shemitic, it does not follow that the person was. Cf. Melchisedeck and Abimelech. Yet she is not expressly called a Canaanite, though it is more than probable she was. Lange conjectures that she may have been of Philistine descent, and thinks the narrative intends to convey the impression that she was a woman of extraordinary character.

So far, so good. Judah takes a wife for his son, her name is Tamar, and her ethnicity is up for debate. The text at least does not make an issue here of her being a Canaanite in the manner that it has for Judah’s ancestors.

Returning to the commentary:

Genesis 38:7

And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord. The connection between Er’s name (עֵר) and Er’s character (רַע) is noticeable. The special form which his wickedness assumed is not stated; but the accompanying phrase suggests that, as in the case of the Sodomites (Genesis 13:13Genesis 19:5), it was some unnatural abomination. And the Lord slew him—literally, caused him to die; not necessarily by direct visitation; perhaps simply by allowing him to reap the fruits of his youthful indulgence in premature and childless death, which yet was so rapid and so evidently entailed by his evil courses as immediately to suggest the punitive hand of God.

A few interesting points here that should not be overlooked:

  • God puts Er to death on account of his wickedness.
  • The manner of his death is not stated.
  • The exact wickedness is also not stated.

Is all of this within the purview of an Almighty Creator of the Universe? Of course. Is this out of character? Absolutely not. God abhors wickedness. That is among the most consistent themes we have seen in Genesis. That said, throughout much of Genesis, when God takes a direct hand in ending lives, the giant clans have been involved (Nephilim, the various races of giants mentioned in Genesis 14, the Sodom situation, and so on.) If we are merely speculating, is it possible that Er was genetically from that lineage of giants through his mother? Yes. As we saw in the previous section, Judah’s wife is a Canaanite and the giant clans are Canaanites. It’s a thin reed to grab for speculative purposes but it would fit a pattern. Moving on to even weirder things. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(8) Go in unto thy brother’s wife.—We learn from this that the law of the Levirate, by which the brother of the dead husband was required to marry the widow, was of far more ancient date than the law of Moses. Its object, first of all, was to prevent the extinction of any line of descent, a matter of great importance in those genealogical days; and, secondly, it was an obstacle to the accumulation of landed property in few hands, as the son first born after the Levirate marriage inherited the property of his deceased uncle, while the second son was the representative of the real father. A similar custom existed in parts of India, Persia, &c, and prevails now among the Mongols. The Mosaic Law did not institute, but regulated the custom, confining such marriages to cases where the deceased brother had died without children, and permitting the brother to refuse to marry the widow, under a penalty, nevertheless, of disgrace. Onan, by refusing to take Tamar, may have been actuated by the selfish motive of obtaining for himself the rights of primogeniture, which would otherwise have gone to his eldest son, as the heir of his uncle ‘Er.

This is why we read commentaries!

Though it is not obvious to a modern reader, unfamiliar with the customs of that time, there were customary and legal reasons to ask Onan to perpetuate his older brother’s line of descent. (I suspect that if those customs were still in place in much of the world, today, the marriage choices for one’s in-laws might be more keenly scrutinized.) As we read in the commentary above, there were selfish (relatable) legal property acquisition / first son pre-eminence motivations for why Onan might have decided not to give his brother an heir. These motivations are relevant to how we interpret the next verse. From The Pulpit Commentaries again:

Genesis 38:9Genesis 38:10

And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when—literally, and it was if, i.e. whenever—he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground (literally, destroyed to the ground), lest that he should (or, so as not to) give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased (literally, was evil in the eyes of) the Lord:—the word Jehovah is employed not because the writer was a late interpolator, but because the sin of Onan was an offence against the sanctity and prosperity of the theocratic family (Hengstenberg)—wherefore he (i.e. Jehovah) slew him also (vide supra).

The focus of a modern reader might lean so heavily on the description of wasted seed that it loses the broader context of these verses. In a broader context, though, Onan disobeyed his father, he violated law and custom, he selfishly engaged in sexual relations without also giving his brother’s widow a baby or perpetuating his father’s line through his brother. You might look at how Onan treated Tamar as him treating her as though she is a prostitute – and that potential description of her will be something to keep in mind later in this chapter.

So there’s actually a lot going on with this section. We see sexual immorality, custom violations, disobedience to a parent, terrible treatment of Tamar generally, and a threat to the line of Judah. It’s a big deal to God that Judah’s line live on for a long time after him and we will read more to that effect later in this chapter.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been quite a bit of writing on the topic of what Onan did with Er’s widow. From Wiki, for a rundown:


The implication from the narrative is that Onan’s act as described is what gave rise to divine displeasure. Still, even if that is the case, it is not clear whether his objectionable behaviour was the refusal to complete the levirate obligation of providing sperm for his brother’s widow to continue his brother’s name (and clan rights) or “shedding seed in vain”, or even having sex with Tamar (who would normally be prohibited to him as a sister-in-law) outside the context of an overriding levirate obligation.

