[This article was taken from our book “Sex and Scripture: A Biblical Study of Proper Sexual Behavior”.]
A firestorm of conflicting opinions usually accompanies any discussion of masturbation. One reason for that is that there is no specific biblical teaching on it. It is in the Bible, although not in the verses usually used to refer to it. Teachings on masturbation run the gambit from “It is normal, healthy behavior” to “It is always a sin and will lead to sexual addiction and perversion.” It has even been cited as the cause of disease (although that is not usually taught anymore). The main reasons that people say masturbation is sin or evil stem from the experiences of sex addicts who started with masturbation and the sinful thinking that can accompany it, and from two records from the Bible. These records generally used to show masturbation is evil are not really about masturbation, but that fact usually gets glossed over. The first record is in Genesis 38 and is about the sons of Judah, who was the son of Jacob and the great-grandson of Abraham. Judah had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. This is the record of the two oldest:
Genesis 38:6-10 (6) Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. (7) But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so the LORD put him to death. (8) Then Judah said to Onan, “Lie with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.” (9) 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. (10) What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so he put him to death also.
This record is very interesting and must be read with care and spiritual insight. It portrays the intensity of the spiritual battle that raged around the bloodline that led to Christ. Judah was the son of Jacob, through whom the Christ was to come. If the Adversary could kill off all Judah’s male children, then there was a chance he could keep the Christ from coming. Thus, he worked very hard to corrupt and kill them, and was able to kill Er, Judah’s oldest son.  As the record indicates, it was a custom that if a man died without children, it was the obligation of a brother to have intercourse with the widow and give the child the name of the dead man. This was so that no man’s name would become extinguished, and this custom later became part of the Mosaic Law (Deut. 25:5,6). Onan did not want Tamar, Judah’s widow, to have children, which was probably due to the fact that he was greedy and wanted more inheritance for himself and his family, so he pulled out of her before he ejaculated. This was a totally selfish act, and because of the evil in his heart, the Adversary was able to find a way to kill him also. This record has been used by so many people to teach that masturbation is wicked in the sight of God that “onanism” became an English word meaning “masturbation” or “male masturbation.” However, the record has nothing to do with masturbation. Onan was not masturbating, and his sin was the greed in his heart. The other record that is occasionally used to show that masturbation is evil is in Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 23:9-11, and 14 (9) When you are encamped against your enemies, keep away from everything impure. (10) If one of your men is unclean because of a nocturnal emission, he is to go outside the camp and stay there. (11) But as evening approaches he is to wash himself, and at sunset he may return to the camp. (14) For the LORD your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you.
When people read this record, they usually focus on the fact that a “nocturnal emission” makes the person unclean. It is then assumed that masturbation, which involves an emission of semen, would make a person unclean in Yahweh’s sight, and therefore it must be evil. This assumption and conclusion are unwarranted. First, the record is not talking specifically about masturbation. The Hebrew text is less clear than the NIV, and is reproduced more exactly in the Amplified Bible, which states that the man is unclean “by reason of what happens to him at night.” Although this would include masturbation or a wet dream, it would also include things such as the man urinating on himself at night.  Second, it was not what happened at night that was evil; it was evil for an unclean person to stay in the camp. The unclean person was to leave the camp until he was clean. It cannot be concluded from Deuteronomy that masturbation is evil. The things that “happen at night” are not condemned, the text just makes it clear that a person who is unclean has to leave the camp until he is clean. Under Mosaic Law, many types of emissions from the body made people unclean, including discharges in general (Lev. 15:1-3), the ejaculation of semen, even in sexual intercourse (Lev. 15:16-18), and a woman’s monthly period of menstruation (Lev. 15:19-30).  