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Genesis 38:7-11

Context
38:7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord killed him.

38:8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Have sexual relations with 1  your brother’s wife and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her so that you may raise 2  up a descendant for your brother.” 3  38:9 But Onan knew that the child 4  would not be considered his. 5  So whenever 6  he had sexual relations with 7  his brother’s wife, he withdrew prematurely 8  so as not to give his brother a descendant. 38:10 What he did was evil in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord 9  killed him too.

38:11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s house until Shelah my son grows up.” For he thought, 10  “I don’t want him to die like his brothers.” 11  So Tamar went and lived in her father’s house.

1 tn Heb “go to.” The expression is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

2 tn The imperative with the prefixed conjunction here indicates purpose.

3 sn Raise up a descendant for your brother. The purpose of this custom, called the levirate system, was to ensure that no line of the family would become extinct. The name of the deceased was to be maintained through this custom of having a child by the nearest relative. See M. Burrows, “Levirate Marriage in Israel,” JBL 59 (1940): 23-33.

4 tn Heb “offspring.”

5 tn Heb “would not be his,” that is, legally speaking. Under the levirate system the child would be legally considered the child of his deceased brother.

6 tn The construction shows that this was a repeated practice and not merely one action.

sn The text makes it clear that the purpose of the custom was to produce an heir for the deceased brother. Onan had no intention of doing that. But he would have sex with the girl as much as he wished. He was willing to use the law to gratify his desires, but was not willing to do the responsible thing.

7 tn Heb “he went to.” This expression is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

8 tn Heb “he spoiled [his semen] to the ground.” Onan withdrew prematurely and ejaculated on the ground to prevent his brother’s widow from becoming pregnant.

9 tn Heb “he”; the referent (the Lord) has been specified in the translation for clarity.

10 tn Heb “said.”

11 tn Heb “Otherwise he will die, also he, like his brothers.”

sn I don’t want him to die like his brothers. This clause explains that Judah had no intention of giving Shelah to Tamar for the purpose of the levirate marriage. Judah apparently knew the nature of his sons, and feared that God would be angry with the third son and kill him as well.



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