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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. absurdist

    Hey, how about "judging not lest ye be judged?" Seems there's an awful lot of judging going on here.

    Also, remember that little tidbit about "rendering unto Caesar what it Caesar's?" Legal marriage, and any law whatsoever, is definitely Caesar's. Legalizing gay marriage isn't an affront to God; as I recall, Jesus wasn't real big on the laws of man. The idea is to live a life that is personally holy and follow God's laws yourself. The laws of man are irrelevant.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  2. Martin

    Where does Jesus discuss marriage and discourage it?? Please quote verse and chapter on that one.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  3. BB

    Catholics should be cutting aand pasting this to every contact they can think of. No wonder the Muslims are growing so fast.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  4. HEANN

    I can see Eve's thingies

    February 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  5. jocelyn

    You call yourself a pastor? Way to lead people astray....

    Shame on you and your twisted way of manipulating the bible to match whats convenient for you and this new world society, where people seem to so easily justify their immorality.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  6. Sy2502

    Who cares anyway? The Bible also says the earth is flat, and the sun goes around the earth, why do we keep on looking for answers in a bronze age book? Here's a much simpler alternative to all this bending over backwards to make a primitive book make sense: it was written over a long period of time by people ranging from nomad goat herders to fishermen. It's only interesting insofar as it tells us something about the culture and time in which it was written. Period.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • aaron

      curious where the bible says that? I would hope if truth does exist that it is timeless and if there is a God he would have some type of means to communicate it to me. We can argue who God is or if the bible is truth or not but I see no logic in calling it primitive and thus not able to communicate any truth or all truth.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • nawww

      I love when people offer critiques of things they know nothing about. You clearly have not read the bible.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  7. Meh

    VERY convenient of her to twist the "supposed Word" to fit the bill for todays alternative lifestyles.
    Keep getting these deleted – I'll just keep adding new ones.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Nero

      You mean like mankind has done with all literature since they could write? Human beings have always twisted wrting, especially religious writing, to justify their own ends and most of them have been evil.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • Meh

      Yes you roman tool – but in this case its just really really convenient and I think Caligula is waiting for you

      February 9, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  8. tony

    You know the apostle Paul said that women should keep quiet in the church; perhaps this is why. Paul said that I suffer (allow not) a woman to teach or usurp authority over the man......he's referring to biblical matters. When folks read this from a "so called" biblical scholar/pastor, I see what Paul was talking about now. Having said that, I understanding that women have indeed developed the knowledge over the years to teach the word of God to both men and women, but I think at that time in Paul's day, they (women) zeal but not according to knowledge.

    And now this nonsensical, demonic article comes along. This article was inspired by Satan himself.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Nero

      Tony Tony Tony... if you could just hear yourself. You are a biggot and if god really existed, pretty sure that qualifies you for hell. Have fun in hell.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  9. winters

    well clearly its this woman's opinion of the bible, and that is were she is wrong. The Bible can not be interpreted in the way we think and see society today. There is only one truth, but people have many different interpretations/opinions of what the Bible is trying to say. In order to interpret the Bible, one must read its history, read it in context and understand the chapter as a whole. The Bible has one truth, but it has many ways to look at it. This woman clearly shows that she did not study the Bible at all in dept, probably took an online course and thinks she has found the solution, to cover up an issue.Only logical ignorants can agree with her.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  10. Herb (12th Apostle)

    Science advances our understanding of our world/universe; theism retards it.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • HEANN

      LOL he said "retards" and wasnt referring to ignition timing

      February 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  11. Dave

    Poor woman. I honestly believe she would not be able to say that Jesus Christ is her Savior. She clearly has the spirit of the antichrist. All I can say is "Father, please forgive her and show her your amazing Love."

    February 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  12. tati

    Not sure what Bible she is reading. The Bible is pretty clear on women being priests and on gays – you can like it or not like it – it won't change that fact. I am not religeous, by the way.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  13. Cruzader

    Quoting Mark Twain : "The Bible, a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies."

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

    The author left out the bits about David & Jonathan kissing – and about the king threatening to tell Jonathan's mother in an attempt to embarrass him. It's abundantly clear from the king's objection and the couple's behavior that David and Jonathan were lovers.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  15. Snapple

    How about "Do unto others, as you would have done to you?" The rest of the bible is someones perception of right and wrong. So thankful for separation of church and state. good day to you all.

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

      Lemon Tea Diet Snapple is my favorite

      February 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  16. Katie

    2 Tim 4:3-4
    For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Seraphim0

      To myths? Like the bible?

      February 9, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  17. Pastor Evans

    It is no surprise that CNN would talk with those who agree with their very own perverted ideologies, philosophies, and opinions. This is the problem with so many people in the false modern day American Church vs. those of us in God's Kingdom Church. SIN is SIN, but whenever a person does not want to confront there own SIN personally they will allow themself to be used by the DEVIL to try and pervert others who are willing to think this way also and who are lost. There is no such thing as a big or little SIN, SIN is simply the rejection of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is more than willing and able to work with anybody who is willing to completely submit and humble themsleves to Him. There is a whole lot of error and deception being taught as it was when Jesus was on the earth but those who are full of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God will never be decieved by those who are!!! Amen!!!

