Friday, September 11, 2009

Onan the Barbarian

I was hiking and talking with a friend the other day. He said something about faith community pleasuring itself. Yep, you read that correctly. He used the term masturbation to describe the selfishness of some Christian communities. Any attempt on my part to recapture his point here would be inadequate. I won’t try. Even so, while it was clear he was referring to the idea of masturbation, not the literal act, the negative connotation was still conspicuous and intentional. Curious, since the Bible says nothing directly about the issue. Many, however, feel it does make strong inference.

In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul lists a number of people (by the activities in which they engage) who will not “inherit the Kingdom of God.” Included in the list is the ancient Greek word “malakoi” which seems to have been understood by many early Christians as a person with “soft morals.” The 1611 translation of the Bible into English interprets the word as “effeminate” (a weak man). By Martin Luther’s day, the popular translation for the word was “masturbators.” In fact, as late as 1967, this designation still appeared in the Catholic Encyclopedia. The more recent Bible translations assign a reference to same-sex acts.

In Genesis 38, the author writes of Judah and his three sons; Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married a woman named Tamar but, because he was wicked, God killed him before an heir could be conceived. Judah told Onan to “lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.” [1] But Onan knew that the kid wouldn’t be his and, every time he slept with Tamar, withdrew and “spilled his seed.” This was equally as wicked in God’s sight, so Onan was put to death as well. (Who says the Bible is boring? This is made for TV, movie of the week stuff right here.)

Theologians have taken many different perspectives on Onan’s deadly mistake. Some advocate that it was Onan’s disobedience to his father that provided the offense. Other interpretations have led to the creation of the term onanism. Often a euphemism for coitus interruptus, the term intimates that it was Onan’s selfish intentions God found so detestable. Onanism is also used as moniker for the act of masturbation, implying that Onan was just using the sex act for personal pleasure, not procreative purpose. Since the middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church (and others) have used these interpretations to take a moral stand against masturbation, coitus interruptus, and even contraception. (Though, if, indeed, fiddling with your own equipment irrevocably leads to eternal damnation, I suspect there will be few post adolescent men in heaven. Just sayin’…)

But, is the point of this little story to give us another entry into our list of moral DOs and DON’Ts? Is that the purpose of Paul’s list of mortal sins?

I’m not taking a stand here on what acts, in and of themselves, are sinful in God’s sight. I’ll leave that between you and Him. But, I do wonder if these passages aren’t much more clear in point than the credit church history has given them. They seem to me to be saying, quite simply…

• know why you are doing what you’re doing
• know for whom you are doing what you’re doing
• be prepared to face the consequences of your intentions and focus

Our choices and actions are important. But, in the end, if you have a growing, living relationship with Christ, “why” and “for whom” you choose and/or act, not just how, tend to be the factors that will either commend or condemn. These things define us both apart from and in conjunction with what we do. As people of faith—lovers of God, what we do is, well... what we do (though, in my opinion, the things many people do in the name of God are ludicrous). Why and for whom we do are far more significant criteria in determining who we are. Contrary to what Christian book store bracelet-theology may espouse, ultimately, I wonder if what Jesus would do is all that doctrinally definitive or even consistent. If we were motivated by His “WHYs” and focused on His “WHOs,” “what” we are supposed to be doing and/or not doing might become more clear… or, dare I say, maybe less important.

For example, in Onan's case, his focus was keeping the inheritance for himself and his own. Oops! I said I would refrain from making my friend’s point.


1. HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society.