New International Version (NIV)1 At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. 2 There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; 3 she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. 4 She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. 5 She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.6 Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death.8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. 10What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death also.
Genesis 38 is a very strange chapter with two bizarre stories. The first involves the brothers Er and Onan. Er is said to be evil, so the LORD kills him. The bible never says what Er did that was evil. If there were a god who simply killed evil people, then the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, no such god exists, and evil is able to continue until actions are taken by men and women to stop it. This story is just another example of the Old Testament not reflecting what happens in the world. Just as we do not have a god interacting with people today, we do not have a god killing those who do evil.
After the LORD kills Er, Judah orders Onan to impregnate Er’s wife Tamar. Rather than impregnate her, Onan spills his seed on the ground. The LORD then kills Onan for not impregnating Tamar. A Christian apology for this verse can be found at http://carm.org/bible-difficulties/genesis-deuteronomy/why-did-god-kill-man-spilling-his-seed-ground.
The reason God did this is not because Onan wasted his seed on the ground, but because Onan refused to perform his familial duties of producing offspring for his brother’s. This was a great offense at the time. Now, we must realize
that the culture was very different than ours is today. In that culture, when a man died and left no children, the next of kin was sometimes obligated to “go in to” the wife and produce children. These children were then considered to be the descendents of the original late husband and would be raised as such. This way, the offspring would be able to take care of the mother, provide more people for the community, and thereby raise their own children, continuing the name of that family. Onan knew this and refused to take part in furthering the honor and name of the brother’s wife and thereby also risking provision for her in the future. To this, God was very displeased and took Onan’s life.
First of all, the Christian apologist admits to moral relativism. This is the most frequent excuse for immoral acts by god in the Old Testament. “Back then things were different.” Then these hypocrits accuse atheists of being moral relativists in regards to things like homosexuality. This “custom” was so important to god that he killed someone who did not follow it. Yet, I know of no apologist who espouses that Christians follow this custom today.
Also, if Er is so evil that he must be killed, why should god care whether or not he has descendants? Does killing Er give him descendants? Does killing Onan give Er (or Onan) descendants? The killings by god does not in any way provide descendants for Er, which is the supposed reason for the killings.
More than likely, this story (and others) was invented to scare (control) people into making sure that a widow with no children would be able to have children.
This is not the only bizarre story in Gen 38. The adventures of Judah and Tamar come next time.