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. James

    how can the reign of a tyrant be considered a blessing? to whom? unless blessings can be bestowed leaving all others to live in despair and suffering. following an act of greatness king david commited many trespasses. the premise of this article is limp and pathetic.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  2. Feo

    Who cares what the Bible says? It was crafted and edited long ago as a form of mind control by corrupt Catholics. Let's face it, most religions are evil, biased and divisive.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  3. Christian Truth

    Matthew 10:32. "If you confess Me before men, I will confess you before My Father." It's simply, you're either for Jesus or you are not. It's sad to watch so many people fall for false teachings just because they were put on a website. God warned us about these "sheep in wolf's clothing". Do not let this false teacher and her article cause any division among Christians. I have read the Bible cover-to-cover seven times using different translations: King James, New American Standard, and the New Internation Version. And in none of those are there two stories about the creation! CNN, if you want to add credibility to your website when it comes to perspectives from Christians, have real Christian leaders or pastors whose integrity is not in question write for you instead: people like Franklin Graham, Pastor Billy Graham, Pastor Charles Stanley, Pastor Creflo Dollar. They will preach spiritual truth. By the way, the Bible also states that those who preach any other gospel but the real Gospel of Christ will be held accountable.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Mikey

      Okay but what is the TRUE gospel?? How can you not want to know what was contained in the books not included in Constantine's bible?? Ordinary men came up with what went in and what did not – it was a matter of taste and space. Do you read Greek and Hebrew? Does your religious leader?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  4. ajk68

    What a twisted reading of the Bible this woman has!
    This is why personal interpretation of scripture is dangerous.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • GW

      so how should we interpret the bible then, if not personally? everyone interpret it the same way? and which way is that?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  5. GW

    Really Ry? I'm supposed to accept that Jesus really existed because we're in the year 2011 A.D.? That's your proof? Wow, wish someone had explained that to me before. Now i believe!! And kind of a stretch there to condemn those who don't believe Jesus existed to holocaust-deniers, don't you think? We have proof of one, absolutely nada on the other. Figure it out.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  6. David

    I am not clear on the author's interpretation of Genesis. Man and woman are created to be God's regents over his creation. It tells of God creating the first man, whom he forms from clay (or dust) and into whom he breathes the breath of life. The first woman is formed from the side of the first man, and God plants the garden of Eden into which he places them. With regard to the author's assertion that "God’s original intention for humanity was androgyny" she appears to be drawing on Jewish mysticism and the belief that, prior to original sin, Adam was a supernal being. The author's view of the relationship between David and Jonathan is not held by most Biblical scholars or readers of the First Book of Samuel. Lastly, the equation of slavery is an oft used and tired analogy. In Biblical times, slavery was more a matter of social status. People sold themselves as slaves when they could not pay their debts or provide for their families. Ms. Knust argument relies on cherry picked portions of scripture and unusual interpretations. We are all sinners and efforts to excuse our failings does little in progressing towards redemption.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      Well said!!! Thank you!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  7. I wonder...

    if all of those denouncing this based on a verse in Leviticus are equally strong in preventing the blind (or those with flat noses) from worshiping in churches, killing those who curse their parents, or putting to death those that wear clothing made out of two different types of thread.

    Did you re-interpret these rules?

    February 9, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • W247

      Have you ever read the New Testament? Do you understand why the law was created in the old testament and what happened to the law in the new testament?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  8. Jennifer

    As a Christian I find many of the posts on here deeply offensive because they call Christians fools, intolerant, bigots, call the Bible a fairy tale and lies, say that Jesus never existed, etc. There seems to be a lot more hating going on by the non-Christians than by the Christians, and how is that ok? I may not agree with what the author writes, or with what others believe (or choose not to believe), but that does not make me an intolerant bigot who believes in fairy tales. I have just as much right to my faith as you have to your beliefs, so if you want me to respect your way of life, you need to respect mine.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  9. RUTH

    That woman is full of CRAP!

