Did God Really Kill Onan for Spilling His Seed or for Something Else?

A reevaluation of Onanism in Genesis 38

Today we examine the sin of Onan and whether God directly killed Onan merely for the sin of contraception or for something more?

Before I begin this article, know from the outset that I uphold the teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to sexual morality and contraception. And while I believe and practice the Catholic teaching, I will suggest that the sin of Onan in Genesis 38:9 is not chiefly about the sin of contraception (by way of coitus interruptus) but rather relates to Messianic sacrilege.

First off, what is Onanism?

Webster’s Dictionary defines Onanism as:

1:masturbation
2:coitus interruptus
3:self-gratification

Onanism in the Context of Levirate Marriage:

Onanism is named after the biblical Onan who in Genesis 33 is told by his father, the Patriarch Judah (father of one of the twelve tribes of Israel), to have sex his dead brother’s widow Tamar so that she is not childless. Having sex with the widow of your brother is called “Levirate marriage.”

It is called “Levirate” marriage because the the Latin word “levir” means “husband’s brother.” Centuries after the time of Judah and Onan, Levirate marriage was mandated by God through Moses in Deuteronomy 25:5-6.

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

Levirate marriage is interesting because it a biblically sanctioned form of either fornication/adultery. For example, Judah’s son Er dies and leave his wife Tamar a widow. His younger brother Onan is required to have sex with Er’s widow Tamar and give her children. This happens whether Onan is not married (sex with Tamar would normally be fornication) or whether Onan is already married to another woman (sex with Tamar would then normally be adultery). It’s not clear from the text, but if the union of the man and the widow constitutes a real marriage, then he’d have multiple wives (sex with Tamar would require polygamy).

Either way, Onan and Tamar are having sex outside of natural law of marriage between one man and one woman, and the arrangement is sanctioned by God. (It’s a situation requiring a footnote.) Moreover, the child produced by these sexual relations would NOT belong to Onan’s house or lineage, but rather to his dead brother Er as Deuteronomy later makes apparent.

The Death of Onan after “Spilling Seed” in Genesis 38:

Here is the precise situation of Er (the deceased), Tamar (Er’s widow), and Onan (younger surviving brother of Er) in Genesis 38:

Then Judah said to [his son] Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife [Tamar], 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 when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also.

Onan’s sin by spilling his semen on the ground is so great that God immediately kills him. This sin of Onanism is terribly grave.

Catholic Apologists (including myself in two my own books) have pointed to Onanism in Genesis 38 as a prohibition against contraception. And they are right to do so, but God did not kill Onan merely for spilling his semen outside of Tamar. Thousands of men have spilled their seed through masturbation and coitus interruptus before, during, and after this time period, and none of them, as far as we know, received a direct death penalty from the Lord.

Why then did God kill Onan in this special case?

Might I suggest that Onan’s sin was especially grave because he was the eldest surviving son of the patriarch Judah. As such he is designated ancestor for the line of the Messiah of Israel. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Lion of Judah and Matthew and Luke’s Gospels show that Christ descends from the genetic tribe of Judah.

The narrative goes on to show that this widow Tamar grows desperate so that she veils herself as a prostitute and hired herself out to Judah who does not know that the prostitute is actually his daughter in law. And from their illicit union springs the Messianic line descending into Jesus Christ Himself. Tamar is one of the few women explictly named in the geneology of Christ in Matthew:

and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram. (Gen 1:3)

Jewish Irony of Sexual Rights

From a Jewish point of view, the story is ironic. Onan has the right to have sex with Tamar and he spills his seed and despises his birthright as a Messianic forebear. Judah their father actually pays to have sex with Tamar, and he plants the seed and by doing so skips over his sons. The sons no longer have the privilege of being in the lineage of Jesus Christ. This is why, I believe, Onan is killed directly by God. Onan was not likely the first man to masturbate or practice coitus interruptus (both are sins). His GREATER sin was that he despised the Messianic dynasty of the Christ.

Onan engages in coitus interruptus and the Lord slew him. Judah the father engages in prostitution, adultery, and incest…and he lives. The deciding factor over life and death here is willingness to produce a genetic line in accord with the promises of God.

