Onan's Sin / Judah and Tamar

The problem with people is not what they don't know
but that they know so much that ain't so.
- Josh Billings

In brief, when Judah sent his son Onan to impregnate his dead brother's wife Tamar, he committed coitus interruptus and spilled his semen to avoid conception. Yahweh was not pleased and killed him. From this story, onanism has become synonymous with masturbation and coitus interruptus.

There have been a variety of interpretations why Yahweh was not pleased. Onan has been accused of covetousness and theft for disobeying his father Judah. He had no intent to reproduce. He showed selfish intent by denying offspring to his brother's widow, and by employing an unnatural method. He refused to carry the royal line of Judah to David. He destroyed his seed. He was willfully disobedient towards Yahweh. Though Onan hasn't been accused of homosexuality, the act of spilling semen stretches to homosexuality. In sum, religionists have applied the story of Onan to practically every form of male non-procreative sex.

But most of all, Onan's curse supported a widespread fear of masturbation, primarily in the 1700s and 1800s. It was believed by doctors of theology and medicine to lead to mental and general health illnesses, like vomiting, nausea, indigestion, epilepsy, pimples, blindness and insanity. In fact, John Harvey Kellogg the founder of the cereal company that bears his name, developed corn flakes in the belief that his "science" and wholesome food could steer young minds away from unclean thoughts. There have even been a slew of inventions designed to discourage masturbation. I would have thought by now that religions have outgrown their concerns about masturbation, but apparently the Mormon Church thinks it "is a sinful habit that robs one of the Spirit and creates guilt and emotional stress."

Genesis 38 is ordinarily treated as if it contained two distinct stories, the first about Onan and the second about Judah and Tamar. Actually, Onan's role is contained within the story of Judah and Tamar. It is not until we get to the end of the story when the real reason for Onan's death becomes apparent.

Every interpretation I've seen relates Onan's demise to coitus interruptus. This report argues that he wasn't killed for reason of coitus interruptus. He was killed because of what he did before he committed coitus interruptus. That is by penetrating her, he consummated the marriage. Because Judah had married a Canaanite woman, Onan was half-Canaanite. Thus he blocked Judah's name from the tribes of Israel.

The object of the story is to have Judah produce offspring with pedigree bloodlines. Unlike Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who married within their family, we are not told anything about Tamar's background; but her behavior is flawless. There is a parallel to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The OT writers don't portray their heroes as perfect, but neither are they condemned. Judah made the mistake of marrying a Canaanite woman. Onan and his older brother Er paid with their lives, but Judah saved his third son by keeping him away from Tamar. Even Judah's Canaanite wife died prematurely, leaving Judah a widower.

This left an opportunity for Tamar to save Judah's name. She was still young enough to bear children, and beautiful enough to lure Judah by dressing as a harlot. All ends happily when she bears twins.

There is a moral to this story. Ancient Hebrew law held that the next surviving brother shall take the widow of his deceased brother as his wife. He shall bear children to the name of the dead brother so his name may not be blotted out of Israel. Yahweh's intervention preserved Judah's pedigree name. Judah's half Canaanite son has children by another woman and is never mentioned again.



Summary - Genesis 38:1-10

Judah, son of Jacob, married the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua and conceived three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah took Tamar to be the wife of his first-born son Er, but Yahweh killed him for his wickedness. Judah sent Onan to Tamar to perform the duty of raising children for his brother. Not wanting to raise children for his brother, Onan went into Tamar but withdrew and spilled his semen on ground. This displeased Yahweh, so he killed him.


Judah went to Adullam to meet his friend Hirah. There he saw the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua. He married her and they tried to have children right away.

1It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers, and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah.
2There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went in to her,

She conceived three sons. Er first, then Onan, then Shelah.

3and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.
4Again she conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Onan.
5Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. She was in Chezib when she bore him.

Judah chose Tamar to marry his first-born son Er. But Yahweh killed him because he was wicked.

6And Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar.
7But Er, Judah's first-born, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.

Then Judah told Onan to take his older brother's place and produce an offspring for him.

8Then Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, 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. After he penetrated Tamar, he pulled out and spilled his semen on the ground. -There were two actions. First he penetrated Tamar; then he withdrew and spilled semen on the ground. By penetrating her he became the rightful husband.

9But 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.

But Yahweh was displeased for what he did, so slew him.

10And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also.

Judah and Tamar

Summary - genesis 38:11-30

Judah consigned Tamar to live in her father's house until Shelah was of age, but he feared for the same fate as Shelah's older brothers. When Judah's wife died, Judah's remaining son Shelah had grown up, and he had not offered Tamar to him. Seeing Judah's reluctance, Tamar put on a veil and dressed as a harlot. She went to a place where she knew Judah would pass by. When Judah saw her, he stopped to ask for a sexual favor. She accepted his offer of a kid from his flock, but she held his signet, cord and staff as collateral until he could deliver the kid. Judah went into her and she conceived.

Judah tried to deliver the kid, but he could not find the harlot, not knowing it was Tamar. Three months later, Judah heard Tamar got pregnant by playing the harlot. He called for her to have her burned, but when she presented the signet, cord and staff to prove Judah was the father, he praised her superior righteousness; For Judah had withheld Shelah from marrying her. Tamar bore twins, Perez and Zerah.


So Judah consigned Tamar to remain in her father's house until Shelah grew up, but he feared Shelah would die like his brothers. - If it was a matter of Shelah avoiding the mistakes of his brothers, Judah might have nothing to fear. But if it had to do with racial purity, Shelah would face certain death.

11Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, "Remain a widow in your father's house, till Shelah my son grows up"-for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and dwelt in her father's house.

In the course of time, Judah's wife died. He went with his friend Hirah to Timnah where his sheepshearers were. - We could argue that Yahweh killed Judah's wife too.

12In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua's daughter, died; and when Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

When Tamar heard Judah was going to Timnah to shear his sheep, she took off her widow's garments and put on a veil to cover herself. Since Shelah was grown up, and she was not given to him for marriage, she sat on the road to Timnah, waiting for Judah.

13And when Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,"
14she put off her widow's garments, and put on a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage.

When Judah saw her, her veiled face led him to believe she was a harlot.

15When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot, for she had covered her face.

Not knowing who she was, he asked for sex, saying "Come let me come in to you." She asked "What will you give me, that you may come in to me?"

16He went over to her at the road side, and said, "Come, let me come in to you," for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, "What will you give me, that you may come in to me?"

Judah offered a kid from the flock. Tamar wanted a pledge until he delivers the kid.

17He answered, "I will send you a kid from the flock." And she said, "Will you give me a pledge, till you send it?"

She accepted a signet, his cord and his staff. So he went in to her and she conceived by him.

18He said, "What pledge shall I give you?" She replied, "Your signet and your cord, and your staff that is in your hand." So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him.

When Tamar left, she put back on her widow's garments.

19Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

Judah wanted to deliver the kid but he could not find her.

20When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to receive the pledge from the woman's hand, he could not find her.
21And he asked the men of the place, "Where is the harlot who was at Enaim by the wayside?" And they said, "No harlot has been here."
22So he returned to Judah, and said, "I have not found her; and also the men of the place said, 'No harlot has been here.'"
23And Judah replied, "Let her keep the things as her own, lest we be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her."

About three months later, Judah heard how Tamar got pregnant by playing the harlot. "Bring her out, and let her be burned," said Judah.

24About three months later Judah was told, "Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; and moreover she is with child by harlotry." And Judah said, "Bring her out, and let her be burned."

Tamar came with the signet, the cord and the staff.

25As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, "By the man to whom these belong, I am with child." And she said, "Mark, I pray you, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff."

Judah acknowledged them and said she was more righteous than he because he did not give her to his son Shelah. He did not lie with her again. - He couldn't kill the mother of his children. Her righteousness was in preserving his name as one of Abraham's descendants.

26Then Judah acknowledged them and said, "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah." And he did not lie with her again.

When the time of delivery came, out came twins Perez and Zerah.

27When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb.
28And when she was in labor, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a scarlet thread, saying, "This came out first."
29But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out; and she said, "What a breach you have made for yourself!" Therefore his name was called Perez.
30Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread upon his hand; and his name was called Zerah.


The question is why was Yahweh displeased with Onan to kill him?

Mosaic Law

Technically, the laws of Moses did not apply to Judah, but they do provide a guide to the beliefs of those times.

1. The widow of one brother cannot marry outside the family. The next surviving brother shall take her as his wife and bear children to the name of the dead brother so his name may not be blotted out of Israel. - There was an ancient belief that as long as a man's name was remembered, he continued to exist.

5"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.
6And 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. (Deut. 25:5-6)

2. Judah could not marry Tamar because she was once at once a widow and defiled by Onan.

13And he shall take a wife in her virginity.
14A widow, or one divorced, or a woman who has been defiled, or a harlot, these he shall not marry; but he shall take to wife a virgin of his own people, (Lev. 21:13-14)

3. Semen discharge is unclean until the evening as long as it was washed with water. - In isolation, Onan's semen discharge would not provide grounds for killing him.

2"Say to the people of Israel, When any man has a discharge from his body, his discharge is unclean.
3And this is the law of his uncleanness for a discharge: whether his body runs with his discharge, or his body is stopped from discharge, it is uncleanness in him. (Lev. 15:2)

16"And if a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water, and be unclean until the evening.
17And every garment and every skin on which the semen comes shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the evening.
18If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe themselves in water, and be unclean until the evening. (Lev. 15:16-18)

Family background

4. Judah was one of Jacob's twelve sons and the patriarch of David's tribe.

5. By Judah marrying a Canaanite woman, their sons were half Canaanite. That this is mentioned was meant to draw attention to their alien background. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob married within the family.

Abraham married Sarai, his half sister.

31Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. (Gen. 11:31)

Isaac married Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham's nephew.

15Before he had done speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother, came out with her water jar upon her shoulder (Gen. 24:15)

Jacob married the daughters of his uncle Laban.

15Then Laban said to Jacob, "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?"
16Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. (Gen. 29:15-16)

6. We are not told Tamar's family and religious background; but it is not questioned. Judah thought her suitable to marry his son, and later called her more righteous than he for enabling him to honorably continue his namesake. She was to Judah as Mary was to Joseph.

7. Why did Judah fear his son Shelah would perish if he sent her to Tamar? Because he would have been killed before he had the chance to produce children. Numbers 26:20 calls him the namesake of the Shelanites, a clan not related to the Israelites. No matter who the mother of his children was, he could not carry the name of Judah into the tribes of Israel.


8. The story was written in such a way so Judah and Tamar would come out looking righteous because miscegenation with Canaanites was discouraged. Onan had the bad luck of having the wrong mother.