In this article, I will examine Genesis 38 and contraception. I borrow in this article, quite heavily from Charles Provan, a Lutheran, who wrote a book, The Bible and Birth Control. Anyone who wants a thorough look at the issue of the Bible and birth control, I recommend this book, which can be purchased by clicking here. He gives many more Scriptures than I do in this paper, to show how birth control is indeed Biblically untenable.
Here is the text I will concentrate on in this article:
Gen. 38:8 Then Judah said to Onan, 'Go in to your brother's wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.' 9 But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to see his brother's wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. 10 What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also.
The above text has been used by a united Christianity down through the centuries to show that acts of contraception are immoral. That is because Onan had sex with his wife, Tamar, and did not want to raise the children for his brother, who had died. He had sex but contracepted the act. There are no doubt varying things that Onan did that was wrong, but a united Christianity has always taught that the principle act that caused Onan's death was this contraceptive act: Have sex and avoid the consequences. Once Protestantism discarded the 1900 years of Christian teaching against contraception, starting with the Lambeth Conference by the Anglicans in 1930, then alternative explanations had to begin to be manufactured to say, 'well this has nothing to do with birth control.' There are tons of not only Church Fathers and Catholic theologians, but even Protestants who for 400 years, saw in this act a condemnation by Scripture of birth control. Charles Provan documents this in the book, The Bible and Birth Control
The most popular modern day, rationale that Protestants use, is that Onan is killed because he did not fulfill the obligation to marry and bear children for Tamar. There are several reasons why this is not a reasonable explanation. First, we need to compare Gen. 38 to Deuteronomy 25:1-10, which eliminates this possible explanation. It says in Deuteronomy, that regardless of a man's motives for refusing to raise up seed for a dead brother, the man is not to be put to death. Thus, the person not only does not marry, but also provides no offspring for his brother who died: The Levirate responsibility. Here in Deuteronomy, he is to be humiliated only (shoe pulled off, face spit on, etc.). On the other hand, Onan was put to death for what he did, while the man in Deu. 25 is not.
As we compare the two Bible texts (Gen. 38:8-10 and Deu. 25:5-10) we need to ask ourselves, "What did Onan do that the man of Deu. 25 didn't do?" The difference in conduct explains the difference in the penalty meted out by God. And the difference is that Onan wasted (killed, destroyed) his seed, the other man did not. Suppose the man in Deu. 25 thinks exactly as Onan, saying to himself, "I don't want to raise up seed for my brother," yet doesn't waste his seed? What happens to him according to the law of God? -- humiliation only, regardless of his unloving thoughts. (Provan, The Bible and Birth Control p. 13)
Notice the text. It says that what he did was displeasing to God. He did spill the semen, thus enjoy sex, and made sure that there were no consequences. What did Onan do that displeased God? Notice that in the verse, he spilled the semen on the ground. However, the word that is used for spilling semen on the ground is not merely spill. I find out from Provan, that 'The verb used is not for merely emitting semen. Out of all the verses which mention the emission of semen in the Old Testament, the Onan verse 'he wasted his seed on the ground' is the only verse to employ the word 'shachath' (which means 'to waste, corrupt, destroy, devastate', . This word is used in many passages as a synonym for 'killed.', destroy. (For example see Gen. 6:17, 9:15 and Judges 20:21) Does one not see that there might be a reason for Onan's emission of seed to described as a 'killing' of seed, while all other passages use words which merely mean 'emit'? The reason is that in all other passages, no one does anything to intentionally harm the semen--but in Onan's case, he deliberately killed his. If 'there is nothing in the whole Bible that specifically condemns the spilling of the seed', then why does Scripture use the very negative word 'shacath' in Onan's case but not in any of the others? (Provan, The Bible and Birth Control, p. 40)
In further elaboration of this point about the Hebrew meaning from the word 'shichet' (or 'spilling' the seed), I quote from a Hebrew scholar as cited in John Kippley's Sex and the Marriage Covenant, (The Couple to Couple League International, Inc. p. 310.) "Biblical schoar Manuel Miguens has pointed out that a close examination of the text shows that God condemned Onan for the specific action he performed, not for his anti-Levirate intentions. He notes that the translation 'he spilled his seed on the ground' fails to do full justice to the Hebrew expression. The Hebrew verb shichet never means to spill or waste. Rather, it means to act perversely. The text also makes it clear that his perverse action was related towards the ground, not against his brother. "His perversion or corruption consists in his action itself, not precisely in the result and goal of his act...In a strict interpretation the text says that what was evil in the sight of the Lord was what Onan actually did (asher asah); the emphasis in this sentence of verse 10 does not fall on what he intended to achieve, but on what he did. Manuel Miguens, "Biblical Thoughts on Human Sexuality," Human Sexuality in our Time, ed.(Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1979) 112-115. Martin Luther himself noted this fact, and argued from this that birth control is even worse than adultery!!!
