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.




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  • frazer

    A terrific reading. Thanks.

  • axelbeingcivil

    I love the Slacktivist. There’s so little reason for me to usually comment here, as I usually find myself agreeing with most anything said, but the writing quality, the research, the work, the spirit in which it is written… I love everything you do. Keep it up, for the good of us all.

  • SergeantHeretic

    Well, Fred has done it again. From now on I shall referre to Teabagger selfishnish and downpunching at the poor as “Republican Onanism.” Fred has preached us a good sermon on the passage of the story of Onan. I found it spiritualy uplifting and properly convicting of the attitudes and opinions he speaks on.
    Onan was not only rejecting his godly duty to care for his brother’s wife and insure she would not starve, he was screwing her and then taking styeps to make sure that after he had his fun she would still be out i nthe cold. That attitude right there is Rethuglican Teabagger selfishness and downpunching to a “T”! Fred, as you so often say, That’ll preach!

  • Vermic

    On a side issue, I have always been deeply weirded out by “self-abuse” as euphemism for masturbation. That’s pretty much the opposite of the goal! Adolescents: if that thing you find yourself doing these days (yes, we know you’re doing it and it’s fine) feels anything like “abuse” after you’re finished, maybe check wikiHow because you’re probably doing it wrong.

  • Vermic

    Biblically speaking, tea partiers are both Onanists and Sodomites. This amuses me more than I can say.

  • AnonaMiss

    (unless you’re into that)

  • You’ve been on fire lately, huh?

  • “Don’t spread my wealth; spread my work ethic”

    Yes, all those damn lazy single parents working three jobs and still unable to afford all the necessities of life are lacking WORK ETHIC. You ignorant asshole.

  • And they’re all white people, too. (-_-)

    I bet all of them, in their own minds, actually work hard and provide for their families, when in reality, half of them are retired already and have a pension from the glory days of the fifties and sixties and seventies when having access to one was the rule, not the exception, and the other half fuck off all day at their jobs browsing their little Tea Bagger web forums and fulminating about lazy blah people.

  • lampwick

    Dorothy Parker named her parakeet Onan because he “spilled his seed upon the ground.”

  • 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.

    That’s okay. In Exodus, God gives Moses a command to honor Shavout and Sukkot. Apparently Shavout celebrates God giving the Israelites the Torah — which has yet to be written at the time stated in Exodus, while Sukkot represents the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years — which has yet to happen at the time stated in Exodus.

    Obligatory reference to Teavangelicals being martyrbators.

  • To hell with that noise. I want to give them my work ethic. I had a job where I had to work steadily and with constant concentration for 90 hours a week — for a paycheck of $125. I’d love to see some senators take up that torch.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    I can’t get over the misogyny of twisting Onan’s sin into masturbation.

    “…Jack the Ripper remains a notorious villain to this day, his name synonymous with his crime. And that, kids, is why you shouldn’t litter.”

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    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,
    Again, “takers and moochers” (as opposed to the more common form “mooches”) is not so much Onanism as Objectivism. A philosophy of Utter Selfishness.
    That said, I’ve known a couple Tea Party types and they’re not some sort of Grinning Objectivists. Whether they’re being used by organizers and higher-ups is one thing, but most Tea Party sympathizers I’ve encountered seem to be ordinary types who are just Fed Up with Business As Usual. (Again, they may be being used or manipulated by others with a different agenda, but the rank-and-file strike me as nothing more sinister or conspiratorial than just being Fed Up with Business As Usual.)

  • WingedBeast

    I really want her to be outside my house with that sign so I can paint one and counterprotest with “If you want a better work ethic, develop a better pay ethic.”

  • Tim

    Very interesting. And, very good points…Well done.

  • Julie

    I note that this article made Fark today. At least it’s on the politics tab.

  • J_Enigma32

    My usual response is something along the lines of:

    Why would we do that? If poor people stopped working, the economy would collapse.

  • Rakka

    Who needs linear time in their mythology, right?

  • LL


  • We Must Dissent

    Wow. I finally have a use for this bit of etymological trivia: “masturbation” comes through French from Latin, where it is thought to derive from “defile with the hand”, though there’s no direct proof. A competing theory is that it means “defile the penis”. As is often the case in English, the Latinate synonym sounds classier but means the same thing.

