Contraception in the Bible

Oftentimes, when a bible believer is against contraception they reference verses like 1 Tim 2:15, and Gen 38:9-10, but those verses are out of context. One is talking about wives in relation to their husbands, and the other is a story about a guy who hated his brother.

1 Tim 2:13 (NLT) For Adam was first formed, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. 15 Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.

1 Tim 2:15 has a larger cultural context at play and Paul appeals to women to keep cultural norms like head covering, and not usurp authority which would disparage the church in the eyes of the community at large. Paul does the same with Christian slaves (Eph 6:5-9, Col 3:22-25), telling them not to participate in slave revolts because he doesn’t want Christianity associated with revolts so that Gentiles won’t see them as terrorists. However, he does encourage them to buy their freedom if they get the chance (1 Cor 7:21-24). This verse is referencing the story of Adam and Eve because like Eve some women in the church of Ephesus were being corrupted by deceivers. The man (Adam) was made first and is supposed to instruct the woman (Eve) properly, however, when they are being deceived by Satan, the order of everything is out of sync. Paul wants them to submit to the proper teachings of righteous leadership (like Timothy). This was said because some false teachers (Hymenaeus and Alexander) were teaching corrupt theology which was corrupting the church. This corruption leads to wealthy women using their influence to usurp authority and look down on others. They even took advantage of the charity for widows even though they were rich (1 Tim ch. 5). In addition to gossiping and melding in people’s business (1 Tim 5:11-15).

The statement about childbearing is a reference to Genesis 3:15-16. The first extrapolation is that the “woman’s seed” bruises the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). Eve’s “seed” was Jesus the Messiah, who would bruise the serpent’s (Satan’s) head. Furthermore, Gen 3:16 is the initiation of difficulty in conception (infertility and miscarriages), as a consequence of Eve’s sin. This deception in the garden was by Satan and Paul is comparing the deception of Eve by Satan to the deception of the Ephesian women by the heretics. In the greek version of 1 Tim 3:15, it says sōthēsetai (σωθήσεται) which directly translates to “She will be saved”, however in some English translations it is rendered as “women will be saved”. The “she” Paul is referring to is Eve herself because it is to her that promised descendant (Jesus) who will defeat the serpent (Satan) will come. Therefore, this does not tell women that they get “saved” by childbearing. If that were true then women don’t need Jesus, they just need to get pregnant. People are saved by believing in Jesus, not by making babies.

With that being said, is it a sin to not make babies? In the New Covenant, marriage is not considered a requirement since we don’t make new kingdom members by making babies but rather by sharing the gospel. Jesus confirmed the option of being a eunuch in Matt 19:11-12 when talking about people made eunuchs (castrated by emperors), born eunuchs, (asexual or intersex), or made themselves eunuchs (either through castration or will-powered celibacy) for the Kingdom. Jesus said all this in a culture where that was frowned upon (amongst Jews) and even illegal according to Roman Law (Lex Papia Poppaea). Paul was a celibate eunuch and even encouraged being celibate in his letter to the Corinthians when talking about marriage (1 Corinthians 7:25-40). However he never required it, and even suggested getting married if a person can’t control their sexual desires. He recommends celibacy so that Christians could focus on the work of the Kingdom because single people could focus on the Lord’s work without the distractions of familial obligations.

In the old covenant, it was expected that everyone gets married because of the command to be fruitful and multiply in Gen 1:28 and Gen 9:1. Castration (or injury to male genitals) is recognized as uncleanness that got a person cut off from the community Deut 23:1. However, the Torah never outright states that a person has to have children to be righteous. Some women were barren, and some people died before having children, so obviously that was not a command. However, Jews of that time would have frowned upon such a thing, because culturally they believed it was wrong to not have children if you were physically capable. In the old covenant, the Israelites had a different obligation, they were to inherit the land and preserve the bloodline until the Messiah comes because through Abraham’s seed all nations will be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). So it makes sense that they should make babies. However, in the new covenant, we don’t have to make physical babies in order to get more people into the Kingdom. We are to teach all nations (Matt 18:28) so that they can be BORN AGAIN, which is the spiritual birth that is necessary to be a citizen in the Kingdom (John 3:1-8). Eunuchs can make more covenant people by preaching the gospel than Jews (or anyone else) can reproduce.

On to Genesis 38:

Gen 38:6 In the course of time, Judah arranged for his firstborn son, Er, to marry a young woman named Tamar. 7 But Er was a wicked man in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord took his life. 8 Then Judah said to Er’s brother Onan, “Go and marry Tamar, as our law requires of the brother of a man who has died. You must produce an heir for your brother.” 9 But Onan was not willing to have a child who would not be his own heir. So whenever he had intercourse with his brother’s wife, he spilled the semen on the ground. This prevented her from having a child who would belong to his brother. 10 But the Lord considered it evil for Onan to deny a child to his dead brother. So the Lord took Onan’s life, too.

