Where did the New Interpretations on Onan's Sin come from?

Where did the interpretation that Onan’s sin does not talk about birth control come from? Is it an invention from the past 100 years or does it have a precedent in historical Christianity?

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Have you a link for reference?

Here’s an excerpt from the website gotquestion.org, " Is onanism a sin? The true crime of Onan was refusing to sire a son on his brother’s behalf, which doesn’t really apply to modern culture, anyway. The debate over masturbation has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Onanism for the purposes of birth control is fine biblically but not very effective physically—effectiveness rates vary from 96 to 73 percent. Therefore, the question of onanism’s morality does not really apply to us today." So the argument goes that because Onan simply violated levirate law by not giving a son to his brother’s widow that is why he was condemned to death by God. Not because of spilling his seed.


I don’t think this is a “new” interpretation. I think that this is simply the actual meaning of the text, which has been used in other ways at various times in history.


My understanding is that the Catholic interpretation of this, is not that it was just going against levitate marriage law but because Onan practiced contraception. This is how St. Jerome put it, " But I wonder why he the heretic Jovianianus set Judah and Tamar before us for an example, unless perchance even harlots give him pleasure; or Onan, who was slain because he begrudged his brother his seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?"

I certainly agree that many Catholics have supported that interpretation over the years, but that does not make it so. To my knowledge, the Church does not mandate this interpretation, and the Church does not ground the teaching on contraception on the Onan passage.


The idea that Onan’s sin has nothing to do with “spilling the seed” (which is what Jewish scholars say) is a 20th century heresy.

Onan’s sin was surely complex, but spilling his seed was a major part of it.


That’s not how the rabbis in the Zohar interpreted that verse. Here’s what they had to say about why God was displeased:

“And the thing which he [Onan] did displeased Hashem: So He slew him also” (Genesis 38:10). Rabbi Chiya opened the discussion with the verse, “In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand” (Ecclesiastes 11:6). Come and behold, it behooves man much to be careful lest he sin and to be heedful in his actions before the Holy One, blessed be He. For there are numerous messengers and chieftains in the world who roam about observing the deeds of man and bearing testimony of him, recording everything in a book.

Come and behold, of all the sins that defile a man in this world, that which defiles him the most in this world and in the World to Come is spilling his semen in vain. Letting it out in vain by the hand or leg brings impurity on man, as it is written, “For you are not an El that has pleasure in wickedness, nor shall evil dwell with You” (Psalms 5:5).

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I was taught that the sin was not in spilling the seed, but going against God’s will, (Law) to avoid fathering a child for his brother. “Disobeying God”
Dominus vobiscum

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These words of Jerome suggest to me that the standard interpretation of this passage, in Jerome’s day, was precisely that God punished Onan for his act of disloyalty to his family by refusing to provide his deceased brother with a posterity. Jerome then adds his own comment that “we” don’t approve of contraception in general.

I just looked in the CCC and this passage (Gen 38:8-10) is not referenced anywhere, as I think it probably would have been if the Church had wished to cite it in support of its teaching on contraception.


If I had to pinpoint it, I would say it arose in July 1930 at Lambeth, England.


Same place the new interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah came from. Those separated from the Bishops, i.e. Protestant churches. Those who want to commit these acts and say they are not immoral. Those who would make themselves their own Pope.




Yeah, but the punishment for disobeying the law of the levir was fairly mild: public shaming and the loss of his shoe. It was so mild that the punishment in fact morphed into a formal ceremony wherein the levir/yavam can voluntarily renounce this right and duty by submitting to the halitzah ceremony, where the “punishment” is ritually enacted, or the yavam voluntarily giving up his shoe as part of estate negotiations, as seen in the Book of Ruth. It also left the widow free to remarry anyone she wished. Today among Orthodox Jews, this is the default treatment for childless widows, and levirate marriage is banned in Israel.

For Onan to suffer death merely for violating the levirate law looks fairly harsh in the grand scheme of things.

" . . . but spilling his seed was a major part of it" Agreed, or why mention it at all? OT writers sometimes go to great lengths to describe any reference to intercourse as obliquely as possible.

No disagreement from me. I will be reading Ruth again tonight maybe, and looking up halitzah ceremony as well. Mortal sin now, death then. Not for me to understand yet I suppose.
Dominus vobiscum
Just read the Wikipedia entry for this, fascinating. Just the amount of details to have this done is interesting.


There are several articles on the Catholic Answers website that delves into the passage on Onan. I have attached three links to articles I found, but there are many more. As @porthos11 mentioned, the refusal to go into your brother’s widow was not near as drastic as killing. One way that I was taught concerning the passage was what Onan did was a lie. He pretended to try to impregnate his sister-in-law but he did not.

Here are the links to the articles:

As I mentioned, there are other articles as well. Please feel free to write again if you have other questions.


This, gives the understanding of the Church in 1822, very clearly.

(From Denzenger 43 edition # 2715, p. 558)

Pontificate of Pope Pius VII:
Response of the Sacred Penitentiary, April 23, 1822, concerning Onanism:

On Practice of Onanism wlthin Marriage

Question: Is it possible for a pious wife to permit her husband to approach her when she knows from experience that he conducts himself in the abominable manner of Onan …, especially if, by refusing, the wife exposes herself to the danger of violence or she fears the husband might have recourse to prostitutes?

Response: Since in the present case, the woman, for her part, indeed does nothing against nature and practices what is licit, the entire disorder of the act comes from the malice of the man, who, instead of consummating [the act], withdraws himself and ejaculates outside the vagina: if, therefore, after due admonitions, the wife achieves nothing, and the husband still insists, threatening beatings or death or other serious violence, the wife (as approved theologians teach) will be able to offer herself passively without sin since in these circumstances she is simply permitting the sin of her husband and for a grave reason, which excuses her, for charity, which would require her to prevent (the act), does not oblige her [if connected] with such harm.


Actually, it’s “gotquestions”. From their “about us” page:

In other words, their answers do not proceed from the teachings of the Catholic Church (but rather, from the personal opinions of Houdmann).

Therefore, this interpretation doesn’t come from “historical Christianity”, but from a present-day Christian. (As others have shown, moreover, it differs from the teaching of the Church over the past 2000 years.)


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