It’s all down to interpretation – Onan the hero

Stories are almost always open to interpretation. Often, when we read or hear a story, we’re not presented with all the information. Sometimes, the actions of the characters can be seen from different angles.

I was thinking of the biblical story of Onan recently (no idea why‌—‌my mind sometimes takes interesting diversions). His story can be found in Genesis, and goes like this:

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfil your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

(Genesis 38: 6-10, NIV)

From this, we get the ‘sin of Onan’, or Onanism. This word is often used to refer to masturbation, but this is clearly not what Onan was up to. The original/true meaning of Onanism is coitus interruptus, which was once (and possibly is by some people) seen as a sin‌—‌the underlying belief being that sexual activity is primarily for procreation.

Before we continue, a word of explanation. It’s easy to view historical writings through modern eyes, so it’s important to point out that, when this story was said to take place, Judah’s request to Onan was in keeping with tradition‌—‌when a man died, it was his brother’s duty to ensure his widow bore children. Those who refused to carry this out were publicly humiliated.

But in this story, Onan is not publicly humiliated, but is put to death, because ‘what he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight’.

The classic interpretation is that, by ‘spilling his seed on the ground’ (wonderfully poetic phrase, that), he angered God. But this leaves his actual ‘sin’ open to interpretation‌—‌was it coitus interruptus, or was God more annoyed that Onan refused to fulfil his duty? Should the ‘sin of Onan’ really be concerned with breaking tradition?

cranium-2858764_1280There’s also a totally different way of looking at this story. Tradition is what is expected, passed down through generations‌—‌but that doesn’t necessarily make it right. Think of ‘traditional’ roles of men and women in western society, and how they have now changed. Think of the ‘traditional’ treatment of ‘foreigners’, especially those with different skin colours. In some parts of the world, female genital manipulation is still seen as a rite of passage, something traditional that should be upheld.

Tradition is not always ‘right’.

So let’s return to Onan’s story, but this time I want to think about Tamar. She’s pretty central to the story, but only gets a walk-on (or lay-down) part. There’s nothing about what she thinks of Onan. Is she happy to sleep with him‌—‌and if not, could we see this as rape, even though it’s socially acceptable in the story’s culture?

Maybe Onan is a deep thinker. He want to be a good member of society, but he has many questions inside about what goes on around him. Maybe Onan likes Tamar, and feels empathy with her, knows how much she’s hurting after the death of her husband. Maybe he’s been a friend to her, almost a brother, so when Onan’s father tells him that he must provide Tamar with a child, he has grave concerns. He sees the fear on Tamar’s face when he approaches her, and he knows that this is the last thing she wants. He has no wish to cause her more suffering.

But what is a dutiful son and brother to do? If he doesn’t go through with the deed, he’ll be punished. And even then, what will happen to Tamar? She has no children, has not provided a continuation of Judah’s family‌—‌her prospects don’t look good.

Poor Onan’s torn. He does his duty, but his heart isn’t in it. He tells himself he’s doing the right thing, but he doesn’t believe that. He sees Tamar’s face, her eyes shut tight as she wills herself to be somewhere else‌—‌anywhere else. He feels her pain, and he knows this is wrong.

Finally, just before the point of no return, Onan makes his decision. With a surge of willpower, he withdraws, refusing to force his sister-in-law to bring to term a child she doesn’t want.

And maybe there’s a tear in the corner of her eye, slowly running down her cheek. She’s sobbing, and her body trembles with relief.

Onan’s done the right thing.

But that comes at a price. For doing what he believed was right, Onan is martyred, killed by a cruel social system that treats women as second-rate citizens. He’s reviled, even though he’s a true hero.

It’s all about interpretation.

If that examples too serious, I’ll give another interpretation of a well-known story. It goes like this:

A young girl travels to a distant land and kills the first person she meets. She then teams up with three strangers and sets off to kill again.

Recognise it? I’d be surprised if you’re not aware of it. You might not have read the book, but you’ve probably seen the film. No doubt it’ll be on over Christmas, what with it being a much-loved family entertainment.

Those two sentences are just one interpretation of L Frank Baum’s classic, The Wizard Of Oz.

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