Onan and the Patriarchal Agenda (Updated)

If I had to name one issue that is central to any discussion about political reform, it would have to be women’s rights. It can be argued that women’s rights are synonymous with human rights, or that repression of women is the foundation of all repression. Every repressive regime the world over has developed a rationale for limiting the freedom of the female sex. Unfortunately, there are ongoing influences that make women’s rights seem like a peripheral issue. Systems of male rule are conjoined with religion and accepted as proper, inevitable, and even moral. And they are sustained by claims to great antiquity. Until the eighteenth century, educated classes in Europe and the United States believed that Abraham established the patriarchal order and that his posterity carried it forward until the time when it radiated from the temple of Solomon to the rest of the world. Although the originality of patriarchy has been disproved by archaeological and historical scholarship, the belief persists that patriarchy was the original form of social organization. This belief is still used in defense of female subjection.

My suggestion for self-governing, matrilineal communities was based on a pre-patriarchal model of society. I am aware that such a revolutionary change is improbable. However, I think it would be a waste of time to talk about reform without confronting the ideas that have made reform necessary. I will use the matrilineal model to identify the principles that lead to strong families and communities. I will also call into question the dogmas that obscure these principles.

We haven’t yet had the discussion of Christianity that it deserves. We’ve talked about its Hermeticism and about the ‘heretical’ teachings of some sects, like the Dispensationalists, but our purpose was to analyze their influence on current events. In this post I want to expand on another troubling tendency that I have already mentioned, the tendency to disguise Indo-European ideas as the religion of Israel. An example of this practice is found in the Biblical story of Onan, the son of Judah. Onan married his sister-in-law Tamar, but instead of fathering a child with her, he practiced the withdrawal method of birth control, after which he was killed by Yahweh for spilling his seed on the ground. This story is especially relevant today because the Quiverfull movement, which is the vanguard religion of America’s pronatalist agenda, rejects any form of birth control including the withdrawal method, which they call Onanism.

Onan is introduced in the account of Judah and Tamar, in Genesis 38: 1-30. Immediately after Joseph is sold into slavery, Judah leaves the family to go and live in the Canaanite lowlands to the West.

At about that time, Judah parted from his brothers and put in with a certain Adullamite named Hirah.

There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite named Shua, and he married her and cohabited with her.

She conceived and bore a son, who was named Er.

She conceived again and bore a son, whom she named Onan.

Then she bore still another son, whom she named Shelah; they were at Chezib when she bore him.

Judah got a wife for his first-born Er, and her name was Tamar.

but Er, Judah’s first-born displeased Yahweh, and Yahweh took his life.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Unite with your brother’s widow, fulfilling the duty of a brother-in-law, and thus maintain your brother’s line.”

But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste on the ground every time that he cohabited with his brother’s widow, so as not to contribute offspring for his brother.

What he did displeased Yahweh, and he took his life too.

Whereupon Judah said to his daughter-in-law, “Stay as widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up” –for he feared that this one also might die like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.

A long time afterward, Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When the period of sorrow was over, Judah went to Timnah for the shearing of his sheep, in the company of his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah for the sheep-shearing,” she took off her widow’s garb, wrapped a veil about her to disguise herself, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the way to Timnah; for she saw that, although Shelah was grown up, she had not been given to him in marriage.

When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot, since she had covered her face.

So he turned aside to her by the roadside, and said, “See now, let me lie with you” –not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law. She answered, “What will you pay me for lying with me?”

He replied, “I will send you a kid from my flock.” but she answered, “you will have to leave a pledge until such time as you send it.”

He asked, “What pledge shall I leave you?” She answered, “your seal-and-cord, and the staff you carry.” So he gave them to her, and lay with her, and she conceived by him.

She left soon, took off her veil, and resumed her widow’s garb.

Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite to redeem the pledge from the woman, but he could not find her.

He inquired of the men of that place, “Where is the votary, the one by the Enaim road?” They answered, “there has never been here a votary!”

So he went back to Judah and said to him, “I couldn’t find her. What is more, the townspeople told me, ‘there has never been here a votary.”

And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things, or we shall become a laughingstock. I did my part in sending her the kid, but you never found her.”

About three months later, Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; moreover, she is with child from harlotry.” “Bring her out,” Judah shouted, “and she shall be burned!”

As they were taking her out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “It is by the man to whom these things belong that I am with child. Please verify,” she said, “to whom these things belong–the seal-and-cord and the staff!”

Judah recognized them, and said, “she is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” Nor was he intimate with her again.

There are several problems with this story, but the most obvious one would be the way in which Levirate marriage is portrayed. According to Yaffa Eliach, Levirate marriage simply didn’t work that way. The obligation to remarry belonged to the widow. This obligation was taken quite seriously and there were legal ramifications if it was breached. While the woman was obliged to remarry, her brother-in-law could release her from her obligation to him by providing a legal document relinquishing his claim. [1] Yet, in this story we have Tamar mooning over Judah’s ‘seed’ as though she knows it represents a royal line, or as though these are the last men left on earth.

