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Historically, Onan in Genesis 38 has been accused of masturbation, and for this supposed transgression was struck dead. The term Onanism (or in German Onanie) is still used to describe this practice.

For example:

  • Jerome write:

    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 grudged his brother his seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?

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

Was Onan's sin really masturbation? What is the biblical basis behind this story?

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I feel that you didn't get the correct answer. Onan was killed for not fulfilling his Levirate duty and for disobeying God. It might have worsened his punishment that he was indulging in hedonism under the guise of performing his Levirate duty, in which case the sexual act was part of his transgressing. It's also possible God would have killed him even for simply abstaining from intercourse with Tamar -- we don't know. –  Heath Hunnicutt Feb 18 '12 at 18:41
    
I find it odd that you would pose this question and provide your own answer. This SE is for asking real questions, not teaching via rhetorical questions. –  Heath Hunnicutt Feb 18 '12 at 18:50
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Actually, if you look at the FAQ, it's totally okay, and is in fact encouraged. I had originally put this on another question, and was encouraged to migrate it. –  Affable Geek Feb 18 '12 at 21:15
    
If you don't think I have the right answer, by all means, please add another! I've selected "not my answer" several times. If I pose a question, even if I give an answer, it's because I'd like to hear more answers than just the one I have! –  Affable Geek Feb 18 '12 at 21:17

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This might depend on the definition of masturbation. The ends achieved by masturbation are not all that different than coitus interruptus, homosexual sex, contraceptive sex, oral sex or anal sex to name a few.

The real question, the one you bring up, is whether Onan died because:

  1. sexual immorality, violating the natural law.
  2. blasphemy because he broke God's law in producing an heir for his brother.

But, what if Onan has just refused her relations altogether, would have have still been killed for it? I've been doing some bible searching and I haven't found much mention of anyone, besides St. Joseph and David (as an old man), not having relations with a woman (or women) whom he was lawfully married to. So, the real, real question to ask is this, why did Onan consent to 'having relations' with Tamar and not just abstaining? And, if he had refused relations, would he still have been smote? It's impossible to know, but I have to believe that the part about spilling his seed is in there for a reason and you can't just substitute "not laying with" with "seed spilling" and expect the same end result.

One thing is clear, Judah and Shelah weren't punished like Onan was even though God, who knew their hearts, knew their actions produced the same end result.

One thing Catholics believe about the OT, is that everything in it is found in perfection in the New Testament. In my opinion, and maybe you'll see this too, if you compare the relationship between Onan and Tamar and Joseph and Mary, you can see the difference between the right way to live the vocation of marriage chastely and the wrong way to do so.

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That's a fascinating angle that really gave me new insights. Not having thought of marriage as a sacrement, I wouldn't have considered this. +1 to you, and serious kudos to those of you who started this site for exactly this reason! –  Affable Geek Jan 13 '12 at 1:46
    
Joseph only did not have relations with Mary before the birth of Christ, upon specific direction of God (via an angelic dream) –  warren Feb 10 '12 at 15:17
    
@warren That, perhaps, might be a new question, but you will not find unanimous agreement with your interpretation. –  Ignatius Theophorus Oct 2 '13 at 5:51
    
@IgnatiusTheophorus - you would say he had relations in opposition to the angelic directive? –  warren Oct 2 '13 at 13:19
    
@warren No, I would say that your "only" is misplaced. –  Ignatius Theophorus Oct 5 '13 at 3:18

The story of Judah and Tamar is an interesting one, to say the least. Judah and Tamar are both explicitly mentioned in Jesus' lineage (Matthew 1 - and Tamar is only one of four women mentioned, all of whom have sordid stories associated with them). In the end, Tamar is going to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant, and then avoids death by proving Judah is the father. But the question is about Onan, not Judah...

In the story, Tamar is first wed to Er, the eldest of Judah's sons. Er dies for some unmentioned reason, and Tamar is left without children. Children in that time were important both for the social support for parents in their old age, and for continuance of the family line. Being childless, the law calls for something called 'levirate marriage' - the next oldest brother is required to marry and give the widow the children. This is how Judah's second child, Onan, enters the story.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death also

As you can see, Onan was not masturbating. If anything, you could accuse Onan of coitus interruptus, but not masturbation.

What Onan was doing, however, was using Tamar for sex, but not giving her the child she deserved. One could call this theft - it isn't really the sex that is at issue at all. As the text clearly states, Onan did not want his deceased brother to have an heir. That would have negated his claim on the inheritance, and his new found status as eldest brother.

Interestingly, the story continues with this theme of theft - Judah refuses to allow his third son Shelah, to fufill this duty. (I mean, can you blame him? Two sons dead, and now looking at a third?) Instead of Shelah taking from Tamar, Judah is "stealing" Tamar's due. In the end, however, Tamar tricks Judah into securing her place in the line of Christ.

