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ONAN (Heb. אוֹנָן; "power," "wealth"), second son of Judah and Shua (Gen. 38:2–4; 46:12; Num. 26:19). After the death of his elder brother Er, Onan was instructed by his father to contract a levirate marriage with his childless sister-in-law Tamar (Gen. 38:7–8). Onan refused to fulfill his fraternal duty, and whenever he had relations with Tamar he would let the semen go to waste (presumably by coitus interruptus, although the term *onanism can be actually applied to masturbation), thereby avoiding effective consummation of the marriage (38:9). Onan's offensive conduct was motivated by the fact that the son born of a levirate marriage was accounted to the dead brother (Deut. 25:5–6). His uncharitableness was displeasing to the Lord, who took his life (Gen. 38:10). The Judahite genealogy in i Chronicles 2:3 does not mention the death of Onan.

This story may possibly contain a historical nucleus reflecting the extinction of two clans of the tribe of Judah.


em, 1 (1955), 155 (incl. bibl.); D.M. Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law (1968), 111–2.

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Onan in the Bible, a son of Judah (Genesis 38:9), who was ordered by his father to beget children with the wife of his brother who had died childless. He did not wish to beget children who would not belong to him, so he did not complete copulation but ‘let his seed fall on the ground’, for which God punished him with death. Although Onan's sin is taken by modern biblical scholars to have been his failure to fulfil the obligation of marrying his brother's widow, this passage has frequently been taken in the Christian (as in the Jewish) tradition to show divine condemnation of autoeroticism.

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Onan (ō´nən), in the Bible, Judah's son, whose evasion of his obligation to his brother's widow caused his death.