A sidelight on Dt. 25 is very relevant. Further on, we see God's care for the fertility of man, and how he does not want fertility to be directly curtailed by man or woman:
10And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, The house of him that had his sandal pulled off. 11"When men fight with one another, and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, 12then you shall cut off her hand; your eye shall have no pity.
Look at the repercussions of this Biblical text. A wife goes to rescue her husband from a man fighting with him. She goes to help him by seizing his private parts, and thus gives the possibility of emasculating him, making him infertile. What does God say to do? Reward the wife for defending her husband? (Provan, The Bible and Birth Control), p. 22. On the contrary, she gets her own hands cut off!! God will actually have no pity for her!! This shows how God disdains mankind's tinkering with man's fertility.
As a matter of fact, we do not have to go to Deuteronomy 25 to show that this argument is insufficient. We can look at Genesis 38 itself to see that the argument that Onan was killed because of his refusing to fulfill the obligation to raise up children is insufficient. This theory that God is punishing Onan merely because he failed to fulfill the Levirate rule makes God capricious. For example, in this very chapter of Genesis, not only does Judah not get punished for doing the very same thing as Onan did, (withholding his son Selah from her), but Selah himself withholds himself from her. Given that Judah himself compounds the problem by making her a harlot, Onan's specific act of destroying seed takes a larger picture. Judah had promised to give Tamar his son to her (v.11), when he was older. Judah himself is deceitful, and he himself, when caught, admits that he is a worse sinner than herself (v. 26). Shelah himself, who was now grown up, (v. 14), also was deceitful, should have taken her as her husband, and raised up children. He did not. Tamar notices this, but no deaths of either Judah or Shelah. Thus, they were all in a sense rebellious, and did not do what they should have. So, what is the difference between Judah, Onan, and Shelah? The only substantive fact is that Onan went into her lawfully as he married her (unlike Judah who went into her unlawfully), but only Onan destroyed the seed. Ultimately any attempt to exclude this as the principle grounds of Onan's death, is a pure attempt at expediency.
It is true that God does not punish directly today and in the New Covenant, in the exact same way that he punished Onan in Genesis 38. We know that adultery in the OT is treated differently than adultery in the NT (at least in reference to temporal consequences, although eternal consequences would be the same). Jesus did not stone the woman for adultery. Likewise, we are not called to stone women for adultery. However, the principles of morality established are carried over as well into the New Testament, even if the consequences are different. God would also be just as opposed to contraception now, as he was then, even if he doesn't directly kill people now, just as he doesn't directly kill adulterers now. However, God is opposed to adultery back then, just as he is opposed to adultery now. In the same way, God opposed birth control back then (as evidenced by Genesis 38) as he opposes birth control now.
What about other reasons for explaining the Onan incident which avoids any birth control implications as the reason he got killed?
Alternative #2 - Onan was killed by God for disobeying his father, not for wasting his seed. It ain't about 'birth control' it's about REBELLION.
Response - According to Scripture, God has decreed that the marriage of son ends any mandatory obedience to his father. Gen. 2:24 says, "For this cause a man shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall become one flesh." So, if Judah had authority over Onan, his authority ended when Onan got married to his brother's widow. Therefore God did not kill Onan because he disobeyed Judah, because according to the word of God, Onan did not have to obey him. ( Provan, The Bible and Birth Control), p. 13)
One might object:
the case of Onan and his spilled seed is probably more related to what was going on in Onan's head when he did what he did when he did it.
What does Scripture itself tell us? This objection is nice speculation, but Scripture only gives us that God kills him after he had sex with his new wife, and withdrew from her to avoid her having children: i.e. birth control. He is specifically said to destroy the semen, not merely spill semen, as we have seen. It doesn't tell us he 'thought this, or thought that', but what he DID was wicked in the Lord's sight, so he put him to death. This willful destruction of semen is an awful deed.