  • And that is why we call it “Jacking off”

  • geoff

    LOVED the violent femmes reference… Well played Sir!!!

  • So if I’m reading Fred right here, he’s saying that the Tea Party is a bunch of wankers.

  • MaryKaye

    Scarleteen has some great how-to information as well. Highly recommended. Also great anatomy maps, if you’re unsure where your or your partner’s various parts might be (and dispelling some illusions about how female parts “typically” look–they are amazingly diverse).

  • MaryKaye

    No, that would be an insult to wanking, which is harmless and fun.

  • Scarlet

    Hey, not just for adolescents. Many adults partake in this, even those in loving, committed relationships. I really can’t begin to understand this shaming culture we have about it OTHER than the possible idea that children are stealing their own innocence? I think it has more to do with parents unable to come to terms with their children becoming adults.

    Also, not just for guys. Yes, women do it, too.

  • I think the point of addressing adolescents was that adults usually know better than to worry about it, and if they don’t, we probably can’t reach them anyway. It’s the teens who need to hear this. Certainly not that adults don’t do it.

  • cm47

    Thanks for this message, It was so interesting and so meaningful ti me.

  • banancat

    Also, surely I’m not the only one who finds it dehumanizing to equate this story with masturbation (for men) because essentially that opinion holds that a woman is no different than a hand.

  • Steve Zissou

    I laughed so hard when I got to the “HWSWPO” piece.

    An excellent dissection.

  • Lorehead

    You can’t get a complete picture of the duty to take care of a childless widow without also reading the book of Ruth.

  • William_C_Diaz

    Quite possibly the best thing I have read all week and a refreshing change from the blatant misuse of scripture like II Thessalonians, another biblical injunction used to screw the poor.

    Have a great day!

  • Rhubarbarian82

    I’d have counter-protested with a sign saying “It’s okay if you spread my wealth a bit,” but I was busy with work and didn’t have time to stand around all day holding a sign.

  • Mary

    The book of Ruth is also about racism, which is lost on most of us today since we lack the context of when it was written. This was during a time where the Jews were arguing for an “ethnic cleansing”. Not in the violent sense but basically anyone who did not have a pure blood line was suspect. The reasons for this was because they were going through some hard times and figured that God was punishing them for marrying foreigners. At the end of the story was the kicker..Ruth the foreigner was a predecessor to King David,

    It is hard to say how much of the story was true since it was written sometime after King David came into power, but it apparently was a good commentary on the political situation at the time and made some people think. Before I read about this I found the story to be a bit odd, since she didn’t seem to be an important character in the Bible.

  • Mary

    The Teapartiers and the repubs are both responsible for turning me into a die-hard liberal. I am legimately disabled and I paid into social security disability just like everyone else. But now I am a “leech” and get regularly bashed on by these people. Common sense is completely lacking as it is “lynch first and ask questions later.” I have been called all sorts of vile names and one guy had the audacity to say if you are not paralysed then you can work. Well guess what? There are paralysed people that can work and non-paralysed who can’t! Someone who is paralysed from the waste down can get a wheel-chair and special accomadations at work. Someone who is not paralysed can have a disease which makes it impossible to know how one is going to feel day to day. I am in that catagory. I cannot get a regular nine to five job because I would get fired probably within the first week! I am exhausted and in pain most of the time and I am slow as molasses. I am so foggy that I can’t remember things and in fact it even shows here with all of my mispellings. I have had people tell me that I could at least be a typist. Exactly how am I supposed to do that if I can’t even remember how to spell? And no spell-check doesn’t fix everything! I can’t be a receptionist because I cannot even focus on talking with people on the phone and I have to ask them to repeat things. Five minutes later I couldn’t tell you what they said.

    I have no use for people like that. Any conservative who even dares to go against the prevailing mood is labeled a “traitor” It used to be that the parties at least made some attempt to work together but not anymore. Helping people is not a sin and receiving help isn’t either. When people claim that it is better to get help from your family instead of the government, they are completely delusional. Should I rely on my 85 year old Dad who has to worry about his financial future? What about other family members that have no jobs and are in fact getting help from my Dad?

    These “God-fearing” Tea-Partiers have nothing at all in common with what Jesus taught. They should be ashamed of themselves, but rarely are.

