Is also the story about family dynamics and a prerequisite story for understanding the specific Laws of Moses about family life. The story should also include three other key figures. The sons of Judah and Tamar’s rightful husbands; Er the firstborn, Onan the second, and Shelah the third.
The problem begins when the first born dies and leaves Tamar without a husband. The duty of the second son was then to go and provided offspring for Tamar and for the dead brother and the children of Tamar would inherit their rightful portion or blessings of the firstborn son. This displeased Onan and he refused to have proper sexual intercourse with Tamar thus; “emptying his semen on the ground” (v9).
So then comes the death of Onan as it says ‘because of his wickedness’. Judah then sends Tamar back to live with her father until Shelah is of age, he was afraid of Shelah dying and leaving himself without an heir. Next we see that Judah’s wife dies and he wants to go hang out with his good friend. Tamar hears of this, and also hears of Shelah being old enough but not given in marriage. Judah is in a predicament because his wife is now gone, and only has one son left.
Tamar then takes matters into her own hands as she probably does not want to be a widow the rest of her life. She changes from a widows garments to some prostitute garb and goes to hang out somewhere she will be seen by lonely Judah. (For ancient wifeless men a prostitute would be a potential option for producing a son, not just a opportunity for pleasure. However, he was under the impression probably based on where she was hanging out that she was a cult prostitute and not just a women looking for a man.) Anyway, she and Judah do the deed and she convinces him to leave with her some collateral until other means of payment can be made.
Later Judah learns of Tamar’s pregnancy and assumes that she has been immoral and has rebelled against her rightful household and played the whore. Once she proves that it was with Judah himself that she conceived a child he realized that it was actually himself that was immoral and wrong for not given his rightful son to. In Judah’s mind and everyone else she had not acted immoral or whorish but that she actually did what was right. Its just that she had to do it in a sneaky way. In the end because she was cleaver, she pulled it off and revealed that she had done what was within her right. To bear a child within her rightful place in Judah’s family.
The original question on the passage had to do with the “wasting of semen”. Onan in particular acted wickedly because he refused to acknowledge the right of Tamar and his dead older brothers heritage to go on and claim their inheritance. The story acts as a reminder to the later people of God that the family of God is a special thing. That each member has a special part to play in the story of Gods people. That they are to work as a family honoring the place of women within the family dynamic as well as the common tradition of honoring the first born.
The story is a reminder for Israel that women and not only men have the responsibility to be the people of God and take pride in their place in the family of God, not despising it or despising the place of others within it.
The passage therefore is not originally intended to be about ‘birth control’ as we may read it in our 21st century way of thinking. However, birth control is a 21st century social issue. Perhaps the passage in a timeless way reminds us at least that we are not to have selfish motives when it comes to child bearing. We do it out of a recognition that it is Gods divine plan for us to bear and raise children for Gods glory, to occupy his creation, and accomplish his goals. We should do it willingly, and remember that relationships are not about what we can get out of it but about what we can give and what we are passing on. Onan was selfish and wanted blessing for himself. Judah was lonely and may have simply wanted pleasure and company. Tamar wanted a place in the family of God, and to be faithful to her commitment, and to pass on to the next generation another child of God to accomplish his will on the earth. That is why she is the real hero here. Lets follow her example in our own relationships and future families. Lets adopt her selfless attitude and create and nurture life that brings glory to God.
This timeless principle is all throughout the book of Genesis. We are reminded that God created man and women in order to continue to create new life in order to occupy his world and accomplish his goals on the earth. Onan’s is unwilling to do this because he will not get the goods he wants and they will pass to his children receiving the blessing of Er the oldest brother. Onan takes control of new life and wastes it, for that God takes his life. Seems harsh but the lesson is clear. That said, I don’t think it is best to use this as a passage directly dealing with the debate on birth control today but it should at least inform our sense of why we do it and why we don’t. What are our motives? Are we willing to play a part in Gods original design for co-creation?