Genesis 38: Onan

So instead of mocking Christine O’Donnell, I want to thank her for bringing the conversation of self-gratification to the public forum.

WARNING: not for those easily offended. Ah, my first “mature audience” post, and it’s based on the Bible, no less.

I have to blame US Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell (R-Delaware) for my need to reread the 38th chapter of the first book of the Bible. Those of you unfamiliar with that person need only know that she has made public comments about witchcraft and onanism. Don’t know that latter word? You will, very soon.

In the Biblical tale, it seems that Judah – a son of Jacob, a/k/a Israel – who was behind the selling off of his brother Joseph (the Technicolor Dreamcoat dude) into slavery, moved out of town and married a Canaanite woman named Shua, which wasn’t kosher. He had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah fixed up Er with a woman named Tamar. But Er ticked off God, though we’re never specifically told in what fashion and God kills him.

OK, so Onan is supposed to marry his sister-in-law and impregnate her, but the male heir would be considered Er’s son, not Onan’s. Now Onan didn’t mind having sex with Tamar but didn’t want to put her “in a family way”, as it used to be called, so he engaged in a bit of coitus interruptus, and his seed spilled on the ground. This ticked off God and He killed Onan too.

For one purpose only

Now, what’s peculiar with the interpretation of this story thus far by many people is that what Onan did was masturbation. Thus the word onanism has come to mean masturbation. Others have suggested that it was a text saying that people should have sex ONLY for the purpose of procreation, not recreation since every seed was potentially life. (See, e.g., the video of Every Sperm is Sacred from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.) The only thing that IS clear is that Onan disobeyed GOD and that he and his elder brother REALLY ticked Him off.

Back to the story: Shelah, Judah’s youngest, grows up and should be married off to Tamar, but Judah was afraid he’d suffer the same fate as his brothers. Meanwhile, Judah’s wife dies. Tamar covered her face, pretending to be harlot, has sex with her father-in-law, and gets pregnant. When Judah discovers that Tamar played a harlot – though not yet HIS harlot – he orders her to be burned until it was revealed that it was Judah himself who slept with her.

He then realizes that she did what she had to, while Judah had dealt dishonorably with Tamar by not providing her with a (third) husband, without which she had no economic means. He has twin sons, Perez (in some translations, Pharez) and Zerah, and though it’s not stated here, Perez’s descendants would include King David, and a carpenter named Joseph, the (human) father figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Which only goes to show that God moves in very mysterious ways.


So instead of mocking Christine O’Donnell, I want to thank her for bringing the conversation of self-gratification to the public forum. Why even Jimmy Carter, the former President of the United States, recently mentioned it, albeit obliquely, on national television. On the September 20 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, starting at about the 4:15 mark, Carter talks about O’Donnell’s toying with witchcraft in her younger days. He said he’s never engaged in witchcraft, but in his younger days might have partaken in that OTHER thing she had been talking about. A slightly embarrassed Stewart says that didn’t think Carter would be going there. (But he should have: in an interview with PLAYBOY in 1976, Presidential candidate Carter talked about “lust in his heart.”)

I’d hardly be the first person to note how peculiar Americans are about sex. Did you know the movie A Clockwork Orange, was originally rated X, not because of violence but because of an extremely speeded up sex scene performed to an extremely speeded up Lone Ranger theme (William Tell Overture)? People getting tortured? OK to see with the kids. People getting horizontal? Not so much. [And cut! Movie sex scenes not part of the act for parents, kids]

I think, despite all manner of sexuality in the marketplace, that puritanical streak is still stubbornly embedded, at least in the US. If sex is only for procreation, does that mean that people beyond the age of child-bearing oughtn’t to have sex? I think that, even now, that has been the message, which is why younger people tend to giggle at the thought of people in their seventies and beyond still “doing it”. There is a ban on birth control in the Catholic church, which the vast majority of US Catholics ignore regularly.

No insanity

To the matter at hand – probably a poor choice of words – the Wikipedia article on masturbation has all sorts of health benefits, not the least of which is the lessened likelihood of prostate cancer, as well as increased motility when one DOES want to engage in procreative activities. There’s no proof that it will make one go insane or grow hair on one’s palms.

One is to be “celibate in singleness, and faithful in marriage”, according to the traditions of many Christians and other believers. Even the apostle Paul, who preferred the faithful to be celibate recognized the power of sexuality. So even though I don’t think it’s really anyone else’s business, I’m not quite sure what is it about the act that is so wrong, especially since all reports, going back at least to the 1950s, suggests that a majority of women and a vast majority of males are doing it anyway. How does one talk to one’s partner about what he or she likes without self-discovery? Lack of self-awareness seems the more selfish act.

Incidentally, it was not my intention to dwell on the male side of the conversation, rather than the female. It’s just that it generates greater data. There was even a song in the 1990s called Firing the Surgeon General that contained many euphemisms for the male act, a recent recording of which I found here.


The Brothers of Onan and Middle East peace

Sodomy from the Broadway musical Hair

I named my pet canary Onan, because he spills his seed upon the ground. —Dorothy Parker

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