The Onan Incident

I'm going to jump ahead in the LCR document to point #9, which is the most direct condemnation of family planning in Scripture.

9. The Bible exhibits the wrath of God upon those who defy His will (Gen. 38:8-10; Exod. 21:22; Rom. 1:18).

Genesis 38:8-10

8 And Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother. 10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD; therefore He killed him also.

Exodus 21:22

22 “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

Romans 1:18

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,

The church throughout all ages has universally condemned the sin of Onan as the sin of family planning: St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (c. 339-397), Hexameron, 5.18.58; Athenagoras of Athens, Letter to Marcus Aurelius in 177, Legatio pro Christianis ("Supplication for the Christians"), page 35; St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430), De Nuptius et Concupiscus ("On Marriage and Concupiscence"), 1.17; Barnabas (c. 70-138), Epistle, Volume II, page 19; St. Basil the Great, First Canonical Letter, Canon 2 (A.D. 374); Caesarius, Bishop of Arles (470-543), Sermons, 1.12; Clement of Alexandria, "The Father of Theologians" (c. 150-220), Christ the Educator, Volume II, page 10. Also see Octavius, c.30, nn. 2-3; Ephraem the Syrian, De Timore Dei, page 10; St. Jerome, Letter to Eustochium, 22.13 (A.D. 396); St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 24 (A.D. 391); Letter of Barnabas 19 (A.D. 74); Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies (A.D. 228); Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6:20 (A.D. 307); Minucius Felix, Octavius, 30 (A.D. 226); Origen of Alexandria (185-254), Against Heresies, page 9; Tertullian, Apology, 9:8 (A.D. 197), and The Soul, 25,27 (A.D. 210).

Augustine had this to say about Onan's sin:

And why has Paul said: 'If he cannot control himself, let him marry?' Surely, to prevent incontinence from constraining him to adultery. If, then, he practices continence, neither let him marry nor beget children. However, if he does not control himself, let him enter into lawful wedlock, so that he may not beget children in disgrace or avoid having offspring by a more degraded form of intercourse. There are some lawfully wedded couples who resort to this last, for intercourse, even with one's lawfully wedded spouse, can take place in an unlawful and shameful manner, whenever the conception of offspring is avoided. Onan, the son of Juda, did this very thing, and the Lord slew him on that account. Therefore, the procreation of children is itself the primary, natural, legitimate purpose of marriage. Whence it follows that those who marry because of their inability to remain continent ought not to so temper their vice that they preclude the good of marriage, which is the procreation of children.


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. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime to produce semen and excite the woman, and to frustrate her at that very moment. He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred. Therefore he did not allow himself to be compelled to bear that intolerable slavery. Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him. [Luther's Works, vol. 7 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44 (Ge 38:9-10)]

Lukas Osiander:

[What he did] which was an abhorrent thing and worse than adultery. For such an evil deed strives against nature, and those who do it will not possess the Kingdom of God, 1 Cor. 6:9-10. And the holier marriage is, the less will those remain unpunished who live in it in a wicked and unfitting way so that, in addition to it, they practice private acts of villainy.

It is simply a denial of orthodox theology for one to deny that Onan was killed for family planning. Our postmodern world would like this to be interpreted otherwise, but it simply cannot be.


Devona said...

Caspar, I agree with you, to a point.

But, most couples who practice natural family planning use abstinence to avoid conception, not premature withdrawl.

In fact a couple who wants to avoid conception would be foolish to have any intercourse, even with premature withdrawl because semen are present in the pre-ejaculatory fluid and can still cause a woman to concieve.

This verse, and the quotes that you use to back it up, very clearly speak against a certain method of fmaily planning, but not all methods.

I know that your next argument will be that man and wife should come together often, etc., as you have argued before. But it still is not "daily," or even "every other day, at least."

I am of the opinion that man and wife should absolutely come together often, and that man and wife should bear many children if the Lord chooses to bless them....

I have more to say, but my daughter isvery sick, so I'll be back...

Caspar said...

"This verse, and the quotes that you use to back it up, very clearly speak against a certain method of fmaily planning, but not all methods." - Devona

When you get the time, Devona, could you please list which methods of family planning the teaching of Genesis 38:10 forbids and which it allows? Then, please explain how you make this distinction.



Devona said...

I have started explaining it. It forbids having intercourse while neglecting the responsibilty that comes with it. That would include all barrier methods and hormonal methods.

NFP is not either of those methods. As I stated in my post above, it is abstinence that the NFP coupe uses in order to avoid conception, which I do not think the Onan example condemns.

I think for the sake of your systematic arguement I will wait until you continue before I go on myself. :)

As a trivial asside, the word verification thing to post with almost spells the name of my hometown. It's only two letters off. I think that's kind of note-worthy.

Devona said...

I posted before I proof-read. I hate it when I do that.

