Onan vs. Boaz

For the Easter weekend I have some thoughts to share about a passage in the Bible that doesn't get a ton of attention.

But Er, Judah’s firstborn, 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.” Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so 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. (Genesis 38:7–10)

The preceding account of Onan is often taken to be a condemnation of non-procreative sexual acts and/or birth control. However, I think there's more to the story that we can learn from. Using the principle that scripture interprets scripture, we'll start by looking at the context of this account then contrast it with a similar situation that turned out a lot differently.

Reading the full chapter of Genesis 38 we notice that the woman in the verses above has a name—Tamar—and she is one of the main characters of the chapter, along with Onan's father Judah. To summarize the events of the chapter, Judah (a great-grandson of Abraham and the ancestor of one of the twelve tribes of Israel) has 3 sons. The oldest is Er, who marries Tamar but is struck down by God (for unspecified wickedness) before they have any children. The custom in that culture was that a widow's husband's brother was supposed to take care of her; this included being sexually intimate with the expectation that any children she had would carry on the line (including inheriting property) of the deceased brother. Onan is the second son of Judah and has this responsibility. It doesn't go well, as we've seen above. Judah has one more son but he's afraid that that one will end up getting smitten too, so he keeps putting off matching him with Tamar. Eventually she gets tired of waiting. Being a widow with no children would leave her pretty isolated and without support in that culture. She disguises herself as a prostitute associated with a local fertility cult and hangs out by a road that she knows Judah will be travelling on. Not knowing it's his daughter-in-law and being a widower himself by this time he uses her services and agrees to send payment (a goat), leaving some personal effects as a security deposit until then. When she gets pregnant and is going to be punished for being an unchaste widow she uses the personal effects to reveal that Judah is the father. The chapter ends with Tamar giving birth to twins, with Perez being the firstborn and the senior male heir of Judah by the rules of inheritance.

Who is Judah? He was the fourth son of Jacob (by his wife Leah). However, his older brothers dishonoured the family: Reuben got caught sleeping with his father's concubine and Simeon and Levi massacred a village after their sister was raped. Because of these things, when Jacob was giving his final blessing to his family before he died, Judah got the preeminent place:

“Judah, your brothers shall praise you;
Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;
Your father’s sons shall bow down to you.
“Judah is a lion’s whelp;
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He couches, he lies down as a lion,
And as a lion, who dares rouse him up?
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes,
And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
“He ties his foal to the vine,
And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine;
He washes his garments in wine,
And his robes in the blood of grapes.
“His eyes are dull from wine,
And his teeth white from milk. (Genesis 49:8–12, emphasis added).

So Judah is the prophesied ancestor of royalty.

In spite of the position and promises he has, Judah's character in Genesis 38 is not exemplary. The way he looks for a wife doesn't follow his father and grandfather's examples of family loyalty. He doesn't treat Tamar justly. He goes to a prostitute. But at the end of the story when Tamar confronts him that he is the father of her unborn children he admits she was in the right; he goes on to accept Perez as his heir.

To further illuminate this account, I want to contrast it with that of Ruth and Boaz:

[Ruth's] mother-in-law then said to her, “Where did you glean today and where did you work? May he who took notice of you be blessed.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed of the Lord who has not withdrawn his kindness to the living and to the dead.” Again Naomi said to her, “The man is our relative, he is one of our closest relatives.” Then Ruth the Moabitess said, “Furthermore, he said to me, ‘You should stay close to my servants until they have finished all my harvest.’” Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maids, so that others do not fall upon you in another field.” So she stayed close by the maids of Boaz in order to glean until the end of the barley harvest and the wheat harvest. And she lived with her mother-in-law.
Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? Now is not Boaz our kinsman, with whose maids you were? Behold, he winnows barley at the threshing floor tonight. Wash yourself therefore, and anoint yourself and put on your best clothes, and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. It shall be when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies, and you shall go and uncover his feet and lie down; then he will tell you what you shall do.” She said to her, “All that you say I will do.”
So she went down to the threshing floor and did according to all that her mother-in-law had commanded her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain; and she came secretly, and uncovered his feet and lay down. It happened in the middle of the night that the man was startled and bent forward; and behold, a woman was lying at his feet. He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth your maid. So spread your covering over your maid, for you are a close relative.” Then he said, “May you be blessed of the Lord, my daughter. You have shown your last kindness to be better than the first by not going after young men, whether poor or rich. Now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you whatever you ask, for all my people in the city know that you are a woman of excellence. Now it is true I am a close relative; however, there is a relative closer than I. Remain this night, and when morning comes, if he will redeem you, good; let him redeem you. But if he does not wish to redeem you, then I will redeem you, as the Lord lives. Lie down until morning.”
So she lay at his feet until morning and rose before one could recognize another; and he said, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.” Again he said, “Give me the cloak that is on you and hold it.” So she held it, and he measured six measures of barley and laid it on her. Then she went into the city. When she came to her mother-in-law, she said, “How did it go, my daughter?” And she told her all that the man had done for her. She said, “These six measures of barley he gave to me, for he said, ‘Do not go to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’” Then she said, “Wait, my daughter, until you know how the matter turns out; for the man will not rest until he has settled it today.” (Ruth 2:19 – 3:18, emphasis added)

