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. jon

    Wow. I didnt think it was possible to be a pastor and be that wrong. Maybe she should spend more time figuring out how to preach a good sermon on I Timothy 2:12-14.

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

      This woman is a good example of how people twist things to fit thier own agenda.
      Cole said:

      The entire bible is just a lie. Bible thumpers are unintelligent and there's not one single bit of evidence to support anything in the bible
      I wonder if Cole was speaking of this woman? Surely not one thing she puts out there is correct!

      It's not the bible that is a lie, but the vain interpetations (to suit your agenda) that is the lie. Some people don't like what the bible has to say, because it shines light into thier darkness, and the light convicts them.
      Thus, it is easier to just discredit the bible and even make the ones who wrote it down, not exist, claiming "no Proof"!.

      February 11, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  2. Mark

    I read this story, knowing in advance from simply considering the ti-tle that it was going to be load of crap. I can honestly say that the responses by most of the commentators on here have given me at least a small sense of satisfaction. I expected to see comment after comment praising this woman for her "open mindedness" and bashing Christians for not being open to "other" interpretations of the scriptures. Acutally, most of the comments on here have seen this woman and her heretical article for exactly what it is. I'm actually encouraged.

    The frightening thing is that this woman claims to be a "pastor". God help those in her "flock". Talk about the blind leading the blind.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  3. Greg Simpson

    The "Christian Right" is often neither!

    February 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  4. Cole

    The bible is a joke. It's all a lie.

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

      If this is true, then being Gay must be a lie as well. No way to prove it.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  5. Cole

    The entire bible is just a lie. Bible thumpers are unintelligent and there's not one single bit of evidence to support anything in the bible.

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

      @ cole

      Sorry, but that's not true. If you go along with what you said then Jerusalem does not exist, Israealites are not real, King Herod did not exist (check National Geographic, December 2008, etc. The list can go on.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  6. Christy

    There are alternate views for all passage discussed. The author's interpretation of these passages is one version of many options. I disagree on all interpretations presented herein. 1 Corinthians 1:18; Matthew 11:25

    February 9, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  7. LeeCMH

    Most religions have their ancient stories. Many use anthologies of these texts. Many contain their own versions of stories of creation. They are ancient throwbacks. What the Bible has to say about erotic contact is as irrelevant as what it says about how to treat slaves. Science and reason are the true knowledge sources.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  8. Julie

    I love this article. She really sums it up perfectly. And to all the morons that pick and choose passages in the Bible, how about start forcing your wives and daughters to wear head coverings as dictated in 1 Corinthians 11. Stop using the Bible as an excuse. Eventually gay rights will prevail, so if you DO NOT want those rights move to Saudi Arabia. You'll fit right in.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Christy

      I find flaw in your argument. I would suggest that if something prevails, that does not automatically make it right.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  9. Ron

    The pastor reads Genesis 1 and 2 as one continuous story.Most modern Scripture scholars recognize them as two separate stories from different sources. They are not two stages of creation.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  10. AD

    First of all Pastor Knust is simply a False Prophet (Period). Secondly it's amazing how you atheist, agnostics and Anti-Christians, all have a way of fulfilling scripture. Everything that each one of have said, the bible has already told us that you would be saying this.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • jonathan

      You people claim everything fulfills scripture. I guarantee you that if I wrote a controvercial book and then said people would disagree with it you'd just say no duh. Same thing with the bible. What a terrible argument.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  11. karma1959

    It's ironic how many believe their interpretation of the bible or god is 'correct' and all others are wrong.

    This is how most religions through time have felt – Muslims, Pharonic Egyptians, Greek, Norse, Celtic etc etc – all thought their belief was right and everybody else's was wrong. Soooo.. I guess they were all wrong and just YOUR god is right.. hmmmm..

    February 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm |

    Atheist here...can't stand gays. It's not the civil rights thing, I get that...it's the obnoxious flamboyant crap. Why is it necessary for you to distinguish yourself as gay by speaking like that, waving your hand like that, or acting stereotypically gay. It's not about loving a member of the same gender for you, it's about attention and acceptance by a group. Grow up!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • jonathan

      That's the most moronic thing I've ever heard/read. I know plenty of gay people and they're not all flamers or even close to it. One of my best friends is gay and I promise you he would probably make you look like a woman next to him. Lord knows I'm pretty jealous of him sometimes. In all the years I've known him he's been better than me at everything...especially sports. Anyway, you're a moron.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm |

      Yes, I realize this comment is stereotyping...I know cool gay people too. HOWEVER, I know some flamboyant over the top attention grabbers as well. I happen to find stereotypical gay people EXTREMELY obnoxious. Everyone gets that you're gay, now stop making a big fuss over yourself.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  13. Stoutkraut

    I will bet my soul on 2,000 years of interpretations rather than this womans politically correct juggling of verse.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • JDT

      good bet–that is pretty much my idea too... "better to be SAFE than Sorry..."

      February 9, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  14. WK

    Nice try, Ms. Knust.

    The rabid fright-wing fundamentalists will not be swayed, however.

    It's likely that most of the rest of us simply don't care about what a nearly 2,000 year old book written by people living in a desert on the other side of the world says.

    Still I applaud the effort to appeal to the reasonable.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  15. Mcaswell82

    I for one choose to believe in a creator who is not vengeful and won't smite me for questioning his existence. If you only have faith in something because you fear an unfavorable afterlife (going to hell) then you have no faith at all. I question my existence and fear nothing at the end of my life because I believe what ever divine being watches over us he wants us to question things.

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

      Well put! I agree with you.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Dave

      Lev. 10 the first few verses show how God can deal out to those who don't obey. They were the Priest's sons and they were consumed by the fire that "they" thought would be better than what God asked for.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  16. carol

    you're crazy... i dont know what bible you're reading...

    February 9, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  17. my6cents

    Another thought for all you folks that feel Jesus was accepting towards everyone, he was. But you always seem to leave out the verses where He says " go , and sin no more" or to repent ( to turn away from sin ) Not all christians are condemning others , simply warning others as He instructed us to do out of love.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  18. JohnPaul

    The article is a clever attempt to distort the true message of scripture. Arguments from silence, conjecture, mis-interpreted passges....Come on...not convincing at all.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  19. Rock

    Woman was made from the man's rib – was the gay male created from the male's second peni$?

    February 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  20. Descarado

    Were does CNN find this unending cast of boneheads "rethinking" the Bibile?

    February 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • karma1959

      Maybe at the same place where they find all the boneheads who think the bible is to be interpreted literally?

      February 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Brian

      @ Karma I suppose those boneheads would be right next to those who believe that macroevolution is true and that the universe created itself out of nothing, sorry universeS. That's plural if you go along with the non-bonehead(?) Hawking.

      Ironic though that you are knocking religion yet your user name is Karma?

      February 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
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About this blog

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.