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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Tamar and Onan, reprise

Genesis 38:6-10 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.

The act of one Onan, son of Judah, son of Jacob, has given us the English word “Onanism” – Onan + “ism,” a suffix used in the formation of nouns denoting action or practice, therefore related to act of Onan.[i] It is most often used to refer to masturbation (and Genesis 38:6-10 is therefore used as a proof text against such an act), but sometimes used to refer to coitus interruptus. What actually occurred in this recorded case?

The key is found in the euphemism “he went in unto.” This phrase is used in Genesis and elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to sexual intercourse. Note these examples:
  • Genesis 16:4 - And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.
  • Genesis 29:23 - And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her.
  • Genesis 30:4 - And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her.
  • Genesis 38:2 - And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite, whose name was Shuah; and he took her, and went in unto her.
  • Judges 16:1 - Then went Samson to Gaza, and saw there an harlot, and went in unto her.
  • Ruth 4:13 - So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife: and when he went in unto her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bare a son.
  • II Samuel 12:24 - And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him.
  • II Samuel 16:22 - So they spread Absalom a tent upon the top of the house; and Absalom went in unto his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.
  • Ezekiel 23:44 - Yet they went in unto her, as they go in unto a woman that playeth the harlot: so went they in unto Aholah and unto Aholibah, the lewd women.
We see in these examples that “went in unto” clearly refers to the sex act. Onan’s sin was not masturbation in front of his brother’s wife. Onan rejected the established levirate marriage custom,[ii] while abusing the system and using it as an occasion to enjoy sexual pleasure with his deceased brother’s wife – while he disdained his obligation to raise up an heir in his brother’s name.


[i] Onan is also mentioned by name in Genesis 46:12, Numbers 26:19 and I Chronicles 2:3.
[ii] Levirate marriage is marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow, when the deceased brother has no children. Cf. Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

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