In any case, the one who thinks that this passage speaks against birth control, does not have to say that Onan was great otherwise. I don't have to say, he was the greatest guy on earth, 'except he did this birth control thing.' I am not put in an either/or position Provan, The Bible and Birth Control), p. 54). We could agree that Onan had greed, theft, and even rebellion. Likewise, Judah himself, and his own Son Selah refused to take her. They in a sense rebelled against what they should have done. Judah even went into her himself unlawfully, as opposed to Onan doing it lawfully. The only difference is that Onan destroyed something, the semen, which can produce children. Now I can admit Onan was deceitful in one sense, and even in a sense rebellious. We can say he did all this, but in fact the verse itself shows that Scripture still condemns Onan specifically for destroying his seed. However, those who say this has nothing to do with birth control, must come up with a reason to exclude the destruction of semen as any part of the equation. However, the Scripture specifically mentions that the destruction of the semen is the core of the problem, even if there were other factors. The argument that is posed on the 'this has nothing to do with birth control' side is merely an argument for expediency.
Alternative #3 "Well Onan must have been killed because he lied to Judah
Rebuttal: There is no proof that he lied to anyone. The Scripture is silent as to what Onan said to anyone. The Holy Spirit says what Onan did, then it says God killed him for what he did. And what he did was to 'waste his seed on the ground.' Onan was killed because he wasted seed (destroy, kill). Therefore birth control is automatically condemned , because all forms of birth control have as their goal the wasting of seed (Provan, The Bible and Birth Control), pp. 13-14).
Besides that, not only Catholics like Augustine saw this as a condemnation of birth control, but Protestants like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wesley, Melancthon Jacobus, Matthew Henry, Christian Gottlob Barth, the Synod of Dort, Jerhard Gerhard, William Dodd, Alfred Edersheim, and a bunch of other Protestant theologians all saw this as a condemnation of birth control. Again, for documentation, purchase Provan's book here.
Calvin, for example said,
'The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born the hoped for offspring. This impiety is especially condemned, now by the Spirit though Moses' mouth, that Onan, as it were, by a violent abortion, no less cruelly than filthily cast upon the ground the offspring of his brother, torn from the maternal womb. Besides, in this way he tried, as far as he was able, to wipe out a part of the human race (Calvin's Commentary on Gen. 38:8-10, translated from the Latin, as quoted in Provan, The Bible and Birth Control), p. 68).
One has argued that there is another difference between Onan and the person in Deut. 25 that makes it worse. That he married her, but refused to raise up children.
Actually, that would make Onan actually better, because he actually married the sister. Thus, he is better off even than those who wouldn't marry the sister. Thus, he shouldn't have even been criticized and humiliated by Tamar, as prescribed for those in Deuteronomy 25. The fact that Onan married her actually means he obeyed what he should have done in this specific area. Although God in his own wisdom sometimes treat people differently, and punishes them differently, for the most part, he is equitable in his treatment of people. There is nothing shown in Judah's or his son Shelah's life, that show that they had a great relationship with God and that is how they did this with no repercussions while Onan was killed. This reasoning thus falls short of explaining the difference.
One might say, Onan, in rebellion to his father, was smitten by God, who is well able to make such choices.
However, as Gen. 2:24 tells us, Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. on matters of family, Onan was no longer necessary under the obligation to obey his father, per se. He now has his own responsibility.
The only remaining explanation that we have is the first one offered, that Onan destroyed the seed in Gen. 38:9, and that God killed him, as whenever he had sex, he withdrew.. He has sex, but no consequences. That is birth control to a tee, even if it is in a crude manner. Remember, what he did, was to enjoy having sex but refuse the outcome. The very means to not have any children was this crude form of contraception, and the fact that the context of God killing Onan, is specifically when mentioning this sex act. The context of the crime for what Onan gets killed for, is when he destroys the semen intentionally (as evidenced in the text itself).
Scripture tells us that sex in the marriage covenant is the renewal of a covenant. For a more detailed look at marriage and covenant, a great book to look at is John Kippley's Sex and the Marriage Covenant. Likewise, in Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira went through the motions of a covenantal act but defrauded it, and both were stricken dead when they each engaged in this deception. Onan's responsibility in Genesis 38 to Tamar was a covenenantal obligation; so was the obligation of Ananias and Sapphira to be honest with the apostles. The act of marital intercourse is also a covenantal act intended by the Creator to be a renewal of the faith and caring love pledged at marriage. The Onan account directly supports the Christian Tradition that we are obliged not to defraud this covenantal act by contraception, and the Ananias-Sapphira account shows how seriously God takes the defrauding of covenantal acts.
How about the Jewish look at this issue? In a study of Genesis 38, Brian Harrison looked into this. His article on Genesis 38 is here: The Sin of Onan. One relevant excerpt found in this article is:
The classical Jewish commentators - who can scarcely be accused of ignorance regarding Hebrew language, customs, law, and biblical literary genres - certainly saw in this passage of Scripture a condemnation of both unnatural intercourse and masturbation such.8 A typical traditional Jewish commentary puts it thus: "[Onan misused the organs God gave him for propagating the race to unnaturally satisfy his own lust, and he was therefore deserving death."9 And this is undoubtedly in accord with the natural impression which most unprejudiced readers will draw from the text of Genesis 38.
