What About Onan? Another Discussion About Quiverfull

It was brought to my attention that I missed one argument in favor of the Quiverfull Movement.  

For that reason, I’m going to take this post to address it.

It is based on this passage, so let’s take a look at it.

And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. And what he did was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and he put him to death also. Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house. Genesis 38:6-11

In order to understand this passage, we need to look at it logically and objectively –and within the historical context.

First of all, this is Old Testament.  So unless there is concrete evidence that this passage is a command to today’s Christians, it can’t be such.

1) It’s not even a command. This passage contains no command at all. It is simply describing what happened in a single situation. We can’t make events into commands. That’s poor bible application and breaks basic bible application rules. This is just recorded history.

2) If it was a command, it would be to Old Testament believers. It’s not even a command to the Old Testament believers so why would we assume it’s a command that applies to today? It is not.

3) God’s commands are never veiled. He doesn’t make us guess what He wants us to do. That’s not the kind of God He is. There is no such thing as a Universal Concept where we have to extrapolate information written to one group of people to try to discover what God expects of us now.  That would be far too ambiguous for our God. He does not condemn us for sins He never explained. That would go against who He is. If God wants us to not do something because it’s a sin in His eyes, He will clearly explain it and label it as such in the New Testament. I actually feel really sorry for people who think they have to guess and read between the lines to make sure they’re not sinning. How incredibly stressful. How incredibly unnecessary.

4) Extrapolating information in the form of a Universal Concept is a dangerous path to walk. As soon as you start extrapolating, you’re adding to scripture. As soon as you start saying “Because God said not to have shellfish in the Mosaic Law then that’s a Universal Concept, and we shouldn’t have shellfish because God had a reason for saying not to do it back then. Therefore, having shellfish is still a sin.” The problem with this is that you’re assuming that you know better than God. You’re assuming God did not tell us everything we needed to know for the Age of Grace in the New Testament, but instead, that God expects us to guess. You’re assuming that He wants us to do things but never bothered to clearly explain it. That’s simply not how God works.  

Now, back to our passage. I’ll remind you that there is no command anywhere in this passage, and we cannot make commands where God does not.  

So, what is this passage talking about?

The truth is that it’s a very vague passage with not a lot of details. We have to pay close attention to the wording to even understand what’s going on.  While we’re doing that, we need to make sure we’re only basing our conclusions on facts. Not conjecture or opinion.

We can see from this passage that their culture was very different from ours, and we need to make sure we don’t impose our sense of cultural morality or even New Testament morality on them.

For instance, today, sleeping with your dead brother’s wife to give that woman children is repugnant.  But it must not have been back then.  Remember that in the Old Testament having multiple wives was culturally acceptable and not condemned, and brothers also married their sisters.

This happened before the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses had a similar rule, but it does not automatically transfer to the New Testament simply because it’s in the Old Testament.  

Why can we not just automatically make every Old Testament law apply today?

We know that the Law has ended according to scripture.  Out of the thirteen Pauline epistles, nine talk about the Law being finished and over.

Not a single person today who claims Old Testament verses apply today actually follows all of them. Are you wearing tassels on your garments? Are you sacrificing animals on an altar? Do you stone disobedient children? Stone adulterers? Stone false teachers?



Then who gets to decide which Old Testament rules we follow and which we don’t?

This is an incredibly important question!

Everyone I know just picks and chooses what they think applies to today.

What dangerous way to live!

If that’s true that you have to try to guess how to obey God, you could be taking not just your life but your soul into your own hands.

I hope you guess right!

But that’s not how God works.  He doesn’t make us guess.

Imagine if God had put Adam and Eve in the garden and said, “One of the trees in here will kill you if you eat from it, but you’ll have to guess which one.”

That’s simply not the way God works.

He expresses His expectations clearly in scripture.

So every command is actually a command.

No guessing.

No blessings written as commands because, oops, God meant that to be a command. No stories are written with hidden commands in them.

The commands that apply to us today are the New Testament commands or Old Testament commands which are restated in the New Testament. Otherwise how would we know what to obey since scripture is so clear that the Law is passed?

If it is not clear in the New Testament you can pretty much guess that it is not a command for today.

In this passage, the brother-in-law was punished, not for letting his “seed” (semen) fall on the ground, but for failing to do his duty.

During this time,  it was acceptable for the brother of a deceased to give his sister-in-law children. Those children that resulted from his union with his brother’s wife would be legally considered his dead brother’s children and would inherit part of his father’s wealth taking some of the wealth away from his children. It sounds like, based on the passage, he knew that meant his children would get less inheritance, and he was acting selfishly.

It is understandable that this concept is confusing because what was going on here is so very different from how we live today. This is why the historical context is vitally important when studying the bible.

I’m actually really glad this isn’t a Universal Concept because if Scott dies I’m not interested in marrying any of my brother-in-laws. They are nice men, but I’m also not interested in sharing a husband! Thankfully this does not apply to us today.

This chapter lists the behavior of the children of Judah. More than one of them was killed by God for their disobedient and dishonorable behavior.

This was a different time,  a different dispensation, and God dealt with people differently back then: different rules; same God. God doesn’t strike us dead for sins like that today, but He did sometimes in the past. 

The woman needed to be someone’s wife or under someone’s care back then because a woman wouldn’t have been able to work in that agrarian society –except perhaps in the oldest occupation, prostitution.  In an effort to keep women from that, the other men in the family would take the widow in.  That’s what we see happening: in the end, she went back to her father’s house.

The point of giving her children was so that there would be someone to take care of her in her old age.

If you go read the whole passage you’ll see that all kinds of sins were taking place in the family of Judah and that this woman did end up prostituting herself.

The issue wasn’t the semen. The issue was the selfishness of the brother refusing to take in the widow who needed cared for and see to it that she had children.  

This kind of offends our modern understanding of marriage and how things should work, but it does say that what Onan did was wicked in God’s eyes. That means that the opposite of what Onan did was considered right even if that seems weird to us today.

In all times of history, God has made provisions for the care of widows. During the Age of Grace, the church is responsible for taking care of widows according to the book of James.

Refusing to take care of the widow according to what was expected in their time (and would be commanded in the Law in later passages of scripture) was this man’s crime.

It wasn’t about the semen.

It was about the heart.

Isn’t it always really about the heart?

We cannot use this passage to say that we must keep having children because:

1) There’s not even any mention of continuing to have children in this passage. This is about familial duty as it was understood and commanded in Old Testament times

2) There is no command about anything in this passage.  Nothing. Nada. No commands at all.

3) If it were a command, it wouldn’t apply to us unless there was evidence in the text that it did apply to Gentiles or to everyone for all time.  Since there’s no command, the command can’t apply to Gentiles in the Age of Grace.

Get it?

You can only use this as a command to keep having babies if you add to scripture, read between the lines or misapply and misinterpret the passage.

Let’s not do that.  As I’ve mentioned before, there’s some strong language in the Bible for those who put words into God’s mouth.

If He doesn’t clearly say it, don’t claim it’s a command from God. 

Remember my favorite quote about twisting scripture?



Sarah Forbes

P.S. For the same reason that this can’t be used to say that you must keep having babies —because it’s a story, not a command and because it was during a different dispensation— you can’t use this passage to say that masturbation is a sin. I am sorry, but it just doesn’t say that. That’s not what this passage is about. This passage was about taking care of widows. For information about how to take care of widows today, in the Age of Grace,  see this passage in 1 Timothy.


2 thoughts on “What About Onan? Another Discussion About Quiverfull”

  1. Yes to all of the above. There is no reason to believe that the ultimate lesson in that passage is even remotely concerning birth control.

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