Bible vs. Contraception: Onan’s Sin and Punishment

Bible vs. Contraception: Onan’s Sin and Punishment March 7, 2014
The number of births per thousand people in the United States. The blue segment represents the Baby Boomers. Image by “Nwbeeson.” [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




[note: this is an adult article about sexual morality, and contains somewhat graphic — though not vulgar — descriptions, due to the particular subject matter. On that basis, it may be considered “PG-13”]
* * * * *

The constant tradition of the Catholic Church has been to prohibit artificial contraception. In this we seem to be almost alone today. Yet, historically speaking, all Christian groups opposed contraception altogether until the Anglicans decided in 1930 to allow it for “hard cases” (how sadly familiar that reasoning sounds!).

It’s often thought that the Catholic reasoning behind the prohibition stems from a sort of “anti-sex” or “anti-pleasure” or prudish motivation. The Catholic Church supposedly doesn’t “like” sex, so it requires priests and nuns to be celibate, and seeks to take as much pleasure as possible out of the wondrous divine gift of sexuality. This is untrue, but suffice it for now to say that the relevant biblical arguments have been used by Protestants as well, and stand on their own.

This scriptural basis is perhaps seen most clearly in the passage concerning the sin of Onan (Genesis 38:9-10, RSV):

. . . when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. [10] And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also.

The reasoning often used to overcome the force of the passage is to say that Onan was punished by God (with death) for disobeying the “levirate law,” whereby a brother of a dead husband was to take his sister-in-law as his wife and have children with her (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

But that can’t apply in this case (or any other) because the law allows the brother to refuse and recommends that the one who does so suffer only public humiliation. Thus we find in Deuteronomy 25:9 that a sister-in-law so refused should “spit in his face,” but there is no mention of any wrath from God , let alone the death penalty.

Moreover, the passage which teaches about the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) is directly from God, as part of the covenant and the Law received by Moses on Mt. Sinai, and proclaimed to all of Israel (see Deuteronomy 5:1-5; 29:1, 12). God Himself did not say that the punishment for disobeying the levirate law was death (in the place where it would be expected if it were true).

If refusal alone was not grounds to be killed by God or by capital punishment issued by his fellows, then there must have been something in the way Onan refused which was the cause. This was the “withdrawal method,” a form of contraception (probably the one most used throughout history, because it requires no devices or potions). Therefore, Onan was killed for doing that, which in turn means (we can reasonably conclude!) that God didn’t approve of it.

The levirate law itself confirms the central point on which the moral objection to contraception is based: the evil of separating sex from procreation. It is precisely because the primary purpose of marriage is procreation, that the levirate law was present in the first place. If one married, they were to have sexual relations, which was (foremost) for the purpose of having children.

If a husband died with no children, it was so important to continue his name with offspring that God commanded the man’s brother to take his wife after he died. But Onan tried to separate sex from procreation. He wanted all the pleasure but not the responsibility of perpetuating his brother’s family. He possessed the “contraceptive mentality” which is rampant today, even (sadly) among otherwise traditional, committed Christians.

Fr. Brian Harrison wrote an excellent Internet article (“The Sin of Onan Revisited,” Nov. 1996), in which he examined the passage in great exegetical depth, with incorporation of pertinent cross-texting. He states:

If simple refusal to give legal offspring to his deceased brother were, according to Genesis 38, Onan’s only offence, it seems extremely unlikely that the text would have spelt out the crass physical details of his contraceptive act (cf. v. 9). The delicacy and modesty of devout ancient Hebrews in referring to morally upright sexual activity helps us to see this. As is well-known, Scripture always refers to licit (married) intercourse only in an oblique way: “going in to” one’s wife, (i.e., entering her tent or bedchamber, cf. vv. 8 and 9 in the Genesis text cited above, as well as Gen. 6:4; II Sam. 16:22; I Chron. 23:7) or “knowing” one’s spouse (e.g., Gen. 4:17; Luke 1:34). When the language becomes somewhat more explicit – “lying with” someone, or “uncovering [his/her] nakedness” – the reference is without exception to sinful, shameful sexual acts. And apart from the verse we are considering, the Bible’s only fully explicit mention of a genital act (the voluntary emission of seed) is in a prophetical and allegorical context wherein Israel’s infidelity to Yahweh is being denounced scathingly in terms of the shameless lust of a harlot (Ez. 23:20). . . .

The evil of the contraceptive act stems from its willful, unnatural separation of what God intended to be together. It violates natural law. Onan tried the “middle way” (and the “modern way”) of having sex but willfully separating procreation from it. This was the sin, and it’s why God killed him.

