Saturday, March 31, 2007

Whacking Onan

Vast Left brings up an interesting difficulty:
"Whacking Onan for, well...? Ditto. To my mind, YHWH has some 'splaining to do. Fortunately, he has nearly 1200 more chapters in which to bring me around."
After re-reading his comments, I thought about addressing this there, but I figured it would get a fairer shake on the front page. The story of Onan is less-known than that of Joseph or Isaac, but "whacking" is as good a verb to use as any: the word "onanism," named for him, means coitus interruptus or masturbation.

The backstory is this: A younger son of Judah, Onan was ordered to marry his brother's widow, which he did, sort of:
And Judah said to Onan, "Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up children for your brother." And Onan knew that the children should not be [legally] his. So when he slept with his brother’s wife he came on the ground so that he would not raise children for his brother. That displeased the LORD, who killed him as well.
- Gen 38:8-10, my translation.
Rather a strange command on the part of Judah, but we'll get back to that. The first task, though, is to realize what exactly Onan did and what it meant. The moral issue here is not that he used "ancient birth control*" or that he enjoyed his wife without giving her an orgasm or something of that sort. In fact, it has little to do with the sex at all.

It had to do with a concept known as "Levirite marriage." Rabbi Tilsen explains it this way: "The purpose of this rule is insure that the deceased's property rights, some of which may be entwined with the widow, will remain within his tribe, and to insure that the widow has the support she needs."

In the Ancient Near East, where there was no welfare and where property was tied to family, the only support a woman could often count on was that of her husband. Women whose husbands died were too often left no alternative but a life of destitution and prostitution since the only property she had was her own body. Levirite laws ensured that a widow would be cared for, and that property for that care would remain in the family, by marrying that widow to the next available brother of her husband. She was in a very real sense married into a family, not just to a man. The children of such a union were guaranteed the inheritance rights that his original father would have passed to him and they then received the moral obligation to care for their mother with the production from that property. In short, this requirement, rather than being exploitive of Tamar, was protective of her long-term well-being.

As for what appears to us a very strange command, Judah was in full accord with legal and cultural expectations of the time when he asked Onan to live up to these familial obligations. Onan blatantly refused, which eventually left Tamar no choice (at least in her mind) but to prostitute herself out to her father-in-law without his knowledge**. In short, by refusing to impregnate his wife, he was not only endangering the family inheritance (and the food that could be grown on it) but more importantly he was depriving her of the financial support that was her legal and moral right. For that abject refusal, God killed him. One can argue whether a man who would selfishly condemn an innocent woman to a life of destitution and prostitution deserves the death penalty, but at least then we are arguing over the correct things.

* Catholic doctrine to this day underays their opposition to birth control using the story of Onan for support. Incorrectly, IMO, because the sin was not in the sex but in the refusal of family responsibility.

** Though that hardly makes him an innocent in this whole affair, to say the least. As Matthew Henry, 18th Century commentator noted about Genesis 38:
"This chapter gives an account of Judah and his family, and such an account it is, that it seems a wonder that of all Jacob’s sons, our Lord should spring out of Judah. But God will show that his choice is of grace and not of merit, and that Christ came into the world to save sinners, even the chief. Also, that the worthiness of Christ is of himself, and not from his ancestors."

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