The Onanism of ‘teavangelical’ Republicans

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.)

This is what Onanism looks like. God is displeased.

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.

 

 

 

  • Mary

    Good points.

  • Jeff Henderson

    Ahh – in your interpretation then Onan should have supported an Israelite program to pay for his sister-in-law and her offspring, but such a failure caused him to be smitten. Doesn’t the text say his reasoning was because the children would not be his own offspring? Nowhere in the text does it say Onan did not care for and support the childless widow – that is your reading into the text – a case of Biblical ventriloquism. The mistake here is in trying to take Biblical teachings of care and compassion and make them into social programs with other people’s money. The Bible is telling us as Christians how to live, not how to make the government work. We as individuals and as the body of Christ are supposed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison – we are not supposed to try to shirk that responsibility off to a government run program. And doesn’t the continued existence of Tea Party members and Republicans prove that your interpretation is just as faulty as the anti-masturbation, anti-sex-for-pleasure interpretations?

  • Boidster

    And doesn’t the continued existence of Tea Party members and Republicans
    prove that your interpretation is just as faulty as the
    anti-masturbation, anti-sex-for-pleasure interpretations?

    No, it does not.

    1. The sin of Onan was masturbation
    2. Onan was whacked by God for his sin
    3. Therefore do not whack or God will whack you

    However, billions of people have masturbated, will masturbate, are masturbating at this very moment while typing on Disqus, and they are not being whacked by God. Therefore, the anti-masturbation interpretation of “Onanism” cannot be correct.

    Fred does not, I don’t think, believe that God whacks anybody directly for their sins (viewing the Bible, as I think he does, as a semi-historical asemblage of stories, fables, poems, letters, and whatnot, with many, many authors, and not as The Divine Literal Truth Book). The continued existence of the Tea Party and Republicans only proves that hateful, ignorant people can exist. Fred’s interpretation of the sin of Onan is not in conflict with that sad fact at all.

    TL;DR – Fred did not say and does not mean “do not neglect or abuse the poor, or God will whack you like he did Onan.” Too literal.

  • Boidster

    And but so also,

    We as individuals and as the body of Christ are supposed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison – we are not supposed to try to shirk that responsibility off to a government run program.

    You are begging the question. Why does taking collective action, through the agent of a civilized society (government), automatically equate to “shirking”? Government is, by far, better able to provide a safety net for the poor and downtrodden. http://prospect.org/article/delusions-charity

  • Jeff Henderson

    I think you missed my sarcasm. I do not think the story of Onan should be used to suggest anything about masturbation, or about birth control, or about SNAP – my point is that Fred is using the exact same methodology of interpretation (misinterpretation) that he is criticizing. Yes, the existence of the tea party does indeed show how hateful and ignorant and prejudiced people that criticize them as a group can be.

  • Jeff Henderson

    “Why does taking collective action, through the agent of a civilized society (government), automatically equate to “shirking”?”

    Because the government is not a Christian government and there is no Christian witness connected with the government run programs. There was a ‘dole’ provided by the Roman government for the poor in Jesus’ day, but he still expected his followers to ante up and do these things in His name.

    Government is also, by far, less inefficient in distributing care to the needy than any other method, with the possible exception of just throwing cash out of a moving car.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Pretty sure I can name some organizations that are less efficient than the government. It’s not uncommon for less than 10% of an organization’s donations to go to their supposed cause. :p

    I do object to this recurring tendency to portray the government as being some sort of disconnected body of non-human, barely benign intelligence which distributes money according to whim and never in a useful manner. The government is people.

  • Jeff Henderson

    Sam – careful, you are sounding like the Supreme Court in their Citizen’s United ruling. We are discussing the Biblical interpretation of a portion of scripture. If we expect the people in the government to take over our responsibility to feed the poor, clothe the naked, etc., what other Christian responsibilities can they handle for us? Can they declare our nation a Christian nation so that every American is then saved? Can we consider paying our taxes to them to be part (or more than all) of our tithes (or freewill offerings)?

    How is forcing everyone in the country to support poor people an act of Christian charity?

    How is expecting the taxes that non-Christians pay to the government to be used to help the poor supposed to be a part of me fulfilling the command of Christ?

    How does deflecting kingdom conduct onto the members of our government bring glory to God?

  • Jeff Henderson

    Now let me go one more round and say what is most revolting here is the author’s attempt to use the Bible as a political weapon. This is just as bad as many of those on the right that misuse scripture to their own political advantage. It is shameful conduct. I also find it funny that many of the people here condemning Tea Party members and Republicans en masse, would cite the scripture to “Judge not” for people that believe homosexuality is a sin. It seems among the Progressive Christian movement the Biblical injunction should be, “Judge not, unless they are a Republican.” There are many Christians on both sides of the aisle and openly condemning them via such vague and faulty interpretations is un-Christlike.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    You sound like someone trying to come off as being “in the center”, but your wording betrays the fact that you fundamentally believe in the politically right-wing, religiously evangelical Christian notion of how the government should work.

    Protip: It’s your carping about taxes and the omgforcedcharity thing.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Sam – careful, you are sounding like the Supreme Court in their Citizen’s United ruling.