It is important to note that the emission never made the person evil. What was considered evil was if an unclean person entered the holy dwelling place of God (Lev. 15:31). The word “holy” means “set apart,” and maintaining the holiness of God and the worship of God was a major theme in the Old Testament. God did not want to be treated as “common,” and so many of the regulations in the Old Testament were designed to elevate Him and keep Him holy, sacred, and revered. The regulations were also designed to keep people safe and healthy. People crowded together very closely at religious gatherings and in the camp, and disease could get out of hand very quickly. Making sure that any person with an emission was to bathe and stay out of the camp and away from the crowds until a day had passed was an important health measure. Thus, the same health regulations apply to masturbation as to sexual intercourse and a woman’s monthly period. They do not make the person evil, but he or she needed to bathe and stay out of the camp until they were considered clean according to the Law. A major reason why some people say masturbation is bad is because of their own experience and what they see in the world around them. There are people who are addicted to masturbation just as there are people who are addicted to pornography. Furthermore, it is true that many people masturbate while looking at pornography or daydreaming of sinful activities. Because of the evil that can be associated with masturbation, many people say it is always evil and that no one should ever do it. The arguments are often similar to those used about alcohol—“since all alcoholism comes from someone taking a first drink, it is wrong to drink at all.” The problem with that argument is that drinking some alcohol is not condemned by God, but getting drunk is. God never specifically condemns masturbation, but He does condemn sexual addiction and pornography. Just because a behavior can be abused does not mean that it is evil. Although women do masturbate, it is usually thought of as more of a male behavior. The reason for this is due to the difference in male and female physiology. The male has two seminal vessels that fill up with semen and sperm, and produce a pressure that can be “felt” by most men just as when the bladder fills up he “feels” a need to urinate. Of course, the feeling of pressure is not as great for sexual release as for urinating, but it is very real for many men. Most men are not aware of the cause of the physical feeling because they have not been taught about their physiology, but they are aware of the feeling, and it can make the man restless and less able to concentrate, and shows up in relationships when the man says he is “horny” and “needs to make love.” In spite of that, no man has to masturbate. If he does not, he will have either a wet dream or the excess sperm and semen will be absorbed back into the body. More often than not, it is the sexual stimulation in the culture that produces the real pressure to masturbate, which is a good reason for men to want to exercise godly control over what they look at, and the things on which they focus. In spite of the fact that masturbation is usually associated with men, the only mention of it in the Bible is in figurative terms, and involves a woman. The record is in Ezekiel 16, and it is very graphic.  It requires a thorough understanding of the customs of the Bible and figurative language to properly interpret Ezekiel 16, which is a record of God’s reproof to Jerusalem for her unfaithfulness to Him. Jerusalem is portrayed as an unfaithful wife, and it has already been covered in this book that “adultery” is used to portray both physical adultery and “spiritual adultery,” which is the worship of pagan gods, and that occasionally there is a double entendre that includes both meanings (see “Adultery”). Ezekiel 16:17 contains a double entendre because the idolatry in Jerusalem was spiritual adultery, but included the act of physical adultery. The context is clearly set in the previous verses:
Ezekiel 16:15 and 16 (NASB) (15) But you [Jerusalem] trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame, and you poured out your harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing. (16) You took some of your clothes, made for yourself high places of various colors and played the harlot on them, which should never come about nor happen.
Jerusalem, God’s unfaithful wife, abandoned her husband and offered herself to any passer-by. In verse 17, she is portrayed as taking the jewelry given her by her husband, melting it down and making a “male image,” what we today would call a “dildo,” and “playing the harlot” with it. This is a most graphic portrayal of the lust and sin of this woman, who has spurned her husband and is seeking pleasure from other men and from dildos. No doubt it was meant to shock the people in Jerusalem into considering their behavior.
Ezekiel 16:17 (NASB) You also took your beautiful jewels made of My gold and of My silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself male images that you might play the harlot with them.
