A few lines is the closest the Bible comes to mentioning masturbation – and actually, the story is about something else altogether.
By Jay Spears
How in the world did anyone ever come up with the idea that God condemned masturbation in the Bible? I guess some of those medieval biblical scholars had too much time on their hands – pardon the expression – because the story of Onan, for whom "the sin of Onanism" is named, isn't about masturbation at all.
Here's the story of Onan as it appears in the King James Bible (Gen. 38, 6-10):
And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar. And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him. And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.
Here is the same passage from a more modern version of the Bible:
Judah got a wife named Tamar for his first-born, Er. But Er, Judah's first-born, greatly offended the Lord, so the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, "Unite with your brother's widow, in fulfillment of your duty as brother-in-law, and thus preserve your brother's line." Onan, however, knew that the descendants would not be counted as his; so whenever he had relations with his brother's widow, he wasted his seed on the ground, to avoid contributing offspring for his brother. What he did greatly offended the Lord, and the Lord took his life too.
Overlooking the picture of a God who slays people left and right, what is this story about? Apparently, if a married man died without a son, his brother was supposed to have sex with the widow. So when Er was slain by God, his brother Onan was supposed to get the widow pregnant. Here's the law they're talking about: When brothers live together and one of them dies without a son, the widow of the deceased shall not marry anyone outside the family, but her husband's brother shall go to her and perform the duty of a brother-in-law by marrying her. The first-born son she bears shall continue the line of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out from Israel. (Deut. 25, 5-7) This law is called "levirate marriage," from the Latin word levir, which means brother-in-law. It seems odd to us today, if not immoral and even gross. But if you stop to think about the circumstances under which it was written, the law actually makes some sense.
Thousands of years ago, Israel was a tiny nomadic tribe living in the Middle East. They always seemed to be surrounded by huge and mighty empires: the Persians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians with their powerful Pharaohs, the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and finally, the Romans. It was certainly understandable if they felt a bit insecure. They needed as many births, especially of males, as they could possibly get. The very survival of the tribe depended upon how many sword-slinging studs they could amass to defend themselves when the enemy appeared on the horizon.
As a result, the Israelites developed many laws that helped guarantee a healthy birth rate. Much to the dismay of gay people today, the Israelites called homosexuality an abomination, punishable by death, because no offspring could result (and also because other "pagan" nations had a much healthier tolerance for it). And so for the same reason, since a young widow was a terrible thing to waste, the Israelites had this law of levirate marriage. The Israelites didn't want any semen wasted in non-productive activities. They wanted to channel all their men's wild oats into fertile fields, so to speak, so that the tribe could grow and prosper.
There was another good reason for this law. The plight of an unattached woman back in ancient times could be horrible. Women were considered the property of their fathers, then of their husbands. An unattached woman couldn't just "get a job" to support herself. To be unmarried was a disgrace, and widows had no one to protect or support them. They might end up in prostitution or even starve to death. By having a law ensuring that even a widow would have sons to protect her as she grew old, the Israelites showed an enlightened and practical view: protecting their women while also guaranteeing more offspring.
Another practical aspect of the law was that it kept all the inheritable property in the family. If the widow married someone else, her dowry and other property would go to the new husband's family. So there were financial incentives to keep her in the original family through levirate marriage.
So this is why Onan was considered a bad guy in the story. It's because he selfishly wouldn't get his brother's widow pregnant. It has nothing to do with masturbating – more likely he withdrew when he was having sex with her, just before ejaculation, and thus "he wasted his seed on the ground." But the point is not how he did it; it's that he was selfish and disobeyed the ancient tribal laws.
Flash forward thousands of years: No one would ever think God would strike you dead if you didn't impregnate your widowed sister-in-law. In fact, more people would think he'd strike you dead if you did! Most people think it's okay for a man to have sex with his wife when she's menstruating (a practice forbidden by Israelite law), and few educated people today think homosexuals should be slain. Thousands of years ago, there was a practical reason for those laws to be written. But today, they are useless for determining how to live.
I have no idea why ancient scholars decided to use the story of Onan to condemn masturbation. I can't believe that they didn't understand about levirate marriage – it's all there in print. I'm afraid they were victims of the medieval loathing of the flesh, which taught that spirit was good, body was bad, man was good, woman was temptress, pain was purifying, and pleasure was evil. What a perverted way to look at the world! Those who believe in God should profess that He made all things holy, and pleasure and joy and love are the components of heaven on earth. And though I'm no expert on masturbation (though I do study diligently on a daily basis), I'd say it's a good part of our world.