“Onan spilled his seed on the ground… so the Lord killed him.” Genesis 38: 9-10
(I should preface this article to say that if the word onanism causes you to blanche or snicker, this might not be for you. The message, however, is far more serious than the word might immediately covey.)
I heard that passage in youth groups for all of my youth and much of my early adulthood. It continues to be shared primarily with young men to curb certain adolescent adventures. While many young men will think of Onan as the primary character in the story, the story is actually about a young lady named Tamar. Further complicating our interpretation of the story is the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with masturbation (which has been memorialized as onanistic behavior in the English language and psychological journals).
One can understand why Youth leaders might be tempted to tell this story to teenagers, but this abuse of the text in service of an agenda has hidden a deeper and more devastating narrative from the Church. The story of Judah and Tamar is about cultural rot and the loss of saltiness in the people of God. It begins with Judah leaving his family and settling in Canaanite territory and marrying a Canaanite woman. Judah become a Canaanite and raises his children as Canaanites. They marry Canaanite women and seek to have pagan children.
What changes in them is important to note. The difference in their behaviors (according to the story) is identified in the loss of love for family and others. They become selfish and self-serving. Selfish people do not love others as themselves, primarily because they do not walk with God in love.
This is serious stuff. And when you read the story of Onan, you begin to understand that it is an extremely important story about the expectations of Israel in the world. The people of God are supposed to love their brother as they love themselves. When they fail to do this, they become estranged from their own communities and begin to pervert even the pagan communities around them.
It should be noted that the seriousness of Onan’s actions are represented in the actions taken by God. God doesn’t strike dictators dead, but for some reason Onan is killed by God, because of his actions towards Tamar. There is a purpose to this that may connect us to the death of Ananias and Saphira in the book of Acts. In both cases the people of God were acting in ways that outwardly showed compliance to god’s law, but inwardly perverted its expectations. Whether you try to fool people to believe that you are giving of yourself or taking care of your family, the selfish core of your abuse is offensive to God. God acts to protect his good name and the people of God from frauds and liars in their midst.
And by the end of the story of Tamar and Judah you realize that God is radically changing the nature of the people of God. By the conclusion of chapter 38, an entire generation is removed from the lineage of Judah. They are literally going to be jumped over. And this daughter in law, who is a pagan woman, this Tamar is going to be one of the women mentioned in the line of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. She becomes the mother of Judah’s ‘legitimate’ children.
God skips over Judah’s sons to begin again with his sons with Tamar, all because of the selfishness that had taken root in the family of Judah. This is very, very important business, especially in the context of the book of Genesis, which is all about genealogy.
So here’s what actually happens. Judah’s firstborn son dies, leaving his wife Tamar childless. According to the customs of the time, the second born son was instructed to have sexual contact with the wife of his brother, so that his brother’s name would continue. Onan takes his brother’s wife, his sister-in-law into his home, but instead of fulfilling his obligation to his brother he does whatever he can to avoid impregnating her, most likely to maintain control of her sexually. He spills his seed on the ground. He gratifies himself using her body without ever giving her the ability to have children out of the action.
He uses his brother’s wife and plans to continue to abuse her. He doesn’t love her. He doesn’t love his brother. He doesn’t honor either of them. Instead, he objectifies them and puts his own pleasure above anyone else. So God strikes him dead.
When Judah refuses to let his third son fulfill the family duties, Tamar poses as a prostitute and sleeps with him for the price of his signet ring, cord, and staff. She becomes pregnant by her father-in-law and when the pregnancy is discovered, her father-in-law accuses her of infidelity and of hurting the family name. When he accuses her, she reveals that Judah is the father of the children by returning his personal effects. The children (twins) are born and they are added to the lineage of Jesus, skipping over the three sons and moving into the Messianic line.
Why is this so important? It’s so important because the cultural center of Jewish religion is loving God as with all that you are and loving your neighbor as yourself. The actions of Judah and his children were all selfish love. They were eroticized selfishness. They cared little for community. They cared little for family, they only cared for gratification.
Now let’s step back from the story for a moment. And let’s ask ourselves some simple questions about the deficits in our own society. In fact, the fascinating thing is that almost all of the things that drive us insane in today’s culture are linked to a pervasive self-centeredness. We are selfish. We all want our own way. We all despise the opinions of those who disagree with us. We have very little community based agape love.
The danger from the biblical perspective is our failure to change may result in the loss of a generation. This is what happened to Judah’s family; he lost a generation. Now most of us can’t comprehend that. And frankly, because of our own selfishness, we may not care what it means.
Please let me articulate the meaning from the OT perspective, Judah’s sons were erased from the family lineage. They no longer exist as part of the line of Jesus, and they no longer exist as part of the lineage of Israel. Quite literally they were blotted from life. According to Jewish understanding they lost their eternal life.
That is horrific. If you really value family and community this is how you destroy a generation. And we’re watching the generation be destroyed right now. A generation without sympathy or empathy. Lacking the ability to see another person’s pain. We are losing a generation to selfishness. They have no friends. They have limited connection to family. They do not marry or have girlfriends. They are not having children. What are they doing? They are engaging in own selfish behaviors, taking care of themselves, scratching their own itches. Willing to cut off community with anyone that might disagree with them.
It is a deep and serious problem, but the solution is simple. Love God. Love others as yourself. We cannot be followers of Jesus without other men, women and children walking with us. It does take two or more. And if we reject community for self-preservation or for any selfish understandings then we will be condemned to be a lost generation. The good news is that God has given us new life in Jesus Christ, a new life to build new communities of faith, a Holy Spirit to bind disparate and different people together. A self-giving God.
Praise Jesus. God is always creating new ways to bring true life to the world. Let’s be the people of God and show the world that loving others as self is the word and work of the body of Christ.