Since this post has been the center of attention for some time, I have resurrected it so we can have free posting. Maybe some others can contribute to the conversation. Keep the language as clean as possible please.
The Accepted Definition of Onanism from the Oxford Dictionary.
Onanism: Coitus interruptus, unnatural sexual intercourse or masturbation. In the Jewish tradition, onanism is associated with the biblical figure Onan who was condemned by God for spilling his seed ‘on the ground’ (Genesis 38. 7–10).
In opposition to common modern Protestant interpretations, I propose that Genesis 38 condemns contraceptive acts, and that all Protestant denominations who refuse this interpretation are not in accord with the consistent and ancient Christian or Jewish interpretations of this Biblical text. This in fact puts them at odds with Sacred Scripture and this Biblical moral teaching.
The text, (Douay Rheims)
6 And Juda took a wife for Her his firstborn, whose name was Thamar. 7 And Her, the firstborn of Juda, was wicked in the sight of the Lord: and was slain by him. 8 Juda, therefore said to Onan his son: Go in to thy brother's wife and marry her, that thou mayst raise seed to thy brother. 9 He knowing that the children should not be his, when he went in to his brother's wife, spilled his seed upon the ground, lest children should be born in his brother's name. And therefore the Lord slew him, because he did a detestable thing.
I want to address the text of Genesis 38:6-10 in light of the traditional Christian teaching on the sin of Onan. The teaching of classical Judaism as well as that of Christianity until the 1930s, viewed the sinful act of Onan as interrupting the conjugal act. It is this act of interruption which he was slain for. All Christians up until the 1930s interpreted this text as referring to Onan's punishment of death by his act of “coitus interruptus.” (Coitus interruptus is Latin for ‘interrupted intercourse.) In the 1930's the Protestants gave way to the secular culture, while the Catholic Church remained standing tall among the moral ruin of the age.
The question I have presented to Protestants today are; why do you now go against your own forefathers interpretations of Genesis 38 in regards to coitus interruptus? Why do you go against 2000 years of consistent Christian interpretation? One reason I propose that they reject this interpretation is that they would have to conclude that the only Church left teaching the correct interpretation would be the Catholic Church. Of course the Protestants could not live with such a conclusion. There are others who just want to enjoy the conjugal act without the natural consequences of their actions. Many of them view the conjugal in a selfish manner with no regard for the two natural elements of the act; the unitive and the procreative. I also want to say that there are some Protestants who do uphold the correct teaching of this passage and do not engage in contraceptive acts. So I am not addressing all Protestants, just the majority.
There are many hecklers that come to my site to heckle me and the Catholic Church's teachings. Not one of them even attempted to answer my proposed questions on this subject. In fact I have posted on this topic numerous times, and these hecklers always choose to ignore them and they instead attack the Catholic church on some other issue instead of defending their own moral beliefs and Biblical interpretations. Where is the "ready defense" that they are always hailing as their battle cry when it comes to condoning contraception? The one person who did respond, resorted to weak argumentation, as I will soon demonstrate. I must note I am not writing this to heckle B.J. Bracker. I simply wanted to address his arguments in a blog post that he wrote, which I promised to do on my blog. He kindly responded to an earlier post of mine on this subject. I am glad that he took the time to give his thoughts on the text of Genesis 38. That is much more than anyone else has been willing to do in Protestant circles. B.J. concluded in his post that the text of Genesis 38 was “ambiguous”. I want to start with his conclusion and then work backwards addressing his reasons for coming to this conclusion.
“In the end, I’m forced to conclude that the text is not clear enough to specify a particular sin as “The Sin” that caused Onan’s death. It seems likely that it was some combination of greed, selfishness, deception, lust, and disobedience. Since coitus interruptus is not specifically stated as the reason, and it was neither a capital offense nor an offense discussed elsewhere in the Old Testament, it seems unlikely that this was the cause.
Therefore, I conclude that Genesis 38 is ambiguous about Onan’s sin at best and points to sins other than coitus interruptus at worst. It is, thus, unreasonable to use this text as proof against contraception.”
So according to B.J., he seems to think that God has left us without a clear reason as to why He struck Onan dead in this particular text of the Old Testament. My position is that Our Lord intended to teach us a lesson in this text like he always does in the pages of Scripture. I also propose that He did not intend to present us an impossible riddle in this passage. I will affirm that the Church held an unambiguous interpretation of this passage for centuries, up until the Reformers rebelled in the 1930s. Lets first look at B.J.'s arguments.
B.J. starts out by quoting the text of Genesis 38:1-11 using the English Standard version. I don't know what compelled him to use this particular translation. Maybe he can clarify as to why he chose this translation. From this text he concluded the following.
