Getting the Onan story straight

First of all, let’s get straight my case in posting this: it is NOT my intention to undermine or weaken the support for the Catholic doctrine on contraception, which, as a Catholic, I fully profess along with the whole of Catholic doctrine. Rather, I want to show that invoking “the sin of Onan” when dealing with contraception issues provides no real support for the Catholic position, but rather shows that the speaker has not bothered to interpret a biblical verse by taking into account, at the very least, the previous two verses, as we will see below.

To note, Humanae Vitae explicitely states from where the support for the Catholic doctrine comes: natural law as interpreted by the Church Magisterium:

The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that it is necessary that each and every marital act (“quilibet matrimonii usus”) remains ordered (“destinatus”) per se to the procreation of human life. (Humanae Vitae 11)

Having said this, let’s turn to the subject at hand. It seems to me that the interpretation of the Onan story (Gen 38: 8-10) that is most frequent among practicing Catholics is that God stroke Onan to death because of just the fact that “he wasted his seed on the ground”. I will call this interpretation “B” for “biological”.

Indeed, the passage says: “What he did greatly offended the LORD, and the LORD took his life too.” (Gen 38: 10)

The point is, however: what exactly is “what he did” that “greatly offended the LORD”? And there are two possible answers.

The answer from interpretation B is that “what he did” refers specifically and only to the fact that “he wasted his seed on the ground” (Gen 38: 9). Everything else in Gen 38, 9 is just accessory information, useful for understanding the context but irrelevant to the gravity of the sin.

To this interpretation and answer, I offer below an alternative interpretation, which in a fit of brilliant inspiration I will call “A”. In this interpretation, the answer to the question above is that “what he did” refers to the whole situation described by Gen 38: 9. In other words, that in order to understand what was “what he did” that “greatly offended the LORD” we have to take into account ALL the information provided by Gen 38: 9. Let’s then do that.

But first, let’s focus briefly on Gen 38: 8. Was Judah’s command to Onan morally and/or legally binding? Though this was a pre-Law situation, we can infer from the prescriptions in Dt 25: 5-10 that a refusal by Onan to take Tamar as wife would have resulted only in a brief and slight public humiliation (Tamar would have taken his sandal and spit in his face), without even lasting economical consequences. So, Onan was basically morally and legally free to not marry Tamar. (Which is logical, because after all, what if the deceased brother had a terrible taste for women, and not just, or even mainly, at the physical level?) This point is not central to the gravity of the sin in interpretation A, but just adds to it.

Turning now to Gen 38: 9, it clearly states the reason why Onan “wasted his seed on the ground”: “to avoid giving offspring to his brother”, because he “knew that the offspring would not be his”. Specifically, in Law terms which can be safely assumed to reflect the situation in Onan’s time as well, because he knew that “the firstborn son she bears shall continue the name of the deceased brother” (Dt 25: 6).

Thus it is most clear that the reason driving Onan’s contraceptive behaviour was of a permanent, not transient, nature. He was not holding off having offspring until he would be in a better economic situation, or have a bigger tent, or whatever. Rather, he was determined to NEVER, EVER have offspring with Tamar. Let’s now look at this situation from Tamar’s viewpoint.

First, she had been cheated by Onan into her present condition. Because the reason why Onan had been able to marry her was exclusively because of his pledge (implicit in the passage) to engender offspring of her, the first of which would preserve his deceased brother’s name. Was that reason important to Tamar? It most definitely was, as we know from the rest of ch. 38 to what lengths Tamar went afterwards in order to have offspring that would preserve Er’s name.

But most importantly, she was facing the prospect of not being EVER able to have offspring at all, the worst possible disgrace for a woman in that society. She had basically been reduced to the condition of a sex slave, a living sex doll, a condition that, as I said before, was going to last for as long as Onan lived. Because in that society the wife was not able to initiate the procedure for divorce or even ask for it.

Thus, the only event through which Tamar could possibly become liberated from that unspeakable condition of indignity into which she had been cheated was Onan’s death.