    No. The government is not a person. The government is made of people. I often hear rhetoric which suggests the exact opposite, however, as if the government had no human element at all. People do not cease to be people when they start working for government — or through the government, as I have no doubt that some people, desiring to help their common fellow, deliberately sought out government positions where they would be able to do so. (Ideally, this is why the government exists. We know this is not 100% the case, but it is also not implausible.)

    If we expect the people in the government to take over our responsibility to feed the poor, clothe the naked, etc., what other Christian responsibilities can they handle for us? Can they declare our nation a Christian nation so that every American is then saved? Can we consider paying our taxes to them to be part (or more than all) of out tithes (or freewill offerings)?

    You are sending up red flags with these suggestions. They are not what Christianity is about — not to all of us, in any case. In no particular order, my objections:

    1) The government cannot declare a Christian nation whether we assign it a human element or not — not without drastic renovation of the first amendment.
    2) It is my belief that we are already all saved, American or not. Not all Christians believe as I do. I am not Christian and cannot speak for them. 3) It is my belief that tithing is a relic of the corrupt church of Aaron, but certainly I cannot speak as to whether a person will feel their obligations assuaged by “tithing” to the government through taxation. Taxes serve to finance several processes I consider necessary. Whether a hypothetical Christian government would consider taxation a form of tithing would depend on which specific denomination of Christianity was dominant and it spirals so far into the realm of speculation as to become meaningless.

    How is forcing everyone in the country to support poor people an act of Christian charity?

    Because Christianity repeatedly emphasizes a web of inescapable mutuality, and the government is the designated representation of the ties which bind us together. Christianity emphasizes the duty of those who are called to serve those who have heard nothing –

    You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

    How is expecting the taxes that non-Christians pay to the government to be used to help the poor supposed to be a part of me fulfilling the command of Christ?

    I cannot speak as to your relationship with Christ. If you do not feel satisfied by the actions of others, then act in a manner which satisfies yourself. As Jeremiah said, trusting entirely in others neglects your own soul, and as Jesus said, those who follow him will perform even greater works than he did.

    How does deflecting kingdom conduct onto the members of our government bring glory to God?

    You have slain this strawman thoroughly, but I do not think it has accomplished much.

  • Jeff Henderson

    See my response below.

  • Jeff Henderson

    What would a political association have to do with the situation we have been discussing? The point here is that the author of the article is using the same lousy methodology of misinterpreting the Bible as they complain about in the beginning of the article. I do not think the government should be an arm of the Christian church and Sam is focusing on the irrelevant, rhetorical questions I posed. Here is the problem. Someone might read the Onan story and conclude that Onan was denying his personal responsibility to care for his sister-in-law and passing that off to the community. That would be just as valid of an interpretation as the one proposed in the article. It would be just as wrong. Tea party members read the Bible and interpret a passage to fit their political agenda. Progressive Christians read the same passage and interpret it to fit their political agenda. Both are wrong.

    Squeezing and manipulating the Bible until it ejaculates one’s own political agenda is nothing but Biblical masturbation.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    The correct Biblical interpretation, of course, is the one which upholds your agenda.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    If we expect the people in the government to take over our responsibility to feed the poor, clothe the naked, etc…

    Who said anything about “take over”? To quote our host here (and I highly recommend the full post this comes from):

    And but so my point here is that responsibility to meet the needs of those in need is never an either-or situation. This responsibility is never exclusive. Yes, “Let the churches do it.” The churches must do it. It’s part of their job. But not only the churches. And let the government do it. The government(s) must do it. It’s part of their job. But not only the government(s). If either of those actors were left to handle this alone, they would be forced to go beyond their capacity, their competence and their proper bounds.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Considering I don’t even believe in the Bible as any kind of valid historical or religious text any more than I do the Torah, the Koran, et cetera, trying to hang that one on me won’t work.

    The government is the entity which “scales well” to the needs of the community. Churches do not scale well.

    By this I mean that the government:

    1. By its own law, must be impartial in dispensing aid and assistance to all who quality for it.

    Churches are denominational. That means they will give succour and support to their “own” first before anyone else gets to call on that support (cf. Jews, Atheists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, even other Christian sects i.e. Mormons, Catholics, etc)

    The government cannot pick and choose in this manner and that is to the good. First come, first serve and that shall be the whole of the matter. All are eligible by virtue of being human beings who lawfully reside in the community.

    2. Can adjust its resources as the demand for such aid rises and falls.

    If a church were suddenly swamped by a bunch of new peopl needing to call upon its resources, past a certain point the support network would simply collapse.

    But were the government to be swamped in such a way, all it needs to do is expand its spending and call on extra staff as needed to deal with the increased load.

  • Jeff Henderson

    No Sam, the correct Biblical interpretation most likely supports no political agenda. It is arrived at through proper use of hermeneutics and considers first-of-all what the text meant to the original audience – and I am sure the ancient Israelites would have failed to understand any of the proposed interpretations.

