Why did God punish Onan with death?

Here is the passage we are examining from Genesis 38:9-10:

38:9 וַיֵּדַע אוֹנָן כִּי לֹּא לוֹ יִהְיֶה הַזָּרַע וְהָיָה אִם־בָּא אֶל־אֵשֶׁת אָחִיו וְשִׁחֵת אַרְצָה — But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, — The wording of the text  “ba” suggests Onan’s behavior was not a one time action; he seems to have habitually climaxed in this manner. The NRSV’s  translation, “whenever he went in . . .” is preferable to other Bible translations that read “when he went in.”

וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיָּמֶת גַּם־אֹתוֹ — What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also — We really don’t know why Onan died. The ancients viewed the sudden death of a young person as an act of God, Who serves as the Ultimate Cause for everything that unfolds within the natural world. Moderns, in contrast, tend to attribute events that occur in the phenomenal world to more direct and scientific causes. To understand the Bible, it is helpful to see it through the eyes of the people who wrote it.

To the rabbinic imagination, God punishes Onan because he preferred to spill his seed rather than give it to Tamar, his levirate wife.

However, a closer examination of the text reveals a different approach that contradicts conventional rabbinic thinking found in the rabbinic writings of the Talmud, Midrash and especially the Zohar.[1] It is apparent from the narrative Onan’s sin was not primarily sexual in nature. Rather, it was his refusal to fulfill the obligation of levirate marriage (Deut. 25.5–10). On a historical note, several Jewish and Christian exegetes interpret the story of Onan  as a condemnation any sexual act other than for the purpose of procreation[2], as one notable 20th century Halachic scholar, R. Aharon Walkin, explains:

“As for the doubt about whether it is permitted to follow this procedure because of the prohibition against ‘bringing forth seed in vain,’ if we follow the earlier sages, it seems that the Talmud and subsequent halachic scholars  agree that doctors are to be trusted even in cases where certain prohibitions (of the religious law) are involved. If, then, the doctors’ words are correct, that by this procedure it will be easier for her to become pregnant, since this is the physical nature of this woman, then this procedure (of taking the seed) is not ‘in vain’ at all. On the contrary, it is for the purpose of achieving pregnancy more easily. The rabbis forbade bringing forth seed in order to destroy it, but here there is no destruction; it is placed into the womb of the wife in order that she shall be impregnated. Then, clearly, there is nothing wrong with this procedure.[3]Continue reading “Why did God punish Onan with death?”