Why did God kill Onan (Genesis 38)?

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By BibleAsk Team


The Punishment of Onan

The Bible tell us that Judah married Shuah and she conceived three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Later on, Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. And because Er, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.

So, Judah said to Onan, marry your brother’s wife to raise up a seed to him. But Onan knew that the seed will not be his; so when he went to his brother’s wife, he spilled it on the ground, so that he should not give seed to his brother. And this act displeased the LORD: So the Lord killed him also (Genesis 38:1-10).

According to custom, Onan, as brother-in-law of Tamar, should have married the widow of his dead brother that had no children and raise up a family for him. Onan, however, didn’t accept this responsibility, since the first-born son would not be his own but would perpetuate the family of the dead and receive his inheritance. Onan’s behavior showed a lack of love and kindness to his brother and a greed for his possessions and inheritance. Even worse, his conduct was an offense against the divine institution of marriage.

The Levirate Marriage

The custom of levirate marriage (from the Latin levir, “brother-in-law”), first mentioned here in the Bible, also existed, in varying forms, among other nations of antiquity, such as the Hittites. And it was later incorporated into the Mosaic legislation: “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

Tamar’s Plan to Have Children

Tamar was left with no husband and child. Then, Judah said to her remain a widow at your father’s house, till Shelah my son be grown to give you a seed. But when Shelah grew, Judah didn’t give him to Tamar for he feared that he will also die. And in the process of time, Judah’s wife died. So, Tamar determined to have a child by Judah himself. This was fully in harmony with the Hittite and Assyrian traditions. The laws of the Hittites and Assyrians had the provision that the duty of levirate marriage was to be carried out by the father of the deceased if no brother was available.

One day, Tamar found out that her father in law went up to Timnath. So, she dressed up as a harlot and covered her face. When Judah saw her, he asked to lay with her. And she said, what will you give me? He answered, I will give you a kid from the flock. And she asked that he may give her his signet, bracelets, and staff as a pledge for his payment. And he did. Then, he laid with her.

After three months Judah found out that his daughter in law is pregnant. So, he ordered that she would be burnt. But she responded that I am pregnant by the man who holds these signet, bracelets, and staff. Then Judah said, she had been more righteous than I; because I didn’t give her to Shelah my son.

God’s Blessing to Tamar

Judah admitted his guilt of not keeping his promise to his daughter in law. Furthermore, he fully knew of the evil of his sons; but instead of recognizing the hand of God in their sudden death, he blamed Tamar for it and determined to keep her a childless widow forever. And he didn’t lay with her again.

Tamar, who probably was a Canaanite, after the death of her husband, had the choice to leave and go back to her own people. But touched by the grace of God, she desired greatly to be part of His people that she preferred to have a son through a brief Levirate Marriage than to probably have many sons by a life-long relationship with a heathen Canaanite.

So, the Lord honored Tamar’s desire and instead of giving her one son, He gave her twins boys. For she conceived: Pharez and Zarah (Genesis 38: 11:30). She was like Rahab and Ruth who were also from pagan backgrounds, but they all chose God above their families, people and nations and risked their lot with His people. Further, the Lord granted these three women the honor of becoming the progenitors of Christ for their outstanding faith (Matthew 1).

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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