Onan (Hebrew: אוֹנָן, Modern Onan, Tiberian ʼÔnān; "Strong") is a minor biblical person in the Book of Genesis chapter 38, who was the second son of Judah. Like his older brother, Er, Onan was slain by God. Onan's death was retribution for being "evil in the sight of the Lord" through being unwilling to father a child by his widowed sister-in-law.
After Onan's brother Er dies, his father Judah told him to fulfill his duty to his brother by entering into a levirate marriage with his brother's widow Tamar to give her offspring. Religion professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky has pointed out the economic repercussions of a levirate marriage: any son born to Tamar would be deemed the heir of the deceased Er, and able to claim the firstborn's double share of inheritance. However, if Er were childless, Onan would have inherited as the oldest surviving son.
When Onan had sex with Tamar, he withdrew before climax and "spilled his seed [or semen] on the ground", since any child born would not legally be considered his heir. The next statement in the bible says that Onan did evil and that God slew him.
The implication from the narrative is that Onan's act as described is what gave raise to divine displeasure, but even if that is the case it is not clear whether his objectionable behaviour was the refusal to complete the levirate obligation of providing sperm for his brother's widow to continue his brother's name (and clan rights) or "shedding seed in vain", or even having sex with Tamar (who would normally be prohibited to him as a sister-in-law) outside the context of an overriding levirate obligation.
Early Jewish views
The view that the "wasted seed" refers to masturbation was upheld by many early rabbis. However, the Levitical regulations concerning ejaculation, whether as a result of sexual intercourse or not, merely prescribe a ritual washing, and remaining ritually impure until the next day began on the following evening.
Classical Christian views
Early Christian writers have sometimes focused on the spilling seed, and the sexual act being used for non-procreational purposes. One opinion expressed in the Talmud argues that this was where the death penalty's imposition originated. This interpretation was held by several early Christian apologists. Jerome, for example, argued:
But I wonder why he the heretic Jovinianus set Judah and Tamar before us for an example, unless perchance even harlots give him pleasure; or Onan, who was slain because he grudged his brother his seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?
Clement of Alexandria, while not making explicit reference to Onan, similarly reflects an early Christian view of the abhorrence of spilling seed:
Roman Catholic views
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According to some Bible critics who contextually read this passage, the description of Onan is an origin myth concerning fluctuations in the constituency of the tribe of Judah, with the death of Onan reflecting the dying out of a clan; Er and Onan are hence viewed as each being representative of a clan, with Onan possibly representing an Edomite clan named Onam, mentioned by an Edomite genealogy in Genesis.
Also, it has been suggested that God's anger was directed not at the sexual act, but at Onan's disobedience by refusing to impregnate his brother's widow.
The text emphasizes the social and legal situation, with Judah explaining what Onan must do and why. A plain reading of the text is that Onan was killed because he refused to follow instructions. Scholars have argued that the secondary purpose of the narrative about Onan and Tamar, of which the description of Onan is a part, was to either assert the institution of levirate marriage, or present an aetiological myth for its origin; Onan's role in the narrative is, thus, as the brother abusing his obligations by agreeing to sexual intercourse with his dead brother's wife, but refusing to allow her to become pregnant as a result. Emerton regards the evidence for this to be inconclusive, although classical rabbinical writers argued that this narrative describes the origin of levirate marriage.
Modern scholars and a Church Father, Epiphanius of Salamis, maintained that the story does not refer to masturbation, but to coitus interruptus. A number of other mainstream Bible scholars maintain the Bible does not claim that masturbation would be sinful.
- Genesis 38
- Dancy, J. The Divine Drama: the Old Testament as Literature, (ISBN 0718829875, ISBN 978-0-7188-2987-2), 2002, p. 92
- Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Tamar: Bible", Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 6, 2014)
- Freedman, Myers & Beck. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (ISBN 0802824005, ISBN 978-0-8028-2400-4), 2000, p.1273
- Dershowitz. The Genesis of Justice, (ISBN 0446524794, ISBN 978-0-446-52479-7), 2000, ch. 9
- Genesis 38:8-10
- Leviticus 15:18
- Leviticus 15:16-17
- Niddah 13a.
- Jerome, Against Jovinian 1:19, (AD 393)
- Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 (AD 191)
- Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:95:3
- J. A. Emerton, Judah And Tamar
- Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
- Genesis 36:23
- Alan Dershowitz, The Genesis of Justice
- Genesis Rabbah 85:6
- Coogan, Michael (October 2010). God and Sex. What the Bible Really Says (1st ed.). New York, Boston: Twelve. Hachette Book Group. p. 110. ISBN 978-0-446-54525-9. OCLC 505927356. Retrieved May 5, 2011.
Although Onan gives his name to "onanism," usually a synonym for masturbation, Onan was not masturbating but practicing coitus interruptus.
- Ellens, J. Harold (2006). "6. Making Babies: Purposes of Sex". Sex in the Bible: a new consideration. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers. p. 48. ISBN 0-275-98767-1. OCLC 65429579.
He practiced coitus interruptus whenever he made love to Tamar.
- Church Father Epiphanius of Salamis agrees, according to Riddle, John M. (1992). "1. Population and Sex". Contraception and abortion from the ancient world to the Renaissance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 4. ISBN 0-674-16875-5. OCLC 24428750.
Epiphanius (fourth century) construed the sin of Onan as coitus interruptus.14
- Patton, Michael S. (June 1985). "Masturbation from Judaism to Victorianism". Journal of Religion and Health. Springer Netherlands. 24 (2): 133–146. doi:10.1007/BF01532257. ISSN 0022-4197. PMID 24306073. Retrieved 12 November 2011.
Social change in attitudes toward masturbation has occurred at the professional level only since 1960 and at the popular level since 1970.  ... onanism and masturbation erroneously became synonymous...  ... there is no legislation in the Bible pertaining to masturbation. 
- Kwee, Alex W.; David C. Hoover (2008). "Theologically-Informed Education about Masturbation: A Male Sexual Health Perspective" (PDF). Journal of Psychology and Theology. La Mirada, CA, USA: Rosemead School of Psychology. Biola University. 36 (4): 258–269. ISSN 0091-6471. Retrieved 12 November 2011.
The Bible presents no clear theological ethic on masturbation, leaving many young unmarried Christians with confusion and guilt around their sexuality.