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My Take: The Bible’s surprisingly mixed messages on sexuality
February 9th, 2011
10:31 AM ET

My Take: The Bible’s surprisingly mixed messages on sexuality

Editor's Note: Jennifer Wright Knust is author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire.

By Jennifer Wright Knust, Special to CNN

We often hears that Christians have no choice but to regard homosexuality as a sin - that Scripture simply demands it.

As a Bible scholar and pastor myself, I say that Scripture does no such thing.

"I love gay people, but the Bible forces me to condemn them" is a poor excuse that attempts to avoid accountability by wrapping a very particular and narrow interpretation of a few biblical passages in a cloak of divinely inspired respectability.

Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways. And biblical writers held a much more complicated view of human sexuality than contemporary debates have acknowledged.

In Genesis, for example, it would seem that God’s original intention for humanity was androgyny, not sexual differentiation and heterosexuality.

Genesis includes two versions of the story of God’s creation of the human person. First, God creates humanity male and female and then God forms the human person again, this time in the Garden of Eden. The second human person is given the name Adam and the female is formed from his rib.

Ancient Christians and Jews explained this two-step creation by imagining that the first human person possessed the genitalia of both sexes. Then, when the androgynous, dually-sexed person was placed in the garden, s/he was divided in two.

According to this account, the man “clings to the woman” in an attempt to regain half his flesh, which God took from him once he was placed in Eden. As third century Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman explained, when God created the first man, God created him with two faces. “Then he split the androgyne and made two bodies, one on each side, and turned them about.”

When the apostle Paul envisioned the bodies that would be given to humanity at the end of time, he imagined that they would be androgynous, “not male and female.” The third-century non-canonical Gospel of Philip, meanwhile, lamented that sexual difference had been created at all: “If the female had not separated from the male, she and the male would not die. That being’s separation became the source of death.”

From these perspectives, God’s original plan was sexual unity in one body, not two. The Genesis creation stories can support the notion that sexual intercourse is designed to reunite male and female into one body, but they can also suggest that God’s blessing was first placed on an undifferentiated body that didn’t have sex at all.

Heterosexual sex was therefore an afterthought designed to give back the man what he had lost.

Despite common misperceptions, biblical writers could also imagine same-sex intimacy as a source of blessing. For example, the seemingly intimate relationship between the Old Testament's David and Jonathan, in which Jonathan loved David more than he loved women, may have been intended to justify David’s rise as king.

Jonathan, not David, was a king’s son. David was only a shepherd. Yet by becoming David’s “woman,” Jonathan voluntarily gave up his place for his beloved friend.

Thus, Jonathan “took great delight in David,” foiling King Saul’s attempts to arrange for David’s death (1 Samuel 19:1). Choosing David over his father, Jonathan makes a formal covenant with his friend, asking David to remain faithful to him and his descendants.

Sealing the covenant, David swears his devotion to Jonathan, “for he loved him as he loved his own life” (1 Samuel 20:17). When Jonathan is killed, King David composes a eulogy for him, praising his devotion: “greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).

Confident claims about the forms of sex rejected by God are also called into question by early Christian interpretations of the story of Sodom. From the perspective of the New Testament, it was the near rape of angels - not sex between men - that led to the demise of the city.

Linking a strange story in Genesis about “sons of God” who lust after “daughters of men” to the story of the angels who visit Abraham’s nephew Lot, New Testament writers concluded that the mingling of human and divine flesh is an intolerable sin.

As the New Testament letter Jude puts it:

And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and went after strange flesh, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire (Jude 6-7).

The first time angels dared to mix with humans, God flooded the earth, saving only Noah, his family, and the animals. In the case of Sodom, as soon as men attempted to engage in sexual activity with angels, God obliterated the city with fire, delivering only Lot and his family. Sex with angels was regarded as the most dangerous and offensive sex of all.

It’s true that same-sex intimacy is condemned in a few biblical passages. But these passages, which I can count on one hand, are addressed to specific sex acts and specific persons, not to all humanity forever, and they can be interpreted in any number of ways.

The book of Leviticus, for example, is directed at Israelite men, offering instructions regarding legitimate sexual partners so long as they are living in Israel. Biblical patriarchs and kings violate nearly every one of these commandments.

Paul’s letters urge followers of Christ to remain celibate and blame all Gentiles in general for their poor sexual standards. Jesus, meanwhile, says nothing at all about same-sex pairing, and when he discusses marriage, he discourages it.

