The Pokey Finger of God

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Spiritual Onanism

June 19th, 2004 · No Comments · culture, history

Somewhere in this article is a phrase used by a Catholic cardinal to describe all non-Christian religions, both ancient and New Age: “spiritual auto-eroticism”. I’m almost certain this was intended to be derisive and dismissive, and it is quite surely an honest response from this prelate. What’s funny is that outside of the Catholic context, this is praise. Doesn’t it make you want to jump right in to kabbalah and Zen and Sufism and Druidic faith? Mmmmmm, masturbation for the soul. It just sounds like such an incredibly wonderful thing — who wouldn’t want a few minutes of that every morning, eh? (Wink, wink; nudge, nudge.)

The common explanation given by a priest to his flock about the evils of masturbation refer to the sins of Onan. Onanism is the sin of masturbation, as Onan was killed by God presumably for “spilling his seed” — but you won’t often hear the full story of Onan in a church. In the mind of a devout Catholic, masturbation is sinful, thus “spiritual auto-eroticism” is both sinful and potentially dangerous to the soul. But Onan wasn’t masturbating when God killed him, he was pulling out before orgasm so as to not impregnate his dead brother’s widow as his father has asked him to do.

Genesis 38 tells the story of Judah and Tamar: Judah was one of the sons of Jacob and great-grandsons of Abraham. His initial failing was in marrying a native Canaanite woman and not an imported bride from Assyria, as his fathers before him had done. Judah ends up with three sons. He marries the first one, Er, to a local girl named Tamar, but Er dies before he can father any children. As the story goes, God killed Er because of some unspecified naughty activity. Judah induces his second son, Onan to sleep with Tamar to get her pregnant. The idea would be that any such children would become the heir of Er’s estate and would thus provide for Tamar. The Bible specifies that Onan knew he would not get any benefit of any children he sired by Tamar, so he spilled his seed on the floor to prevent impregnating Tamar, thus God killed Onan for being “wicked in his sight”.

Tamar eventually gets Judah to impregnate her by dressing up as a prostitute and standing close to where she knew he would pass by. Judah stiffs her more than once when he pulls the old “forgotten wallet” trick (in this case a goat: y’know, “I’ll send a goat right over, really!“), but Tamar gets the upper hand when she returns nine months later with heir in tow and Judah’s staff and signet to prove his paternity. It’s a classic story, but one that emphasizes some ancient nomadic cultural mores that are in significant conflict with our modern culture, and thus is rarely emphasized. Ironically, one explanation for the story is that someone needed to reconcile the loss and adoption of tribes into the house of Judah, and thought that this would be a face-saving way to do so.

Note that what pissed God off about Onan wasn’t about making a mess on the floor, but presumably in not participating in the cultural exercises of honoring his brother, providing for his sister-in-law, and obeying his father. All the other stuff about sex didn’t get any attention from God: he didn’t smite Judah for “visiting” a prostitute or for instigating an incestuous coupling. Why should we believe that God cared about where Onan sprayed his love juice? God smote Er, but we don’t really know why — some have postulated that Er’s sin was the same as Onan’s because Er left no children either. However, the same word used to describe Er and Onan [resh aleph] means evil, wicked, calamitous, or simply infirm. Er may have died because of a heart condition, a fever, or food poisoning. A better translation of the “curse” may be that “God took him up when he saw that he was sick”.

In a way, it’s a case of some bad storytelling combined with a number of translations over some fairly taboo topics. It’s easy to believe that more that a little of this story has been clipped away in the early translations. What we’re left with is something of a confusing jumble. This story isn’t about God, it’s about tribal history. There’s no characterization of God or any indication of his motivations or preparations. Instead, God is used as part of a curse used to defame a character: he didn’t just die, he was killed because he was evil. It’s stories like this one that make it easy to suppose that God is a capricious bastard. But God really isn’t in this story, he’s more of an occasional event or chance encounter thrown in to move the story along. There’s little indication in this story that God was worshiped, or even that YHWH was the original name of the god in this story.

It’s difficult to believe that moralists would use this story to prop up their distaste of masturbation since there’s nothing in it where God says anything one way or the other about masturbation, yet it’s chock full of incest and prostitution that God seems to think is perfectly okay. I suspect most pastors have been able to rely on their flock’s reliable tendency to only read the suggested verses and never beyond them and never question whatever naive understanding they may have of what they read or heard.

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