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God Kills Brothers Onan And Er

By James Donahue

The story of the killing of brothers Onan and Er in Genesis 38 is a simple straight-out tale of God slaughtering first Er, because he was doing something "wicked," whatever that was. Then God killed Onan after refusing to jump in bed with Er’s widow and impregnating her.

Something seems really wrong with this story, especially by contemporary Christian standards. It even seems wrong by general standards of contemporary ethics and law.

Here is the whole story in graphic detail from Genesis 38, verses 1-10:

Judah was the fourth son of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, and his first wife, Leah. In the Bible story, Judah marries Shua, a Canaanite. They have three children, brothers Er and Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, another Canaanite.

Now the Canaanites were considered mortal enemies of the Hebrew people in those times, so that whole family was flirting with trouble in the eyes of God.

Er also appears to have been getting into some kind of mischief. The Bible story only reveals that he was "wicked in the sight of the Lord" so God just killed him. But this left Tamar a widow without children, which was a problem in Jewish households. Thus it was custom in those days for a brother to marry the widow and bring children into the world.

God ordered Onan to be the good brother and take over the duties of Er's household. But apparently Onan wasn't very excited about the idea. Either he had no interest in Tamar or he may have been in love with another woman. Whatever the reason, Onan moved in with Tamar, took her into his bed, but at the critical moment, instead of sowing his seed in her womb, he pulled out and spilled it on the ground.

A lot of Christian households like to use this story as a warning to their sons against masturbation, but that was not the problem. God apparently wanted Onan to impregnate Tamar and then raise her family. When he refused, God killed him.

We have third brother involved in this story. Shelah should have moved into Tamar's household and filled the void, but somehow Judah had a rule on this decision. When he refused to allow it, Tamar had a problem. So she pretends to be a prostitute, deceives Judah into having sex with her, and gets pregnant anyway. How she pulled that off is not explained in the story either.

When Judah discovers that Tamar is pregnant he becomes very angry and plans to have her killed. But when he learns that he is the father, he changes his mind and accepts Tamar into the Tribe of Judah. Thus were twins Pharez and Zarah born.

The story is important because somehow this family is part of the blood line that led to the birth of Jesus. Thus God appears to have been slaughtering people to make the proper DNA fit.