The Sin of Onan – Genesis 38

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“Hi, Shirlee. Ready to tell us more about the horrible Bible people?” Mark seemed to be in a mood today.

“Horrible? Why do you say that?”

Mark explained how Joseph had purposely upset his brothers and father, and then how his brothers had sold him into slavery to get back at him.

“He was kind of asking for it,” said Ginny. “Another jerk, just like his father.”

“Ginny, stop calling Jacob a jerk!” Shirlee began to lecture Ginny, explaining that she was getting more than a bit tired of Ginny’s attitude toward the pre-Christian Jews. They were the Chosen People, after all. Why would God choose jerks? He obviously had His reasons!

John interrupted Shirlee’s rant. “What happens to Joseph, anyway?”

Ginny speculated that perhaps he would get whipped to death, or fed to lions.

“We’re not talking about Joseph today. We’re now into Genesis 38; Joseph returns in Genesis 39. We have two tales in Genesis 38, and we’ll cover the first today: The sin of Onan.” Shirlee opened her Bible. “Has anyone heard of Onan?”

Mark raised his hand. “But Shirlee, I’ll let you explain Onanism.”

“Very well, Mark. But first, let’s find out who Onan is, and what he did.”

Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers, went traveling and stayed with a man named Hirah. There, he had relations with a Canaanite woman named Shuah, who bore him three sons: Er, and Onan, and Shelah. (Genesis 38:1-5)

“Didn’t he marry her?” Ginny looked concerned.

“The Bible doesn’t say he did, Ginny. It says he ‘took her, and went in unto her’.”

“BASTARDS!” screamed Tom. “Bastards bastards tenth generation bastards all damned!”

“Continuity, Tom! That’s in Deuteronomy 23:2,” said Mark. “Moses isn’t even born yet to pass along that law.” Mark glanced sheepishly at Shirlee, who was looking quizzically at him over her reading glasses. “Um, I read ahead a bit.”

“Ah . . . well, that’s good, Mark. I’m glad you’re taking an interest in these ‘horrible Bible people’.” Shirlee gave Mark one last look, then turned back to the Bible.

Onan gets his marching orders. Image: Brick Testament

Judah found a wife for Er, named Tamar. But Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord, who killed Er. Judah then told Onan to marry Er’s wife Tamar, and get her pregnant to produce heirs for his brother.

Onan did as he was told, but knowing that the children would be considered his brother’s, he pulled out at the last moment so as not to get Tamar pregnant. This made God mad, so God killed Onan, too. (Genesis 38:6-10)

Ginny raised her hand. “I’m not sure I understand. I thought ‘Onanism’ had to do with . . . you know . . .” Ginny blushed.

“Taking matters into one’s own hands,” finished Mark.

“Yes, that.”

Shirlee took a deep breath, knowing this would be one of those conversations she’d hear from parents about.

God kills Onan. Image: Brick Testament

“Children, you can see from the plain language of the Bible that Onan’s sin was what is called ‘coitus interruptus’. That means stopping during relations so as to avoid pregnancy. Some people, notably the Catholic church, have twisted this into saying that masturbation (the proper term for ‘taking matters into one’s own hands’, Mark) and using birth control and even undergoing voluntary sterilization procedures are all sins against God, and worthy of death!”

“Why would they do that, Shirlee?” John looked puzzled. “What would the Catholics stand to gain?”

“I bet I know,” said Mark. “First, they get lots and lots more Catholic babies, who will grow up to be Catholic adults, who will give them money. And second, they get a big political issue through which they can influence elections and control politicians.”

“Right on both counts,” noted Shirlee. “If you look at the demographics of Catholic-dominated countries, you’ll see that they have larger family sizes than most other countries. And even in the US, the Catholics have been having a hissy fit over a requirement for employers to allow free access to contraception . . . even for employees that aren’t Catholic!”

“But Shirlee,” said Mark, “I’m not sure that ‘coitus interruptus’ was really Onan’s sin.”

“The Bible seems to think so, Mark.”

“No, Shirlee. Your interpretation of the Bible leads you to believe it.”

“What do you think Onan’s sin was, then?”

“Onan’s sin was disobedience. He was directed by his father to get Tamar pregnant, and he did not. He also was bound by the Mosaic law to a levirate marriage–that is, he was required by the law to marry Tamar and get her pregnant, just as Judah had told him to do.”

“Continuity!” Tom pounded his desk. “CON-TIN-NOO-IT-TEEEE!”

“Oops,” said Mark. “OK, Tom, I know, I know, the law isn’t given until Deuteronomy 25:5-9, by Moses. Levirate marriage didn’t exist yet. But he still disobeyed his father, and that’s one of the Ten Commandments.”


“What now?”

Ginny spoke up. “We’ve started at the beginning, and we haven’t gotten to the Ten Commandments yet.”

“Good point, Ginny,” said Shirlee. “The Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God. And as Mark has pointed out, with some prodding by Tom, Moses isn’t born yet.”

“Well, anyway, it’s pretty clear that the sin was disobeying, not making a mess on the floor.”

“Could be, Mark, could be. I’m not sure I agree with you on that, but I think we do agree that using birth control or having a vasectomy or tubal ligation is not sinful, right?” Shirlee smiled.

Mark, made a bit uneasy by Shirlee’s grin, stammered, “Y-yes, we agree . . .”

“Wonderful! So, does that mean that fornication is OK, or adultery? And what about masturbation?”

Mark pondered a moment. “Fornication is called out as a sin, and so is adultery. But I don’t see where masturbation would be a sin.”

“You haven’t read far enough ahead, Mark. Matthew 5:27-28 makes it clear that lustful thoughts are thought crimes, and thinking them is just as bad as doing them.”

“What? Thought crimes?” Mark’s mouth hung open.

“Let’s ask Jesus.”

27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

“See, Mark? Thinking about sinning is as bad a sin as doing it for real. No difference to God.”

“So then masturbation . . .”

“Is almost invariably sinful because it will be coupled with lustful thoughts. Right.” Shirlee’s grin suddenly made sense.

“Well . . . I’m glad I don’t do that, then.”

“So am I, Mark. So am I.”

The cracked church bell clanged outside. “Time’s up! Next week, Judah will teach us what to do about a teen pregnancy as we cover the second half of Genesis 38!”

“Wait, Shirlee?” Ginny had a question.

“Yes, child?”

“If God killed Onan for disobeying His law, why doesn’t He kill everyone else who sins in any way? Aren’t they also disobeying His law?”

“Yeah,” added John. “Why is Newt Gingrich still alive? He’s an adulterer!”

“And an idolator,” added Mark. “Catholics pray before statues and icons.”

“The ways of the Lord are mysterious, Ginny, and not for us to question. Have a good afternoon.” Shirlee’s reply had an air of finality about it, but everyone in that Sunday School room knew the discussion wasn’t really over yet.

Continue to the rest of Genesis 38, Burn Her at the Stake!

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