Donald Knuth once wrote
a book called 3:16 Bible Texts
In this book, he analyzes verse 16 of the 3rd chapter of each book in
Yesterday we talked in #ruby-de about Onan (Gen 38, 8-10), of whom is
delivered to practice the “coitus interruptus”. However, this was
not clear by the german Luther
of the bible:
Aber da Onan wußte, daß der Same nicht sein eigen sein sollte, wenn
er einging zu seines Bruders Weib, ließ er’s auf die Erde fallen und
verderbte es, auf daß er seinem Bruder nicht Samen gäbe.
(Poor, but literal translation:
But because Onan knew the semen should not be his own, when he
penetrated his brother’s wife he dropped it on the earth and ruined
it, not to give semen to his brother.
). What is described is not the coitus interruptus at all, it seems
to be masturbation. BTW, this story is also the reason the german
word “onanieren” (masturbate) exists.
Now, biblegateway.com contains a lot
of bible etexts of different translations, so just for fun, I looked
at all of them. And I think I made an interesting discovery: The
actual semantics of the text vary a lot among the translations.
First, Young’s Literal
and Onan knoweth that the seed is not [reckoned] his; and it hath come
to pass, if he hath gone in unto his brother’s wife, that he hath
destroyed [it] to the earth, so as not to give seed to his brother;
Since this is supposed to be a literal translation, I expect it to
carry the same semantics as the Hebrew original text. (This may not be
true, but let’s assume it.)
Here is the King James
of that section (all emphasis following is mine, of course):
And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass,
when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the
ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.
Notice that “destroyed” and “spilled” is quite different, isn’t it?
Next, New American Standard
Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in
to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order
not to give offspring to his brother.
“seed” has changed here to “offspring”. “destroyed” got “wasted”.
Here is the New International
But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he
lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to
keep from producing offspring for his brother.
Aha! Suddenly, he lays with his brother’s wife not once, but multiple
times. (Interesting, because god kills him because of that.) The
a recent translation also says “whenever he slept with his brother’s
The version included in the Amplified
blurries the actual action:
But Onan knew that the family would not be his, so when he cohabited
with his brother’s widow, he prevented conception, lest he should
raise up a child for his brother.
The New Living
is very easy to understand (written in 1996, by the way):
But Onan was not willing to have a child who would not be his own
heir. So whenever he had intercourse with Tamar, he spilled the
semen on the ground to keep her from having a baby who would belong
to his brother.
“to have intercourse”, nice. The New International Reader’s
puts it even more romantic:
But Onan knew that the children wouldn’t belong to him. So every
time he made love to his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on
the ground. He did it so he wouldn’t produce children for his
Quite a contrast with the Contemporary English
Onan knew the child would not be his, and when he had sex with
Tamar, he made sure that she would not get pregnant.
Again, the actual action was not delivered. (And don’t forget that
the coitus interruptus is not a safe way of prevention!)
The New King James
somehow makes me think of transistors:
But Onan knew that the heir would not be his; and it came to pass,
when he went in to his brother’s wife, that he emitted on the
ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother.
Somehow, there are quite a lot of possibilities to influence readers
of bible translations. Now if we just knew what actually the intent
of the writers was…
NP: Jack Johnson—Wasting Time
(this was not on purpose!)