“Now, the rules for Levirite Marriage were not handed down until the time of Moses. Thus, technically, Onan was obligated to fulfill a law here, but the fact that his father encourages this practice puts a large burden on Onan. Interestingly, Judah does not command Onan to take Tamar as a wife. He only commands that they produce offspring.”
By doing some research, I have concluded that the complete text of verse 8 is omitted in the newer Protestant translations like the NIV and the ESV. I am sure we could debate this further, but I don't want to get off of the topic. In the end it doesn't really change the reason Onan was killed. I propose that we know that Onan was married to Tamar by looking at other Biblical translations, “ ...therefore said to Onan his son: Go in to thy brother's wife and marry her...” (Douay-Rheims), “And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.” (King James), “8 And Judas said to Aunan, Go in to thy brother’s wife, and marry her as her brother-in-law,” (English Translation of the Greek Septuagint). So I disagree on this particular conclusion. Onan was married to Tamar, and then he committed an act for which he was killed. Either way Onan's act of contracepting is the reason for his death, as we shall see. It is however worthy to note that Church Fathers like St. Augustine as well as the early Reformers also thought that Onan was married. We can conclude this from their writings. So they must have been using a Biblical translation in accordance with those that I have chosen to use.
B.J. follows with this: “Still, the text does not say that this was Onan’s motivation. All that we are told is that Onan’s action was evil in God’s sight. Therefore, God kills him, just as he had killed Er, Onan’s older brother.”
Ok, lets look at the text to see what action brought the wrath of God upon Onan. It really does not matter what his motivation is for doing sinful act. The text says, “when he went in to his brother's wife, spilled his seed upon the ground, lest children should be born in his brother's name. And therefore the Lord slew him, because he did a detestable thing.” The action of Onan spilling his seed upon the ground to avoid procreation was followed up with “therefore the Lord slew him because he did a “detestable thing.” Now just using simple rules of grammar we can see that the object, the “detestable thing”, is connected with the sentence that comes before it, which is the spilling of the seed. We can also look at the Hebrew word "shichet", which more accurately means "to act perversely", and not “spilled" as it is commonly interpreted. This meaning is supported by Hebrew Biblical scholars. (Miguens) This also points to Onan's sin as being the contraceptive act of Onan, and not any of the other proposed acts that Onan committed. Onan acted perversely and was killed for it.
B. J. gets sidetracked looking for a reason as to why Onan did what he did. In the end it doesn't really matter. It was the act of contracepting itself for which he was condemned.
B.J. wrote, “There are also multiple possibilities for Onan’s Sin. Greed is a prime suspect. In not fulfilling his duties, he guarantees the firstborn’s share for himself. This is potentially coupled with selfishness. In failing in his duties, he leaves Tamar without a lineage and without someone to care for her.” All of this elaboration misses the point of the actual act that Onan committed for which he was killed. B.J. did go on to give some personal reasons as to why he thought Onan may have been killed.
“Onan also directly disobeys a command from his father. This showed rebellion, pride, selfishness, and disrespect. Although the Law would come later, in some circumstances, disobedience was worthy of death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). The details of Onan’s situation do not directly correlate to Deuteronomy 21, but the point is that Onan’s dishonoring and disobeying his father was serious and potentially deadly.”
The fact that Onan rebelled against his father was obviously not the reason that God condemned him. There is no precedence for this. Onan had no obligation to follow the order of his father as far as the conjugal act went. In looking at the text, if he did disobey his father, the act of his disobedience would not be connected with the “detestable thing” that he is condemned for. Secondly if he was married as the more reliable texts tell us he was, he would have had no obligation to follow his father's request anyways. If he was married, he obviously obeyed at least a portion of his father's request, to marry. After that Onan would have been able to act as he pleased with his wife. This conclusion of B.J.'s is not a tenable one. Once Onan married, the act of not fulfilling the proper sexual act as requested by his father would not have been the sin. It is the lack of not fulfilling the proper end of the conjugal act itself, not any disobedience to his father. It was a disobedience to God's divine law.
B.J. then elaborates a bit on the Levirite Marriage laws, none of which carry the penalty of death. So I do not see any relevance to these points that he makes as being of any consequence to the reason Onan is killed. The only rational conclusion B.J. is left with is the sin of coitus interruptus. He reluctantly states the following,
“Or it could have been coitus interruptus. This is the only place in the Old Testament that describes such an act, and Onan’s death occurs shortly thereafter. Thus, it is not unreasonable to see this as a possibility, and I do not want to disregard it outright.”
