THE ONAN INCIDENT
“8. Then Juda said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.’ 9. And Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so it came about that when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother. 10. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD; so He took his life also.” Genesis 38: 8-10
“5. When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6. And it shall be that the first-born whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel. 7. But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8. Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, ‘I do not desire to take her,’ 9. then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, ‘Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10. And in Israel his name shall be called, ‘The house of him whose sandal is removed.'” Deuteronomy 25: 5-10
Judah had several sons. The oldest son, named Er, had been married, but was killed by God before he had any children. In accordance with the law of God in Deu. 25:5-10, Judah told his next son Onan to marry Er’s widow, so as to produce a child who would carry on Er’s name.
However, Onan was unwilling to father a child for his deceased brother, so “when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground.” A few words later we read, “But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also.”
Examine the above verses and ask yourself this question: “What did Onan do in the verses?” The only thing Onan did in the verses was “wasted his seed on the ground.” That is what made God angry. If there wasn’t such a stir at this obvious conclusion we could drop the matter here, but we can’t do so, because those who defend birth control have come up with alternatives which suit their views. We shall now review three alternate explanations, and show why they are untenable.
ALTERNATE # 1: “Onan was killed by God for disobeying his father, not for wasting his seed.”
REBUTTAL: According to Scripture, God has decreed that the marriage of a son ends any mandatory obedience to his father. Genesis 2:24 says, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” So, if Judah had authority over Onan, his authority ended when Onan got married to his brother’s widow. Therefore God did not kill Onan because he disobeyed Judah, because according to the word of God, Onan did not have to obey him.
ALTERNATE # 2: “Onan was killed by God because he didn’t show love for his brother by having a child. He should have had at least one child before practising birth control, and then God wouldn’t have been angry.”
REBUTTAL: Deuteronomy eliminates this reason as a possibility, because it says that regardless of a man’s motives for refusing to raise up seed for a dead brother, the man is not to be put to death. He is to be humiliated only (shoe pulled off, face spit on, etc.). Onan was put to death for what he did, while the man in Deu. 25 is not.
As we compare the two Bible texts (Gen. 38:8-10 and Deu. 25:5-10), we need to ask, “What did Onan do that he man of Deu. 25 didn’t do?” The difference in conduct will explain the difference in the penalty meted out by God. And the difference is that while Onan wasted his seed, the other man didn’t! Suppose the man in Deu. 25 thinks exactly as Onan, saying to himself, “I don’t want to raise up seed for my brother,” and yet doesn’t waste his seed?
What happens to him according to the law of God? – humiliation only, regardless of his unloving thoughts.
ALTERNATE # 3: “Well, Onan must have been killed because he lied to Judah.”
REBUTTAL: There is no proof that he lied to anyone. The Scripture is silent as to what Onan said to anyone. And we ought not to “go beyond what is written,” as the apostle Paul says in 1 Cor. 4:6. The Holy Spirit says what Onan did, then it says that God killed him for what he did. And what he did was “waste his seed on the ground.” Onan was killed because he “wasted seed.” Therefore, birth control is automatically condemned, because all forms of birth control have as their goal the wasting of seed.
Some may say to themselves as they read this, “Why, this is just a Roman Catholic custom, and so may be discarded.” But, dear readers, this is not so. Space restrictions prevent us from listing quotes from all the leaders of the Christian faith who agree with our interpretation of the Onan incident. (However, we do list the views of many Protestants, as well as Augustine, Epihanius and some others, in chapter Three of our booklet.) We will here list the comments of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the founders of the Reformation, two pastors not known for advocating “mere Roman Catholic customs,” as everyone knows.
Commenting on Genesis 38:8-10, Luther says, “Then Judah urged his son Onan to take Tamar for his wife to raise up seed to his brother. Moses here uses the Hebrew word “jabam,” which we find also in Deuteronomy 25:5 and which properly means “to marry in order to beget children for the deceased brother.” This was a very disagreeable duty and many sought to escape it, as we read in Ruth 4:1 ff., for it is indeed hard to live with a woman whom one does not love, to continue the inheritance of the brother, and to submit oneself to ceaseless toil and labor in his interest. Therefore Onan, unwilling to perform this obligation, spilled his seed. That was a sin far greater than adultery or incest, and it provoked God to such fierce wrath that He destroyed him immediately.”
(Luther’s Commentary on Genesis, p. 250-251)
Luther on another occasion commented on the very same passage: “But the exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches, follows. [Here Luther quotes Gen. 38:9-10] Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.
Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen and excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment. He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred. Therefore he did not allow himself to be compelled to bear that intolerable slavery. Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed.
Therefore God punished him….That worthless fellow….preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 7, p. 20-21)
Several years ago I purchased Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis, to find out what Calvin thought of the Onan incident. Much to my surprise, when I opened to Genesis 38:8-10, I discovered that Calvin’s comments on this pivotal birth control passage were omitted by the editor, for what reason he did not state. I was subsequently able to locate a Latin copy of Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis, and the omitted section was graciously translated into English by the late Dr. Ford Battles, the translator of Calvin’s Institutes.
Calvin’s comments are as follows:
“Besides, he [Onan; C.P.] not only defrauded his brother of the right due him, but also preferred his semen to putrify on the ground, rather than to beget a son in his brother’s name. V. 10 The Jews quite immodestly gabble concerning this thing. It will suffice for me briefly to have touched upon this as much as modesty in speaking permits. The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born the hoped-for offspring. This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit through Moses’ mouth, that Onan, as it were, by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthily cast upon the ground the off-spring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. Besides, in this way he tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race. If any woman ejects a foetus from her womb by drugs, it is reckoned a crime incapable of expiation and deservedly Onan incurred upon himself the same kind of punishment, infecting the earth by his semen, in order that Tamar might not conceive a future human being as an inhabitant of the earth.” (Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 38:8-10, translated from the Latin)