Therefore, in interpretation A “what Onan did” that “greatly offended the LORD” was not just a one-time or even a one-year practice of contraception. It was his act of reducing Tamar for ever, by cheating and against her will, to a state of sex slavery involving the worst possible fate for a woman in that society: the complete absence of offspring. That unspeakable assault on Tamar’s dignity was probably, in the mindset of that society, a sin at least as bad as killing her.

That is a pretty good summary.
This was profound disrespect for his brother too, for his brother would never be able to have any offspring, since he died prematurely.
Onan was being very selfish in that regard.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levirate_marriage

That’s a long explanation that fails to deal with the very crux of the issue.

Onan could have outwardly honored his brother by taking in his wife, but simply living in a celibate relationship. Or he could have honored his brother by taking in his wife and entered into a normal marital relationship.

But instead, Onan tried to have it both ways. He tried to outwardly honor his brother and get sexual jollies out of it while deliberately refusing to allow that sexual intimacy to be what it is fully intended to be. He wanted to indulge in the pleasure of sexual intimacy without committing to the fullness of what that intimacy really is!

It was precisely Onan’s sin of contraception that would have reduced Tamar virtually to a sex slave. You see, that’s precisely what contraception DOES. It trains the participants to view sexual relations as being an action totally independent in substance from the will to have children. That’s WHY it’s sinful: it changes sexual intimacy from something that draws us out of ourselves to something that keeps us within ourselves.

Opponents of church teaching always like to pretend that catholic moral teaching is essentially an arbitrary list of forbidden activities. But that’s not it at all. Sins are only sins because they do genuine harm to those who commit them and those they interact with. For Onan and for us, contraception isn’t sinful because it is “on the list” but because it causes HARM.

No, he could not. Because Tamar was marrying him in order to have offspring, the first of which would preserve his brother’s name. Marrying Tamar with the promise to engender offspring of her, and after that, and before consummating the marriage, saying to her that he had actually decided to live in total continence, would have been a case of cheating. The difference is that, instead of Tamar becoming a sex slave, she would have become a cooking and cleaning slave. But she would still be facing the prospect of not being EVER able to have offspring at all, the worst possible disgrace for a woman in that society.

That would not have been the case if they had consentually decided to do that. To note, I am not saying that it would have been morally good.

I completely agree, but the point is that Onan’s was not a case of plain, run-of-the-mill contraception. It was much worse.

Failure to see this leads inevitably to the conclusion that God would have also killed both Onan and Tamar if they had consentually decided to practice contraception after having had 7 children.

Again, I do hold Catholic doctrine on the subject. I just refuse to do bad exegesis. There is a reason why HV 11 says that the doctrine is based on natural law, and not on Revelation.

This is an assumption that affects your entire argument, so you might consider addressing it more closely. Essentially, the question reduces to “can an argument based in the Mosaic Law be utilized in a narrative that takes place prior to the establishment of the Law?”

To answer this question, a number of considerations are relevant: was the audience of the story a pre- or post-Mosaic Law audience? Pre-Mosaic Law, would societal norms have been in place that would have (effectively) created a situation roughly equivalent to the norms that the Law formally established? Did the author intend his reader to approach this story from a pre- or post-Mosaic Law perspective? Looking at the way you’ve approached your treatment of this passage, it seems that your presumption is that the writer and/or audience is treating this from the context of the Mosaic Law. Without any criticism of that stance, let’s proceed…

Was Judah’s command to Onan morally and/or legally binding? …[W]e can infer from the prescriptions in Dt 25: 5-10 that a refusal by Onan to take Tamar as wife would have resulted only in a brief and slight public humiliation… without even lasting economical consequences. So, Onan was basically morally and legally free to not marry Tamar.

Invalid conclusion: you demonstrate that Onan’s refusal did, in fact, have negative moral and legal consequences. Your assertion that these consequences are ‘brief’ and ‘slight’ significantly misunderstands the cultural context: being struck with a sandal, being struck by a woman, and having one’s name disparaged perpetually would have been extremely harsh treatment. So, the consequences here are something that Onan would not have simply shrugged at.

