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Why God Hated Onan
Benjamin Scott Grossberg


“And the thing which he did was evil in the eyes of the LORD. Therefore He killed him also.”

—Genesis 38:9

Judah’s first born, Er, was wicked in the sight of the lord,
and the lord killed him. We have no notion of Er’s error,
merely that he was “wicked.” And as the forms of wickedness
are many, we may picture Er merely dropping
without explanation: Er in the fields, Er with Tamar
discussing the pasture lands of Canaan, Er laid out
on the rushes, Er falling, a stone, behind the team,
Er passing by the side of his brother, Onan.
It must have resembled a heart attack: the same
grabbing of the chest, the fierce look of physical betrayal.
Poor Er: it may be he never knew how he erred.

But of Onan we know—both the act and the issue.
Onan “spilled on the ground, lest he should give seed
to his brother.” Onan who must have imagined Tamar’s body
his brother’s: not Er’s property, but him, literally,
as if the act of investing her, indeed, would have been
investing him. It may be that there by the fire Onan saw
his brother struck by God; it may be that God’s ire
fell over Er like a layer of cellophane, denying his air;
it must be that Onan saw the asphyxiation, his gasping
brother clawing at the neck for breath, unable to say
God does this to me: the hand of God, a choking
hold over my body.

................................And there she lay before him: Tamar

in her tent, on her side, naked on clean sheets. Tamar
tawny and nearly hairless, trim Tamar
open to receive Onan as she was bidden to do.
Come to me Onan as your father has commanded us:
raise up seed to your brother, up to your brother
in Heaven, Onan, and into my body, as He
has commanded us.
And it must be that he saw on her body
where his brother had lain, and saw also where he collapsed
out in the fields: running through the grain
as if his robes were on fire, yet there was no fire;
Er who had broke from conversation, and though
there were no flames, who had shot through the wheat
like a meteor, hands over his head, noiseless
screams, his skin blackening and peeling
with the heat of God’s disdain; Er collapsing
onto his knees and Onan standing, staring
at his naked wife, whom he was bidden to love.

Onan went in to his brother’s wife; he went in
to her. Later, after many years, it must be
that Tamar, too, remembered the moment:
the last time any man had tried to love her,
Tamar dressed in black, mourning two husbands
and denied a third because of how queerly
the first two died. It must be that Tamar, too,
remembered the instant through a layer of years:
how years can dry a body, how she had been spared
the sight of Er but confronted bodily with Onan,
who pulled out of her—it must have been in disgust,
who overcome something, pulled out of her,
his head filled with images of a body other than hers,
his head filled with images of a body dying
by the awful hand of God; yet whose body quickened
with the physical act, led his hand to drop in an act
of discovery. Onan who remembered God’s fist
in the discovery of his own. And it must have been strange
for her: as he backed off the bed, stood before her, his face

a grimace of pleasure and pain, strange for her
as he took vicious grip of his own body, as he spilled
before her on the hard ground of her tent.

And in that moment, the Lord: as cross as Olympus
when Prometheus came gripping a brilliant torch. The Lord
His own fist curling in an ire that remembered Er,
His fist forming, a foaming of wrath. And it may be
that Tamar too was angry. Onan whose knees
struck the hard dirt, as God crumpled him
where he stood, Onan naked in the tent of his brother’s wife,
as God compressed the human form in His fist
until He could hear the splinters, the cracking

that indicated human death. And Tamar, perhaps, horrified
and understanding: the years ahead, years unheeded, life
as a widow in their father’s house. It may be that she
identified the hand of the Lord, Tamar, that she
conceived of Him His wrath.

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