    February 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  10. Doug

    The author of this article is playing a dangerous game that is warned against in the very bible she is twisting to suit her own spin. I think it time she goes back to school and stop spreading false teachings and claiming they are from God.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  11. listenclose

    Jeremiah 14:13
    Then the LORD said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. They can add this to this b.s article

    February 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  12. athiest

    When are people going to stop believing and living based on fairy tales? Honestly, if speaking about God and religion was outlawed and nobody did it, would baby's grow up believing in God? Probably not, because we understand how the world works for the most part. We understand weather, drought, sickness, eclipses and the other things the were above primitive man's thinking. Back then they needed Gods to pray to and to rationalize things they could not understand. It is ironic that people look back at the Greeks and other ancient cultures and never take their religion or belief in Gods seriously but theirs is more based in fact. They are all based on stories. Stories that had good intentions to set a moral code of ethics to unite man, not to pick apart each line to divide man. It is just pure arrogance of humans they we, as animals, are so special that we can't possibly die without something happening to our spirit. We understand our existance and can not fathom that when we die, that is it. How about everyone just be kind to everyone else because it is the right thing to do.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • FactNotFiction

      That was awesome. Rock on!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • AndyInAtlanta

      @athiest: You are right to a degree. Science can explain our physical universe and take the place of what was once attributed to "the gods". However, I disagree that if you take God out of the equation we would grow up without a thought of God. Science can tell us "how" we live but it can't tell us "why" we live. As long as people think and can question the purpose of their existence ("Why am I here?"), there will be room for the belief in a "supreme purpose" and therefore room to believe in a "supreme being". I don't think your argument can kill off God that easily. Just sayin'.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • Bob

      Science can tell us why we live. You just have not studied science enough.

      March 3, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  13. Darryl

    Loony as a loon.... Bible scholar and pastor?? I pity anyone being misled in her church...

    February 9, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  14. Alex

    Ms. Knust wasted her time and effort writing that article. The Bible, as a guide for morality, is a loathesome book. The oft-repeated example is slavery. The Bible condones slavery, but all of us hate it. The Christians who are nice people are the ones who _don't_ follow the Bible. The same goes for other religions and their holy books. Nice Jews and Muslims are the ones who don't follow their holy books.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  15. Benjamin

    Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman's rationlization of the creation myth is a complete rip off of Plato's Symposium, in which Aristophanes has the exact same rationale, right down to 'turning them about.' Another example of how religions mimic paganism and claim it as their own. Although in this case, Plato was mocking Aristophanes. Oh sweet irony!

    February 9, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  16. Frank

    What?? "Moreover, as Americans we should have learned by now that such a simplistic approach to the Bible will lead us astray." No, trying to read our views into God's word will lead you astray. God doesn't play the "politically" correct card as Americans seem to. In Genesis God told Eve not to eat from the tree. Satan asked Eve if that's what God really meant. This is exactly what you are doing. Stop spreading your opinion as God's word. I tell everyone to read the Bible and it will speak to you! Too much wrong is being done in the name of God by fakes and deceivers.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • antonini

      Very well explained. Man has always try to rationalized what the Bible says but to no avail Why? because they want only to hear what is pleasing to them. They don't want to change on their sinful ways. Therefore we should leave them alone, let them continue sinning until time comes when its too late and they will go to the lake of fire. Amen

      February 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  17. Marc

    As long as people believe that God created Adam (in His own image) and Eve on the 6th day, how can there be a rational discussion? We are really lost. If we are in his own image: What does God eat? Where does He defecate? Dose He wipe? With what? Obama said at his prayer breakfast that God is with Congresswoman Giffords, and will be with her in the long run. Well where the heck was God on the day she was shot? How about the 9 year old girl who was KILLED? Please don't tell me God wanted her by his side, at age 9. Please, people! Before it's too late!

    February 9, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      If there is no God..too late for what?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      If there is no God..why was the 9 year old killed? If there is no God why do people complain about pain? If there is no God, wouldn't that just be run of the mill stuff that happens to humans? If there is no God..wouldn't it all be senseless?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Normon

      @A matter of faith,
      Too late to stop someone blowing everyone up over some silly ideas.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Normon

      @A Matter of FAITH,
      "why was the 9 year old killed?" physics and biology. Bullets don't mix well with bodies.
      "why do people complain about pain?" Because it hurts. Pain is an indication of damage and to stop what you're doing if you don't want more damage.
      "senseless" If you mean meaningless, no. There may be no grand supernatural purpose to life, but it sure 'means' a lot to me.

      The purpose of life is to give life purpose.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      Thanks Normon: The point I was trying to make (I guess poorly) is that people believe that belief in God means that nothing bad will ever happen in te world. That He would somehow stop all the pain and the bad things from happening. This is simply not true. Bad things happen to believers and non-believers. This is not the basis of our belief...but sometimes these things are what validate and stregthen it...as I observed in a man who was shot and left paralyzed who couldn't move anything but his head but could be seen everytime we had service shaking his head in praise of the God that saved him. Absolutely amazing!!!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Robert

      Matter of Faith summed it up nicely Marc, Tim Keller spells it our in detail "The Reason for GOD", Chapter 2

      Check it out if you are serious –

      February 9, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Truth Seeker

      Ever heard of living in a fallen world???