But, let’s suppose that the consequences were trivial. Does your conclusion – that “Onan was basically morally and legally free not to marry Tamar” – hold up to scrutiny? I would argue against your conclusion: you’re confusing severity of punishment with legality and/or morality of an action. If shoplifting carries a minimal penalty, does this mean that an offender hasn’t broken the law? Does it mean that the morality of stealing is nullified? Of course not! Shoplifting is both morally and legally indefensible, regardless of the criminal penalties that are attached to a conviction on an accusation of this crime.

So, on both counts, I would assert that your argument fails: the punishment was severe, and the very fact of the existence of the punishment demonstrates that Onan was not “basically free not to marry Tamar.”

Yet, that’s not the situation that the narrative describes – Onan did, in fact, take Tamar as his levirate wife. Therefore, we should be arguing his responsibilities as a Jewish husband.

(Which is logical, because after all, what if the deceased brother had a terrible taste for women, and not just, or even mainly, at the physical level?) This point is not central to the gravity of the sin in interpretation A, but just adds to it.

Irrelevant. Your assertion here argues for reasons that Onan may have had for refusing Tamar. These considerations are puerile, in the face of the Law: as his widowed sister-in-law’s surviving brother, he inherited a certain duty, which did not hinge on the moral, physical, or emotional qualities of his sister-in-law; they only depended upon his family relationship to his brother. Your argument doesn’t “add to … the gravity of the sin” of refusing his duty as a brother; at best, it makes that duty less pleasant. Would a 21st-century man, who refused to offer aid to his dead brother’s widow, due to her lack of physical or relational charms, be considered virtuous by any standard? Of course not! “Hey, sis-in-law, you’re too ugly for me to help you out!”… “Hey, sis-in-law, you’re too unlovable for me to help you out!” C’mon now… are you really arguing for that perspective?

Turning now to Gen 38: 9, it clearly states the reason why Onan “wasted his seed on the ground”: “to avoid giving offspring to his brother”… Thus it is most clear that the reason driving Onan’s contraceptive behaviour was of a permanent, not transient, nature. He was not holding off having offspring until he would be in a better economic situation, or have a bigger tent, or whatever. Rather, he was determined to NEVER, EVER have offspring with Tamar.

Agreed. Therefore, Onan acquiesced to his responsibilities under the law, but with the intent not to make good on his responsibilities. Therefore, his crime/sin was a crime under the Law, as a Jewish man.

Let’s now look at this situation from Tamar’s viewpoint.

I’ll refrain from addressing your discussion here, but simply comment on the notion in general. You say that the “unspeakable assault on Tamar’s dignity was probably, in the mindset of that society, a sin at least as bad as killing her.” In the society of the day – whether the society of time of Onan, or the society of the time of the writer of this passage – that would (sadly) not have been an issue that would have entered their consideration. So, while you might want to discuss this in terms of moral law, it would be anachronistic of you to include this as a facet of your discussion of the morality of the narrative, within its own context. In other words, unless you’re asserting that God was punishing Onan for a sin that his contemporaries would not have understood (which, I think, you’re not), you’re not able to reasonably include this in your analysis.

In the end, what are we left with, then? Onan took on a particular responsibility, perhaps to avoid the (rather harsh) alternatives, and then tried to shirk his duty. ‘Contraception’ was only the means to an end; both ‘means’ and ‘end’ were reprehensible to God.

I’m not so convinced this is true. Women weren’t viewed in ancient society quite sanely. They were viewed as far lesser than man. I suspect that far back they would not even be able to own property which is why “widow” is synonymous with “destitute” in OT stories. Tamar had to marry him and he was obliged to marry her under Levirate marriage as a (to us bizarre) form of charity that recognized that otherwise widows would starve to death or be driven to prostitution. I see nothing in Scripture or history that would suggest to me that Abraham’s wife Sarah (before Isaac) was seen as a bigger disgrace than a prostitute, do you? Had Onan been unable or unwilling to fully take her in as his true wife, he could surely have housed her, fed her and given her a certain dignity equivalent at least to what Sarah enjoyed before Isaac was conceived. But he didn’t. The argument that a married OT woman with a husband that provided for her was still automatically worse off than dead has always seemed a bizarre and under-supported assertion to me. It’s the kind of thing people cook up to reinvent church teaching.