It seems to me that if Levirate marriage obligated the widow rather than her brother-in-law this suggests a different dynamic than what we see in this story. It would make more sense if it was associated with the custom of matrilineal inheritance, and/or a payment made to the bride’s family by the groom. The Bible does not provide detailed information about Israelite custom in this matter, but according to Roland de Vaux, the mohar was a sum paid by the groom to the bride’s family, as compensation for the loss of their daughter. The bride’s father could use the profits from this payment, but the principal reverted to her at the time of ‘succession’ or her husband’s death. (This explains why Rachel and Leah complained in Genesis 31: 15 that their father ‘devoured’ their money after having ‘sold’ them. Apparently he used the principal of the mohar, rather than holding it in trust for his daughters.)

The Palestinian Arabs of today have a similar custom, the makr, and part of it goes to the bride’s trousseau. In Babylonian law, the tirhatu was paid to the girl’s father, and was administered by him, but it reverted to her if she was widowed, or to her children after her death. In Assyria, the tirhani was given to the girl herself. There was a parallel in the Jewish colony of Elephantine, where the mohat was paid to the girl’s father, but was counted among her possessions.

In Israel, parents might give their daughter gifts after her wedding, and these were considered her property. In Babylon, the father gave his daughter presents that belonged to her in her own right, but while she was married, her husband had the use of them. They reverted to her if she was widowed or divorced, without fault on her part. Assyrian law has similar provisions. [2]

You could argue that under such a system the groom’s family would have stood to lose their investment in the marriage if their son died prematurely. They would also lose any benefits that accrued from the bride’s property while the marriage lasted. Levirate marriage would protect this investment. This would explain why it was the man’s right to release the woman from this obligation and not the other way around. It also makes nonsense of Onan’s stated motive. He should have given Tamar a letter releasing her from her obligation.

Of course, the story doesn’t attribute monetary concerns to Onan. It says he was reluctant to ‘raise seed to his brother.’ In my opinion, this presents its own difficulties. It seems to me that It implies either non-Hebrew religious beliefs or a non-Hebrew political organization. The following is my own speculation.  The belief that one could rase seed to a deceased brother is consistent with the belief in a fully functional afterlife. Unfortunately, the Hebrews didn’t have such a belief at that time.  But perhaps Onan’s reluctance was connected to a more worldly aspiration–to be the father of a dynasty. Maybe he resented the fact that the royal line would be attributed to his brother. Again, the Hebrews didn’t have kings in this period, not to mention dynastic succession.  On the contrary, the modes of inheritance mentioned above indicate a matrilineal system, although it takes a rare scholar to admit this. It is customary to call the inheritance a gift, but property belonged to the woman in her own right. It follows that any ‘seed’ would have belonged to Tamar’s line, regardless of who the father was. 

According to the Anchor Bible, this episode is attributed to the Bible’s ‘J’ author, who had an interest in tracing the lineage of King David from the tribe of Judah. Unfortunately, the Judah of this story can’t be reconciled with the brother of Joseph. This Judah stays in Canaan long enough for his three sons to reach manhood, but when the story of Joseph resumes there has been no corresponding passage of time and Judah is still living with Jacob’s family. [3]

I conclude that the story of Onan is suspect. Perhaps it was never anything more than pro-patriarchy, pronatalist propaganda. After all, that is how it is used today. This isn’t the first time we have seen a ruling class agenda in the Bible and, as usual, it hinges on the subjection of women–especially of their reproductive potential. But the agenda doesn’t end with women. Judah’s descendant, David, was a menace to the people of that area. His son, Solomon, was a dynastic monarch who was as wealthy as a pharaoh and had a harem the size of a small village. This can only mean one thing for the common people: servitude and penury.  

Recently, I found corroboration in Moor’s Hindu Pantheon for my theory that the story of Onan is an Indo-European idea.  

“To the four deities of purification, Maruta, Indra, Vrihaspati, and Agni, goes all the divine light, which the Veda had imparted, from the student who commits the foul sin avacirna.”–Ib. v. 122.  

According to this source, avacirna is a term for anyone who commits the sin of Onanism. Specific instructions must be followed in order to expiate this sin.  

“…sacrifice a black or a one-eyed ass, by way of a meat offering to Nirriti, patroness of the south-west, by night, in a place where four ways meet….Let him daily offer to her in fire the fat of that ass; and, at the close of the ceremony let him offer clarified butter, with the holy text Sem, and so forth, to Pavana, to Indra, to Vrihaspati, and to Agni, regent of wind, clouds, a planet, and fire.”–Ins. of Menu, Chap. XI. verses 119, 120.

Israel has been held accountable for the imposition of patriarchy on the world, which is not surprising considering the effort that has gone into making it appear that way. However, the story of Onan is not evidence for a patriarchal system in Israel. It is only evidence that the ruling class has no shame.

(I’ve edited this since it was first published.  The first version didn’t distinguish my arguments from the the cited material.  The custom of giving gifts to the bride’s family and the bride were described by Roland de Vaux.  The details about Levirate marriage were provided by Yaffa Eliach’s book.)

  1. [1] Eliach, Yaffa. There Once Was a World: A 900 Year Chronicle of the Shtetle of Eishyshok. Back Bay Books, 1999
  2. [2] de Vaux, Roland, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institution. John McHugh translation. William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co. Grand Rapids. 1997
  3. [3] Genesis: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary by E.A. Speiser. Doubleday and Co. Garden City, NY. 1986
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