Tuesday, September 25, 2018

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (11)

A censor librorum is a Roman Catholic ecclesiastical authority charged with the task of reviewing texts and granting to them a decree of nihil obstat, or their church’s authoritative approval. Nihil obstat is Latin for “nothing stands in the way”. If your commentary or explanation of church doctrine has that declaration on it, you are good to go in the Catholic world.

Not being Roman Catholic, and because my comprehension of Latin is pretty much limited to Veni, vidi, vici, I had to look that up.

All to say that back in 2004, a censor librorum declared the following explanation of Genesis 38:8-10 to be “free of doctrinal or moral errors”. Take that for what it’s worth.

The Catholic Interpretation

“The Bible mentions at least one form of contraception specifically and condemns it. Coitus interruptus, was used by Onan to avoid fulfilling his duty according to the ancient Jewish law of fathering children for one’s dead brother. ‘Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also’ (Gen. 38:8-10).

The biblical penalty for not giving your brother’s widow children was public humiliation, not death (Deut. 25:7-10). But Onan received death as punishment for his crime. This means his crime was more than simply not fulfilling the duty of a brother-in-law. He lost his life because he violated natural law, as Jewish and Christian commentators have always understood. For this reason, certain forms of contraception have historically been known as ‘Onanism,’ after the man who practiced it.”
Hmm. I’ll try to be delicate here, but the excessively squeamish may wish to exit now.

“Ancient Jewish Law”

A minor point first: no “ancient Jewish law” was violated here. “Israel” was a family of slightly less than seventy people living among the Canaanites when Onan incurred the wrath of God. God’s law was delivered to the children of Israel through Moses roughly 400 years after Onan shuffled off his mortal coil. There were no Jews at all in the time of Onan, let alone ancient ones. The word “Jew” originally referred to exiles from Judah and associated tribes of the former nation of Israel dispersed throughout the Babylonian and Medo-Persian empires, but the word itself didn’t even come into use until roughly a thousand years after Onan died. So what Onan violated was at best an ancient Hebrew custom. It did not have the force of law, because no Israelite nation existed at that point and no covenant (other than the covenant of circumcision) existed to be broken.

Thus if we are searching for an explanation for God’s anger at Onan, we will have to forget about outrageous or unique violations of law. This was not that.

Calvin Weighs In

John Calvin agrees. His commentary on Genesis says, “No law had hitherto been prescribed concerning brother’s marriages, that the surviving brother should raise up seed to one who was dead.”

But Calvin continues:
“It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is double horrible.”
Calvin was not the first to assert from Genesis 38 that both masturbation and contraception by withdrawal are terrible sins. Both Jerome and Clement of Alexandria came to that conclusion 1,000 years before Calvin.

For Three Sins …

Now, biblical cases may certainly be made against contraception generally and against the practice of masturbation, though I have no intention of trying to make them here. A case may even be made that in the absence of a social safety net, the practice of siring a child with your dead brother’s widow in order to preserve his estate and carry on his name was an act of kindness and a useful thing.

But it hardly matters which sin of the three Onan committed. Whether it was self-pleasuring, engaging in birth control, or failing to fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law, it is dead certain such things have occurred millions of times throughout human history at no greater immediate cost to the sinner than a good helping of shame and guilt. Moreover, if God were to strike down every male who ever engaged in a sex act for pleasure rather than procreation, the human race would likely be extinct.

Approximately two-and-a-half thousand years passed between Adam and Onan. It is not outrageous to suppose that millions of men and women lived and died during this period. Unless we are going to argue that Onan was the very first man in the history of the human race to fail to do his fraternal duty or to elect to spill his seed, we need to look for something a little more exceptional to account for God’s judgment of Onan. Even if God were merely making an example of Onan for future generations, he could almost surely have found an earlier or more flagrantly sinful candidate for his display of wrath.

Let’s revisit the story a bit.