Early Jewish views

One opinion expressed in the Talmud argues that this was where the death penalty‘s imposition originated. However, the Levitical regulations concerning ejaculation, whether as a result of sexual intercourse or not, merely prescribe a ritual washing, and remaining ritually impure until the next day began on the following evening.

Classical Christian views

Early Christian writers have sometimes focused on the spilling seed, and the sexual act being used for non-procreational purposes. This interpretation was held by several early Christian apologistsJerome, for example, argued:

But I wonder why he the heretic Jovinianus set Judah and Tamar before us for an example, unless perchance even harlots give him pleasure; or Onan, who was slain because he begrudged his brother his seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?

— Jerome, Against Jovinian 1:19 (AD 393)

Epiphanius of Salamis wrote against heretics who used coitus interruptus, calling it the sin of Οnan:

They soil their bodies, minds and souls with unchastity. Some of them masquerade as monastics, and their woman companions as female monastics. And they are physically corrupted because they satisfy their appetite but, to put it politely, by the act of Onan the son of Judah. For as Onan coupled with Tamar and satisfied his appetite but did not complete the act by planting his seed for the God-given [purpose of] procreation and did himself harm instead, thus, as [he] did the vile thing, so these people have used their supposed [female monastics], committing this infamy. For purity is not their concern, but a hypocritical purity in name. Their concern is limited to ensuring that the woman the seeming [ascetic] has seduced does not get pregnant—either so as not to cause child-bearing, or to escape detection, since they want to be honored for their supposed celibacy. In any case, this is what they do, but others endeavor to get this same filthy satisfaction not with women but by other means, and pollute themselves with their own hands. They too imitate the son of Judah, soil the ground with their forbidden practices and drops of filthy fluid and rub their emissions into the earth with their feet

— Epiphanius of Salamis, Boston, 2010, p. 131

Clement of Alexandria, while not making explicit reference to Onan, similarly reflects an early Christian view of the abhorrence of spilling seed:

Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted.

— Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 (AD 191)

To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.

— Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:95:3

Roman Catholic views

The papal encyclical Casti connubii (1930) invokes this Biblical text in support of the teaching of the Catholic Church against contracepted sex.

Early Protestant views

Making reference to Onan’s offense to identify masturbation as sinful, in his Commentary on GenesisJohn Calvin wrote that “the voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between a man and a woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is double monstrous.” Methodism founder John Wesley, according to Bryan C. Hodge, “believed that any waste of the semen in an unproductive sexual act, whether that should be in the form of masturbation or coitus interruptus, as in the case of Onan, destroyed the souls of the individuals who practice it”. He writes his Thoughts on the Sin of Onan (1767), which was reproduced as A Word to Whom it May Concern on 1779, as an attempt to censor a work by Samuel-Auguste Tissot. In that writing, Wesley warns about “the dangers of self pollution”, the bad physical and mental effects of masturbation, writes many such cases along with the treatment recommendations.

Disputes

According to some Bible critics who contextually read this passage, the description of Onan is an origin myth concerning fluctuations in the constituency of the tribe of Judah, with the death of Onan reflecting the dying out of a clanEr and Onan are hence viewed as each being representative of a clan, with Onan possibly representing an Edomite clan named Onam, mentioned by an Edomite genealogy in Genesis.

Also, it has been suggested that God’s anger was directed not at the sexual act but Onan’s disobedience by refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow. By “closely analyzing the language used to describe Onan’s offense”, other scholars challenge that interpretation. They argue that Onan was punished both because of a perverted sexual act, i.e., “to waste his seed on the ground”, and his refusal to provide an heir for his dead brother. It is said that those who followed Onan’s act break “the social bond with their ‘criminal hands’, wasting the precious fluid that had been designed to perpetuate the human race”.

The text emphasizes the social and legal situation, with Judah explaining what Onan must do and why. A plain reading of the text is that Onan was killed because he refused to follow instructions. Scholars have argued that the secondary purpose of the narrative about Onan and Tamar, of which the description of Onan is a part, was to either assert the institution of levirate marriage or present a myth for its origin; Onan’s role in the narrative is, thus, as the brother abusing his obligations by agreeing to sexual intercourse with his dead brother’s wife, but refusing to allow her to become pregnant as a result. Emerton regards the evidence for this to be inconclusive, although classical rabbinical writers argued that this narrative describes the origin of levirate marriage.

John M. Riddle argues that “Epiphanius (fourth century) construed the sin of Onan as coitus interruptus“. John T. Noonan Jr. says that “St. Epiphanius gave a plain interpretation of the text as a condemnation of contraception, and he did so only in the context of his anti-Gnostic polemic”.

Modern Bible scholars maintained that the story does not refer to masturbation, but to coitus interruptus. Modern Bible scholars even maintain that the Bible does not claim that masturbation would be sinful. Although the story of Onan does not involve masturbation, according to Peter Lewis Allen, theologians found “a common element” in both coitus interruptus (also known as onanism) and masturbation, as well as anal intercourse and other forms of nonmarital and nonvaginal sexual acts, which are considered wrongful acts.

The rest of this chapter continues to reflect very poorly on Judah.