A Question I Was Asked:

Did the Lord Kill Onan Because of his Masturbation?

The Question:

In Genesis 38, did the Lord slay Onan because he masturbated? I have heard so, but it doesn't look like masturbation to me. Can you help?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, let us look at this:

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him. Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the Lord's sight; so the Lord put him to death. 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. (Genesis 38:1-10).

In Old Testament Israel, if a husband died and his next-in-line brother was single, he was expected to take over his brother's widow and assume husbandly duties. Any children born to them would be considered the children of the deceased brother. However, in that society, one with more children could become eventually more wealthy but little of that wealth would go to the 'caretaker husband.' Onan was not happy about this (although he too could eventually have had a wife and children if he so wished). Therefore in order not to allow Tamar to become pregnant by him, whenever they had sexual relations, he withdrew at the critical point and spilled his semen on the ground. This, of course, is not masturbation at all but is what is sometimes known as 'withdrawal contraception.' if a man withdraws near the point of climax, his woman will almost certainly never become pregnant.

Onan's motivation was pure selfishness and so the Lord took his life. Tamar had obviously found favour in the Lord's sight; maybe she was an exceptionally righteous and God-fearing person - we don't know - but the Lord took an interest in her and reacted to her being treated badly and selfishly. But it was Onan's motivation which was wrong; he knew that any produced child would not be considered his own and he reacted against this. Neither does this necessarily make withdrawal as a method of contraception wrong, the point here is Onan's motivation for what he did. It is not about spilling 'holy semen' (as some teach), nor was this about masturbation.

Robin A. Brace. July 30th, 2013.