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Onan (Hebrew: אוֹנָן, Modern: Onan, Tiberian: ʼÔnān "Mourner"; Greek: Αὐνάν Aunan) is a minor biblical person in the Book of Genesis chapter 38,[1] 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" and disobeying a direct order from the Lord by being unwilling to father a child by his widowed sister-in-law.[2]

Biblical account[edit]

After Onan's brother Er was slain by God, 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, or only had daughters, Onan would have inherited as the oldest surviving son.[3]

When Onan had sex with Tamar, he withdrew before his orgasm[4] and "spilled his seed on the ground", since any child born would not legally be considered his heir.[5] The next statement in the Bible says that Onan did evil and that God slew him.[6]


The implication from the narrative is that Onan's act as described is what gave rise 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[edit]

One opinion expressed in the Talmud argues that this was where the death penalty's imposition originated.[7] However, the Levitical regulations concerning ejaculation, whether as a result of sexual intercourse[8] or not,[9] merely prescribe a ritual washing, and remaining ritually impure until the next day began on the following evening.

Classical Christian views[edit]

Early Christian writers have sometimes focused on the spilling seed, and the sexual act being used for non-procreational purposes. 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 begrudged his brother his seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?[10]

Epiphanius of Salamis wrote against heretics who used coitus interruptus, calling it the sin of Οnan:[11]

They soil their bodies, minds and souls with unchastity. Some of them masquerade as monastics, and their woman companions as female monastics. And they are physically corrupted because they satisfy their appetite but, to put it politely, by the act of Onan the son of Judah. For as Onan coupled with Tamar and satisfied his appetite but did not complete the act by planting his seed for the God-given [purpose of] procreation and did himself harm instead, thus, as <he> did the vile thing, so these people have used their supposed <female monastics>, committing this infamy. For purity is not their concern, but a hypocritical purity in name. Their concern is limited to ensuring that the woman the seeming < ascetic > has seduced does not get pregnant—either so as not to cause child-bearing, or to escape detection, since they want to be honored for their supposed celibacy. In any case, this is what they do, but others endeavor to get this same filthy satisfaction not with women but by other means, and pollute themselves with their own hands. They too imitate the son of Judah, soil the ground with their forbidden practices and drops of filthy fluid and rub their emissions into the earth with their feet[12]

Clement of Alexandria, while not making explicit reference to Onan, similarly reflects an early Christian view of the abhorrence of spilling seed:

Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted.[13] To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature.[14]

Roman Catholic views[edit]

The papal encyclical Casti connubii (1930) invokes this Biblical text in support of the teaching of the Catholic Church against contracepted sex.

Early Protestant views[edit]

Making reference to Onan's offense to identify masturbation as sinful, in his Commentary on Genesis, John Calvin wrote that "the voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between a man and a woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is double monstrous."[15][16] Methodism founder John Wesley, according to Bryan C. Hodge, "believed that any waste of the semen in an unproductive sexual act, whether that should be in the form of masturbation or coitus interruptus, as in the case of Onan, destroyed the souls of the individuals who practice it".[17] He writes his Thoughts on the Sin of Onan (1767), which was reproduced as A Word to Whom it May Concern on 1779, as an attempt to censor a work by Samuel-Auguste Tissot.[18] In that writing, Wesley warns about "the dangers of self pollution", the bad physical and mental effects of masturbation,[19][18] writes many such cases along with the treatment recommendations.[20]


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;[21][22] Er and Onan are hence viewed as each being representative of a clan, with Onan possibly representing an Edomite clan named Onam,[22] mentioned by an Edomite genealogy in Genesis.[23]

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.[24] By "closely analyzing the language used to describe Onan's offense", other scholars challenge that interpretation. They argue that Onan was punished both because of a perverted sexual act, i.e. "to waste his seed on the ground", and his rejection to provide an heir for his dead brother.[25] It is said that those who followed Onan's act break "the social bond with their 'criminal hands', wasting the precious fluid that had been designed to perpetuate the human race".[26]:89

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 a myth for its origin;[21] 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.[27]

John M. Riddle argues that "Epiphanius (fourth century) construed the sin of Onan as coitus interruptus ".[28] John T. Noonan Jr. says that "St. Epiphanius gave a plain interpretation of the text as a condemnation of contraception, and he did so only in the context of his anti-Gnostic polemic".[29]

Some modern scholars maintained that the story does not refer to masturbation, but to coitus interruptus.[2][30][31] Some Bible scholars even maintain the Bible does not claim that masturbation would be sinful.[32][33] Although the story of Onan does not involve masturbation, according to Peter Lewis Allen, theologians found "a common element" in both coitus interruptus (also known as onanism) and masturbation, as well as anal intercourse and other forms of nonmarital and nonvaginal sexual acts, which are considered wrong acts.[26]:81–82


The term onanism has come to refer to "masturbation" in many modern languages – for example Hebrew (אוננות, onanút), German (Onanie), Greek (αυνανισμός, avnanismós), and Japanese (オナニー, onanī)) based on an interpretation of the Onan story.


