Guest post on Onan from one of our bright FW seminarians

Dear Dr. Heidenreich,

Thank you for the work you do on your blog site Lutherans & Contraception. I humbly submit the attached document for publication on your site.

May God bless you and yours.

In Christ,
Sem II Student
Concordia Theological Seminary - Fort Wayne, IN
"We preach Christ crucified!" (1 Corinthians 1:23)

Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother's wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also.

Many Christian advocates of birth control are not persuaded by the “positive” scriptural evidence of the goodness of having children. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-5). “I still don’t see any prohibition against birth control,” one might say. After all, the Eleventh Commandment is not “Thou shalt not use birth control.” While I do think that the previously mentioned “proof passage” is in and of itself sufficient testimony against one’s deciding how many children God will bless him with, I here resurrect the story of Onan to provide what had been regarded as a “negative” example against birth control by Christendom until the 20th century. [1]

In an age when theologians debate “the faith of Jesus Christ” vs. “faith in Jesus Christ” or whether an imperfect verb should be translated habitually or inceptively, the story of Onan remains in the shadows, if not completely absent from the minds of many Christians. For example, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 12-50 has no comments for Genesis 38:1-11. I find it difficult to believe that no fathers commented on the Onan incident, particularly in light of the following statements.

St. Epiphanius of Salamis: “They 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 c. 375 A.D.)

Augustine of Hippo: “The doctrine that the production of children is an evil, directly opposes the next precept, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery;” for those who believe this doctrine, in order that their wives may not conceive, are led to commit adultery even in marriage. They take wives, as the law declares, for the procreation of children, but from this erroneous fear of polluting the substance of the deity, their intercourse with their wives is not of a lawful character; and the production of children, which is the proper end of marriage, they seek to avoid.” (Against Faustus c. 400 A.D.)

How does the Hebrew text (Genesis 38:8-10) describe the Onan incident? Onan’s father, Judah, commanded him to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law” on behalf of his deceased brother Er. The verb ~by is used only here and in Deuteronomy 25:5 in the Old Testament. In both cases it refers to the duty of levirate marriage. Since Genesis 38 historically precedes Deuteronomy 25, levirate marriage must have been a law of the patriarchs before the Law of Moses was given. Onan spilled his semen upon the ground. The verb txv is used here in the sense of “to make ineffective.” In describing Onan’s sin, Moses writes that what he did was evil in Yahweh’s eyes. The verb hf[ is important here. [2] Note that it is not what Onan failed to do, his levirate marriage duty, which displeased Yahweh; rather, what he did do, making his semen ineffective, was the evil deed. Finally, Moses notes that Yahweh put Onan to death (~G;). This reminds the reader of Onan’s deceased brother who had been previously put to death by Yahweh for alsobeing evil (Genesis 38:7). Yahweh’s destruction of Er is unrelated to levirate marriage. He kills these two brothers for their wickedness in His sight. Luther agrees, “The end of both men testifies that their evildoing was outstanding. For the Lord killed both of them in the same year” (LW 7:19).

For Yahweh to have killed Onan for failing to abide by the law of levirate marriage would be inconsistent on His part. And although God may do as He pleases, the punishment for failing to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law” in Deuteronomy 25:7-10 is far from the death penalty enacted by God in Genesis 38:8-10. The text from Deuteronomy reads:

7 And if the man does not wish to take his brother's wife, then his brother's wife shall go up to the gate to the elders 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.” 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, “I do not wish to take her,” 9 then his brother's wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, “So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house.” 10 And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, “The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.”

Thus, God does not kill the man who refuses to procreate with his brother’s widow, but He does kill the man who makes his semen ineffective. The man who refuses his levirate duties gets a mere slap on the wrist, public humiliation from the woman with whom he was supposed to have had intercourse. What is more, Judah was not killed by God when he refused to fulfill this duty for Tamar (Genesis 38:11-30). Onan was not punished for being deceitful, for Jacob and Abraham were not punished with death because of their deceit of Abimelech (Genesis 20 and 26). Onan was killed not for failing to produce a son for Er. He was killed by God because he divorced procreation from intercourse.

Martin Luther agrees. Many dismiss his commentary on the Onan incident as if he had been drinking too much Wittenberg beer when he stumbled upon Genesis 38. Luther repeatedly acknowledges the reality of the situation, that of levirate marriage. Yes, it was Onan’s duty to give his deceased brother a son by sleeping with his widow. However, Onan preferred the pleasure of his responsibility over its burdens. Luther describes Onan’s sin as “the exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches” (LW 7:20). Luther’s characterization of Onan and his wasting of semen seems incredibly harsh:

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 (LW 7:20-21).

Note that levirate marriage is not the issue for Luther in his condemnation of Onan. Rather, his making his semen ineffective is a worse sin than a father sleeping with his daughter or a husband cheating on his wife. At the point of insemination, Onan ought to have followed the order of nature established by God in procreation. Is this true only because this was a levirate marriage? No! This order has been established by God to be followed in all instances of insemination. It is the order established by God when He first blessed Adam and Eve saying, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

Luther writes that Onan polluted himself with a most disgraceful sin instead of raising up offspring for his brother (LW 7:21). How is it that Luther could call Onan’s sin worse than homosexuality? It is because both Onan and homosexuals share the common desire for sexual pleasure without the blessing of parenthood that God has attached to it. Sexual intimacy is integral to a godly marriage. Procreation is not to be divorced from intercourse. Thus, willful frustration of God’s plans to bless a marriage with children violates the core of a godly marriage. God gives the marriage gifts, sexual intimacy and children, as a two-in-one package. Even the CTCR admits: “Once the nature of the union of husband and wife is made a question from that of the relationship of parents and children, then separatethe essence of marriage can be significantly obscured” (Christians and Procreative Choices: How do God’s Chosen Choose?).

For those who require a “negative” example in opposition to birth control, the Onan incident is the clearest Word from our Lord that He disapproves of avoiding parenthood while embracing sexual pleasure. No, not one of the Ten Commandments reads “Thou shalt not use birth control,” but one of them does say something about having no other gods.


1 Another negative example would be that of 1 Sam. 1:6-11 where barren Hannah is considered cursed. Scripture always considers it a blessing to have many children, but being barren is never a good thing.

2 It is not merely the intent, but also the action, that is singled out by the Hebrew text.

1 comment:

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...


Thank you very much for this well written grammatico-historical exegesis! That's how Lutherans do theology. May God continue to bless you in your studies at the seminary.

You wrote: "...the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 12-50 has no comments for Genesis 38:1-11. I find it difficult to believe that no fathers commented on the Onan incident"

You are certainly right to find this difficult to believe, for not only did the fathers comment on the sin of Onan, their commentaries are unanimous in their agreement with you on the interpretation of what this sin was. Look hard, but you will find nothing on which there is more consistent testimony of the church throughout all ages than on this issue. Here is a short list of the fathers whom the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture could have quoted:

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).

I'll just provide one of these citations. 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.

There are also countless respected Lutheran theologians who have commented on Genesis 38:10. A collection of some of those quotations can be found in LCSM lay-theologian Charles Provan's book, The Bible and Birth Control.