So why are we pretending that the Bible is dictating our sexual morals? It isn’t.

Moreover, as Americans we should have learned by now that such a simplistic approach to the Bible will lead us astray.

Only a little more than a century ago, many of the very same passages now being invoked to argue that the scriptures label homosexuality a sin or that God cannot countenance gay marriage were used to justify not “biblical marriage” but slavery.

Yes, the apostle Paul selected same-sex pairings as one among many possible examples of human sin, but he also assumed that slavery was acceptable and then did nothing to protect slaves from sexual use by their masters, a common practice at the time. Letters attributed to him go so far as to command slaves to obey their masters and women to obey their husbands as if they were obeying Christ.

These passages served as fundamental proof texts to those who were arguing that slavery was God’s will and accusing abolitionists of failing to obey biblical mandates.

It is therefore disturbing to hear some Christian leaders today claim that they have no choice but to regard homosexuality as a sin. They do have a choice and should be held accountable for the ones they are making.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Wright Knust.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Homosexuality • Opinion • Sex

soundoff (4,235 Responses)
  1. Commenter

    What a wonderfully postmodern anachronistic reader-response interpretation of the Bible.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • wally

      Perfectly said.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  2. J

    I don't know what Bible this lady has been reading but she needs to go back to Sunday school and stay out of the communal wine.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  3. jay zee

    there is no god.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Paige

      Yes there is, Jay Zee. God created and sustains you. He could wipe you off the face of this earth in a second if He chose to. I pray you will come to know Him and his Son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • jay zee

      yeah and the tooth fairy will keep me from having cavities!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  4. AJ

    God loves the sinner, but hates the sin. It's the act that He wants you to refrain from and says is wrong in His eyes. You can debate all you want, but in the end, He is the judge. It's not for us to judge. It all boils down to either believing in God and His word or you don't.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Mike

      Or you could just believe in God and abandon "religion" altogether. The problem with believing "God's Word" is that it's always been interpreted by men, and by men with a social agenda at that. Believing everything the Bible says is like believing everything a politician says.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  5. Bert

    Whatever happened was Gods plan. No such thing as "Gods original intention" not being what he planned.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  6. lee92

    This article is full of innaccuracy and distortion. The writer clearly has a pro-gay agenda that she is trying to sell and whatever she may be, she is not a real pastor. She is one of the false prophets that the bible warns us about.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • JT

      Or perhaps you are.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  7. Carlos

    You have just said that this is YOUR interpretation and that there are many interpretations and yet you don't say how we should tell which interpretation is correct. So much for scholarly diligence. This "opinion" based approach makes me think that you have not interpreted the bible AT ALL. You have read passages and completely formed your own version of the Scriptures to fit your conclusion. It all seems quite forced. And just so you know, Jesus and Paul did not get involved in revolutions against Roman law or the abolition of slavery not because they promoted it but because sin was a more important matter.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  8. Commenter

    What poor scholarship.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  9. Marlenne

    Leviticus 20:13 – "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."

    February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • jay zee

      but its perfectly ok for a woman to lie with a woman! lmao!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • biblesforbabies

      And can you please offer a rational explanation as to exactly WHY anyone in the year 2011 should give a crap what Leviticus says?

      February 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Reeeeeeeeee

      What about the 6th commandment "Thou Shall Not Kill" That seems pretty contradictory

      February 9, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  10. Ma

    I love it when people make outrageous claims and back it up with a claim to authority (I am a pastor and bible scholar). I can find a much better authority if the argument is based on that: The heads of the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches and the many Protestant Churches.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • JT

      Oh yeah, if I want truth, the Catholic Church is the first source that pops into my head.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  11. Phil

    How can CNN print this tripe and present it as a serious theological expression???? This self-proclaimed scholar/pastor has presented a story so full of baloney, she ought to compete with Oscar Meyer! People will believe what they want to believe, but the day will come when "every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord". Look lady, at least make an arguement that is "scholarly" as many non-christians have been known to do and not sound like a religious version of Sarah Palin!