Ruth was married to one of Naomi's sons but he passed away so she is a widow. The two women have returned to Naomi's home village of Bethlehem. The social safety net of that time was that landowners weren't supposed to make a second pass of their fields during the harvest; any grain that got missed during the first pass was left behind for people in need to come pick, a process called gleaning. As a childless widow, Ruth is in a position where she needs to glean to have enough food for herself and her mother-in-law. In the centuries that have passed since the time of Tamar it seems that the practices around re-marrying widows have been expanded and formalized. It no longer has to be done by a brother of the deceased husband, but can be any near relative. Additionally, the property of the deceased is supposed to go to the one who marries the widow, since the offspring would be counted as heirs of the deceased—it was important in the Old Testament to keep property in the family.

The practice of buying back property and raising up heirs for branches of the family tree that would otherwise come to a dead end when someone was widowed was known as "redemption". In the account above, Boaz plays the role of the redeemer, keeping alive the name and inheritance of the deceased. Even before he does so, he's described as showing kindness "to the living and to the dead" by letting the widow of his relative glean in his fields. To make a tie-in to Easter, there is a hint or glimpse of resurrection in the way this practice of redemption works to continue the family lines of those who died childless. This is quite evident in the conclusion to the book of Ruth:

So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. (Ruth 4:13–14)

In contrast to Onan and Judah, Boaz acts with exemplary character. He is generous to the poor, as evidenced by his fields being a favourable place to glean. And when Ruth comes to him at the threshing floor, he acts honourably toward her. Boaz could have easily had his way with Ruth, a foreign woman alone on his property at night. He probably could have even had her killed on contrived charges of trying to seduce him by acting as a fertility cult prostitute (like Tamar pretended to be). Then the associated property would have been available without the pesky complication of having more heirs in the picture. Instead he went public the very next day with his intentions to take on the role of redeemer. Of course Ruth (with Naomi's advice) also deserves credit for taking as much initiative as Tamar but in a much more vulnerable way, trusting Boaz to do the right thing openly instead of trying to seduce him furtively.

The stories of Onan and Boaz have more of a connection than the practice of redeeming/re-marrying a widow:

Now these are the generations of Perez: to Perez was born Hezron, and to Hezron was born Ram, and to Ram, Amminadab, and to Amminadab was born Nahshon, and to Nahshon, Salmon, and to Salmon was born Boaz, and to Boaz, Obed, and to Obed was born Jesse, and to Jesse, [King] David. (Ruth 4:18–22).

Perez was the son of Tamar, as we saw above. Ruth and Boaz's son Obed was the grandfather of David, the first descendant of Judah to have a king's scepter like the prophecy said.

In light of the context of who Judah and Tamar were and the contrast with how Boaz acted, let's return to the account of Onan. What was so bad about what Onan did? He did not show kindness to the living and the dead, but tried to have it both ways: getting his deceased brother's property and the pleasure of having sex with Tamar while shirking the responsibility that comes with the role of redeemer. Furthermore, he's standing against prophecy in two ways:

  1. Not carrying on the line of Judah that is bound to produce a King (since the first child of Tamar would count as the senior heir of Judah)
  2. Acting as a false redeemer perverts the symbolism of this institution

Pastor Tim Keller says,

There are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: Is it basically about me, or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do or basically about what He has done?

The discussion above connects to Jesus in a few ways:

  • He is the Redeemer, in a much fuller sense than re-marrying a widow
  • Like the efforts to produce heirs for those who died without them, his resurrection means that death doesn't have to be the end of the line
  • Judah & Tamar and Boaz & Ruth feature in His geneology