You’ve probably noticed that when Old Testament names make one of their periodic comebacks, it’s always Jacob and Joshua and Noah and never Onan. To be sure, Shelster once worked at an office where the boss would bring to work his dog Onan. Onan was not easily confused with Einstein, even by dog standards–he would chase his tail (this is admittedly a practice widespread despite its stupidity, kind of the dog equivalent of day-trading), but Onan’s special claim to dumbass fame was that he would position himself so as to whack his head on a filing cabinet with every revolution. Never learned that he could move over 2 inches and experience futility without pain. Still sounds a lot like a day-trader, but I digress.
I meant to talk about the original Onan. Until the other day, I only knew about Onan what many of you will know, that he spilled his seed upon the ground and thus was considered very naughty. But the actual story in Genesis puts a completely different spin on it. A little background: Judah’s first two sons were Er and Onan (I imagine that the elder got his name when somebody asked Judah what he wanted to call the kid and he said “Er, uh, Nigel?” but they’d already typed “Er” on the birth certificate). Er was married to Tamar, but he did something bad (I forget what) and YHVH sent him to sleep with the fishes. Now Tamar was left a widow:
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. 10 What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death also.
So the point was that Onan practiced coitus interruptus (or some other 2-person non-reproductive activity) as a way to avoid getting Tamar pregnant, and his main crime was probably either disobedience to his father or disloyalty to the memory of his brother in refusing to give him a posthumous heir. Judah’s schem struck me as pretty strange, but I found out a couple of books later that it is in fact part of the Mosaic Law, as spelled out in Deuteronomy 25:
5“If brethren dwell together, and one of them die and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry outside unto a stranger; her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him for a wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto her.
6And it shall be that the firstborn whom she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother who is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.
7And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, `My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel. He will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother.’
8Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak unto him; and if he stand by it and say, `I like not to take her,’
9then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, `So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house.’
10And his name shall be called in Israel, `The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.’
I used the King James for this one because “the house of him that hath his shoe loosed” is so awesome. Apart from the astonishing shoe business, the most striking thing about this passage is that the widow is portrayed as the injured party: it is assumed that she wants to marry her late husband’s brother. And in a way this makes perfect sense: in a radically patriarchal, patrilocal, patrilineal society, a married woman has lost her status in her own family and obtained a tenuous spot in her husband’s house, as a wife and potentially a mother of males. If her husband dies without issue, she becomes an unperson, a mere hanger-on with no strong claim on any of the males who wield power (this description will sound familiar to readers of Jane Austen, whose women often find themselves similarly situated). But if she marries a brother and if her firstborn is given the status of her original husband’s child (which might include an extra share in the patrimony), she can maintain her previous role in the world with hardly a hiccup. This practice, called levirate marriage, is such a tidy solution that it has been popular in numerous cultures.
You will sometimes hear apologists for some conservative ideology say “Oh no, our rules don’t denigrate women, they are meant to ensure women’s protection and dignity.” Levirate marriage seems to me an excellent example of how this can happen: it is deeply embedded in a patriarchal view of the world, and would make little sense in a culture where women have substantial autonomy; however, once you have accepted the framework of women as needing the protection and authority of men to have a place in society, the practice makes sense and might even look like a kind of safety net for girls who are down on their luck.
By the way, the Judah/Tamar/Onan story has an extra weird twist, in which Tamar pretends to be a prostitute, or rather becomes a prostitute, in order to sell her services to Judah. In this way she conceives an heir via her father-in-law. So much of Genesis reads like an attempt to set up the old country song “I’m My Own Grandpa.”