    February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • jay zee

      maybe you missed the part about this being in the belief "opinion" section. opinions dont make facts. glenn beck and bill oreilly pull that wool over christians eyes all the time.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  12. K Smith

    The Bible also tells us that even satan can quote scripture.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Dan

      Damn straight. The Catholic church protecting child molesters and the PTL club scaring old people out of their Social security checks proves you right.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  13. larsonab

    "maria ...I am sure the next step from you,Jennifer (jennifer-lucifer...curious) genius of darkness, is to demonstrate that pedophilia is also blessed by God after your exhaustive studies on the bible"

    The delusional babble and logic of Christians never cease to amaze. It really must be genetic.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  14. Marcio Castro

    The worst from this article is that those that don't read the Word of God will believe anything they want to believe in or is convenient to them.
    How can you say you are a Pastor, which bible are you reading Mrs Knust? My God, our Father, Creator of everything around us designed a man and a woman and if the first two (Adam and Eve) were gay none of us would be here right now.
    Please, those who are confused, don't rely on human's opinion or interpretation, just read the Word of God.
    Men and Women were created different for a reason and purpose.

    God bless all of you and have mercy on you Mrs. Knust.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Nate

      Your inability to read her article correctly, is evidence that you are not the best objective study around. She did not have a singular or definitive statement in this article. She was simply proclaiming the simple fact that there are many details that contend with each other in the bible and that theological study is open to debate. You're clearly locked into a very Luddite way of thinking that is not open to comprehension.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  15. Dex

    Your grammar is atrocious.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • MP

      Personal attacks are completely unnecessary unless you want to gain attention for yourself. Comment on the issue that is proposed.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  16. ???

    Nothing will make people more angry than suggesting God doesn't hate the same people they do.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Excellent!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Mark

      Amen

      February 9, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • MP

      Yes!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Dan

      Exactly.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  17. CNNisdumb

    Man created religion because we needed it psychologically to explain our position in the universe. As man has evolved, our mental capacity has grown to better understand, at least in small part, the significance of our existence in the universe. Make all the religious rules you want but know they are man made. The Bible, may be a fun read and in some ways reassuring to you to think of a kind father figure looking out for you above, but know that that is a delusion.

    All the rules of physics that apply today still applied back then. Water doesn't turn into wine. Bushes do not burn without physically changing. Seas do not part with the whack of a stick. You wouldn't believe it if I told you i had just done one of these "miracles" so why do you believe the account from a 1,400 yr old book. Some say "Faith". Believing in the Easter Bunny doesn't make him real.

    If you honestly try to think about it. The world we have now is the exact kind of world we would have if there was no God. It'd be filled with a lot of "good" people and a lot of "bad" people. I encourage you to watch a few Atheism videos on YouTube and try to keep an open mind. Here's to hoping you have desire to question your faith and discover that the Truth is not the ultimate truth.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  18. Mander1

    Please please please stop waisting my time and tax dollars banning two people who love each other from their human rights. SERIOUSLY use the money to improve our school systems. "Christians" please pick a more apt description of yourselves, like "the church of self important busy bodies who have nothing better to do then undermine others happiness because children and poor people are too boring".

    February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  19. bennie

    This is false doctrine. I hope, for your sake, that you will see the error of your ways and correct it before you come face to face with the Lord and have to answer for twisting His word in such an erroneous way.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • biblesforbabies

      Harharhar, bennie is a boobie.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  20. K Smith

    Yes the author of this article is clearly trying to advertise for self gain. Just tell the world what it wants to hear and you'll be rich and popular. Come on... there is nothing in scripture that contradicts itself. The only thing that contradicts scripture is false teachings such as this article, the history channel etc... How can you believe in God and believe the Bible is the word of God then go on to say that the Bible contradicts itself. That's like saying God's not perfect and I know more than He does. Also the Bible tells us not to judge or "condemn" anyone. One more correction to this article is that there is only ONE interpretation to scripture but several applications. We learn this in beginners ministry courses so I don't know where this "pastor" earned her degree. This article was written by the devil himself.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      I agree I agree I agree. This is a Devil led writing.... God does not send mixed messages.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Ms. J

      And the Church says Amen!!!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Carlos

      She has gone out of her way to twist things around and call it interpretation.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • jay zee

      the bible also DOES NOT say anything about a woman being with a woman. so god loves gay women!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • biblesforbabies

      HAHAHAHAHA!!! Written by the devil himself?

      Insane person alert! Insane person alert! Do not trust this insane person to:
      1. have children
      2. make important decisions
      3. own a gun
      4. speak

      February 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.