I also wanted to include pre-mature withdrawl from the list of Family Planning that is forbidden, since it is obviously the method that Onan used.

Caspar said...

"It forbids having intercourse while neglecting the responsibilty that comes with it." - Devona

This statement seems tailor made to allow for NFP using the narrow Romanist natural law argument rather than being a statement which can be drawn from Scripture alone.

Let's remember that the Onan incident is recorded in the same book in which God states three separate times: "be fruitful and multiply." What Onan did was a violation of this divine ordinance. His act was directly against being fruitful and multiplying, and this act God saw as evil, and God killed him for it. There is no other law recorded in Scripture on the basis of which we can prescribe the death penalty for Onan's act.

Onan's motivation was, indeed, to avoid the responsibility of raising up an heir for his brother. But Onan was not killed for what motivated him. He was killed for what he did! What he did was to viloate God's ordinance to be fruitful and multiply.

Devona, you include every other method of family planning except NFP as being prohibited by Gen. 38:10, initially neglecting Onan's actual method. Why? Because it is not the specific method, but the fact that all these methods violate God's law in the same way.

What law does it violate? God's law as stated in Scripture is very clear: "be fruitful and multiply." God's law is not written: "don't have intercourse while neglecting the responsibilty that comes with it." I think that's definitely part of what God's law means, but that statement is more specific than "be fruitful and multiply." Why argue from natural law when we have God's Word speaking directly to us? Natural law is incomplete, while God's Law is perfect.

If we use this narrow natural law argument, we find a loophole: NFP! But does God's Law allow for loopholes? Let's follow the natural law reasoning to its logical conclusion:

1st Premise:

Only intentionally unfruitful sexual relations is sin.

2nd Premise:

"Natural Family Planning" is not intentionally unfruitful sexual relations.


If Onan had chosen NFP he would not have violated God's law.

If Onan had chosen to use NFP instead of withdrawal to achieve his goal, do you really believe God would have been pleased with him? Remember, NFP would have been much more effective than the withdrawal method at preventing the conception of an heir for his brother.

Actually, when we examine the second premise in the proposed logical argument above, it can be clearly identified as false. NFP IS intentionally unfruitful sex. The couple identifies when the fertile periods are and only has sex during the unfertile periods, with the sole purpose of being unfruitful! Therefore, NFP is a definite pattern of intentionally unfruitful sex.


Alypius said...

Hi Caspar and friends!
I stop by here every once in a while to see how the conversation is going, never commented. Yes, "be fruitful and multiply" is a command. But there are limits--marriage, for one. Reading this passage isolated from all experience, reason, and the rest of Scripture suggests that a promiscuous man, with 100 children by different women, fulfills this command. I don't think anyone argues that.

Another limit would be, as Pope Paul VI wrote, "physical, economic, psychological and social conditions." He advocated "responsible parenthood," which "is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time."

I'm with devona on this one, and see a difference between "contraception" and "family planning."


Devona said...

But you are assuming that I believe that a couple using NFP is not "fruitful" or "multipying." That is not even close to the case. I think that if you took a more open mined look at NFP, and the couples that use it, you would be surprised at what you find.

Onan was commanded by God to have an child with his brother's wife. He did not do it. And the NFP couple (likewise all couples) is also commanded to have children, and if they do not do it they will have broken God's command. You still have not convinced me that NFP is forbidden by scripture because NFP does not nessesitate that a couple remain childless.

This is very likely going to come to a stale-mate, since you think I am wrong and you will not be swayed no matter what, and I think that you are wrong and I will not be swayed no matter what. I don't know what the outcome of such an argument is, but oh well.

Devona said...

And, for the record, I don't think that "only intentionally unfruitful sexual relations" are sinful. You are over simplifying my position.

I also believe that it is sinful for a married couple to avoid conception for a number of reasons, even if they use NFP to do so. But I do not believe that all contraception is unlawful, and perhaps now is a good time for me to make a post to explain why.

I might get back to you about this shortly after I welcome my husband home from work. :) (I am so randomly personal aren't I?)

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

I've been finding this blog very fascinating, and have long been very dissatisfied with what is lacking in the LCMS regarding theology of marriage and family.

I have taken NFP classes and have practiced it at various times....usually to INCREASE our chances of becoming pregnant, not avoiding it, since we were struggling with infertility. By being aware of the most fertile times, we can increase our chances of being blessed as well as not, and also be more aware when something is out of sync and not working right.

I don't think I would completely minimize the Catholic view of fertility or pregnancy avoidance as PURELY functionalistic,it has several levels to it, really. But they do believe that the sexual act cannot be seperated from its ability to produce life.....as well as its role in bringing a husband and wife closer together, the culmination of the marriage bond, etc. So if you are not open to the possibility of a baby, then you do not have sex when you can conceive. The organizations that teach NFP that I am familiar with stress that it is sinful to block fertility for matters of convenience or personal preference, and they stress very firmly how important it is to be open to the blessings God gives us in families, and urge that if pregnancy needs to be avoided, hopefully it is only for a very short period of time.

