It is a strange and sordid tale, which is precisely why it grabs my attention. It takes place in the messy context of tragedy and redemption, which is precisely what makes it so perfect. It is one of those stories that Muslim friends point to as proof that the Jewish and Christian scripture has been corrupted. It is one of those stories that Atheist friends point to as proof that even if God did exist no one would like him. It is the curious story of Onan. His part in the divine narrative covers all of three verses. Yet spiritual pilgrims have speculated about the significance of his actions for thousands of years. This is what we know about Onan from Genesis 38:8-10:

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill 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.

When I read stories like this I honestly wonder how anyone could not love the bible. So many unanswered questions. So much mystery. So astounding and…odd. Isn’t it beautiful?

But what was Onan’s offense? Was it copulation without the intention of procreation? With all due respect to beliefs about birth control Onan was hardly the only one to ever do such a thing. It is difficult to reconcile God’s reaction in the story if this were the case. Was it that he disobeyed his father? The law of Moses had not been given yet. However, honoring one’s father was already a big deal. Just ask Ham! But even Ham was spared the death penalty. Was it that he failed to fulfill his duty in a family covenant? Indeed, covenants are serious business in the Hebrew bible. But God demonstrates his willingness to take back the covenanted unfaithful over and over again throughout the history of Israel. So again, what was Onan’s sin?

I wonder if the key to understanding this mystifying story does not lay in ten little words: But Onan knew that the child would not be his. Onan was guilty of all of the things mentioned above, but it was his unwillingness to take responsibility of a child that would not belong to him that brought about the harsh reaction from God. Wow, I am sure glad that we do not ever do that….or do we?

People often make amazing sacrifices. People often do hard things. At times people even do those things with little apparent benefit to themselves. But there is one thing that motivates us, even when there appears to be no motivating forces. We think it is a small thing, no big deal. We don’t really believe we are seeking it, even when we are offended if it does not happen. In truth it is one of our favorite things. It is recognition. 

Jesus said that if we did good things in order to gain the praise of men we would have no reward from our father in heaven. Instead we are to do those things in secret, trusting that he sees us and he will reward us (see Matthew 6:1-4). But we want to get our credit from people. We drop some details about how we helped out. We sprinkle in a reference about some really good deed. We listen to the reactions, Wow, that was a really nice thing to do! And then we dismiss the praise by telling them that it is not a big deal, while we glow with pride on the inside. When we do a good deed for ourselves it is ours. It belongs to us. We own it. And so, quite naturally, we turn around and show it off. But when we do a good deed for God it is his, and we are simply glad to have blessed him with it.

In some translations verse nine starts this way: But Onan knew that the child would not bear his name. I think that brings it home for us. We want to stamp our name on stuff. We want to put our logo on it. We want people to see how great we are. My question is this: What would it look like if Christians quit slapping their names on whatever good deeds they managed to produce? What would it look like if churches did good secret works? What would it look like if a community of faith poured its time and energy and resources into the life of something or someone that would ultimately mature and bear someone else’s name?

I could get pretty fired up by talking about what others should be doing that would not only bring them no recognition, but even bear someone else’s name. However, am I willing to that myself? It seems unlikely…as I type this on the blog that bears my name. And that is sad to me. It is sad to think that I could spend my life trying to do so many good things only to enter into eternity and discover that I cashed in all of my eternal rewards for nothing more than the praise of men. Perhaps we should all do ourselves a favor today, and do one thing for God that no one knows about but you and him.