Question on contraception and Genesis 38

edited December 1969 in Faith Issues
Firstly, let me say if this topic offends anyone, I apologise for hurting your feelings, but I am honestly confused and need some guidance on this issue.

Ok, so basically I was reading "Homosexuality, Ordiniation of Women" by H. H. Pope Shenouda III and I came to "page 31", and noticed the following comment with regards to contraception:
Does the Coptic Church have a view on the use of artificial
Yes, we accept it if it is not a way of abortion. This means if it
is used to avoid, rather than terminate, a pregnancy. However,
once a pregnancy has occurred, than it is a sin to abort the baby,
even if its age is only one hour. So, it is acceptable only to
prevent pregnancy.
I feel confused now because of some verses from the Bible which seem to disagree with this stance [Seem being the operative word]

Genesis 38:8-10 reads as follows:
8 And Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and marry her, and raise up an heir to your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother. 10 And the thing which he did displeased the LORD; therefore He killed him also.
My understanding of this verse has always been that God killed Onan for practicing contraception and "wasting" the seed of life via the withdrawl method. I think though that I must be wrong in this interpretation and ask that someone help me to better understand this verse?


  • WMA,

    Fr. Tadros Malaty has written many patristic commentaries on the books of the Bible, including two commentaries on Genesis (one is simply a condensed version of the other). Sorry I don't have much time to look them up at the moment in order to quote you his answer, nor do I have access to an online link - hopefully someone else can help you with that until I find the time to do so myself, if you don't manage to find it on your own in the time being.

    As to my own personal impression, I believe the real crimes committed by Onan are a) that he dishonored his brother, by abandoning his duty/obligation to provide children to be his brothers heirs, b) the fact his pre-formulated intention to so dishonour his brother was motivated by envy and selfishness.

    In this case, the sole reason behind the practise of a man uniting with his brother's widowed wife, was to bear children for his brother in order to preserve his brothers' line. You can't really impose the conditions of this very special circumstance (i.e. between a man and his brother's wife) towards circumstances of a completely different nature (i.e. between a man and his own wife).

    I think one of the strongest Biblically based arguments for contraception is St Paul's argument that one may marry for the sake of evading the illegitimate engagement of sexual pleasure. What this implies is that it is legitimate to engage in sexual pleasure within the confines of a sacrametal marital union. It would be rather illogical to infer that St Paul only intended pleasure that leads to procreation, since the subject he was addressing was the engagement of pleasure per se outside of marriage, and not pleasure leading to procreation outside of marriage.
  • Thank you Iqbal for the informative and enlightening response. I took it upon myself to look for Fr. Tadros Malaty's commentary on Genesis, and decided I would share the information here for people who desire it:
    I found the commentary at the following URL:

    The information I found was, essentially, a rewording of the explanation you gave here, however I believe it is helpful in developing a full understanding. I will quote the relevant text now:

    Judah was wrong in marrying the Canaanite woman, so
    his children came bearing the fruit of wickedness. When
    Er, his firstborn, died Judah asked his son Onan to marry
    his brother's wife to raise up an heir to his dead brother,
    but Onan used an unnatural way in his marital relations
    so Tamar (the widow) would not conceive; in all likelihood
    children of Er would not have inherited from Judah.
    Because of his selfishness, he refused to sire children for
    his dead brother, so God "killed him" (38:10).

    This information can be found on Page 91 of the linked PDF document. I thank you again Iqbal for the information.
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