I’d like to start this off with a conversation about the “sin of Onan,” or Onanism, as it is known to certain sects of Christians — which they interpret to mean masturbation. Let’s go back to the original text.
And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.
And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.
— Genesis 38:7-10, KJV
Wicked Onan, spilling his seed upon the ground. Clearly, God hates masturbation.
Um … slow down for just a second, there….
Let’s put this in historical context. Most patriarchal societies, including the Old Testament Jews at the time of this story, consider any woman the ward (or property) of a man: first her father, then her brothers if her father dies, then her husband, and finally, her sons (should she be “blessed” to have any). This was widely true in the United States until perhaps fifty years ago, and it’s still the case in many parts of the country, to say nothing of the world. It’s pretty much what “patriarchy” is all about. To be widowed in a patriarchy is to become a woman on the margins of society, unsupported, destitute, doomed. As a childless widow, you might as well just walk into the desert and die.
It’s a harsh fate, particularly given that, as a used woman, like a used car, you aren’t likely to capture the eye of a new husband. One of the few traditional reliefs from this fate in some cultures, such as Onan’s, is to become the automatic property of the oldest brother-in-law: that is, if the woman’s deceased husband has a brother, she automatically becomes the brother’s responsibility, and his wife. The rules vary, but at this time in ancient Jewish society, while the widow would become the wife of her late husband’s brother, her children by that brother would be treated as the children of her late husband. Hence, “raise up seed to thy brother,” and “Onan knew that the seed should not be his.”
This is not a story about sex. It’s a story is about inheritance, well worthy of a Midsomer Murders episode, if not a Shakespearean play.
We aren’t given a lot of detail, but it’s likely that Tamar, the wife, was childless when her husband died, otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point to the story: that is, her late husband, Er, had no heirs. Er’s family line would die out, and his property would go to his eldest surviving brother, which we can guess is none other than Onan. You can just imagine the glint in Onan’s eye. You can also imagine how it would tip clan politics, with Onan suddenly acquiring all of Er’s wealth, on top of his own.
So Grandpa Judah steps in, the fearsome patriarch of the clan, and says, “Nope.” He orders Onan to marry Tamar, get her pregnant, and then the children — specifically, the sons — of that union would be considered Er’s children, not Onan’s: that is, there would be heirs to Er’s fortune. And those heirs would not be Onan. Now, you can imagine Onan’s eyes glittering for an entirely different reason.
It’s pretty plain from there. Had there been heirs, this story would likely have taken a Shakespearean turn toward nepoticide (assassination of nephews), but as there were no nephews, the simplest solution was to make sure there would never be any nephews, by “spilling seed on the ground.”
Apparently, Onan didn’t quite get away with it, and in the process, doubtless pissed off Tamar, Grandpa Judah, the rest of the clan, and — we are told — God Himself. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to find that God’s earthly agent of Onan’s untimely smiting was Judah or even Tamar, though we aren’t given that detail.
So how do we get from this blood-soaked story of greed to masturbation? You can read the history of the “theological debates” over the centuries if you’re interested. It’s on the Internet.
What I find interesting about those debates is the way the whole point of the story is gradually perverted from its obvious original meaning, into something entirely different, and — frankly — bizarre. By the time you get to the puritanical commentaries of John Calvin or John Wesley, it’s clear that the entire subject has become perverted beyond recognition or any sensible discussion.
“Onanism” is certainly a perversion — not of the flesh, but of the mind. And yes, if you do frequently indulge in this kind of intellectual masturbation, your mind’s eye will go blind.
But I didn’t really want to talk about Onanism.
I wanted to talk about the Northern Spotted Owl. Millennials have probably never heard of the Spotted Owl, but most old-timers heard plenty about it. It was a huge controversy back in the 1990’s.
There’s a species of bird, the Northern Spotted Owl, that has a relatively limited habitat, specifically old-growth forests. In the 1990’s, the logging industries in the Pacific Northwest were moving aggressively into old-growth forests, clear-cutting them for lumber and profit. It was one of the typical situations we continue to face, where short-term commercial interest comes up against long-term viability — in short, the penchant of commerce, when profits dip, to burn down the neighborhood and sell the ashes — and the legal strategy the environmental movement settled on, in the absence of any reasonable legal alternative, was to concentrate on a single species of bird, the Northern Spotted Owl, and cite the Endangered Species Act to block large-scale old-growth deforestation — or, as the logging industry put it, to kill jobs.
I don’t want to revisit all the ugly histrionics of that period, nor the fires and murders and other mayhem. I’m more interested in pointing out that the Spotted Owl had nothing to do with the Spotted Owl.
Just as Onan’s Sin had nothing to do with spilling seed.
Both stories were about greed.
But I didn’t really want to talk about the Spotted Owl, either.
I wanted to talk about the Mueller Report. And Capitalism. And Socialism. And the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. And Abortion. And the War On Drugs.
None of these things has anything to do with what it claims to be about. They are all perversions: not of the flesh, but of the mind. They are all the result of our unreasoning nature taking a specific story about a limited, single thing, and fetishizing it into a universal ideology — in every case, a perverted ideology — and in the process, making it impossible to discuss civilly, or to come to sensible solutions to real problems.
Why do we make it impossible to find sensible solutions to real problems? In the end, the answer is — as always, among humans — unchecked, homicidal greed: people who are willing to push the rhetorical buttons and scoop up the pocket change people lose in the ensuing fistfights.
This is why we can’t have a civil or even sensible conversation about the Second Amendment. It’s why there is nothing but charred earth around the Right to Life. Just as there was nothing but charred earth around the Spotted Owl.
War is good business for those positioned to exploit it, whether it is a shooting war, or a war of words over perverse ideologies.