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(cross-posted at my blog)

These verses from Genesis have been debated for thousands of years, but I can't help giving my two cents and sharing my opinion on the issue. The Bible is a fascinating book, but I often get the sense that many people try much too hard to find interpretations within minor parts of a story- in essence missing the forest for the trees. I think that happens with this passage in a fairly major way.

Note: This post does not address whether a business owner can enforce his religious ideas on his employees, that's clearly an unconstitutional horrible awful bad idea. I'm simply trying, as a Christian myself, to understand a rule that other Christians follow and consider important. And I disagree with them.

Genesis 38:8-10 (KJV)

And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.
That's it. That is the entire passage upon which denial of birth control is based. (and masturbation as well)

So what is happening in this scene? Honestly, it's a pretty wild story, especially by today's standards. Onan is King Judah's son. Er, the eldest, was struck down by God for being horribly wicked. That's why it says "slew him also." The Lord didn't have a lot of patience with Judah's boys; He had important business and they weren't right for it.

Onan, as Judah's second son, was to take Er's wife Tamar as his own to provide Er with heirs, and he does, but Onan doesn't want his kids to be considered Er's. As Er's rival he wouldn't have children of his own, and perhaps he wanted his own tribe to propagate. At any rate, Onan was apparently denying the Jewish people their next king by doing this.

Ultimately, Judah himself sleeps with Tamar because he mistakes her for a prostitute--she tricks him because she wasn't given the third son Shelah to marry as was her due--and she has twin boys. Tamar is actually a very strong figure here, as she demands what she believes is her right: to be the mother of the tribe. She demands Onan after Er dies, and when she does not receive the third son she risks her life by taking matters into her own hands. (It's also worth noting that God was fine with Judah sleeping with a prostitute, or at least with Judah thinking that he was. This is mentioned casually enough that it's hard to think it's the only time.)

So what does all this have to do with birth control?


There is literally nothing in these verses that says Tamar couldn't have told Onan she wanted to have sex but didn't want kids. There is also nothing that implies "spilling seed" would be a problem if he wasn't supposed to father the next king. We see from Tamar's later actions that she did want to have children and to be the mother of the future king, but that Onan just wasn't cooperating and was essentially using her.

So there is simply no reason that I can see why this passage is about God wanting women to have children every time they have sex.

The issue discussed in these verses is clear: God wanted an heir to
the king, and Onan didn't want to provide one. So God took him out.
These verses are about men doing what God commands, NOT about women having sex. Perhaps there is a story here about the need for men to respect women and their needs, or for womento forge their own destinies, but this is not about birth control or abortion at all.

Why am I not surprised that an all-male hierarchy would shift it around to justify their ideas for female behavior? I'm not surprised because the all-male hierarchy is in fact the root of the entire problem. Men get stuck on the minor issue of sex and their own desires, instead of on the incredibly huge deal of the creation of the Kingdom of Judah, and the bringing together of the tribes.

Why are Onan and Er even important then? There's a lot of disagreement on that, but some scholars say the two men are an etiological representation, intended to establish the relation of two other extinct tribes to Judah. That makes some sense, especially in regard to Onan not wanting to provide Er with heirs, and the fact that they are both bypassed, and killed by God. It's an interesting theory at least.

There is a bit more in the Bible that gets called out on occasion to oppose birth control (and abortion), namely that children are referred to as a "gift from God" --which they truly are--and that to deny God's gift is to oppose Him. But it's worth noting that the Bible also calls a wife a "gift from God" --which mine truly is, others may not be so lucky--yet there is no church requirement against resisting marriage. In fact we have just the opposite with celibate priests.

So that's how I read it. What's your opinion?

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Comment Preferences

  •  If he had simply refused to have sex God would've (5+ / 0-)

    struck him down exactly the same way. You're 100% right about this. The "smite button" was pressed for not doing what God wanted, not the way it happened. But many of the hard core Christoholics I know fixate on the act of withdrawl because, well, because they're fixated on sex and worry about about it constantly.

    "What profit a man, if he gain the world, but has to pay taxes on it?" Paul 8:36

    From the Gospel of St. Ron Paul in the Teachings and Misunderstandings of the Words of Adam Smith

    by ontheleftcoast on Mon Feb 20, 2012 at 11:57:46 AM PST

  •  So the religious establishment has been (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Themistoclea, Dark UltraValia

    jacking us all off  all along?
    I figured as much.

    I'd rather have a buntle afrota-me than a frottle a bunta-me.

    by David54 on Mon Feb 20, 2012 at 12:10:32 PM PST

  •  Judah was not king (6+ / 0-)

    He was simply one of Jacob's 12 sons.  However, his became the tribe that the Davidic dynasty came from.  Saul, the first king, was from the tribe of Benjamin, and God became unhappy and designated David, son of Jesse, to become king instead.  Saul tried to kill David, and David fought in the hills (kind of like Che Guevera) until his kingship was confirmed, and was promised to his sons as well.