This hardly means that we should be expecting God to instantly smite dead anyone today who sins with his wife via a condom. God is merciful and demonstrated that in Christ. In the OT, He first demonstrated the consequences of sin and defiance. Recall the story of the man God struck dead in the OT because he saw the ark of the covenant about to drop and reached out to prevent it. God struck him instantly dead because the covenant clearly prohibited non-Levites from ever touching the ark under any circumstances. Seems bizarre to us, but God had to show humanity how crucial fidelity to the covenant was. I suspect the same is true of Onan. I work with a lot of construction workers and the Lord’s name is taken in vain all too often. I’ve yet to see one struck by lightening. God made his point on that score with the poor fellow who tried to catch the ark. He made his point on contraception with Onan. Repeating the point ad nauseum doesn’t serve His purpose or His character.

And God’s a tricky fellow, after all. Jews were seemingly prohibited from eating pork LONG before anybody knew what bacteria, much less trychanosis was. Jewish ritual purity tended to FAR greater hygiene habits well into the recently ended millennia that contributed to lower rates of disease and plague. Would you really put it past Him to get thick headed men to adopt an idea like Levirate marriages in SPITE of their appalling failure to appreciate the innate dignity of woman? Seems like par for the course to me. God is good. WE’RE the problem.

Yes; I agree with you, against Manualman’s claims.

That would not have been the case if they had consentually decided to do that. To note, I am not saying that it would have been morally good.

No, I don’t think you’re in the right, here. Can you provide any citations that substantiate the claim that mutally-consentual contraceptive acts would have been acceptable, in the timeframe of either the Onan narrative or that of the Mosaic Law audience, especially considering that the context of the marriage was the Levirate duty (i.e., providing offspring for a widowed sister-in-law who required a son)?

Failure to see this leads inevitably to the conclusion that God would have also killed both Onan and Tamar if they had consentually decided to practice contraception after having had 7 children.

That’s quite the interpretative leap! Since you “refuse to do bad exegesis,” I’m certain that you have attribution for this conclusion, right? :wink:

Again, I do hold Catholic doctrine on the subject. I just refuse to do bad exegesis. There is a reason why HV 11 says that the doctrine is based on natural law, and not on Revelation.

Wow. You may be innocent of “bad exegesis,” but you certainly are flirting with ‘bad interpretation of magisterial documents’…! Care to substantiate that claim? After all, HV 11 mentions ‘natural law’ and ‘doctrine’, but not ‘Revelation’. Are you certain that it’s claiming that the interpretation of natural law in doctrine isn’t based on Revelation? :wink:

**Onan’s sin
Answer by Fr. John Echert (EWTN) on May-14-2006: **
Extracts:
“The account of Onan’s refusal to carry out the obligation to raise up children in place of his brother is found in Genesis 38.

“By the ancient custom–later to become the law of God in the time of Moses–in order that the family name would live on through a man’s descendants, if a brother died leaving a widow and no sons, then it was the duty of his brother to take his widow as his own and produce offspring from the relationship. Onan not only failed to fulfill this command of God, but committed an additional violation of the law of God by spilling his seed on the ground, that is, withdrawal during the act of sexual intercourse. His sin was twofold and showed contempt for God and nature. Incidentally, this biblical account is important to keep in mind in the whole matter of contraception which is against the law of God and nature. Sexual intercourse is intended to be fruitful and one must have at least the openness to the possibility of new life; Onan showed contempt for life and law.

‘There are some who argue that the severe punishment of God upon Onan was for his failure to fulfill the Levirate law of raising up offspring; however, the punishment for this was specified by God as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy:
25:5 "If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead shall not be married outside the family to a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, and take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 25:6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his brother who is dead, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 25:7 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.’ 25:8 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,’ 25:9 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.’ 25:10 And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, The house of him that had his sandal pulled off.