Harrison's sources for these particular quotations are:
8 The Encyclopedia Judaica (Vol.4,p.1054, article "Birth Control") states: "Jewish tradition ascribed the practice of birth control to the depraved humanity before Noah (Gen. R. 23:2,4; Rashi to Gen. 4:19,23)." (For further confirmation of Jewish views on this point, cf. H. Hirsch Cohen, The Drunkenness of Noah [University of Alabama Press.].) The Encyclopedia article adds that on the basis of Gen. 38:9-10, "the Talmud sternly inveighs against 'bringing forth the seed in vain', considering it a cardinal sin (Nid. 13a). . . .Strictly Orthodox [Jews, . . . . for religious reasons, refuse to resort to birth control." In the same Encyclopedia, under "Onanism" (Vol. 12, p.1495), it is stated that the act of Onan "is taken . . . by the Talmud (Yev. 34b) to refer either to unnatural intercourse or (cf. Nid. 13a) to masturbation. The Zohar [a13th century work] expatiates on the evil of onanism in the second sense." Other works by Jewish authors corroborating this tradition include D. Feldman, Marital Relations, Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law (NewYork: Schocken Books, 1974) and J. Cohen, Be Fertile, Increase, Fill the Earth and Mater It (Cornell University Press, 1989).
9Bereshis: Genesis - A New Translation with a Commentary Authorized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 1980, Vol.5, p.1677).
Thus, not only do we have a united Christianity seeing as the principle condemnation of Onan as his bringing forth seed in vein (which is the very purpose of birth control), but the historical Jewish outlook concurs with this view.
There are many biblical reasons that undergird the issue of teaching against Contraception from the Bible. I briefly borrow this from Provan's book, with the Biblical documentation to be found in his book already mentioned. (To see the succinct Biblical reasons against birth control, one needs to purchase this book These principles are here: (Provan, The Bible and Birth Control), pp. 5-31)
1) The command to be fruitful and multiply
2) Children are always seen as a blessing, and never seen as a nuisance, as all the birth control advocates proclaim
3) Childlessness is portrayed as an unfortunate thing
4) Death penalties given for sexual offenses that are barren
5) Castration is seen as a blemish
6) Seed as semen or children
7) Shows the natural function of women.
These principles are all Biblical and militate against birth control. The Onan incident fleshes it out.
For an online analysis of more of the Biblical reasoning against birth control, see: Artificial Birth Control: What does the Bible teach…by Martin Beckman.
For an examination of the moral reasoning that condemns contraception, and a look at both sides of the argument, and its relation to Natural Family Planning, see this: Refuting the Pro-Contraception Arguments.
On the issue of the serious health risks to those women for who take contraception, here is : Facts about the Birth Control Pill..by M.H. Hernandez For a look at the direct link between abortion and birth control Click here for an article done by the American Life league.
Most Christian opponents of the Catholic teaching on birth control say that the Bible nowhere condemns birth control. It is true, birth control is not explicitly mentioned as being condemned in the Bible, in the sense of 'Thou shalt not practice birth control' (though we have seen its clear implications in Genesis 38) . A full reading of Scripture itself likewise does not have an explicit condemnation of abortion itself. In fact, I have seen some use Numbers 5:12-22 as God actually authorizing abortion. There is nothing in the Bible that condemns abortion anywhere approaching the condemnation of birth control that we see in Genesis 38:9. In fact, it is the same Catholic tradition that gives us the correct canon of Scripture and condemnation of abortion, that at the same time also gives us the condemnation of contraception.
I will close by going on to a side, but very related issue. I have noticed that all the arguments for the use of birth control are unbiblical, shortsighted, and have horrific ramifications if we also believe that abortion is wrong. What are the reasons often given to say that birth control is Ok? For example, 'Well, it is too much of a burden for the family to have more children. I am too poor to have other children. I don't want to have the repercussions for the experiences that I want to enjoy.' These principles are absolutely unbiblical as there is nothing in the Bible that says that these are sufficient reasons for actively divorcing the procreative ends from the sexual act. These are the exact same reasons that rationalize abortion. In other words, birth control is the epitomy of the feel good, lack of responsibility generation that gives us the very reasons for the legitimization of abortion. Genesis 38 is a reminder to us, of the evil of contraception itself. We should take heed of this reminder.
To all visitors Grace of Christ to you!
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