I realize the argument here is whether or not one should be completely open to the blessings that God has promised in a child, or whether or not someone should try to block it by any means, either NFP or barrier, chemical, or surgical methods. But is the answer to potentially life-threatening situations simply that you just take the chance? Sometimes that chance is simply too high.
I would not take this same argument with abortion, as many would, because the baby's life is already an issue. We don't believe that babies are little spirits that are hanging around waiting for their chance, as the Mormons or some pagans do.

I know that ethics cannot be defined by personal experience, however they do play a part in challenging the validity ethic, so I will use my life as an example, since it is even how I became aware of this issue in the first place.

I have polycystic ovarian syndrome. It has caused me a lot of pain by causing a lot of weight gain, hormone imbalances, emotional difficulties, etc. It has also caused the death of three beloved children that I lost at different stages in pregnancy, and then it left me infertile for a long period of time before I was finally treated by a pro-life, Catholic, NFP physician and we conceived my daughter almost immediately, before I was ready or healthy enough. To get pregnant again means to put another child at risk of death, until I can isolate the sources of what are causing my problem, and I am in intense treatment for it now. In another year, my weight will hopefully be down, my fertility will be more normal, and I will be able to have a pregnancy where my baby's life is not at risk the entire pregnancy, and my body is not being pumped full of medications that make me feel terrible in order to keep my baby alive.
I have searched God's Word, and I cannot find how this delay that we have chosen to take is sinful or irresponsible. The problem that I encounter is due to my sinful/imperfect nature. Obviously, if I did not have a fallen nature, everything would work beautifully. Avoiding pregnancy at this time is a matter of life and death for the child that would be created. If that is sinful, then I think I am stuck in that Lutheran conundrum where I must strike out and sin boldly. I do not take it lightly and I rely on the grace of my Lord and Savior.

While the Bible has much to say on the issues of fertility, I also think that great care must be made not to ADD to God's law, because the casualties will be those who desperately need God's grace.

Caspar said...

Rebellious Pastor's Wife,

Let us be equally careful not to subtract from God's Law.

You say "To get pregnant again means to put another child at risk of death."

To get pregnant again ALWAYS means to put another child at risk of death. It also means to put the mother at risk of death. Of course the risk is much less than it was in Luther's day, but that didn't stop him from condemning family planning.

Is your current calculated risk greater than that of 16th century? I don't know. It is likely you don't either. I will not judge whether your situation may be choosing the lesser of two evils. These situations are very difficult ones. However, we must not fall into the error of believing that we are given a free pass from God to do whatever we want as long as we have good motives. There are certainly ethical dilemmas in life. But if the ethical dilemma does not involve conflicting absolutes, then where is the dilemma?

When we are confronted with situations in which God's absolutes conflict in our lives, we must choose the lesser evil and throw ourselves on God's infinite mercy. He will not fail us any more than he failed Abraham when Abraham went to sacrifice his son.

Abraham trusted God. Where is our trust?


Caspar said...

By the way, did you all know that at least one in every five conceptions never makes it to birth? How dare we place one in every five children at risk of death by getting pregnant!

Devona said...

By the way, did you all know that at least one in every five conceptions never makes it to birth? How dare we place one in every five children at risk of death by getting pregnant!

Caspar, if I had suffered from a miscarriage, let alone multiple ones, and you said that to me, it would likely be the last time we spoke.

This is a sensitive issue, especially for women, and I am finding myself a little upset by the tone you have taken here. It came across as mildly sarcastic, though I know that it was unintentional. I want you to know how it made me feel.

Caspar said...

I'm sorry it made you feel bad. I'm happy you have not suffered the loss of miscarriage. I am not speaking without sympathy to those who suffer these losses. We have lost two children in the last two years at the end of their first trimesters. Miscarriage is, indeed, a very sad thing to endure, but nothing to feel guilty about.

My point remains. My sarcasm was not directed about the pain of miscarriages. My sarcasm was directed toward the misplaced idea that there is something wrong with conceiving when the potential child would be at risk of death. There is ABSOLUTELY no guilt to be found in that.

I'm sure I could have phrased it better. That is a casualty of this medium of the Internet. I apologize and ask forgiveness for my wording, because I still fail to see the error of it. It certainly is not because I do not know and sympathize regarding the terrible pain of miscarriage. Only those who have experienced it can know how painful it is. I know. I have buried two of my children. But these are crosses we must bear.

Guilt is unfairly placed on conception of children when it is worried that those children may die. Every conception is VERY dangerous business.

I'm sure you all remember this exchange:

Sam: "This is it."

Frodo: "This is what?"

Sam: "If I take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been."

Frodo: "Come on, Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say: 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.'"