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Contraception and the Sin of Onan


John Martignoni - published on 08/03/15

Apologetics 101: Answering Your Questions About the Faith

Question: I work with a Baptist who says that since the Bible is “silent” on the matter of contraception, then it is okay to use it. Is he right about that?

Answer: No, he is not. The Church has taught for 2000 years that contraception is “intrinsically evil (Catechism #2370). While the Bible does not mention the word “contraception,” it does indeed mention a specific contraceptive practice, and God deals with that practice in a most serious manner: Genesis 38:9-10, “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, so when he went into his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and He slew him also.”

What’s going on here? Onan, Judah’s son, had an older brother named Er, who was married to Tamar. Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord and “the Lord slew him” (v. 7). Er died without having any children. In ancient Israel there was a law, the “levirate law,” which stated that if a married man died without children, his brother was obliged to marry the dead man’s widow, and the first son of this marriage was legally considered to be the son and heir of the dead man. This was so the dead man’s name would not be “blotted out of Israel” (Deut 25:6).

When Er died, Onan married Tamar, his dead brother’s wife. But, Onan did not want to raise up offspring for Er, so when he went to have marital relations with Tamar, he did not complete the act, he instead spilled his semen (or seed) on the ground. This act of Onan’s so angered God that He “slew [Onan] also.”

In other words, a contraceptive act on the part of Onan, was so repulsive in the sight of the Lord, that it resulted in Onan’s death. This is how Judaism, and all of Christianity, viewed this act up until the 1900’s. All of Christianity, Catholic and non-Catholic, viewed contraception as a moral evil for 1900 years. In 1930, however, the Anglicans, at their Lambeth Conference, first allowed the use of contraception.

And, after the 1930’s, what do we start to see? We start finding some folks who, in order to justify the use of contraception, start re-interpreting this act of Onan’s, just as they had re-interpreted long-standing Judeo-Christian teaching on contraception. Now, after 1900 years of Christian teaching on the matter, these people start to say that Onan was killed by God not because he spilled his semen on the ground, but because he failed to obey the levirate law. Onan was slain by God they say, not because of a contraceptive act, but because he failed to raise up offspring for his dead brother.

Two big problems with this re-interpretation, though: 1) The passage says the Lord slew Onan for what he did (spilled his seed), not for what he did not do (fulfill the levirate law); and 2) The Bible clearly tells us what the punishment for not fulfilling the levirate law is, and it does not require one’s life. In Deut 25:5-10, we see that the punishment for not fulfilling the levirate law is public humiliation, it is not death. These folks who are trying to re-interpret Gen 38:9-10 in order to justify the use of contraception, don’t really have a biblical leg to stand on.

So, there is indeed a direct reference to contraception in the Bible. But, beyond that, Scripture tells us that God is love. And because He is love, He gives life. His love is pro-creative. His love gives life. When we separate love from life, as we do when we use contraception, then our love is no longer like God’s love. It is not pro-creative love. It is anti-creative love. It is selfish love. And when we separate love from life, when our love is no longer pro-creative, but anti-creative, selfish love, we start experiencing serious consequences — not just as individuals, or as married couples, but as a society. Just look around you to see what widespread contraception has led to. 

John Martignoniis a nationally-known Catholic apologist and Bible scholar. He is the Founder and President of the Bible Christian Society, where you can find lots of free apologetics materials — CD’s, mp3 downloads, e-newsletters, and more, and host of EWTN’s “Open Line” airing on Mondays at 3 p.m. EST. 

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