Bible Question:

Did Onan die in Genesis 38:9-10 because he did not want children?

Bible Answer:

Levirate-marriage is a strange custom for us today.  It required one brother to marry the wife of a brother who died and who did not have a son. Our question is about Onan who did not want this responsibility. The custom of levirate-marriage was practiced throughout the Old Testament (Genesis 38:6-10; Ruth 4:10) and even into Christ’s time (Matthew 22:24). It is clear this was a divine principle during the time of the book of Genesis, and it was finally written down as part of the Mosaic Law,

When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. “And it shall be that the first-born whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel. But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, ‘I do not desire to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, ‘Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And in Israel his name shall be called, ‘The house of him whose sandal is removed.'” (NASB) Deuteronomy 25:5-10

This was designed to ensure that the family line continued.


Genesis 38:9-10 is about levirate-marriage. Er and Onan were brothers. Er was married to Tamar. He was an evil man. We do not know what he was doing, but God took his life. He died. Er had no offspring, so Judah told Onan to “perform his duty” and produce offspring.

Now Judah took a wife for Er his first-born, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s first-born, was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” And Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so it came about that when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground, in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD; so He took his life also. (NASB) Genesis 38:6-10

The passage reveals that he started foreplay with Tamar and then entered her. That is, intercourse occurred. The phrase “wasted his seed” reveals that his sperm was wasted on the ground. The Hebrew word that is translated as “wasted” is sahat and it means “to ruin, destroy or waste.” That is, his sperm did not accomplish its purpose. His seed or sperm should have resulted in making Tamar pregnant, but he wasted it. He pulled out and orgasmed outside of her. Then God took his life.

Why Did Onan Die

Why did he die? Some claim that Onan masturbated and that is why he died. This is why the term “onanism” now refers to masturbation. But the passage clearly states that he “entered her.” We are told, ” . . . when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed . . .” He entered her and then pulled out. The Hebrew word for “enter” is bo and it means “to go or to come.” This is very descriptive. That is what happens when a husband and wife have sexual intercourse. A husband enters his wife and his emotions build to orgasm. Just before orgasm occurred, Onan pulled out and ejaculated his semen outside of her. This is not an act of masturbation. This is called coitus interruptus. This has been used as a method of birth control by many couples.

Why did Onan “waste his seed”? We are told that he knew the child would not be regarded as his, but the child of his brother. We do not know why Onan did not want to continue Er’s family line. Did Er and Onan have conflict with each other? Did Onan not like Tamar? Did something happen between them that made him angry? Whatever the reason, Onan did not want to have to consummate the marriage with Tamar.

Then God took his life because he failed to make Tamar pregnant and obey the laws of levirate-marriage. What was his sin? His sin was refusing to make Tamar pregnant. But the root sin was in his heart. His sin was not masturbation or exercising birth control. His root sin was an evil, disobedient heart, “in order not to give offspring to his brother.” So God took his life . . .


Onan is an example of disobedience – an evil man who did not want to fulfill God’s command. There was also an earlier question related to birth control.

Suggested Links:

What does the Bible have to say about masturbation?
Is masturbation a sin?
Is masturbation a sin in marriage?
Is masturbation a sin if I control my thoughts?
How to be Filled with the Spirit