I referred yesterday to the weird little story of Onan in the book of Genesis.
It’s a weird story for a host of reasons, including that it’s a screaming anachronism for those who attempt a “literal” reading of the Pentateuch based on the non-literal, extra-textual presumption that the book of Genesis was written by Moses as dictated by God.
Here, in its entirety, is the story of Onan, from Genesis 38:
But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.
Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.” But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother.
What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.
That’s quite a bit of smiting for such a brief, four-verse story. Poor Er’s wickedness was so great that he was put to death by a lethal miracle. That’s an extreme punishment, so be sure to learn the lesson of Judah’s firstborn and don’t … er … don’t do whatever it was that Er did. (At least the guy’s name lives on, and to this day we all say it whenever we want to abort a thought just as God cut short the life of poor Er.)
Judah points out to Er’s brother, Onan, that it is now his duty as a brother-in-law to impregnate his dead brother’s widow. Onan takes this as license to have sex with his late brother’s wife, but he always pulls out so that he won’t have to worry about having a new son/nephew and another mouth to feed. That wasn’t the deal with “the duty of a brother-in-law” so Onan is put to death as well.
Alas, Onan’s name has also lived on in a flagrant misreading of this story. “Onanism” became something of a euphemism for masturbation, and this text has been, for centuries, cited as forbidding masturbation. Onan’s name has been invoked in warning juvenile boys not to behave like juvenile boys. If they spilled their seed like Onan did, they were warned, they might go ow-ow-out like a blister in the sun.
That use of the story abuses the text worse than any juvenile boy has ever abused himself. Onan wasn’t masturbating — he was having sex with his sister-in-law. The story cannot be twisted into teaching that masturbation puts one in danger of being put to death by divine intervention. (Apart from contradicting the text, the idea that anyone who masturbates might be struck dead by God is obviously wrong anyway — disproved by the continuing existence of the human race.)
It’s equally mendacious to abuse this story by trying to force it to say something else it refuses to say: that sex must always be for the purpose of procreation. That’s not what the text says. That’s not something the story itself will allow you to say this story “teaches.” The story absolutely does not say that sex must always be for the purpose of procreation. The story says, rather, that sex with your dead brother’s childless widow must always be for the purpose of procreation.
And to understand what that’s all about in this story, we have to discuss the howling anachronism here.
The “duty of a brother-in-law” here refers to the practice of yibbum. This practice is outlined in Deuteronomy 25:
When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.
In our story, in other words, Judah instructs his son Onan to do what the law commands — the law as given by Moses centuries after Judah is dead and buried. Er, oops.
Onan’s duty was to continue his dead brother’s line by providing a child for his sister-in-law. That child would be regarded as his brother’s heir, keeping his brother’s share of the land in his brother’s name. That child would also be immensely important for the wellbeing of Onan’s sister-in-law. As a childless widow, she would be utterly dependent in that ancient economy, whereas a second wife with a firstborn son has hope for an economic future.
That’s the whole point of this duty. It’s the one reason that Onan was required to marry his sister-in-law. If she and Er had had children, then the law would have forbidden Onan to marry her (see Leviticus 18:6-16 and Leviticus 20:21 — which also warns that anyone who marries their late brother’s non-childless widow will be unable to have children with her).
This form of marriage, in other words, was part of the safety net for childless widows in this ancient economy. Onan’s sin was not “spilling his seed,” or having sex for reasons other than procreation. Onan’s sin was his exploitation of the helpless and his failure to fulfill his responsibility in the safety net for childless widows.
That passage in Deuteronomy 25 outlining the “duty of a brother-in-law” also lays out the oddly baroque punishment for any brother-in-law who refused this duty:
If the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.”
Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.”
Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.”
As unpleasant as that punishment sounds, what with all that face-spitting and sandal-pulling and name-changing, it’s still a much lighter sentence than what Onan was given — being “put to death” by the very hand of God.
Onan was dealt a more severe sentence because he was guilty of a more severe crime. Him Whose Sandal Was Pulled Off was guilty of neglecting his duty to provide for a childless widow. Onan was trying to weasel out of that duty while at the same time exploiting the very woman he was duty-bound to help. HWSWPO failed to play his role in the safety net for childless widows. Onan was attacking the very existence of that safety net.
This is an ancient story. The past is a foreign country, and the farther back we go into the past the more foreign it seems. It can be almost impossible to decipher such an ancient alien world, let alone to derive moral lessons from it that are applicable to our lives in the very different world we live in today.
Yet I still think we can learn something from the weird little story of Onan in the book of Genesis. Neglecting our duty to provide a safety net for those who need it is shameful behavior — a lasting shame so severe it forever alters our very name and how we are perceived throughout the community. But it’s even worse to attack the very idea of such duty while simultaneously exploiting those we are duty-bound to protect.
I think we are on solid biblical footing, in other words, to say that the current effort among House Republicans to gut SNAP is an example of the sin of Onanism. The anti-welfare rhetoric and ideology of the tea party — with its denunciations of “takers” and “moochers,” and the rallying cry of its founding in rejection of mortgage assistance for soon-to-be-homeless families — is a virulent, vicious strain of Onanism,
And this weird little story in Genesis suggests that God takes that sin very seriously indeed.