Obviously, God is not immediately punishing or judging in this fashion today (or if so, only in the very rarest of cases), but the point of the Old Testament was to make clear what was right and wrong, and to punish evil swiftly and decisively. Therefore, we learn from this passage that contraception is quite gravely sinful and forbidden; and this general principle of morality didn’t change with the arrival of the new covenant and Christianity.

* * * * *
"Yeah... Also, whether or not someone needs to rebut what was clearly a one-off insult ..."

Atheist Bob Seidensticker: Intellectual Coward (My ..."
"Yeah ... like what Let me give you three which I think atheism lack any ..."

Atheist Bob Seidensticker: Intellectual Coward (My ..."
"A trillion seconds is rather longer than it's been since the invention of agriculture. So, ..."

Atheist Bob Seidensticker: Intellectual Coward (My ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Great post Mr. Armstrong

    Nice to see a good "in context" post of that passage.

  • Thanks much!

  • What one man considers "extremely unlikely", another man thinks likely. Lots of stuff in the bible "seems extremely unlikely".

    In any case, what is the history of this interpretation? It smells a bit of after the fact justification to me. Do Jews agree with this interpretation?

  • Jerome said it was the levirate obligation that was the sin and Augustine said it was coitus interruptus. I believe they were both incorrect….Jerome because the later punishment was light for that offense as you noted; Augustine because the later law doesn't mention any great punishment for coitus interruptus which might…might be at issue in Leviticus 15:16-18 but compare the Douay Rheims to the NAB. The former leans toward coitus interruptus being punished by being unclean til evening and the seed is to land not on dirt but on leather or cloth.
    The NAB has verse 18 as a separate act on perhaps another day while the DR which generally follows the Vulgate, has all three verses involved in one act of two people.
    If it wasn't either sin mentioned by the two Fathers what was it? Are any of you aware that God was trying to get Christ's next ancestor out of these three sons of Judah because God willed Christ to come from the House of Judah which was Judah and his three sons. God had to kill any son then that didn't honor the levirate obligation not because it was so important but because in this one case…honoring it was critical to Christ coming from the House of Judah. God kills both Er and Onan for thus risking the non appearance of Christ. Check the Bible for intimate killings by God. They are not for sex (David was not killed…his son was for several sins and sacrilege us in there because Uriah had become sacred to God by refusing to leave the ark…unlike the 72 descendants of Jeconiah whom God killed for refusing to greet the ark) but God kills for sacrilege even when unintended as in Uzzah's case when he tried to prevent the ark from falling. NT…when us the one time Christ gets violent? Sex? No….the money changers were defiling and taking the space reserved for the gentile prayer. Who does God intimately kill in Acts..,Ananias and Saphirra for lying to the Holy Spirit ( chap.5) and Herod for letting the people call him god ( chap.12).
    I know this is new to you Dave but think on these things as time goes by. No one changes overnight on the internet. Review all intimate not mass killings by God in the Bible….they are for sacrilege only. Jerome and other saints were against contraception without needing Augustine's take on Onan.
    God kills Achan for stealing the gold of Jericho set aside to be dedicated to God ; kills the sons of Heli for using the priesthood to get carnal things for themselves; kills Dathan and Abiram for revolting against Moses; kills by bears the 42 children who mocked a known prophet, Eliseus; has Jehu kill the House of Ahab and Jezebel for persecuting the real prophets.
    Onan whether wittingly or unwittingly was risking the non appearance of Christ whose ancestor became the child from Tamar's seduction of Judah who thought he was fornicating with a whore. God killed neither Tamar for incest nor Judah for whoring…killed neither one.

  • Contraception is not "sex" but rather, an unlawful, unnatural, sinful use of sexuality.

  • Bill has a very good point,

    Sorry that you can't address it Dave.

    And Bill has a very good question- 'if it wasn't coitus interruptus or levirate obligation, what sin was it?'

    This is where I insist that it could be numerous other sins. Sins that I outline in my comments on Steve Hays recent response.

    Those sins include abusing his sister-in-law, abusing a genetic privilege and defrauding other suitors.
    But first and foremost it could be for dishonoring his father!
    He lied to his father and merely lied with his sister-in-law.
    The wasting of his seed was the fulfillment of that lie- just as the eating of the forbidden fruit was the fulfillment of original sin.
    Adam and Eve dishonored their Father in the garden. Onan dishonored his father in a somewhat different garden of delights.
    Again, the fruit was not the issue. It was not Onan's dishonoring of his sperm. It was Onan's contemptuous spitting on his fathers seed (not unlike Ham's metaphoric spitting on his fathers nudity).
    Is this not enough to warrant capital punishment?
    Do we take the fifth commandment so lightly 'that our days may be long upon this earth'? -Exodus 20:12

  • Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament

    Judah then wished Onan, as the brother-in-law, to marry the childless widow of his deceased brother, and raise up seed, i.e., a family, for him. But as he knew that the first-born son would not be the founder of his own family, but would perpetuate the family of the deceased and receive his inheritance, he prevented conception when consummating the marriage by spilling the semen. ארצה שׁחת, “destroyed to the ground (i.e., let it fall upon the ground), so as not to give seed to his brother” (נתן for תּת only here and Numbers 20:21). This act not only betrayed a want of affection to his brother, combined with a despicable covetousness for his possession and inheritance, but was also a sin against the divine institution of marriage and its object, and was therefore punished by Jehovah with sudden death.;=38

  • Observe how Martin Luther interpreted this biblical passage:


    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 an evil deed. Therefore God punished him . . . That worthless fellow . . . preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.

    (Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44; 1544; LW, 7, 20-21)

    John Calvin, in his Commentary on Genesis is no less vehemently opposed to the practice:


    I will contend myself with briefly mentioning this, as far as the sense of shame allows to discuss it. It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is double horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family, and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born. This wickedness is now as severely as is possible condemned by the Spirit, through Moses, that Onan, as it were, through a violent and untimely birth, tore away the seed of his brother out the womb, and as cruel as shamefully has thrown on the earth. Moreover he thus has, as much as was in his power, tried to destroy a part of the human race. When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime. Onan was guilty of a similar crime, by defiling the earth with his seed, so that Tamar would not receive a future inheritor.

  • The article on Onan in The New Bible Dictionary written by the editor, J. D. Douglas, states:

    "Onan . . . took steps to avoid a full consummation of the union, thus displeasing the Lord, who slew him."

    (p. 910)

    Douglas appears to contend that Onan was killed for the contraceptive act, not disobedience to the levirate law. If so, his opinion contradicts the view expressed in the other article by J.S. Wright and J.A. Thompson. The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary concurs:

    ". . . whenever Onan and Tamar had intercourse he would spill his sperm on the ground to prevent her from conceiving; for this the Lord slew him.

    "Onan’s tactic of withdrawing before ejaculation . . . costs him his life."

    (pp. 781, 653)

    In its article on “Levirate Law,” we are also informed that “the brother had the option of refusing to take his sister-in-law in levirate marriage (p. 652).

    Matthew Henry decries “the great abuse of his own body” and “sins that dishonour the body and defile it” which “are very displeasing to God and evidences of vile affections.” John Wesley actually quotes Henry, adds that Onan was abusing his wife, and concludes with this powerful condemnation:

    "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."

  • Jerome

    "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?" (Against Jovinian 1:19 [A.D. 393]).

    "You may see a number of women who are widows before they are wives. Others, indeed, will drink sterility and murder a man not yet born, [and some commit abortion]" (Letters 22:13 [A.D. 396]).

    Clement of Alexandria

    "Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted" (The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 [A.D. 191]).

    "To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature" (ibid., 2:10:95:3).


    "[Some] complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children, as though, in truth, their means were in [their] power . . . or God did not daily make the rich poor and the poor rich. Wherefore, if any one on any account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from relations with his wife" (Divine Institutes6:20 [A.D. 307]).

    "God gave us eyes not to see and desire pleasure, but to see acts to be performed for the needs of life; so too, the genital [’generating’] part of the body, as the name itself teaches, has been received by us for no other purpose than the generation of offspring" (ibid., 6:23:18).

    Council of Nicaea I

    "[I]f anyone in sound health has castrated himself, it behooves that such a one, if enrolled among the clergy, should cease [from his ministry], and that from henceforth no such person should be promoted. But, as it is evident that this is said of those who willfully do the thing and presume to castrate themselves, so if any have been made eunuchs by barbarians, or by their masters, and should otherwise be found worthy, such men this canon admits to the clergy" (Canon 1 [A.D. 325]).

    Epiphanius of Salamis

    "They [certain Egyptian heretics] exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption" (Medicine Chest Against Heresies 26:5:2 [A.D. 375]).