    My reading of the text is that we should care about our brother and fulfill our responsibilities to our brother and to others. How we fulfill those responsibilities is unclear from the text. Some might think they read the text to mean that we should use the government to do that, others might think they read the text to mean that we should do that individually.

    I think there are Christians on the left that sincerely believe we should do that through political agenda and an agenda of social reform for society. I also think there are Christians on the right that sincerely believe that the work of Christ is best done and people are helped when society gives them more opportunity to take care of themselves. I do not think either side should as a rule condemn the Christians on the other side. And I do not think either side should try to wrest scripture into supporting their own agenda.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    It is impossible for the Bible to serve no political agenda, because political agendas are held by human beings — the Bible’s authors and interpreters. Aside from which, the Bible itself takes a political stance at least once in commanding followers to obedience:

    Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

    Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and* *to praise those who do good.

  • Jeff Henderson

    My concern is not whether a government can or should take care of the poor. My concern is about the misuse of Scripture here, making it into a weapon to attack others.

    Your last paragraph is blatantly ridiculous. Why do you say the Church could be swamped but not a government? If it is just a matter of the government having more resources, then it would just be a matter of having similarly more needy people to swamp their support network? Why can’t the church expand its spending and call on extra staff? (And a good church does not go by the motto of support our own first.)

  • Jeff Henderson

    Wow how loving and Christ-like.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    For there to be so many people that the government could not care for its own there would need to be such high unemployment (>30%) that the first worry wouldn’t be the economic depression, it would be whether or not there’d be a revolution.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Because churches can’t raise taxes, enforce price controls, change regulations and laws, declare a state of emergency, mobilize the national guard or print their own money

  • Jeff Henderson

    “It is impossible for the Bible to serve no political agenda, because political agendas are held by human beings”

    By the same logic every book then must serve a political agenda, even cook books, since the authors and readers of those books hold political beliefs.

    A wrote B
    A reads B
    A has C
    Therefore B has C
    Bad logic

    And the very passage you cite shows that specific politics or policies were not part of Paul’s concern. Notice the passage from Romans does not state – “Let every person strive to get the government to . . .” It does not state “Let every person become active in working within the government to . . . ” Rather than being a passage to encourage political involvement – Paul was arguing for political acquiescence. So if the government is run by Republicans it is the duty of Christians to obey and if the government is run by Democrats it is the duty of Christians to obey. Now there is more to the NT and our life in and among the world than just that passage, but it hardly supports any particular political agenda. Once again I would say that both sides, honestly and sincerely believe that a government following their principles would “praise those who do good.”

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    The authors and readers of cookbooks do convey and interpret an agenda from a recipe. It may not be political, but it is very much subjective. The author writes the recipe they found noteworthy and readers might interpret it as instructions to be followed precisely or as guidelines to use as a model for further variation. It’s gobsmackingly vacuous to believe that a book of various laws and moral advice cannot be ascribed to have a bias coinciding with social and political thought. That the Bible happens to be have such a varied assortment of laws and moral codes and perspectives and stories just means that there are that many more possible interpretations of its intended meaning.

    Given that it has multiple authors of a variety of backgrounds, the answer as to the Bible’s intended bias is more likely to be “both” than “neither.” Or both and neither, and sometimes just flat out contradicting itself (such as the insistence that the laws of Moses will remain relevant for all time, even while Paul brushes aside their undying importance as a matter for those of weak faith with which to concern themselves).

    I suppose the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.

  • Madhabmatics

    wait so are you saying this doesn’t happen to you when you do it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=f-AGqz5RGhA#t=90

  • http://www.katav.co.uk/ John P McKeown

    Thanks Fred, well said. A few supplementary points come to mind.

    There was a third brother, Shelah, so if Onan had simply refused to help (and maybe got sandal shamed) then his father Judah could instead have asked Shelah to marry the widow and donate an heir for Er, but Onan’s deceit prevents that happening, so Onan is cutting off all hope of a son for Er.

    I agree that a son would help widow Tamar, but given ancient concern about proxy “immortality” by memorial and perpetuating a man’s name in genealogies, I think not helping his dead brother Er is an issue.

    Also, Onan deceived his father and that was a serious offence.

    Plus there is a greater issue in the background: the narrator says the Davidic royal line will come from Tamar, so Onan’s deceit obstructs a central divine purpose, the line leading to the future Messiah: that is a feature of Genesis 38 which is not applicable to fathers today (at least not for those who believe Messiah has now already been born).

    - derived from chapter 4 of
    http://katav.co.uk/chapters-christian-reproduction/

  • http://scoop.it/t/secular-curated-news-views Secular Antitheist Liberal

    Great article. Saved to Evernote. ;)

    The whole purpose of GOPTP bullshit is the hatred of the secular safety net where you get help without bowing down to the unquestioned authority of Big Brother Jehovah.

    scoop.it/t/secular-curated-news-views

  • Jeff Henderson

    Misogyny means “hatred of women” and is not a synonym for ‘irony’ or ‘mistake’ or whatever you were thinking it meant. Try to use words you know when you write.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    What’s ironic about erasing Onan’s victim and calling his sin self-abuse? Where’s the irony in reducing the woman in the story to at best an extention of her new husband? No, I used the right word.


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