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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. RobA

    I'm hearing a lot of the same thing here, which boils down to "how dare you attack the ancient and outdated fairy tale that gives me an excuse to hate those who are different from me." You notice that typically, excuses for hate speech and discrimination are couched in religious terms.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  2. Khue

    I just do not believe in Bibles. I do not believe in God!
    Period!

    February 9, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • trumpet

      Good next time you will come back as a dog look foward to it.:)

      February 9, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  3. Steve

    They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator- who is forever praised. Amen.
    Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. Romans 1:25 – 28

    February 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  4. Ed

    This woman is obvious lost it. She makes so many excuses for interpretation. The Bible does not condemn gay people. It is the lust of the flesh for man and/or woman who take things far from moral behavior and become unmoral in their actions and thoughts from God principles of holiness. You can be gay person and live a life of Christian conduct and go to heaven. It is the sin acted out on the flesh that is concerning.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  5. civiloutside

    Hmmm... I'm thinking it takes some serious mental gymnastics to come up with the interpretations the author is offering here.

    Just for example, it strikes me that the most logical interpretation of the two Genesis stories is that the first is an overview of the whole creation story, the second a more detailed account focusing on man's story.

    The Leviticus rules read more like war propaganda – they're presented in the context of god telling the Israelites a story along the lines of "It's ok to go invade people's lands, and kill and enslave them, because they're all a bunch of qu-eers who sleep with their own sisters anyway."

    If people believe with absolute conviction that what a plain reading of the Bible tells them is wrong, then it seems to me that the best course is to reject the Bible rather than make up bizarre and far-fetched excuses for how it can be right if you just stretch the words way out of shape and add some extra made-up stuff. Of course, it's easy for me to say that having already taken that step – for others it may be very hard since it requires giving up a lot of deeply cherished beliefs. For them it may just be more emotionally satisfying to cling to those myths while rationalizing away the ugly parts, however convoluted the rationale has to be.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Chris

      What makes you think that the text that gives us a peek of the creator of the entire universe would be simplistic?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  6. Gelpaks

    When I read this article I thought it very interesting to hear another Christian's point of view. It motivates me to dig deeper into what I know about scripture and to try to understand Ms. Knust's POV, and to let it challenge me to widen my perspective of the issue. When people come back with angry comments, I wonder if the knee-jerk reaction is out of fear of being challenged. That somehow by listening (REALLY listening) to other's ideas will make us work to reason out our own. Does the fear come from thinking we might not be able to give a good argument? That we might actually have to learn to tolerate people we don't understand? Seriously, as Christians, are we not called to be tolerant and caring and above all else to seek God and His truth?

    February 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  7. Mi Letz

    Haha! Ya just can't stand that your Bibles may mean LOVE EVERONE AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF! Haha.....you "Christians are pathetic in your attempt to talk of Gods love a s something only YOU know the rules of...and how it should be dolled out. Pathetic. Oh but sooo spiritual. I should imagine Jesus kicking over your stands as well.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  8. MiddleOfTheRoad

    My favorite..................Matthew 19:23-24

    February 9, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  9. Keith Snyder

    Since it's all nonsense anyway, who the hell cares?

    February 9, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  10. Emmersome Bigguns

    So what you are saying is, anyone can write opinion pieces for CNN.
    Cool!

    February 9, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  11. CN

    how is it that all these christian fundamentalists have these nice computers to type out their long winded, poorly lettered thoughts? didn't jesus command his followers to give away their possessions to the poor and follow him, which is why i'm sure they also all voted democrat in the last election, and encouraged everyone to pay taxes to help everyone on welfare?

    oddly, i'm sure some "ambiguity" will be found with this command, as well, but not with other things. how convenient.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  12. What A Stretch

    Wow, that has got to be the most bizre interpretation of scripture I have ever heard of. And from a self proclaimed Biblical scholar and pastor? Re-inventing the word of God in this fashion is warned about in scripture and sets this "pastor" on a very dangerous path. I suggest she go back to seminary 101 and start again and this time filter out all the liberal clap-trap she learned the first time around!

    February 9, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  13. Evil

    Religion is for those too weak to stand on their own.

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

      It has absolutely nothing to do with religion.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • rover

      LOl fool

      February 9, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • smitty

      Amen 😉

      February 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Good

      Maybe that supposition makes you feel stronger but that doesn't make it so.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  14. Mort

    Unreal
    Can you imagine when they meet their first Christian. " So, let me get this straight. You believe that an

    invisible, infinitely-old, never-dying, all-knowing super-being, powerful enough to create the entire

    Universe and its billions of galaxies, has a personal interest in your life. This being reads your mind and

    intervenes in human affairs to satisfy your needs (or "answers your prayers" as you put it). It does so

    simultaneously with millions of people all over the World. And, when you die, you actually don't die, you go

    to a place called "heaven" to live happily ever after.

    Oh, and just to really round things out, despite what we have been thinking, the entire Universe is only

    6,000 years old and started with one man, one woman and a talking snake, with a complete emphasis on your

    planet."

    "Sooo, I have some magic alien pixie dust for sale. Interested?

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

      Love, love, love it, Mort. So well said. 🙂

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

      Awesome.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Doug

      Or you could simply believe that the universe began with this giant BOOM and wow, everything just happened to land perfectly in place and here we are. Yeah, that's more believable.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Patrick

      @ Doug:

      Perfectly in place? Have you gone outside lately? Since birth? Talk about room for improvement!

