Did God kill Onan because he wasted his seed and spilled it on the ground? The answer is clear in the Bible but sadly, many people don’t read the Bible stories in their entirety. They just read snippets. This leads to people dreadfully misinformed about biblical events. Now, let’s take a look at the passage.
Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.
8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.
11 Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household. (Genesis 38:6-11)
Most people just read verses 8-10 which is not enough for them to understand the full context.
Genesis 38:6-7 Judah’s first son married Tamar, but unfortunately he did not live long enough to impregnate his wife. This is a problem because Tamar has no heir to inherit Er’s land or possessions. Women could not inherit things usually. Though, special cases existed when appeals were made to judges. This is why it was an expected practice for the brother of the deceased husband to have a son with her. It’s referred too as a Levirite duty.
Genesis 38:8-9 Onan was the brother of Er, and it was now his responsibility to have a son with her. If he did not do so then it would be the nearest kin’s job, but no nearer kin existed (Genesis 38:11). So Onan was charged with the task to produce offspring with his brother’s wife and he shamefully and selfishly decided not to because he knew the son would not belong to him. This means he would not inherit his brother’s land or belongings but his brother’s surrogate son would.
This is shameful on two levels. On the major level he knows that he is going to leave Tamar stranded and desolate. Many women who have no “redeemer” to give them a son could fall into prostitution or even worse. The second piece is that he still had sex with her, pretending to get her pregnant. But he was just lying to have sex with her and then eventually take her dead husband’s belongings.
Deuteronomy explains the issue with the brotherly duties.
If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. 6The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.
7However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” 8Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” 9his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” 10That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
Genesis 38:10 The above wickedness is why God put him to death. It had nothing to do with wasting his seed. It was the betrayal of his brother and of Tamar.
Genesis 38:11 Judah has now lost two sons and the only son left was probably too young to redeem Tamar. However, the passage indicates the Judah also feared for his life, not knowing why Onan was killed. I am sure Onan did not reveal his dirty deeds with his father. So Judah decided to send her back to her father’s house to live out her days as a widow. This was essentially a death sentence.
This is also why we see later in the story Tamar goes to extreme measures and tricks Judah (her dead husband’s father) into having sex with her and having a son. It is one of the best survival and revenge stories to ever exist. Here it is to enjoy.
When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,”14 she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face.16 Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”
“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.
17 “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.
“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.
18 He said, “What pledge should I give you?”
“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. 19 After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.
20 Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. 21 He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”
“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.
22 So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’”
23 Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”
24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.”
Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”
25 As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”
26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.
27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” 29 But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez. 30 Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.
Tamar was basically left destitute by the death of her husband. Furthermore, without a son she would have no one to take care of her when she ages. This is why it was important for Onan to do his brotherly duty and provide her with a son. However, he decided that he wanted the sex but he did not want to have the responsibility of looking after his brother’s widow or the offspring that could come from their union. So he tricked her and used her for sex while knowing she would still be left in despair and would never have a future.
Why is this important? This topic is important because many believe this passage teaches that sex must only be for procreation. If God killed Onan because he spilled his seed then it must be evil to have sex without trying to impregnate the woman. However, his death has nothing to do with the wasting of his seed and everything to do with Onan lying and tricking his brother’s widow.