      February 9, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  18. Deeperconscience

    I guess we should reinstate slavery because the bible says its ok.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • W247

      Why don't you read the new testament as well.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      W247, no place in the New Testament decries slavery. Slavery was more a fact of life during the 1st Century CE. None of the New Testament writers said anything about abolishing Slavery.
      People would sell themselves into slavery or indentured servitude to clear family debts, or to get an opportunity to better oneself (especially if well educated). Those were the fortunate few. There were still slaves who were treated little better than cattle – those with little or no skills – who did a significant portion of manual labor in the days of the Empire. One Slavery myth that needs exploding is one perpetuated any time Ben-Hur is on TV! The Romans did not use Galley Slaves on ships. Merchant ships were all free-men who each owned a percentage of the cargo being carried. Warships were all trained Roman Marines. Because the Spanish and Turks had galley slaves, writers assumed the Romans had them, too.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Truth Seeker

      We still have slavery today, duh! Borrower is slave to the lender.... We all have to slave away each day because we owe someone something. Do not borrow and you can be free.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  19. Edward

    God creating man twice always confused me. I have read Genisis many times trying to figure this out. The author makes some interesting observations of the bible.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Motrek

      God didn't create mankind twice. The description of creation in the first few chapters follows a pattern of overview/details, and operational/relational. The first description of mankind's creation shows how humans fit in with the rest of creation. The second description reveals important relationship details between God and man and between man and woman. There are some wonderful things to see there about mutual love and respect between genders. Too bad we've hosed it so badly since then.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • A Matter of FAITH

      Ever heard of parallel scriptures? They talk about the same ocurrance, just from a different perspective..but the event is the same. Genesis 2:4 says: These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created , in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, (this is the beginning of a recap with more detail or a different perspective to give you more information about the days of creation)

      February 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      Genesis 1:26-27 for the first creation story; Genesis 2:7, 18-24 for the second creation story. If you read further into the Jewish Biblical tradition, the first "wife" of Adam from chapter 1 was separated from him and eventually exiled, becoming the demon Lilitu or Lilith. There was an unnamed second "wife" who's creation Adam witnessed and disgusted him. Eve was the third try and we all know where that story went.
      Also, remember, most Americans have grown up with either the King James 1611 Version or the Douay-Rheims 1752 Version, depending if you were raised Protestant or Catholic. Both were translations (17th or 18th C English) of translations (Older English) of translations (Vulgate Latin) of translations (Greek) of translations (Hebrew). More current versions such as the Jerusalem and NRSV go back to older Greek and Hebrew texts for their translations and give a purer sense of the language and probable intent of the writers.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Steve

      Really not that complicated. Just the author's style of writing. First state a fact, "God created man, male and female he created them.." and then explain with greater detail how it happened and that's where the passage of Adam being sent into a deep sleep while his rib was taken comes from. Not double creation, we were always talking about the same event.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Art

      There is very different way of looking at this issue (of humanity being created twice) and it is presented by John Walton in "The Lost World of Genesis One." Walton, who is a scholar of both the Ancient Near East and the Bible, argues that Genesis I is a temple cosmogeny (creation of the cosmos) text that forms the 12th division of Genesis, and in many ways parallels other cosmogeny texts. The text is not concerned with material origins, but rather the cosmos-as-temple, and its completion is complete with the creation of humanity, for unlike other cultures where the gods created humanity to serve them, here, god creates this cosmos as his temple–but as a place for humanity. His exegesis of "it was good" and "it was very good" comes down, essentially, "and it functioned/worked/fulfilled its purpose." The latter account is to set the backdrop for the Fall, again, a theological myth/construct...not a narrative about material origins.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Brian

      Gen. 1:1-2:4 provides a synopsis of all that was created (including mankind on day 6). Then, Gen. 2:5-2:25 provides the specific details of the creation of mankind.

      It's much like how we read the table of contents at the beginning of the book, then begin reading the specific chapters. It's not that the event takes place twice, it's that we get a bird's eye view of the event, then a much closer view of some of the specific things that happen.

      Does that make sense, Edward?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  20. Joel S.

    Bible scholar and Pastor? jajaja please

    February 9, 2011 at 2:16 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.