But he then follows this with the following disclaimer,
“Yet, as I have shown above, there are plenty of sins that Onan has committed, some of which may merit death, and the combination of them all might demand it. The problem is that the text does not specify the particular sin or sins that cause God to kill Onan. It is ambiguous. To hone in on the contraceptive act alone is to say more than the text says.”
I believe that the text is very clear on what act Onan was condemned and killed for. None of the other reasons that B.J. listed were crimes or sins punishable by death. We also cannot conclude that a combination platter of sins was the reason in which God killed him. In the text it specifically says it was one particular, “detestable thing”, not a combination of sins as B.J. suggests.
Finally B.J. is left with one more escape clause in his bag. He proposes the following:
“Now all the examples in Leviticus 15 are involuntary, but Onan’s action was voluntary. The peculiar thing, however, is that if self-inflicted semen loss (coitus interruptus, masturbation, etc.) was a capital offense, it seems odd that the Old Testament omits any such law, while including proscriptions for nocturnal emissions. Hence, if one argues that refusing Levirite duties is not punishable by death, then one must also argue that neither is coitus interruptus or masturbation.”
B.J. makes a false conclusion here by proposing that the Old Testament omits such a law and therefore he makes a connection with the Levirite duties as absolving Onan for being killed for the spilling of his seed. First of all we know in the text of the Old Testament that not fulfilling the Levirite Marriage laws were not punishable by death. We also know that Onan was killed for the act of spilling his seed. The two are not de facto, equivalently related in their levels of offense to God. In fact we see a very different reaction by God to each act. Was this law omitted from Jewish law? No it was not. In fact the classical Jews have always taught that contraceptive acts were sinful based on this Biblical text. The Biblical interpretation of Genesis was clear to them as to what act condemned Onan. It was the act for which Onanism is named, which I listed at the beginning.
Here are some examples of the consistent interpretations of this text within the Christian tradition. The early Church Fathers saw no ambiguity in the text as B.J. has proposed. The traditional interpretation of this passage is a divine condemnation of the contraceptive act. For example the great Saint Jerome directly connected Onan's spilling of his seed as the act for which he was killed. It was not ambiguous to him.
"But I wonder why he [the heretic Jovinianus] set Judah and Tamar before us for an example, unless perchance even harlots give him pleasure; or Onan, who was slain because he grudged his brother seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?" (Saint Jerome Against Jovinian 1:19 [A.D. 393])
Saint Augustine also directly referenced Onan in connection with this particular sinful act.
“Intercourse even with one's own legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of judah, did this and the Lord killed him for it.”
It appears that even St. Augustine believed Onan was married according to this text as well, to which I made reference earlier. There are several others I could quote to prove my point throughout the ages of Christian history. But I would also like to look at the early Protestant Reformers as well. It is a fact that even the founding “Reformers” interpreted Genesis 38 in this tradition as well. They saw no ambiguity in the text.
John Calvin (1509 - 1564); Commentary on Gen. 38:8-10 --
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. The Jews quite immodestly gabble concerning this thing. ...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. ...This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit through Moses’ mouth... 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.
Martin Luther (1483 - 1546); Commentary on Gen 38: 8 - 10 --
… the exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches, follows. ...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. and what he did was displeasing in the sight of the lord, and he slew him also.
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. ... He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred. ... Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed and evil deed. Therefore God punished him. … That worthless fellow refused to exercise. He preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother. 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.
John Wesley (1703 - 1791); Commentary on Gen. 38:7 --
The next brother Onan was, according to the ancient usage, married to the widow, to preserve the name of his deceased brother Er that died childless. This custom of marrying the brother’s widow was afterward made one of the laws of Moses, Deut. 25:5. Onan, though he consented to marry the widow, yet to the great abuse of his own body, of the wife he had married and the memory of his brother that was gone, he refused to raise up seed unto his brother. Those sins that dishonour the body are very displeasing to God, and the evidence of vile affections. Observe, the thing which he did displeased the Lord -- And it is to be feared, thousands, especially of single persons, by this very thing, still displease the Lord, and destroy their own souls.
I am afraid this leaves B.J. in total opposition to the constant interpretation of the Church over the past 2000 years. He is also in opposition to his Protestant forefathers who read no ambiguity into the Biblical text either. The text itself, as well as the consistent Christian and Jewish interpretations of it, proves that it is not ambiguous. It also proves that those who oppose this interpretation are clearly going against Sacred Scripture as interpreted in the Christian tradition. This would include almost all major Protestant denominations today. Where does the evidence point? Does it point to B.J.'s position that this text is just too ambiguous to understand? Or is it more likely that the many theologians, including his own Protestant forefathers, over the course of 2000 years got it right? They read the text as it is plainly written. Amazingly none of them ever made a reference as to the ambiguity of the text of Genesis 38.