An interesting debate arose a few days ago, to which I have been meaning to respond to, but life moves on whether or not a biblical discussion is occurring, and I have gotten behind. The conversation was about the use of contraception and how that relates to being a Christian.
I knew immediately when the conversation took place that Genesis 38:9 would come up. I knew, because I have been in the church long enough to see this verse used to defend a lot of different issues, including people's views on masturbation.
For those of you who are unfamiliar the verse is as follows "But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother."
The trouble with Onan is, that this isn't really a verse that is talking about masturbation or contraception at all.
When studying the Bible, we use a method called exegesis, exegesis comes from a Greek word meaning "to lead out". Basically it means you examine a text and you get the meaning of the text out of it. This isn't restricted to Biblical texts, it applies to any text, you examine a text and then you form ideas from that text. This is how scripture is meant to be studied. The word was given to us, that we might read it, examine it, digest it, and our lives and views would be formed by it. The issue is, most of us don't do that.
Most of us are guilty of the opposite, which is called eisegesis. This is the opposite of exegesis, thus it means to read into a text. Basically, we have a view, and we take the text and we use it to support our already formed view on an issue.
This happens very often when you see someone use a variety of single verse from the Bible to defend a view they have... any view, versus placing those verses in their proper literary and historical context and then drawing a view from there.
With the verse about Onan, this is a classic case of eisegesis. Why? Because this one verse being pulled out to support a view of not masturbating or to not use contraception, is not only isolating a verse out of it's literary context, I fear it is missing the point of this narrative all together.
I would say that this story is not about his semen spilling on the ground, as much as it is a story of injustice towards a widow.
Thus, we must first look at the fact that his wife, Tamar was a widow, and understand the historical implications of that. Widows in the world at that time, had no rights. They could not own land, they could not speak for themselves in court, they could not work. Widows were at the mercy of the men in their lives. This is not uncommon for a patriarchal society like the one structured in this part of Genesis.
When Tamar's first husband died, it left her homeless and without any way for her needs to be provided for.
God cares for widows. This is clear by the fact that the word "widow" shows up in scripture at least 108 times. It's an overarching theme in scripture that God cares for widows, and because of that, a system was put into place for widows to be cared for.
This system is the system of a kinsman-redeemer, or in Hebrew a goel. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 spells this out "If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel."
The system of kinsman-redeemer is what is occurring with Onan and Tamar in the Genesis passage. Her husband has died, and in order to be provided for, his unmarried brother is to marry her, and have a son that is not his, but his brothers. Thus, the land the older brother owned, would go to this son, and insure that Tamar would be cared for.
The problem is, Onan didn't want a child that was his brothers. He was selfish. In this text it appears that he is denying his wife by spilling his seed on the ground, not because all of us for all of history are not supposed to prevent having children, but because preventing Tamar from having children in this specific time and place, was not just denying her children, but her ability to survive. She would have no way of feeding herself, she would have no where to live, she could very likely die, because Onan wronged her.
God's commands are clear, to love widows and care for them, because God loves us all. Onan disobeyed that commandant. I would also say, that this verse does not seem to be alluding to masturbation at all, but rather withdrawal... thus, Onan was getting sexual pleasure from someone he did not love or care for. She was being used, over and over and over again, with Onan having no regard for her or her future. He did not love her, he used her, and it is with this it seems that God is unhappy. It is for this unjust use of another person as an object with no regard for her well being that causes God anger, and causes Onan's death.
To pull this verse out of this context is to miss the justice application for our lives. This is so much bigger than "did you masturbate?... oh shame on you..." But rather it is about our treatment of those around us. We may not forsake someone children, but are we hindering their well being through our selfishness and injustice? Are our actions causing others to be harmed?
This view of the story also sits well with the context of scripture as a whole. There are only 6 references in scripture to semen at all. 5 of those are from Leviticus, and all of those have to do with cleanliness. Wash yourself after an emission, bathe after sex, wash clothing that has come into contact with semen... and honestly, these are all just good, healthy things to do, and to still do (have you ever slept in a hotel room? Would you want to sleep in their if the bedding hadn't been washed after it came into contact with semen? No? Me neither!)
In contrast, their are 108 verses talking about widows. Only 2 of those are from Leviticus, and there are many in the New Testament as well. Whereas, all the semen references are in the old.
Looking at scripture as a whole is a vitally important thing to do, as well as looking at the cultural and scriptural context. If we didn't do that... then we could go further in the story of Tamar to verses 13-16, and if our husband does not give us children, we would have justification to dress up as prostitutes, sit by the side of the road, and have sex with our father-in-laws in order to have children.
The story rings true for all of us though, to be just, to do what is right, and to not take advantage of other people. I think that this coincides with all of scripture, and what it means to be a Christian.