The penalty imposed by Mosaic Law was not a death sentence upon the guilty brother but public humiliation–a far cry from execution. This leads us to conclude that the death punishment upon Onan was not for his failure to raise up posterity for his deceased brother, but for the crime of wasting the seed upon the ground – a primitive and vulgar form of contraception. Incidentally, with regards to contraception, many people today are ignorant of the fact that many forms of contraception actually act as an abortifacient – they kill the newly conceived child in some manner.”

We have to distinguish between the immediate audience had in mind by the human author, and the mediate audience had in Mind by the Divine Author.

Regarding the first, the most conservative views on Pentateuch authorship attribute its final redaction to Moses, so even in those views the audience of the story is a post-Mosaic Law audience.

Regarding the second, the answer is provided by the Divine Author Himself through St Paul: “These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor 10: 11)

There are several planes simultaneously in play here.

  1. What the society of the time of Onan, as perceived by the society of the time of the human writer of the text, would have seen the objective effect of Onan’s behaviour on Tamar was. (Objective from the reader’s viewpoint, subjective from Tamar’s viewpoint.)

In the society of the time of the human writer, whether he was Moses or a later one, the prospect of not being EVER able to have offspring at all was the starkest possible prospect for a woman. And readers of that time would have readily assummed that the feminine mindset was the same in the time of Onan. So, careful readers of the passage in Old Testament times would have readily perceived the magnitude of Tamar’s predicament and pain from Tamar’s viewpoint.

  1. What the society of the time of Onan, as perceived by the society of the time of the human writer of the text, would have seen the importance of Tamar’s predicament and pain was, in the eyes of the LORD. In other words, from the viewpoint of OT readers, were Tamar’s predicament and suffering a matter important enough from the LORD’s viewpoint so as to warrant that the LORD punish with death the person freely and unfairly causing them?

The answer is: that is not a really relevant question to us, because what really matters to us is the third plane:

  1. What we, Christians, see the importance of Tamar’s predicament and pain was, in the eyes of the LORD. Because, as St Paul wrote, “These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor 10: 11)

Thus, I hereby acknowledge that my statement that “That unspeakable assault on Tamar’s dignity was probably, in the mindset of that society, a sin at least as bad as killing her.” was irrelevant as written.

The mindset of that society, though, was indeed relevant to the extent that:

  • Tamar belonged to that society, and therefore had that mindset. Therefore in her mindset, the prospect of not being EVER able to have offspring at all was the starkest prospect a woman could face.

  • Onan belonged to that society, and therefore knew that, from the viewpoint of Tamar, the prospect that he was freely inflicting on her was the starkest prospect a woman could face. In other words, Onan was fully aware of the extreme predicament and suffering he was causing in Tamar.

And for this matter, “that society” means both the society of the time of Onan and the society of the time of the human writer, because in both times the importance of having offspring at all from the viewpoint of a woman was basically the same (Gen 30:1 and 1 Sam 1: 10).

Now, could Onan, as a member of that society, have legitimately thought that the extreme predicament and suffering he was causing in Tamar was not a relevant issue from the LORD’s viewpoint? In other words, that Tamar, or any other woman, had no intrinsic value as human being like a man had? Not in my view, and the episode of Hannah (1 Sam ch 1 and 2) supports this position. So the sin of Onan with respect to Tamar was most grave both objectively and subjectively.

As St Paul said, the ultimately relevant audience of the passage are we, Christians. So, what matters is that we, Christians, understand Onan’s sin.

The point is that it was not a vanilla case of contraception. It was not that Onan said to Tamar “Dear, why don’t we practice coitus interrruptus for a few months, now that we already have 4 children, to give me time to build a bigger tent?” It was:

  • permanent contraception as a means,

  • to leave Tamar permanently and completely deprived of offspring as an immediate end,

  • and to leave Er deprived of offspring that would preserve his name as an ultimate end.

It was not just “reprehensible”, as any case of contraception is. It was much worse.

No, and I did not mean that, even when a literal reading of what I wrote implies that I did.

First, I was circumscribing my statement to the possible situations for a married woman. Within that scope, the complete absence of offspring was the starkest prospect she could face, the prospect involving most suffering (Gen 30: 1 and 1 Sam ch 1).