The verse contains a double entendre, because there were real phallic idols being worshipped by the people of Jerusalem, as has now been confirmed by archaeological evidence. By the time of the Greek and Roman empires, there are paintings and writings that confirm the use of dildos and the worship of phallic symbols. Thus, there is little doubt that the above verse is portraying a woman masturbating with a dildo as a figure of the idolatry of Jerusalem. However, can we conclude from this record that all masturbation is evil? No. The “woman” pictured in the record is Jerusalem, and God is portraying the extent she had gone and will go to spurn Him. She was acting in defiance of God, her “husband,” and when Ezekiel was written, the audience knew that her sexual excess was connected with pagan worship. If a person is masturbating as a part of some sort of satanic or pagan ritual, or if a person is masturbating to avoid marital intimacy or defy his or her spouse, then that would be wrong, and this record would apply. But it is hard to see how it can be made to apply to someone who is simply seeking a release of sexual pressure. Although masturbation per se is not condemned in the Bible, many of the activities associated with it are. It is not an exaggeration to say that most masturbation is accompanied by ungodly thinking, and the pressure to masturbate can be reduced significantly if people were stricter about what they allowed themselves to be exposed to. It may be legal for a young adult to see “R” rated movies with nearly naked actors and actresses and steamy dialogue, but really, does it help them live godly lives or does it produce sexual longing and pressure that makes life more difficult? Too often, in our society, we want the “freedom” but not the consequences freedom often brings. Men want the freedom “just to look” at the girls in adult magazines, but it does not work that way. God designed men to be visually stimulated, and the person who looks will eventually feel more pressure for sexual release. Women want the freedom to read romance novels or watch soap operas, but the graphic portrayals of love placed in their minds can produce a pressure to masturbate that would not ordinarily be there. A lot of the desire to masturbate would disappear if both men and women took an aggressive stand about what they allowed themselves to be exposed to. Masturbation can be a very selfish act, and it is possible to be sexually addicted to it. If you are aware that you are addicted to masturbation, you should seek help. Furthermore, masturbating while looking at pornography is wrong. The Bible is very clear that the Christian is to control his or her thoughts:
2 Corinthians 10:5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
Since arousal is usually accompanied by erotic thoughts, the Christian who controls his or her mind will discover that he or she has much less “need” to masturbate. Also, it can be very harmful for a married person to masturbate. There are people in troubled marriages who regularly masturbate to avoid the difficult task of rekindling love in their marriage. This is a shame, and wrong in the eyes of God. Couples in happy marriages testify that they have “rough times,” some that last for weeks or months, and it is in part the desire to be sexually fulfilled that causes them to reconcile. The sexual pressure that builds when a person has not had sexual intercourse for a while helps keep the marriage fresh and exciting. Sex represents perhaps the most powerful dependency of a man on a woman, and his intense desire for her and his excitement about her are dulled by masturbation. When a couple has not had sex for a while due to her period, sickness, or separation, there is a build up of sexual pressure. It is both passionate and powerful to release that pressure in the intimate grasp of your spouse. That pent-up sexual energy is released with a vigor and passion that speaks of your love for your spouse in ways that words could never express. Masturbation releases sexual pressure, and can thus harm marriages by robbing the spouse of being intensely desired and needed. It is important for the health of a marriage that a couple not only love each other, but that they also need each other. Husbands and wives should need one another for sexual fulfillment. One reason that masturbation, adultery, and prostitutes all tend to destroy marriages is that they strike at the fundamental level of need in a marriage. We live in a society that stresses independence and an “I don’t need anybody” attitude. We have that attitude because we have been hurt in the past by people we needed, and we do not want to be hurt in the future. However, that strategy never works because God made us to need and be needed. Our “independence” is not working.  Divorce rates are at about 50% nationwide, and many couples that are not officially divorced are struggling and unhappy. We are so independent that when problems arise it is easier to let the marriage go than work and strive to keep it going. Two people who need each other do not run to get a divorce every time there is trouble. Yes, “needing” makes us vulnerable to being hurt, but isn’t marriage about vulnerability? Furthermore, the feeling of being needed is one of the most empowering feelings a human can have. When a spouse knows he or she is needed for sexual fulfillment, it strengthens and empowers the marriage. Independence is lost, but the marriage wins. In conclusion, masturbation, like any sexual activity, must be treated with great honesty before God. It is difficult to specifically condemn masturbation when the Bible does not. Nevertheless, we see that in our sexually free society it has not been treated with the seriousness it deserves, especially in marriage. Endnotes  The text says “the Lord” put Er and Onan to death, but it was really the work of the Adversary, not God. The tactics of the Devil were not revealed to Israel, and God employed various figures and idioms to hide the activities of the Devil with whom, not having holy spirit, the Israelites were not prepared to do spiritual battle. Hebrews 2:14 states that the Devil holds the power of death. The Adversary worked very hard on Er and Onan to lead them astray from God and away from God’s protection so he could kill them. See Don’t Blame God!, an extensive study of the problem of evil, sin and suffering.  Peter C. Craigie, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Deuteronomy (William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1976), p. 299.  The fact that sexual intercourse made the couple “unclean” contributed to the myth that God considers sex “dirty.” Nothing could be further from the truth.  This record is definitely “XXX” and is not suitable for all audiences. Writing about sex in the Bible presents an interesting dilemma: we want to be honest with the text and with what the Bible portrays, but we do not want to be crass and use detail that is not necessary to communicate the text.  We are using the word “independence” in its literal sense, “without dependence, without need.” Many people think they can get along without depending on or needing anybody. That just isn’t true, however, because God did not create us that way, and so we live in a society of very lonely, “independent” people.