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BY Mark Shea
In response to this recent piece, in which I remarked that it seems to me wrong-headed to use the story of Onan in Genesis 38 as a “proof text” against contraception reader Pete Holter writes:
You are making the care of widows the focus of Genesis 38 by saying that “children were the sole ‘social safety net’ that widows had,” and you come back to this main point in your response to George; but the care of widows is something separate from situations involving heirs and inheritance rights. When these latter types of situations arise, the Biblical texts explicitly state that providing offspring and preserving property is done, not for the sake of the widow, but for the sake of the father or deceased brother who has no heir (cf. Genesis 38, Numbers 27:1-11, Numbers 36, Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The actual care of widows, on the other hand, gains its mention when social philanthropy is in view (cf. Exodus 22:21-24; Deuteronomy 24:17-22).
The Book of Ruth helps us to illustrate this distinction. In keeping with the statutes of the Law of Moses, Boaz provides for the needs of Ruth without approaching her in marriage (cf. Ruth 2), and when she later approaches him, he perceives that she is the one extending great kindness to him (cf. Ruth 3:10)! And when the redeemer is to take Ruth, Boaz describes it as being done, not in order to care for a widow, but “in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance” (Ruth 4:5)… “that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place” (Ruth 4:10).
But let us admit that the care of widows is of concern, because it certainly is. And let us admit that the patriarchal family line is of concern, because it, too, certainly is. But there is another concern that is fundamental to both of these: the new creation of life made in the image of God and of man (cf. Genesis 1:27; 5:3). The positive command to “be fruitful and multiply” had already been given to Onan’s forefathers more than once (Genesis 1:28; Genesis 9:1, 7); and to Onan’s very own grandfather God had said, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 35:11)—and He says this after Jacob had already fathered eleven sons and a daughter! Every sex act that is detailed for us in Scripture leading up to [and following] Onan was, as far as we know, not contracepted. And some unions were undertaken, we know, for the sole purpose of conception (cf. Genesis 16:2; Augustine goes into some detail concerning Rachel and Leah with Jacob in Against Faustus, Bk. 22). Even Lot’s incest (Genesis 19:30-36) and Judah’s prostituted sex (cf. Genesis 38:18) were open to life! And in keeping with this openness to life, these two men were left to live! :) Jacob rightly discerned that causing infertility was something reserved to God’s hands alone: “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2) Onan stands out like a sore seed-spiller! :)
If Levirate marriages are designed—as with all marriages—with the primary purpose of raising up “godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15), then how can we say that God’s loathing of contraception is not squarely located in Genesis 38, when contraception itself is directly opposed to this very purpose of the sex act?
As I shared on James Swan’s blog, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Leviticus 19:18), and, as Paul says, “no one ever hated his own flesh” (Ephesians 5:29).
If it was sinful for Onan to do what he did in order to prevent the conception of his firstborn son for the sake of his brother Er, and if the love of self serves as a basis and bar for the love of neighbor, then all the more is it sinful and disordered for us to take similar actions in order to prevent the conception of our own children. Therefore, I think that Augustine’s interpretation, as quoted by Pius XI, is correct. :)
Having considered these thoughts, do you still think that Pope Pius and Augustine’s understanding of this text is “weak” and “wrongheaded”? I hope to have persuaded you, my brother! :)
Thank you for taking the time to read this comment.
With love in Christ,
Actually, this is pretty persuasive. I stand corrected.