A Seriously Bad Guy

First, it is evident that Onan was not just a selfish man but a seriously bad guy. He may not have broken any ancient Jewish laws, but he disobeyed a direct command from his father Judah to “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” Secondly, rather than owning up to his unwillingness to do his duty so that the responsibility would pass to his younger brother, he pretended to have obeyed his father’s instructions. So he was a rebel and a liar.

But it gets worse. Professor of religion Tikva Frymer-Kensky says this:
“According to inheritance customs, the estate of Judah, who had three sons, would be divided into four equal parts, with the eldest son acquiring one half and the others one each. A child engendered for Er would inherit at least one fourth and possibly one half (as the son of the firstborn). If Er remained childless, then Judah’s estate would be divided into three, with the eldest, most probably Onan, inheriting two thirds. Onan opts to preserve his financial advantage and interrupts coitus with Tamar, spilling his semen on the ground.”
So Onan disrespected his father, deceived him, tried to shortchange his sister-in-law (with whom he was sleeping at the time) of her family security, and plotted to let his brother’s name die off, all in the name of stealing a greater share of the inheritance he felt was his due. Moreover, he may have done it repeatedly ('im may be translated “whenever”), demonstrating no shame or remorse, thumbing his nose at those he was wronging. That’s pretty bad, outdoing Jacob’s deception of Esau and Isaac on a couple of fronts. These things alone may have been enough to seal his fate.

Another Possibility

But there may be even more to it. Consider the following.

The books of Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus Christ was a descendant of Judah, Onan’s father. Judah later fathered Perez by Tamar, the same woman Onan refused to impregnate, in a story told in this very chapter of Genesis. We need not go into it in detail, but it is clear this unusual situation occurred as a direct consequence of Onan’s deception and subsequent death.

Onan’s character and the character of his elder brother Er were highly questionable. This should not surprise us. Judah’s first three sons were the product of his marriage to a Canaanite woman, and one thing the Old Testament teaches us repeatedly is that intermarriage with women from nations that rejected the God of Israel reliably resulted in ungodly behavior, which would have infected the next generation.

How Bad? Bad Enough to Loathe Her Life …

For this reason, God would later forbid intermarriage outright:
“You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.”
But even well before God made any public declarations about intermarriage, Judah’s family was already well aware of the potential dangers involved in mixing with other local cultures. His grandmother said this:
“I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?”
As a result, Judah’s own father had been sent to find a wife from the household of his uncle.

Children Without Spiritual Roots

Now, it’s true that rare exceptions to the intermarriage rule were made throughout Israel’s history, such as the cases of Rahab and Ruth. However, both women had converted and demonstrated their willingness to live as Israelites. In general, intermarriage in Israel was discouraged. In fact, the issue remained a problem for the nation even up to the days of Nehemiah, when the children of the Jews who had married foreign women were unable to even speak the language of their fathers.

Bearing this in mind, consider the potential consequences of the following: Any offspring Onan might have produced with his dead brother’s wife would have been 25% Canaanite, with all the genetics and culture that entailed. In fact, had none of Judah’s sons died, the whole tribe of Judah could have been riddled with Canaanite influence in only its second generation. To have introduced that sort of a spiritual contaminant into Israel so early in its history could have severely affected both the line of descent that would one day culminate in the coming of Messiah, not to mention the culture of the tribe of Judah more generally.

Could a David — or anyone like him — have been born in a society steeped in the morality of the Canaanites? Not impossible, but much less likely.

In Summary

In any case, it’s evident that Onan was a sufficiently evil man that the outpouring of divine wrath that befell him was entirely appropriate. That case can be made without us getting caught up in arguments about the sanctity of male seed and its appropriate uses. Such assertions go beyond the scope of the Genesis passage and well into the realm of personal opinion, such as the one John Calvin expressed.

Whatever general case may be made against masturbation and contraception is better made from other passages of scripture. This one doesn’t teach it.

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