Second, my use of the word “disgrace” was a mistake, out of the Spanish “false friend” for it. Therefore, instead of saying:

But she would still be facing the prospect of not being EVER able to have offspring at all, the worst possible disgrace for a woman in that society.

I should have said:

But she would still be facing the prospect of not being EVER able to have offspring at all, the most painful predicament for a married woman in that society.

Am I missing something here? What difference does it make what type of contraception it was (different according to you)? Isn’t the issue whether it was a contraceptive act or not and the answer is clearly yes.

This is a nice exegesis of the moral sense of 1 Cor 10:11, but it’s hardly relevant; that passage, on its face, is dealing with post-Mosaic law events. Moreover, the more straightforward analysis of the ‘mediate audience’ is “post-Mosaic-Law”, since this audience clearly encounters the text in that timeframe.

So, careful readers of the passage in Old Testament times would have readily perceived the magnitude of Tamar’s predicament and pain from Tamar’s viewpoint.

Careful readers of Old Testament times might also notice that Elkenah, in response to his wife’s barrenness, simply responded, “What are you crying about? Isn’t my love enough for you?” (cf 1 Sam 1). They might also notice that, in response to God’s promise to give Sarah a son and finally relieve her of her barrenness, Abraham laughed (cf Gen 17). I appreciate that barrenness is an emotionally painful experience, and that giving birth – especially to a son – was critically important to a woman of OT times; yet, given that the society of the day was overwhelmingly patriarchal, and given that polygamy meant that a man didn’t have to rely on a particular woman to give him a son, I think it’s not unfair to suggest that you’re overstating your case. The injustice that the predominant view of the text would perceive would have been the injustice done to Er, not Tamar. (Now, you might make the argument that, in terms of the lineage of Jesus, this event takes on greater significance, but that wasn’t your argument here.)

from the viewpoint of OT readers, were Tamar’s predicament and suffering a matter important enough from the LORD’s viewpoint so as to warrant that the LORD punish with death the person freely and unfairly causing them? The answer is: that is not a really relevant question to us

If we’re hoping to understand the narrative in its own cultural context, then it better be relevant to us! And, in that context, the injustice done to Tamar is treated only glancingly. Even Judah, who has wronged Tamar, only remarks “she is in the right” and refuses to put her to death: there’s no notion of Tamar’s ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’ here. From the perspective of the text itself, this is a non-issue.

Tamar belonged to that society, and therefore had that mindset. Therefore in her mindset, the prospect of not being EVER able to have offspring at all was the starkest prospect a woman could face.

Yet, Judah himself disregarded her plight. It would be difficult to suggest that the ‘mindset’ of that society prioritized Tamar’s stark prospects if Judah, a protagonist and patriarch of that narrative, clearly disregards her situation in favor of his perception of a threat to his son’s life. :wink:

Now, could Onan, as a member of that society, have legitimately thought that the extreme predicament and suffering he was causing in Tamar was not a relevant issue from the LORD’s viewpoint? In other words, that Tamar, or any other woman, had no intrinsic value as human being like a man had? Not in my view

I disagree. In that society, even though it was a hardship for a barren wife, the injustice was seen as affecting the husband without an heir. After all, why else would Sarai suggest that Abram have a son with Hagar? That ‘solution’ wouldn’t help Sarai one bit – but it would solve the problem of Abram’s heir. Sad to say, in that society, the plight of the barren woman – while recognized – wasn’t one that would have been addressed (outside the notion of Levirate marriage – which itself was meant to provide a solution to the problem of providing an heir to a dead man!).

the episode of Hannah (1 Sam ch 1 and 2) supports this position.

I’m not sure how you would justify this claim. In 1 Samuel 1, as I’ve mentioned, Hannah is basically told to “get over it.” Certainly, God heard Hannah’s prayer, but the text suggests that the injustice done to her wasn’t based on her barrenness, per se, but on the abuse that her ‘sister-wife’ was heaping on her.

So the sin of Onan with respect to Tamar was most grave both objectively and subjectively.