      I think you need to raise your standards a little bit.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  15. Boigno

    I challenge anyone to google "Laminin" if you want biological proof of God ...read what the function of this protein is...then go read Colossians 1:17...GO DO IT RIGHT NOW!

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

      It's very sad that these arguements still exist over books written so many years ago. Books on jesus that all scholars agree were NOT written during his supposed life but many decades later. Those many decades later when stories were crafted and re-crafted for the purpose of showing christians were the "chosen" people instead of the jewish people etc. Its all false people. The truth is we are all the same and of the same species. Race just like religion was created by people who didn't know the reality of what life really is. Senseless death, despair and destruction will continue until all people understand that we are the same regardless of what "race" or religion we claim. Its disgusting that this fighting continues.

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

      This has to be the stupidest comment I have ever read in my life. Maybe it is a sign that Horus or Osiris is the true god? Or a symbol of anyone else that has been crucified and worshiped by idiots as deities.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  16. Belly Button

    The author of this article is wrong about several things she stated. One being that there are several interpretations. If you actually believe what the Bible says, then there is only one interpretaion as it states in the Bible. People misinterpret God's Word all the time. Sad to say that some of those people are in pulpits preaching. We are not to add to, nor subtract from God's Word, this includes adding our own "spins." Sometimes our perception and life experience may cloud our understanding, but that's why it's important to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and let his Spirit in you guide you into the Truth. It's not about religion and rituals, it's about relationship.

    As one who believes that the Bible is the Word of God, I'm curious to know what the author believes and what faith she subsribes to. This article shows no evidence that she has faith in God or His Word, she simply states that she's a bible scholar which could simply means she studies it. The fact that she didn't mention what kind of church she pastors leads me to believe that she does not have faith in the God of the Bible and has probably resolved to seek "enlightenment" in some new deception that makes her feel comfortable in her sin and doesn't hold her or her flock accountable to the one true God. More and more I'm hearing people come against the name of Jesus and Christianity as a whole. What happened to freedom of religion? Why are people to disparage the name of my God, yet if I say anything derogatory about muhammad or allah it's called "hate speech?"

    February 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • What A Stretch

      Very well stated!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Patrick

      "If you actually believe what the Bible says, then there is only one interpretaion as it states in the Bible."

      This is a logical error. Believing what the Bible says does not ensure the same interpretation from each and every person, nor does it inherently exclude multiple interpretations. I am not sure how you came to this conclusion.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Getwiththeprogram

      what version of the bible do you believe? I suppose you can read Aramaic? or Latin? because if you really want to know the "word of god" you might have to read it in its original language... Interpretation is a part of the package when you are reading a translation. If you aren't reading the original text, you are reading an interpretation. Don't think for a second that there is an exact translation. That would be impossible because words in other languages often don't have exact synonyms in English. So, basically you're ignorant.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  17. Evigil

    Jennifer is a big phony. Not worthy of even reading her nonsense. This lady probably still believes in Fairy Tails and that she is smarter than the author of the Bible. Image that!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Fairies have tails? I suppose that would be believable if there were such things as fairies. Now fairy "tales" can be found by the thousands in the bible.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • michael

      she's at least smart enough to spell Tales correctly.

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

      um, it's fairy tales. Not tails. Also "the" author of the bible? You do know the bible was written by multiple people, then translated (from 3 different languages) and copied by hand by monks for hundreds of years, right? (which of course would lead to no misinterpretation/translation errors/etc, right Christians?)

      Ignorance is adorable!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Tom in Wisconsin

      The "author of the Bible"? Because one person sat down and wrote it all?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Patrick

      "Probably still believes" in fairy tales? No probably about it – the lady is a Christian pastor!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  18. Yetu

    Ugbak cay weatu tik. Weasaw mae etrea cay tagnic. Nee sak lint tae wue!

    February 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  19. Everly

    I don't even know where to begin. Literally. But for starters, Jesus was so far from "discouraging" marriage,
    that His first miracle took place AT a wedding. He turned water into wine, so the party could keep going. He
    also referred to Himself as the Bridegroom, and the church as His bride. For the rest of the corrections, you
    should probably just get your own copy of the Bible, and take it from there.

    February 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Donna

      Yeah, that statement appeared to come out of nowhere. I was very interested in seeing the supporting lines of scripture for that, but she unfortunately didn't provide any.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  20. chess

    uh "men shall not lie with men" lets see how should I interpret that exact quote taken from the bible...duh but then the bible also says women should not be pastors so ya enjoy letting satan work through you and being smited down on judgement day lol

    February 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • What A Stretch

      You forgot to employ the extreme liberal filter Knust uses to read her version of the Bible.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      People really take this stuff seriously?

      February 9, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
    • Tommie Dee

      This is pure herasy. I'm reminded of the scripture that says the natural man cannot understand the things of God for they are spiritually discerned. The sad part is, there are people out there who will believe this utter foolishness.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • michael

      chess, can you please identify the passage(s) for "duh but then the bible also says women should not be pastors?"

      February 9, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Samuel

      Indeed! I would agree! It so evident when a human is reaching to over-articulate the bible. I'm a bit disappointed with CNN for the lack of fact-checking in regards to Jennifer Wright Knust background and non-talent to summarize.

      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.