In the Biblical Book of Genesis, Onan was the second son of Judah. Certain interpretations of the narrative concerning him have led to the use of the term onanism to refer to masturbation.

According to the text, after God had killed Onan's older brother Er, Judah asked Onan to have sex with Tamar, Er's former wife, so that the offspring could be declared Er's heir. The narrative implies that Onan didn't object to the sex itself, but performed coitus interruptus, spilling his seed upon the ground, so that there wouldn't be any offspring he couldn't claim as his own; the passage goes on to state that for this act, a displeased Yahweh killed him. The deaths of Onan and Er are among the few deaths caused by Yahweh that the Torah doesn't describe as being caused via an intermediary, such as plague or the Angel of Death.

According to some biblical scholars who contextually read this passage, the description of Onan is an eponymous aetiological myth concerning fluctuations in the constituency of the tribe of Judah, with the death of Onan reflecting the dying out of a clan; Er and Onan are hence viewed as each being representative of a clan, with Onan possibly representing an Edomite clan named Onam, mentioned by an Edomite genealogy in Genesis.

The text emphasises the social and legal situation, with Judah explaining what Onan must do and why; the plain reading of the text is that Onan was killed because he refused to follow instructions. Scholars have argued that the secondary purpose of the Tamar narrative, of which the description of Onan is a part, was to either assert the institution of levirate marriage, or present an aetiological myth for its origin; Onan's role in the narrative is thus as the brother abusing his obligations by agreeing to sexual involvement with his dead brother's wife, but refusing to allow her to become pregnant as a result. Emerton regards the evidence for this as inconclusive, though classical rabbinical writers argued that this narrative describes the origin of levirate marriage.

However, other early writers focused on the spilling seed, and the sexual act being used for non-procreational purposes; one opinion expressed in the Talmud argues that the death penalty was only imposed because of it. This interpretation was held by several early Christian apologists, Jerome for example arguing:

But I wonder why he the heretic Jovinianus set Judah and Tamar before us for an example, unless perchance even harlots give him pleasure; or Onan, who was slain because he grudged his brother seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?

Clement of Alexandria, though he does not make explicit reference to Onan, similarly reflects an early Christian view of the abhorrence of spilling seed:

Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted
To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature

Many Christian groups, especially Roman Catholicism, have subsequently cited the Onan narrative as justification for bans on both masturbation and coitus interruptus, and since Medieval times have also used it to justify a prohibition against contraception. However, the Levitical regulations concerning ejaculation, whether as a result of heterosexual intercourse or not, merely describe it as something that brings about ritual impurity; rather than ordering capital punishment, it only insists that the man wash himself afterwards, implying that masturbation wasn't a major crime.


Timothy Findley uses a phrase "The Rain of Onan" in his novel Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984). "it was now that the rain havin-having lost its translucence and its mauveness-began to take on an opaque milky look, and Noah said that what had been an "evil" rain was now a 'passionate' rain being poured from the sky-spent and wasted on the dying earth and this he called 'The Rain on Onan.'" The phrase itself "The Rain on Onan" may or may not mean something, but when related to who Onan is explained to be in this article, it seems fitting for it to be named as such in a time as such inside that novel.

Additionally, an oblique reference is made in David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest," in the form of the Organization of North American Nations, O.N.A.N., a fictional "interdependent" alliance of America, Canada, and Mexico occurring at some unspecified point in the future where America has instituted a policy of "experialism," ceding most of New England to a very unwilling Canada in return for the right to use their former territory as a toxic dumping ground. American waste is catapulted from urban centers and blown north with giant fans to fall to the earth in what used to be New England, rendering the land unlivable. It is widely held that O.N.A.N is an intentional pun on Onanism.

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