A Final Thought on Judah as Messianic Forebear:

Genesis repeatedly flips the divine inheritance rights of the first born son. Abraham bears Ishmael first and later Isaac. But Isaac is given the covenantal Messianic birthright. Isaac bears Esau and Jacob. But Jacob the younger wins the covenantal Messianic birthright by way of trickery.

Jacob’s first four sons (in order) are: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. But the first three lose their birthrights:

  • In Genesis 34, the second and third born Simeon and Levi lose their status with their father Jacob for their violence.
  • In Genesis 35, Reuben the first born copulates with his step-mother and loses the rights as first-born of Israel.
  • In Genesis 36, we read of the descendents of Esau – those that did not receive the covenantal birthright.
  • In Genesis 37, Judah intervenes to have Joseph sold as a slave, rather than be killed or left in a waterless pit. This shows Judah as righteous and rightly next in line for the covenantal blessing.
  • In Genesis 38, we have the story of Er, Onan, and Tamar with Judah copulating with his daughter-in-law Tamar.

It’s obvious that the narrative from Gen 34-38 is trying to establish not 1-Reuben, 2-Simeon, or 3-Levi as the rightful heir of Abraham, but the fourth born Judah as the rightful heir. Judah’s sons are so sinful that God arranges (by trickery of Tamar) for Judah to copulate with Tamar and skip over his sons altogether.

Conclusion: Sexual Ethics and the Messiah

It’s stunning for any reader of the Bible to see how casually it mentions prostitution, fornication (eg. Samson), adultery, and polygamy. Abraham even seems willing (twice) to share his beautiful wife sexually with rulers so as not to be killed himself.

It almost seems that God totally tolerates sexual sins among the great male saints of the Old Testament. That is is why it is so surprising when God directly intervenes and kills Onan for his sexual sin. This is why I think we can conclude that the “sin of Onan” was not merely contraception by way of coitus interruptus. Rather, Onan’s sin was he was interfering with the dynasty of the promised “Seed of Adam and Abraham” – Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The theological purpose of the book Genesis is track “the Seed” from Adam > Abraham > Isaac > Jacob > Judah. And it seems that Gen 34-38 is all a transition to highlight Judah. If so, then the sin of Onan is made profoundly grave not because its mere contraception, but that it’s contraceiving the plan of God for Judah’s messianic dynasty leading to “the Promised Seed” of Genesis 3:15, who is the Messiah.

If you’d like to learn more Old Testament history, check out my book on Judaism and Catholicism: The Crucified Rabbi and sign up for online biblical, historical, and theological classes at the New Saint Thomas Institute.

The Fall of Satan described in Ezekiel 28

I previously explained how Saint Augustine described the Fall of Lucifer and the demons and related it to Genesis Chapter 1. See video below In this article, I’m asking the question: “Is the Fall of Satan described in Ezekiel 28?” Tertullian, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine interpret the passage as allegorically referring to Lucifer.

Below is the original video on the Fall of Lucifer. Scroll below it to learn more about Ezekiel 28.

In Ezekiel 28, the prophet speaks against the King of Tyre, who was a historical person living in hostility to Yahweh and the people of Israel. However, the prophecy becomes quiet metaphysical and describes a personage beyond the historic King of Tyre. Tyre is the northern neighbor of historical Israel, see photo below:

Here’s the entire passage with my commentary in red (I generally use “Lucifer” to describe him as pre-fallen, non-sinful; and “Satan” to refer to him as fallen and sinful).

11 Moreover the word of the Lord came to me: 12 “Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord God:

“You were the signet of perfection, [Tertullian interprets “signet” or “seal” as meaning that Lucifer was created in the image of God with perfection – he had the highest created intellect and will]
full of wisdom
and perfect in beauty.
13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; [This is taking us beyond the historical king and back to the garden of Eden.]
every precious stone was your covering,
carnelian, topaz, and jasper, chrysolite, beryl, and onyx, sapphire, carbuncle, and emerald; and wrought in gold were your settings and your engravings. [The wearing of jewels was an honor of the High Priest of Israel. This language depicts Lucifer as originally a High Priest ministering before the presence of God.]
On the day that you were created they were prepared. [Lucifer was created in time and as good]

14 With an anointed guardian cherub I placed you; [Commentators debate this because the Seraph, not the Cherub, is the highest kind of angel. And yet here Lucifer the highest angel is called a second-tier “cherub.” It may be that angels like, priests “contain” the lower orders within them. For example, every priest is also a deacon and every bishop is also a priest and deacon, etc.]
you were on the holy mountain of God; [This reminds us that Eden is a mountain. It’s a high place like a temple or pyramid.]
in the midst of the stones of fire you walked. [Eden or the Holy Moutain is fiery because of the love of God. “Seraph” means “burning one.”.]