    The other issue is the levirate law, which says that if a man dies without any children, his brother shall marry the widow, and the first son will carry the dead brother's name so his name will not die, nor the claim to his land.

    Onan's sin was refusing to perform his levirite duty, not simply spilling his seed.  Therefore, the prohibition of masturbation is a misinterpretation.

    Tamar, betrothed to the youngest son and living in her father's house, had no status at all.  She could not marry anyone else, since she was considered married already.  She therefore seduced Judah, and eventually he realizes that she was in the right, and he raises his sons with her.  (They are among those who go to Egypt during the famine.)

    I never thought of this as a prohibition of birth control, except the pull-out method, which Catholics allow.

    Go figure.

    Old people are like old houses - lots of character, but the plumbing leaks.

    by ramara on Mon Feb 20, 2012 at 12:53:02 PM PST

  •  I guess my opinion is the same as yours. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dark UltraValia, ramara

    I've never viewed Onan's actions and his subsequent death as being as a result of "birth control" itself, but as a result of his refusal to redeem his responsibility in "levirate marriage" to carry on Er's family name.  Any effort to connect this to some framing of birth control as a sin is an intentional misreading of the text.  Of course, it's not like we haven't seen that sort of action on a more or less regular basis anyway...

    "In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upward mobile..." - Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

    by Jack K on Mon Feb 20, 2012 at 01:18:10 PM PST

  •  I think you hit the nail on the head when you said (5+ / 0-)

    "Onan just wasn't cooperating and was essentially using her." I think that's why the God character slew him.

    When I was a believer in this text I believed in a God of justice who protected the weak and punished their oppressors, but who also would extend freedom to people, to use for good or bad. So I naturally read it like so: Tamar was in a very weak position. Some combo of societal pressure and maybe her own wishes meant she wanted to continue the family line of her late husband. This meant she was obligated to let Onan impregnate her (according to a variation on levirate marriage). I assume this customarily meant the brother-in-law sleeps with the widow a few times until she conceives. Onan used this cultural practice to turn Tamar into a sex slave; by shooting his semen on the ground, he could be like "Welp, guess we gotta try again later! har har." If my reading is right, he was a scumbag. The Divine interest in this particular family meant that he picked the wrong person to be a scumbag to: she was a many-times-great-grandmother to King David and, thus, his famous son you've probably heard of.

    Also I think this episode with Tamar, Onan, and Judah is part of the character development of Judah. Judah also suffers in this story, losing three sons and being humiliated by his daughter-in-law. He admits she was right and he was wrong; he grows.  I think this story appears here because it helps the reader understand why, a few chapters later in the story, it's Judah who prevents Joseph from being murdered, and it's Joseph who ends up saving the entire tribe from starvation through his own Horatio Alger story.

    So in my reading, I totally agree: this is no source of anti-contraception doctrine. It's a story of a sex-slaver getting his just desserts.

    I don't believe in God anymore, but I've spent many hours thinking long and hard about the Joseph story in Genesis. It was one of my favorites. Maybe someday they'll make a musical about him. :-)

    Also worth noting:  there is no royal issue here at all. Judah was not a king. This is centuries prior to the first Israelite king or Jewish king. Jacob was the head of a large and rich family, and his sons were well-positioned too, but they didn't have kingdoms.

    Hmm, while I was composing this, some commenters upthread also pointed out similar things. Oh well, I don't want to take them out. Better late than never?

    'Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that Government is best which is most indifferent.' -- F. D. Roosevelt

    by LandruBek on Mon Feb 20, 2012 at 01:27:19 PM PST

    •  I particularly love your take on Onan (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jrcjr, ramara
      Onan used this cultural practice to turn Tamar into a sex slave; by shooting his semen on the ground, he could be like "Welp, guess we gotta try again later! har har."
      In my mind, that says it all. :-)
    •  I'd like to (0+ / 0-)

      update this later, at my blog, with some of your commentary. I think you really helped to clarify what I was thinking about Onan as well: he was a bit a scumbag, and the fact that he was using Tamar in this way is very important to the story.


      (Incidentally, I only recently learned that the word "scumbag" began its life as a slang word for condom. So I guess I should find another word, so as not to undermine my own argument...)

      the means IS the end

      by jrcjr on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 11:23:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  thanks! sure thing, (0+ / 0-)

        quote away.

        I didn't know that about the word "scumbag" -- how apropos.

        'Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that Government is best which is most indifferent.' -- F. D. Roosevelt

        by LandruBek on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 02:14:18 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  My sister (0+ / 0-)

          My sister said it on tv not long ago and got some stern memos about inappropriate language along with the definition. I believe they said it meat used condom. She called & asked me if I'd ever heard that definition before--nope.

          the means IS the end

          by jrcjr on Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 04:01:05 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I love etymologies, so I had to look into this, (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            and I found this terrific article in Slate -- just the right amount of pedantry that pumpkins like me crave.


            'Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that Government is best which is most indifferent.' -- F. D. Roosevelt

            by LandruBek on Wed Feb 22, 2012 at 10:09:55 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

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