  • Dave,
    What you proved is that writers within western civilization followed Augustine ( many at least) on Onan….not that any of them make sense. Aquinas followed him on several sex related issues that the Church rejects now from both men. Keep in mind that Augustine had wounds from years of sexual sin which wounds do not necessarily vanish with forgiveness of sin. No.1…Aquinas copied Augustine on the venial sin nature of asking for the debt when procreation is not willed…rejected by the Church in its acceptance in 1853 of using the non fertile periods with serious reasons ( "grave" is from an Pius XII address…"serious" is from Humanae Vitae). No.2…Aquinas copied Augustine on Mary contracting original sin but being cleansed of it prior to birth…a sexual error again, he said Mary contracted it because it is transmitted by pleasurable concupiscence…later Trent and the present catechism said it is transmitted by propagation not concupiscence and No.3…both men were corrected by the encyclical on the Immaculate Conception on Mary contracting it at all.
    For anorher sexual reason…his past arguing with Monica, Augustine misinterpreted Christ's words to Mary at Cana at the wine request as negative in the sense of reluctance coupled with putting her in her place. But Mary heard an immediate yes and so instructed the servants. The result is that 95% of Bible translations in English have Christ talking rude to Mary in Jn.2:4 whereas only the Vulgate, Young's Literal, and the Douay Rheims have His non rude real literal words…." what to me and to thee" a rare biblical idiom used by David to Abishai, Eliseus to the three kings IN A PRESAGE OF THE CANA MIRACLE ( water appears red to the Moabites) and a demon uses it in talking to Christ respectfully and fearfully.
    So I know well that many followed Augustine. I'm glad Miguel Miguens, a tiny Catholic author finally saw through the Cana mistake and when you hear the awful NAB sense for sense translation in the Mass, remember the literal Vulgate instead. Christ was actually reassuring Mary that his hour to be arrested was not near if he did the water to wine miracle there that night. Mary was worried that if she forced Him into a miracle…His and her passion would not be far
    off. Christ reassured her…with the words from the water blood miracle of 2 Kings..,"What to me and to thee"…. Eliseus's words to the three kings.

  • Mark Allen,
    The Church actually rejects some of your quotes now when She accepted the use of the non fertile periods.
    Some early saints ingested the Stoic position that sex is only virtuous during willed procreation. If you are perspicacious, you can find which lines in your quotes actually came from the late Stoics. Here for example is Musonius Rufus:
    Lecture XII-2: " Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage."
    The Church departed from that Stoic position that is found in the early saints when it affirmed the use of the non fertile periods for serious reasons.
    I laugh when I see priests like Fr. Hardon using your list because it's anachronistic and Humanae Vitae rejects several of your saints WHEN THEY ARE quoting the Stoics…who by the way…affirmed infanticide and in some cases fathers executing preteens.

  • Dave…ps…. the nab is not all awful but it is at jn2:4. the Douay Rheims translated Eliseus' words to the three kings incorrectly so one needs the vulgate to see Eliseus using the " what to me and to you"…. at that spot which is critical because it seems that Christ and Mary had discussed the miraculous water in 2 Kings looking like blood in conjunction with Eliseus using the idiom. At Cana Christ was actually reassuring Mary He would not be arrested quickly as a "worker of wonders" with the idiom from the water to blood event of .2 Kings.

  • Hey Mr. Bannon!

    Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I was not aware of such changes made by the Church. Have to admit, I'm always learning something new and I really do appreciate you providing feedback, as it gives me something to go back and research.
    One of the beauties of dialogue.

    Take Care and God Bless

  • Mark,
    You're welcome.

  • What an excellent encouragement for early marriage! As soon as a boy begins to orgasm, even before he emits semen, he becomes subject to the temptation to seek climax. What better honoring of apostle Paul's command, "To avoid fornication (all sexual sin), let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband." And, "I say therefore to the unmarried…, it is good for them to abide even as I (sexually continent). But if they cannot contain [their sexual urges], let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn [with sexual passion].
    Even though the young unmarried boys' sexual tension will automatically discharge periodically, is it not better that their semen all go into their wives?
    Should not the girls marry when their sexual characteristics begin to develop, before they cast their first unfertilized egg out? They likewise will benefit from what is contemptuously called "child marriage." The ancients considered a girl a woman when she had her first menstrual discharge at the latest, and more when she began to grow breasts and pubic hair. A boy was considered a man when he first emitted semen, that is, when he first demonstrated his ability to impregnate a girl.
    Sure would avoid a lot of fornication, a scourge of delayed marriage and extended childhood.

  • The problem here is that in ancient times, puberty came later, and marriage was earlier. So there wasn't an extended period of sexual tension, post-puberty and pre-marriage.

    But physical maturity is not the same as emotional maturity. I believe it's quite possible to be chaste before marriage, even in our crazy post sexual revolution times, where sex is the idol and Golden Calf of multiple millions of people.

    Millions have in fact done it. It's entirely possible, with proper education and avoidance of certain situations and influences.

    The secular myth is that it is impossible to do. But the difficult thing is not necessarily impossible. With God's grace all things are possible, and we can do all things through Him Who strengthens us.

    The Christian either takes God at His word and believes Him, or does not. I believe, because I have seen the power and the results in my own life and that of many other serious Christians.

    We're not just animals, who have no sexual control. We are intelligent, rational, spiritual beings, who can control our lives, including avoiding sin, by God's grace, insofar as we allow Him to operate in us, and follow His will.