I have written about the issue of Onan and contraception five times:
Bible vs. Contraception: Onan’s Sin and Punishment [National Catholic Register, 5-30-17]
It was brought up again today on my blog that the late Steve Hays, a Reformed anti-Catholic apologist, made a “response” to me regarding this issue in a post dated 1-10-07. It depends on what one means by “response.” He utterly ignored my extensive exegesis of the passage, and cited one Jewish commentary with a contrary opinion. In my book that is not a proper reply or rebuttal at all, because it ignored my argumentation. And in no way, shape, or form, is that either a dialogue or a debate. It’s “ships passing in the night.”
If a middle school debating club had tried that tactic, the participants would have gotten a failing mark in the debating class. It’s elementary. The true and effective debater is supposed to know the opponent’s position better than he knows it himself, and to take that knowledge and thoroughly refute it. But Hays exhibits no knowledge at all of what I argued.
It appears that I did reply underneath this post from Steve Hays. Now, it indicates a “blocked post.” But then Steve commented and interacted a bit with my own comments, which appear to have been made on his blog (likely — judging from past experience — not citing all of my words). His words will be in blue:
Big wow. I’m on record repeatedly saying the text had to do with both the levirate law and contraception.”
This is a throwaway argument. He admits what he cannot deny—that the text is dealing with levirate law—but then attempts to disarm this factor as key to the penalty, which he reassigns to contraception, per se.
But after his tentative admission above, he seems to contradict himself…First it isn’t clear, then it is. Which is it, then?
No, Sarna doesn’t contradict himself. Dave is quoting Sarna out of context. V10, considered in isolation, is unclear, but when considered in relation to levirate marriage in extrabiblical sources as well as the Mosaic law, we can clearly rule out contraception, per se, as the capital offense.
He does not interpret v10 in a vacuum. What is unclear in isolation is clearer “in the development of the narrative” along with the “unusual emphasis given to the particular socio-legal background,” &c.
I have the history of both Christian and Jewish moral teaching and exegesis of the Onan passage on my side; he does not.
This is irrelevant to original intent when exegeting a text from the Bronze Age.
Also, Sarna does appeal to Jewish tradition: Genesis Rabba.
I think this is significant, but ahistorical types don’t care about it.
False dichotomy. Dave is guilty of imposing an ahistorical interpretation on the text by ripping it out of its historical setting.
It’s anachronistic to interpret a text from the ANE era in light of post-Biblical developments.
I happen to believe that the Holy Spirit has been active during all the centuries of the Church, not just presently, or from 1517 onwards.
Irrelevant. The Holy Spirit was active in the inspiration of Gen 38. Moses wrote to be understood by his target audience.
Based on what you cited, the influence of ‘contemporary Jewish scholars’ will almost certainly involve a liberal bias.
What it will involve, in what I quoted, is an interaction between “over twenty centuries of traditional Jewish exegesis” and contemporary Biblical archeology, comparative Semitics, &c.
We all extrapolate and deduce according to our worldview when it isn’t possible to not do so, given the inconclusive vagueness of a biblical text.
Which, once again, is not what Sarna said about the passage. There’s a distinction and interrelation between text (e.g. Gen 38:10 or 38:6-11), cotext (e.g. Lev 18; 20; Deut 25), and context (ANE custom of levirate marriage).
Steve again “responded” on this issue to myself and fellow Catholic apologist Scott Windsor, on 2-28-14. I replied on Facebook on the same day. I will now transfer that reply here to my blog:
He has ignored me for quite a while. But now he is making the same stupid, false statements again (his stock-in-trade):
Evangelical converts to Catholicism like [Scott] Windsor and Dave Armstrong resort to traditional prooftexting. A more sophisticated Catholic apologist would skip the fanciful prooftexting and justify his denomination’s teaching by appealing to the theory of development as well as attempting to mount a natural law argument. As is typical of evangelical converts to Rome, Windsor is out of touch with Catholic scholarship on his locus classicus. This, again, betrays the fact that apologists like Windsor and Armstrong remain outsiders to their adopted denomination.
Now, it has been fashionable among twentieth-century exegetes to maintain that in these verses the Bible condemns Onan’s coitus interruptus only insofar as it in effect violated the so-called levirate marriage custom endorsed by the law of Moses at a time when polygamy was not forbidden. According to this ancient oriental practice, a man – whether he was already married or not – was expected to marry his deceased brother’s wife if she was still childless at her husband’s death; and the first-born son of this union was then regarded as a legal descendant of the dead man. In other words, according to those exegetes who focus their attention exclusively on this custom in their reading of Genesis 38, Onan’s sin is presented here as consisting only in his selfish intent to deny offspring to his brother’s widow Tamar, and not even partly in the unnatural method he employed in doing so. . . .
*The classical Jewish commentators – who can scarcely be accused of ignorance regarding Hebrew language, customs, law, and biblical literary genres – certainly saw in this passage of Scripture a condemnation of both unnatural intercourse and masturbation as such. A typical traditional Jewish commentary puts it thus: “[Onan] misused the organs God gave him for propagating the race to unnaturally satisfy his own lust, and he was therefore deserving of death.” And this is undoubtedly in accord with the natural impression which most unprejudiced readers will draw from the text of Genesis 38. . . .
*Indeed, a further problem faces this conventional modern reading of the passage. 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). . . .*Our commentary on this passage can now be summarized. The cumulative weight of the evidence – the structure and sexual explicitness of the text itself and the much greater severity of Onan’s punishment than that prescribed for levirate marriage infringements in Deuteronomy 25:5-6 – leads us to conclude that while Genesis 38:9-10 very probably includes disapproval of Onan’s lack of piety toward his deceased brother, it is nonetheless the unnatural sex act in itself which is presented as the most gravely sinful aspect of this man’s treatment of Tamar – the aspect for which God cut short his life. (“The Sin of Onan Revisited,” Nov. 1996)
Summary: The late Reformed anti-Catholic apologist Steve Hays made a pretense of “responding” to my lengthy exegetical arguments about Onan, but did no such thing.
[from my comments on Steve Hays’ blog on 1-11-07 and a revision of my Facebook post from 2-28-14]