The Sin of Onan

What was the sin of Onan? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Genesis 38 is a very odd chapter. I read it and I often wonder why Moses included this. Judah is the only son of Jacob besides Joseph that we have a feature section on. I can’t help but think God inspired Moses to write this because Judah is the one through whom Messiah Jesus would come.

There’s too much here to cover in one chapter, so today, I want to look at the sin of Onan. In this chapter, Judah has three sons. The first one is Er and all we know is he was wicked in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord put him to death. We don’t know what he did.

However, we know that his wife, Tamar, was barren at that point so Judah told Onan to lie with her and have children for his brother. However, Onan knew that any children that came would not be his. Therefore, whenever he was with Tamar, he would spill his seed on the ground so that she would not get pregnant.

So what did Onan do that was so wrong? Now let’s point something out at the start. It’s often said that the sin of Onan is either masturbation or birth control. I dispute both of those. At the same time, that doesn’t mean “This text doesn’t condemn masturbation or birth control, therefore both of those are okay.”

An important aspect of good reasoning is to be able to point out that not all arguments for your position are good arguments. I am a strong theist, but I do not think that all arguments for the existing of God are good arguments. I know some people who are Christians and critics of the minimal facts approach to the resurrection, but that surely doesn’t mean that they deny the resurrection.

So let’s look at what’s going on with Onan. Now this is not talking about masturbation because this is done when the two are together and there’s no indication that Tamar is giving him a hand job and if that was what was going on, why would it need to state that the seed was spilled on the ground? The reason it states that is because in sex, well there’s one place the seed is normally meant to go.

So is it about birth control? Again, I’m skeptical of this as the real question to ask is “Why was Onan trying to avoid pregnancy?” It could be hypothetically that trying to avoid pregnancy is wrong, but we should also ask regardless why it is being done. In this case, when we look at why Onan did this, we will see.

Onan was greedy.

Now that sounds confusing. Onan was greedy, therefore he engaged in coitus interruptus?

Yes. If Onan had any kids with Tamar, then Tamar would be the one to get the inheritance from Judah. Onan would miss out. Onan wasn’t only refusing his duty as a brother, he was trying to get all the benefits and look like he was still fulfilling it. In other words, Onan wanted wealth and was willing to cheat his family to get it.

If you want to condemn masturbation or birth control, you need to go somewhere else. This text is not about that.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

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