15 You were blameless in your ways [This places Lucifer as sinless in the Garden of Eden. This points to Eden being something beyond a historical and geographical place on planet earth.]
from the day you were created, [Lucifer was created in time and as good]
till iniquity was found in you. [Here he falls in the sin of pride. He becomes Satan.]
16 In the abundance of your trade
you were filled with violence, and you sinned;
so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, [Satan is profane and cast away from the Mountain that is Eden]
and the guardian cherub drove you out [this may refer to Saint Michael, see video]
from the midst of the stones of fire. [again the holy Eden/Mountain is on fire]
17 Your heart was proud because of your beauty; [pride was his sin]
you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.
I cast you to the ground; [this seems to refer to Satan being cast to planet earth]
I exposed you before kings, to feast their eyes on you. [If we are still observing the fall of Satan, then “kings” here refers to the angelic hosts who witness God’s judgment against him.]
18 By the multitude of your iniquities,
in the unrighteousness of your trade
you profaned your sanctuaries; [His “sanctuaries” may refer to angels that were below him and in his charge – the third of angels that fell with him when God “separated the dark from the light”.]
so I brought forth fire from the midst of you;
it consumed you,
and I turned you to ashes upon the earth [Satan is no longer beautiful but scorched and ashen]
in the sight of all who saw you.
19 All who know you among the peoples
are appalled at you;
you have come to a dreadful end
and shall be no more for ever.” [An eternal condemnation for Satan.]

As you move through the passage, it is difficult to see how it might apply to the historical King of Tyre. He did not live in Eden or on a burning Holy Mountain. He was not cast out by God and scorched with fire and made ugly. So how then would it apply to the King of Tyre?

It is likely that the King of Tyre is singled out as being Satan-like because of his historical association with Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. King Hiram of Tyre made an alliance with Solomon (Solomon was a Messianic “Son of David”, which I’ve discussed here and relating it to Saint Joseph). And King Hiram provided architects, worders, cedar, and gold for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Temple of Solomon was a mock up model of the Garden of Eden (Temple as Garden of Eden explained in my book The Crucified Rabbi) on the Temple Mount (Moriah).

King Solomon is a Christ-like figure and perhaps King Hiram is like a “high angel” figure. Hence, the King of Tyre’s dynasty turning against God is like Lucifer turning against God and His Messiah.

Regardless, the Ezekiel 28 is the locus classicus on the fall of Lucifer.

Applications for Christians Today:

  • Pride is the sin of Satan and the highest sin (v. 17). Let us pray for humility and meditate on the humility of Jesus Christ.
  • Satan’s fall is liturgical. It refers to priestly structures and sacred places. We cannot bend, break, or corrupt the liturgy of God because the liturgy presents God’s hierarchy and holiness for his creation.
  • It was Saint Michael (a much lower angel) that resisted Satan for the honor of God and His Logos. Let us have devotion and recourse to Saint Michael as a guardian given to us by Christ. It also signifies that personal agents in the lower orders of creation (lower laity or lower clergy) can and do have a place in God’s economy.
  • Christ and His Church have given us tools and defenses to protect us from Satan and his demons. these include:
    • 7 Sacraments
    • Holy water (uniting us to Christ as a sign of baptism)
    • Sacramentals (scapulars, St Benedict medals, blessed salt)
    • Devotion to Our Lady – Mary has replaced Satan as the highest creature in Heaven. Satan, we are told by exorcists, is especially ashamed of being c0-defeated and replaced by a “mere” human woman.
  • The best thing we can do is avoid sin through the grace of Jesus Christ. Every time we sin, even venially, we allow Satan to have a greater influence over our lives and our world.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us,

Dr Taylor Marshall