  • Lorehead

    It’s still a unique piece of social history from whenever it was written, particularly since it’s told from the women’s perspective in a culture that so often regarded women as beneath mention.

    When I was younger, I once got into a discussion with a Fundamentalist who insisted that Eve must be alive and the Whore of Babylon because the Bible said when all the men died, but not her. In fact, the genealogies usually mention women only when literally forced to, such as when an Egyptian son-in-law inherited through a daughter. One reason behind this might possibly be how many of the cases we do know of were intermarriages, and therefore listing only the men hid just how many of the ancestors of the wealthy and powerful were from outside the tribe.

    For a Christian, there’s another twist to it: David is said in the Gospels to be the ancestor of Jesus; and thus, anyone who insists on so-called racial purity rejects not only David, but Jesus.

  • Matri

    I find it funnier that the lady who is holding up that sign isn’t currently at the office, doing work.

    Do as you say, not as you do.

  • Greg Robertson

    So is Onan keeping to the Biblical view of marriage? He can have another wife? Some use this passage to condemn contraception, but that is a crazy reading of the text. And besides, this applied to the ANCIENT HEBREWS, not to modern day society.

  • Albanaeon

    Hmm… Given that Americans in general are working too much for not enough pay, maybe we *should* give her “work ethic” a try.

    I think it may be time for some constructive laziness to invade America. Particularly if all we are doing is enriching the already too rich.

  • J. S. Owens

    Thanks for the sermon idea. I am so going to rock this in a couple of weeks.

  • Lorehead

    I have no reason to doubt that they do have a work ethic, but they sure don’t look to me as if they do hard manual labor for minimum wage or less.

  • Mary

    As I understand it, this is the Catholic justification against birth control. But you are right that is a crazy reading of the text as it referes to a custom long gone. I blame this misreading by many popes for a lot of the overpopulation and poverty that exists in many Catholic countries. The main reason why we have illegals coming into this country is not because they want to be “leeches” but because they can’t support their families. I occasionally go south of the border and have seen people begging in the streets. One time I saw a pregnant woman with two other kids begging for money.

    What is scary is that there seems to be a move by conservatives in this country to discourage or even ban birth control in this country. We already have enough problems with poverty in this country and this would make it worse. Maybe we aren’t like Mexico but without contraception we could become like them.

  • Carstonio

    The confusing part of Fred’s reading is that Onan wasn’t being ordered to marry his sister-in-law, but simply to impregnate her. Would any readers of the time automatically assume that marriage would be involved? Is marriage what “perform the duties of a brother-in-law” meant?

    If I read Fred correctly, the OT authors may have recognized the injustice of childless widows lacking any safety net other than remarriage to brothers-in-law. While marrying his sister-in-law would have been the right thing for Onan to do, I maintain that it shouldn’t have been necessary. Gregory Maguire’s “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” confronts the injustice of such societies more forthrightly. Women were generally barred from work where they could support themselves and had no personhood or legal standing, so they could only survive by marrying. Hard to imagine that any rule like that would have served the common good in some way.

  • While not being spelled out as such, scholars equate Onan’s obligation with that of levirate marriage.

  • Deuteronomy 25:5 says it more explicitly.

  • Carstonio

    Except that it doesn’t name Onan specifically. It’s reasonable to infer from both Genesis and Deuteronomy that Onan was being ordered to marry his sister-in-law. But it’s still an inference, and it may be less obvious to readers who lack non-Bible knowledge about the ancient culture. While it may be unlikely that Onan was being ordered only to impregnante, it’s still possible.

  • *Nods* There’s a lot of examples of reverse inference in the Bible. I still firmly believe that Jacob wrestled with YHWH and not an angel, because I don’t buy into the explanation that it must have been an angel because (1) he used magic but couldn’t be God because (2) no man has seen the face of God and lived.

  • banancat

    And to prove your point further, the Teapartiers and similar have made a social situation where it is necessary to qualify disabled with “legitimately”.

  • Mary

    Well I feel like telling some of these people that while Jesus commanded the lame to walk it was ONLY because he healed them first! (lol).

    Seriously though not being able to work is hard and there are times when I end up in tears over it so as much as I want to have goodwill towards others there are times when I wish they could go through JUST ONE WEEK of what I go through and combine it with the feeling of them not knowing if they will ever get better.