Just your typical Sunday School story, I know, but a fun one :)

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A good analysis! It amuses me that one moral frequently drawn from this is the (pardon the imagery) "finish the job" aspect, but the story also presents an intriguing web of deception, prostitution, greed, theft (taking the staff/seal instead of the agreed price, which was sent as promised), and hypocrisy (condemning someone to death for being a prostitute, when one has willingly used the services of a prostitute). Ah, good ol' morality, eh? –  Marc Gravell Jan 11 '12 at 12:31
    
"Children in that time were important both for the social support for parents in their old age, and for continuance of the family line." -- Is this your take on the reason the tribe of Levi, and only this tribe, had the special duty? Why do you suppose it didn't apply to every tribe? –  Heath Hunnicutt Feb 18 '12 at 23:44
    
Levieate marriage applied to all tribes of Israel. This is not specific to any one tribe. –  Affable Geek Feb 19 '12 at 0:13
    
And, to be really clear on a few things - (1) this is applying to the "tribe" of Judah, not the Levites. (2) This actually predates the tribes of Israel - we are talking about Judah himself. "Israel" at this time refers to Jacob, his 12 twelve sons, any daughters, and grandkids. Later on in Genesis, we'll find out that its only about 70 people in all. –  Affable Geek Feb 19 '12 at 1:24
    
I've always felt that saying God killed Onan for the particular sexual act was missing the point. If God struck down a man for killing people with an axe, would the lesson be "Don't touch axes ever"? Even if billions otherwise used axes without condemnation? God killed Onan for taking sexual advantage of his brother's destitute widow. He could have refused to marry her, if he didn't want to give her a child. But he still slept with her! Instead of helping her, or even ignoring her, he outright used her. Killing a man for that is very consistent with God's behavior elsewhere. –  Stephen Collings Jun 11 '12 at 13:17

Onan's sin is most accurately interpreted as withdrawal, or coitus interruptus, as affable geek has said. But interpreting the sin as masturbation is strained even further when you consider the relevant Leviticus passages (my Wikisource translation), chapter 15, verses 16-18:

And a man which a semen discharge will leave, and he bathed all his flesh in water, and he is defiled until evening. And all cloth and all leather which upon it the semen discharge will be, and it will be washed in water, and it is defiled until evening. And a woman, which a man will lay with discharging semen, and they bathed in water, and they are defiled until the evening.

These verses are not solely referring to nocturnal emissions, as the last verse makes clear. It nowhere prohibits masturbation, nor non-standard sex. It simply (sensibly, in my opinion) asks you to wash up afterwards.

Here is a continuation versus 19 and 24 (linked by some irrelevant stuff, same translation, my translation)

19And a woman who will be discharging, blood will be discharging in her flesh, seven days will she be in her menstrual defilement, and all that touches her will be defiled until the evening... 24And if lay a man will lay with her, and her menstruation will be upon him, and he is defiled seven days, and all the couch which he shall lie upon will be defiled.

The main injunction is against touching blood. There is no special injunction against the necessarily non-procreative sex involved here.

The blood injunction is the main theme of Pentateuch law. The blood is to be drained from animals before eating, it is to be sacrificed to God, and it is not to be eaten or touched. The defiling aspects of blood over and above other discharges are repeated many times, For example, in my translation of Lamentations 4:13-15, on Wikisource:

From the sins of her prophets, the torment of her priests, that spill within her, the blood of saints. they swayed blind outside, were touched by blood, so that their clothes, no one could touch. "Away, defiled!" they called to them, "Away! Away! Do not touch". So they fled, also swayed, and said, among foreigners they will not continue to wander.

The reason for this seems to be that the blood is considered the resting place of the soul. The injunctions on semen are minor by comparison. Consider Leviticus 17:11 ( again, my translation, available on Wikisource ):

Because the soul of the flesh, it is in the blood, and I will give it to you on the altar, to atone for your souls, because it is the blood, which will atone for the soul.

So on the whole, Leviticus doesn't care about masturbation (beyond cleaning up afterward), so it is inconceivable that the even more lax pre-Leviticus code would.

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Two things: 1. You may wish to consider using a more scholarly translation than WikiSource. Esv, Nrsv,Even the net bible (bible.org) have more academic credibility than WikiSource. –  Affable Geek Jan 15 '12 at 13:28
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2. How do you account for the context of the passage? Why is this leaving of blood so much worse than every other infraction? It's a good analysis of the law, I'll give you that, but it doesn't touch on the severity of the crime or the context in which it was committed. –  Affable Geek Jan 15 '12 at 13:30
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using a translation which you did yourself is all well and good during personal study, but there is no way anyone else can verify your translation, and it should not be used in a context such as this. To use a personal translation in a question (or potentially an answer) at the complementary site, Biblical Hermeneutics would be much more acceptable. –  warren Feb 10 '12 at 15:21
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<some comments removed>. Anything that does not maintain clean langauge and a profesional tone in comments (and answers) is unacceptable usage of this site. –  Caleb Feb 13 '12 at 2:29
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Several of your claims fall apart in light of Leviticus 20:18. –  Ben Voigt Apr 3 '12 at 6:48

Perhaps, given more time, I might be able to actually flush this answer out, but I feel that the opposing side should be heard.

The Sin of Onan Revisited

What has to be manufactured artificially by external social conditioning is not the belief that masturbation is bad and self-degrading, but the belief that it is good and natural.

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It looks like you are trying to make an argument that masturbation is a good thing - From a Christian perspective this may prove difficult, but I'd encourage you to try. I think it belongs on the question Is Masturbation A Sin moreso than one about Onan, however. –  Affable Geek Feb 19 '12 at 4:14
    
@AffableGeek I have difficulty understanding how you could get that by following the link. –  cwallenpoole Feb 19 '12 at 16:18
    
Maybe not the link, but the bit you quoted is actually pretty ambiguous. One could easily read it as a call to manufacture this belief rather than a statement about which belief is alien. –  Caleb Feb 21 '12 at 18:46

protected by Affable Geek Nov 4 '12 at 4:07

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