From the perspective of later exegesis, and in the context of other societies? Certainly. In the context of the society in which the narrative takes place? That’s still an open question, I’d suggest. Nevertheless, I agree with your conclusion if not your argument – God’s justice, as imposed upon Onan, proceeds from the sin that he committed.

As St Paul said, the ultimately relevant audience of the passage are we, Christians. So, what matters is that we, Christians, understand Onan’s sin.

What an odd argument! What you’re asserting, then, is that Christians should accept that the punishment makes no sense in the context of the literal meaning of the passage, but that it makes sense only when we disregard that sense of Scripture and instead look only to the moral sense of Scripture? That doesn’t fit well with principles of Catholic exegesis…

The point is that it was not a vanilla case of contraception.

The point, it seems, is that Onan took on his responsibility as husband to Tamar, without any intent to fulfill that responsibility. With contraception as the means to that end, he sinned by disobeying his father and by refusing to give his brother a son.

  • and to leave Er deprived of offspring that would preserve his name as an ultimate end.

Agreed; and that was my case – Onan shirked his responsibility; the sin wasn’t against Tamar, so much as it was against his father and his brother.

My final post on this thread, in two versions.

Short version: I concede that Gorgias is right.

Long version:

First, the description of plane 2 should be rephrased as:

  1. What the society of the time of Onan, as perceived by the society of the time of the human writer of the text, would have seen the importance of Tamar’s predicament and pain was, in the eyes of the LORD. In other words, from the viewpoint of OT readers, was Onan aware that Tamar’s predicament and suffering were a matter important enough from the LORD’s viewpoint so as to warrant that the LORD punish with death the person freely and unfairly causing them, i.e. himself?

More importantly, the text immediately following that was just plain wrong, as Gorgias pointed out:

I realized that when I recalled the story of the divine command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Because the key consideration to interpret correctly that story is the timing of the event with relation to God’s gradual revelation, and with relation to human reason’s gradual illumination and liberation, by God’s word, from the darkness into which it had fallen since the time of original sin.

According to the timing of the event with relation to God’s gradual revelation, there was no problem in God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son because it was centuries before He decreed the prohibition of human sacrifices in the Law given through Moses (Deut 18:10). Thus the command did not contradict any positive divine law known by Abraham.

And according to the timing of the event with relation to human reason’s gradual liberation from darkness, there was no problem either because that process was just starting, and Abraham lived within a culture in which it was a common practice to sacrifice a son to the personal or local god. Thus the command did not contradict the (clouded) knowledge that Abraham had of natural law.

Therefore, just as this event cannot be interpreted correctly by retroyecting a post-Law mindset onto it, much less a Christian mindset, nor can Onan’s. So the question regarding plane 2 is really relevant and therefore must be answered. And the answer I provided to the rephrased version of it…

… was also plain wrong. Because we cannot retroyect the divine-teaching-by-example in Hannah’s case (assuming it applies to Tamar’s case, which I think it does but that is not a relevant issue now) onto Tamar’s case, since Hannah lived hundreds of years after Tamar.

Therefore, Gorgias is right in that the subjective sin of Onan against Tamar is still an open question. And he is also right, and actually too polite, in qualifying as odd my argument that the punishment makes sense based on the Christian understanding of Onan’s sin. That argument is not just odd, it’s BS.

Cheers! :thumbsup:

Fr John Echert has answered this.

Onan’s sin
Answer by Fr. John Echert (EWTN) on May-14-2006:

“The penalty imposed by Mosaic Law was not a death sentence upon the guilty brother but public humiliation–a far cry from execution. This leads us to conclude that the death punishment upon Onan was not for his failure to raise up posterity for his deceased brother, but for the crime of wasting the seed upon the ground – a primitive and vulgar form of contraception. Incidentally, with regards to contraception, many people today are ignorant of the fact that many forms of contraception actually act as an abortifacient – they kill the newly conceived child in some manner.”

In my previous post I may have used a non-standard term, and in any case it was misspelled. Sorry. The correct spelling and intended meaning was:

retroject = project retroactively

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