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the real meaning

Examining the “spilling the seed” passages
Why I don’t think these passages can be used in connection with birth control or masturbation
Originally written March ‘05

In Genesis 38:7-10 we learn of Onan, one of Judah’s sons. Onan was commanded by God to impregnate his brother Er’s wife Tamar after God killed him (because he was evil). Onan was to give Er and heir (hehe…heir for Er..) but every time he had sex with her, he spilled his seed on the ground (commonly and modernly referred to as the “withdrawal method” of birth control). For his sin, God killed him.

Many use this account to support several different beliefs. 1) that masturbation is wrong 2) that contraception is wrong 3) that ejaculation without the intent of impregnation is wrong (the “sex is sin unless it’s for procreation” idea). They say that Onan was killed because he spilled his seed. However, spilling his seed was only the means by which Onan disobeyed God, spilling his seed was not the sin, disobedience was his sin. His sin was failure to raise up a child for his brother as commanded by God.

This point is key: Onan was told to impregnate Tamar, his “job” was to give his brother Er a child. In fact, it does not even say in Gen. 38 that Tamar and Onan were married, it refers to Tamar as Er’s wife. So Onan was only to have sex with her as long as it could possibly produce an heir. Onan was committing adultery because he was engaging in “unproductive sex” contrary to his obligation by Law and contrary to God’s command. The punishment according to the Law for adultery was death.

Also, keep in mind that nowhere in the Law do you find commands by God relating to masturbation, contraception, family size or similar non adulterous, non bestial acts not designed to impregnate. The only time the Law mentions “wasted seed” is in regard to ceremonial uncleanness (Lev. 15:16-17,32; Deut. 23:10). It even mentions what a man is to do when he has seminal emission - he must bathe and wash his clothes (if necessary) and that he is unclean until evening (Lev. 15:16-17). There is no mention of death or punishment or even a clear description of seminal emission. There is no indication that it is only referring to nocturnal emissions, there is no reason to think that it’s not emissions in general, even the “spilling of seed”.
In my opinion, this account is about a man disobeying God’s law - - not about a man being punished for spilling seed.

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  1. Joy — June 20, 2007 #

    After a day of reading A LOT of writings by Augustine and writings about Augustine, it was really great to read your post on The Real Meaning. Not that the ancient fathers were all bad… but they were men who were messed up, too. And Augustine was pretty messed up!!

    I’ve heard teaching on this passage many times and I believe that you are right on! It is so hard to get through these passages in our sex-phobic/obsessed world.

  2. Mak — June 20, 2007 #

    I’m glad this post helped you :) and yes, Augustine WAS messed up, in many ways…as are we all eh?

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