Further Thoughts on Onan

After completing my post explaining Levirate marriage and Onan from a few days ago, I stumbled on a blog post that ended with “Honesty like that is almost as rare as a really good exegesis of Genesis 38:8-10.” And then I fell out of my chair… a few minutes later when I realized that Genesis 38:8 was the Onan story. It also includes an awesome image that I may print out and hang on my wall. Check it out.

The commenters on that post pointed out one major element missing from my examination of that story: how the biblical law of inheritance may have influenced Onan. So, do you think Onan may have been in it for the money?

One side note: I’ve discovered a veritable treasure trove of bible-related blogs off of of the Biblioblog site. I must have been hiding under a rock for the last year to not know about that site.  

Judah and Tamar
Judah and Tamar (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The trick was right in front of my face, in a passage that I quoted in my post on polygamy:

If a man have two wives, the one beloved, and the other hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the first-born son be hers that was hated; then it shall be, in the day that he causeth his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved the first-born before the son of the hated, who is the first-born; but he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the hated, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath; for he is the first-fruits of his strength; the right of the first-born is his.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17

Judah had three children, Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Judah would someday die, er would receive 50% of Judah’s wealth, Onan 25%, and Shelah 25%.

After Er died, it’s not clear to me whether a daughter-in-law can claim inheritance. But, assuming that she could not, Onan would either have received 66% or 50%, depending on whether a second-born son counts as a first-born son if the first dies.

Either way, if Onan had a child with Tamar, it would have been considered to be Er’s. Therefore, Er’s only child, subject to Er’s inheritance. I’m not certain that anyone knows what the exact biblical law would be for this situation, but the theory goes that would have given this new grandson 50% of Judah’s wealth when he died, this reducing by at least half the inheritance that Onan could have received.

And therefore, Onan’s crime wasn’t so much masturbation as inheritance fraud. And so God killed him. Still seems harsh…

Up next: Your regularly scheduled program.


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