Like most high school boys who actually read their Bibles, the first time I read Genesis 38:8-10, I was thoroughly freaked out.
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.
I mean, what in the flippin’ world is happening here? Did God really just slaughter this guy for “spilling his semen on the ground”?
For several years, through the rest of high school and on into college, every time this text was brought up in conversation it would be from some teenager or young adult male who was concerned that his own self-gratification practices would incur the wrath of God.
What’s interesting is, the threat of this never really changed behavior.
What’s even more interesting, as I learned later with a little Ancient Near Eastern background, is that this passage has nothing to say about male self-gratification…at least in the sense teenage guys are concerned about.
But, that is not to say young men are off the hook just yet because, in fact, the passage may be more threatening to our health than we initially suspected.
The larger context helps us understand what’s going on in the story.
One of Jacob’s sons, Judah, has a son named Er who has a young wife named Tamar. But Er was an incredibly wicked man, and thus, God puts him to death.
The problem for Tamar is, a woman’s place in society (her safety, security, future, insurance, etc.) is all determined by the men in her life. Now that the man in her life, Er, has died, she has no place in the society.
Fortunately for Tamar, the ancient Jews had a custom called Levirate Marriage, wherein the wife of a deceased man – if he died without producing an heir – could be “passed on” to the man’s next oldest brother. It’s not a perfect scenario, but it does (theoretically) provide safety, security, future, and insurance, etc. for Tamar. More specifically, with a new husband, Tamar is given another opportunity to produce a male child – an heir.
Enter Onan the Barbarian.
Onan is Er’s next-in-line. He is supposed to take over his brother’s obligations to Tamar. Again, most importantly, Tamar’s future is bound up in producing a male child – a son.
If Tamar and Onan have a son, not only will justice be served to Tamar (her son will take care of her in her old age and give her a place in society), but it will also do justice to Onan’s deceased brother, Er (because legally, this son will belong to Er, therefore inheriting all of Er’s property).
But herein lies the problem: When Onan spills his seed on the ground, he is gratifying himself, but not in the way teenage boys assume.
Onan has intentionally avoided the possibility of impregnating Tamar. He has, therefore, intentionally made a decision to not give her safety, security, a future, insurance, or justice. And he has also, therefore, made a decision not to provide an heir for his deceased brother.
In both of these, Onan has virtually performed one of the gravest injustices in the ancient world – an injustice his father, Judah, will perpetuate and further once God strikes Onan dead.
Without a son or a husband to take care of her, in the ancient world, Tamar is forced into a life of prostitution. She has no other choice.
Women do not choose prostitution because they grew up wanting to sell their bodies to sleazy men. They’re forced into prostitution by a society that allows/permits/encourages the vulnerable to slip through the cracks.
Onan is a key cog in the machine that ends with Tamar selling her body. Onan could have provided justice and a future for her, but he chose to gratify himself, instead. Because of this, God gives him the death penalty.
So does this text condemn teenage boys for self-gratification?
No and Yes.
No, it does not condemn them in the sense that they usually think it does. Though, that subject is worthy of its own blog post.
Yes, in the sense that it calls young men to understand that they are to be agents of justice and compassion in our broken world.
We may not have Levirate Marriages in our world, but there are other ways in which the vulnerable in our society still fall through the cracks. We need to be aware of the ways in which our own self-gratification, our drive for more things, our obsession with cheap prices, etc. perpetuates societal injustices, and even (yes, still in our world) the abuse and neglect of women.