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

      I believe Pride is a sin and your holier than thou comment fits right into that description. If sin is sin then I guess I'll see you in he!!.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Truth

      Jonathan,
      Believing in and living by the Bible is now considered pride? Lol. Nice stretch.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Nero

      It's funny because their are so many people that think of themselves as christians and they sin all the time, but since they ask for forgiveness, they think will go to heaven. The reason that's funny is because a lot of them are going to hell. If God exists, he knows what's really in your heart and wether you mean it or not. . What I want to know is how is being gay evil? Doesn't evil usually denote doing something hurtful to someone? How does being gay make you evil? I can see how being a preacher that preaches anti-gay sermons and discriminates against people for being who they are, can be evil, but not the gay person he/she have condemned!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Meh

      yes yes yes hell in a handbasket – say hi to Sam Winchester while youre there.
      its all hokum to me – nero,tell you what , we'll call it even and you believe what you want as will i and neither of us will be right.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  18. Guy

    The Apostle Paul did not permit women to teach. Perhaps this is why.

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

      That's it? That's your argument; that she is a woman?
      Dude, grow a pair, will ya.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  19. Nick

    "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". Well that's a new one! You must a special version of the bible. I can only say "you should love the person and hate the sin!". Since you are a biblical scholar, then you must be familiar with the verses in the bible where God says man shall not lay with man and woman should not lay with woman?! I guess when you are not in the light you can spin just about anything.

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

      I can only assume you refer to Leviticus 20:13, the passage that expressly states that it is a sin for man to lie with man "As he lies with a woman". That particular chapter also expressly forbids the eating of crustacaens (shrimp, crab and lobster if you didn't know), allows stoning your disobediant son to death, and forbids the wearing of clothe made from more than one material. Do you follow all of these particulars as well? Do you follow all of the particulars in Timothy? Elsewhere in the Bible? If you do, I'd say you are the first person I have heard refer to those passages who does so, and may you enjoy your afterlife singing God's praises in Heaven. If not, then you'll be burning in hell too, you lobster gobbling, polyblend wearing S O B.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Nero

      Lexcrow, I don't know who you are but I love you! That was the best statement I've seen so far.... keep on keeping on!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Mortalc01l

      Lexcrow, that is one of the best things I have ever read in one of these discussions. As usual, the religious nutjobs conveniently pick and choose what THEY wish to believe and ignore the parts that don't mesh with their personal opinions.

      "lobster gobbling, polyblend wearing S O B" truly, deeply hysterically funny.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  20. Steve houston

    question for christians: What happens to a person(s) soul if they have never heard of Jesus? Do they go to heaven or hell? Ex: Indians roaming North America 500 years ago. Never heard of Jesus! According to you, they go to hell because they didn't accept Jesus as savior. Explain that?

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

      look up the term "general revelation" or do some reading on c.s. lewis.

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

      First, how do you know that they didn't know? Also, if Jesus is still to this day so controversial, how did the news of him not spread through those years when the Indians were here?

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

      Great question! While Jesus purports to be the only way, Moses never heard of Jesus. The Bible alludes to Moses being in heaven nonetheless. How would Moses get there if Jesus is the only way? Jesus' sacrifice still covered him even though he'd never heard of Jesus because "Moses believed God", according to the author of Hebrews. I don't pretend to fully understand the complexity of both sides of this argument. However, Scripture tells us that everyone has had a chance somewhere, somehow. Full knowledge of all things theology is not necessarily a pre-requisite to salvation. However, none of this contradicts Christ's statement that He made the way for us and He alone can get us there.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • brothersage

      Not sure if this will answer you question fully, however if you read the bible closely in the old testament, there is a lot of language used to suggest that man has for years rejected God, that it is apart of his nature to reject God ever since the fall in the Garden. Jesus is not the one who condemns, but the one who justifies and gives grace, God condemns those who deny him. The scripture says that everything attests to God's greatness, especially nature and all its complexities. The other thing to remember is that Christians believe the word of God to be true, if we don't believe all of the "word" in its entirety then what would that say about our faith.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Don

      All 9ndividuals will be given an opportunity to accept Christ as Lord and the Son of God. Most feel that this will occur just after death but before their soul is released, possibly during or just prior the Second Coming.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Don_J

      OK Steve… I’ll handle this one. Once those early “Christians” had decided that the “true” Americans also known as “injuns” or “heathens”, once it was decided they were not Christians they tried to convert them, when that didn’t work those “real” Christians wagged war on them, killing them off taking everything from them, all in the name of God.

      So, that was kind of like their hell… for not being Christians.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • rl

      God knows a mans heart, and rest assure he will judge all man accordingly,putting into consideration
      the era of which a person lived, God Bless

      February 9, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • come on man

      "Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes he will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgement: of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; of judgement, because the ruler of this world judged.

      "But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses............

      So you see the Spirit of God can and will convict man of sin and testifiy to who Christ is apart from physical preaching of the gospel..........and the Spirit of God is omnipresent.........Folks know who God is!.......it doesn't mean they will admit it or come to him...........But I have always thought it interesting that those who ask this question already know about Jesus themselves.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:08 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.