  1. ^ Chapter 38
  2. ^ a b Dancy, J. The Divine Drama: the Old Testament as Literature (ISBN 0718829875, ISBN 978-0-7188-2987-2), 2002, p. 92
  3. ^ Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Tamar: Bible", Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 6, 2014)
  4. ^ Freedman, Myers & Beck. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (ISBN 0802824005, ISBN 978-0-8028-2400-4), 2000, p. 1273
  5. ^ Dershowitz. The Genesis of Justice (ISBN 0446524794, ISBN 978-0-446-52479-7), 2000, ch. 9
  6. ^ Genesis 38:8–10
  7. ^ Niddah 13a.
  8. ^ Leviticus 15:18
  9. ^ Leviticus 15:16–17
  10. ^ Jerome, Against Jovinian 1:19, (AD 393)
  11. ^ United States Congress Senate Committee on Government Operations Subcommittee on Foreign Aid Expenditures'. Population Crisis: Hearings, Eighty-ninth Congress, Second Session U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966, p. 403-404
  12. ^ Epiphanius of Salamis, Boston, 2010, p. 131
  13. ^ Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2 (AD 191)
  14. ^ Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:95:3
  15. ^ Thatcher, Adrian (2011). God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 184–185. ISBN 978-1405193696.
  16. ^ Reilly, Kevin (2014). "Masturbation". In Laderman, Gary; León, Luis (eds.). Religion and American Cultures: Tradition, Diversity, and Popular Expression (Second ed.). ABC-CLIO. p. 770. ISBN 978-1610691109.
  17. ^ Hodge, Bryan C. (2010). The Christian Case against Contraception: Making the Case from Historical, Biblical, Systematic, and Practical Theology & Ethics. Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN 978-1621892199.
  18. ^ a b Numbers, Ronald L.; Amundsen, Darrel W. (1986). Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Religious Traditions. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 322. ISBN 0801857961.
  19. ^ Madden, Deborah (2012). 'Inward & Outward Health': John Wesley's Holistic Concept of Medical Science, the Environment and Holy Living. Wipf and Stock Publishers. pp. 152–153. ISBN 978-1620321270.
  20. ^ Coe, Bufford W. (1996). John Wesley and Marriage. Lehigh University Press. p. 64. ISBN 0934223394.
  21. ^ a b J. A. Emerton, Judah And Tamar
  22. ^ a b Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
  23. ^ Genesis 36:23
  24. ^ Alan Dershowitz, The Genesis of Justice
  25. ^ Lawler, Ronald David; Boyle, Joseph M.; May, William E. (1998). Catholic Sexual Ethics. Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. p. 39. ISBN 0879739525. This interpretation, although popular today, is sharply challenged by other sholars. Closely analyzing the language used to describe Onan's offense, they point out that God punished him both because of what Onan chose to do — to waste his seed on the ground was a perverse sexual act — and because he did this for a base purpose or end, namely, to deprive his dead brother of progeny.
  26. ^ a b Allen, Peter Lewis (2002). The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226014614.
  27. ^ Genesis Rabbah 85:6
  28. ^ Riddle, John M. (1992). "1. Population and Sex". Contraception and abortion from the ancient world to the Renaissance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 4. ISBN 0-674-16875-5. OCLC 24428750.
  29. ^ Noonan, Jr., John T. (2012). Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Enlarged ed.). Harvard University Press. p. 101. ISBN 978-0674070264.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ 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. S2CID 39066052. Social change in attitudes toward masturbation has occurred at the professional level only since 1960 and at the popular level since 1970. [133] ... onanism and masturbation erroneously became synonymous... [134] ... there is no legislation in the Bible pertaining to masturbation. [135]
  33. ^ 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. doi:10.1177/009164710803600402. ISSN 0091-6471. S2CID 142040707. 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.