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Onan (Hebrew: אוֹנָן, Modern Onan Tiberian ʼÔnān ; "Strong") is a minor biblical person in the Book of Genesis chapter 38, who was the second son of Judah. Like his older brother, Er, Onan was killed by Yahweh. Onan's death was retribution for being "evil in the sight of the Lord" through being unwilling to father a child by his widowed sister-in-law.
After Onan's brother Er was slain by God, his father Judah told him to fulfill his duty as a brother-in-law (levirate marriage) to Tamar, by giving her offspring. Tikva Frymer-Kensky explains that this could have substantial economic repercussions, with any son born deemed the heir of the deceased Er, and able to claim the firstborn's double share of inheritance. However, if Er was childless, Onan would inherit as the oldest surviving son.
When Onan had sex with Tamar, he withdrew before climax and "spilled his seed [or semen] on the ground", since any child born would not legally be considered his heir. He disregarded the principle of a levirate union, so God slew him.
Early writers have sometimes focused on the spilling seed, and the sexual act being used for non-procreational purposes. One opinion expressed in the Talmud argues that this was where the death penalty's imposition originated. This interpretation was held by several early Christian apologists. Jerome, for example, argued:
Clement of Alexandria, while not making explicit reference to Onan, similarly reflects an early Christian view of the abhorrence of spilling seed:
The view that the "wasted seed" refers to masturbation was upheld by many early rabbis. However, the Levitical regulations concerning ejaculation, whether as a result of sexual intercourse or not, merely prescribe a ritual washing, and remaining ritually impure until the next day began on the following evening.
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According to some Bible critics who contextually read this passage, the description of Onan is an origin 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.
Also, it has been suggested that God's anger was directed not at the sexual act, but at Onan's disobedience by refusing to impregnate his brother's widow.
The text emphasizes the social and legal situation, with Judah explaining what Onan must do and why. A 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 narrative about Onan and Tamar, 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 intercourse with his dead brother's wife, but refusing to allow her to become pregnant as a result. Emerton regards the evidence for this to be inconclusive, although classical rabbinical writers argued that this narrative describes the origin of levirate marriage.
Modern scholars and a Church Father, Epiphanius of Salamis, maintained that the story does not refer to masturbation, but to coitus interruptus. A number of other mainstream Bible scholars maintain the Bible does not claim that masturbation would be sinful.
Although Onan gives his name to "onanism," usually a synonym for masturbation, Onan was not masturbating but practicing coitus interruptus.
He practiced coitus interruptus whenever he made love to Tamar.
Epiphanius (fourth century) construed the sin of Onan as coitus interruptus.14
Social change in attitudes toward masturbation has occurred at the professional level only since 1960 and at the popular level since 1970.  ... onanism and masturbation erroneously became synonymous...  ... there is no legislation in the Bible pertaining to masturbation. 
The Bible presents no clear theological ethic on masturbation, leaving many young unmarried Christians with confusion and guilt around their sexuality.