Gen 38:9-10 gets used in all sorts of ways out of context. It gets used for both contraception and masturbation. In Gen 38:6-10 Judah’s eldest son Er gets married and dies. Then Judah asked his brother Onan to marry her in order to produce an heir for his brother. Onan did not want to do it but was pressured into this “levirate marriage”, which means was the name of the custom of a widow marrying a male relative of her deceased husband to produce an heir for him. Out of spite for his brother, he “pulled out” of Tamar when having sex with her, and spilled the semen. He ended up dying as well, and Judah promised Tamar his youngest son Shelah, although he later neglected her by ignoring the promise he made and she prostituted herself to him in disguise and got pregnant. Judah acknowledged that he deserved to be tricked because he abandoned his obligation to arrange the marriage, so he married her himself.

The text makes it clear that both sons were killed as judgments by God because of their wickedness. We don’t know what Er did exactly but I deduce his behavior involved mistreating his brother Onan in some way and Onan hated him because of it. Oftentimes people suggest that Onan died because he “pulled out” during sex and even go as far as to say this was masturbation. First of all, it can’t be masturbation if he is having sex with a woman, that doesn’t make any sense. We can look at bible verses about sexual sin in the heart like in Matt 5:27-29 and “sinning against your own body” like 1 Cor 6:18 for a reference to that being a sexual sin but there is no literal act of masturbation recorded in the bible. Back on the topic, did he die for pulling out? It clearly states in verse 9 that Onan’s motives were that he hated his brother and he did it so that his brother wouldn’t have any heirs. Then verse 10 confirms the reasoning when it states why God punished him.

Onan was in a certain kind of marriage that he did not want to sign up for but was pressured into. Levirate marriage is a type of marriage in which the brother (or male relative) of a deceased man marries his brother’s widow. This was practiced by Jews and various other cultures and tribes throughout Eurasia and Africa. In a levirate marriage, the firstborn of the marriage belongs to the deceased brother. This is done so that the deceased man can have heirs to inherit his land. That way the land stayed in the family.

In Deut 25:5-10 we get a definition of levirate marriage in ancient Israel.

Deut 25:5 “If two brothers are living together on the same property and one of them dies without a son, his widow may not be married to anyone from outside the family. Instead, her husband’s brother should marry her and have intercourse with her to fulfill the duties of a brother-in-law. 6 The first son she bears to him will be considered the son of the dead brother, so that his name will not be forgotten in Israel. 7 “But if the man refuses to marry his brother’s widow, she must go to the town gate and say to the elders assembled there, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to preserve his brother’s name in Israel—he refuses to fulfill the duties of a brother-in-law by marrying me.’ 8 The elders of the town will then summon him and talk with him. If he still refuses and says, ‘I don’t want to marry her,’ 9 the widow must walk over to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal from his foot, and spit in his face. Then she must declare, ‘This is what happens to a man who refuses to provide his brother with children.’ 10 Ever afterward in Israel his family will be referred to as ‘the family of the man whose sandal was pulled off’!

In verses 5-6 it says the woman is to marry the brother of the deceased, and the firstborn son of the union would belong to the deceased as an heir. Side note: If he didn’t have a brother then the book of Ruth reveals that she is to marry the closest male relative (Ruth 2:20 and Ruth 3:10-13). It clearly shows in verses 7-10 that the man has a right to refuse the levirate marriage. When a man does so, he is subject to public humiliation, NOT DEATH. Even though this event is in Genesis and it takes place before Mosiac law, I believe Onan has a right to say no. Mosaic law was more strict on marriage and other rules than the pre-Mosaic law era (Genesis), so if a man can say no under the Mosaic law, then he can definitely say no in the pre-Mosaic era. In Ruth 3:12 Boaz reveals that he is not the family redeemer and that there is another. In chapter 4 he consults with the other man and says if he wants the land that would have normally gone to the offspring of Ruth’s late husband Mahlon, he would have to marry Ruth, and the man said no and willingly passed those rights on to Boaz. Since the levirate marriage practice is from before the time of Moses and was not uniquely an Israelite practice. That means it wasn’t explicitly a command from God, but rather a cultural practice that functioned as a way to preserve family inheritance and tribal land allotments, which could explain why it is voluntary. God allowed the Israelites to do this to preserve their permanent allotments (Lev 25:23) when they took Canaan.

Therefore Onan died because he broke the special covenant of the levirate marriage out of spite for Er his older brother because he refused to give him an heir. The text does not tell us that he didn’t want kids of his own, it just says he didn’t want the firstborn to be his brother’s heir. This implies if he had his own wife it wouldn’t have been a problem. This has NOTHING to do with contraception (or masturbation).

Greek lexicon on 1 Tim 2:15