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. DrClank

    All this proves is that the Bible is just a mess ...

    February 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Bob

      Totally agree, Dr Clank. Whay are we seriously trying to make informed choices based on a collection of fables and fairy tales that was developed millenia ago and has been edited endlessly ever since. 2,000 year old myths have no place in directing our lives today.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Jim

      Wow.. "DrClank" that is very, very insulting...

      February 9, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • kerry

      There are so many changes and interpertaions. There are a large amount of bibles contradicting one another. If you don't understand something the priests say not to question it and let it be; mainly they themselves don't understand. How can this be the word of GOD?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • jag

      i dont think the bible is a mess just the people who try to interpret and reorganize things from the bible

      February 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  2. Chicago

    Moral relativism BS, this article is.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  3. JPGoobleberry


    Newsflash: Content of Bible often self-conflicting and full of sh**.

    Silly people.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  4. Ravak

    Simply put:

    It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

    Jennifer Wright Knust – this was a very poorly written article. I suggest that you spend a little more time checking your sources and thinking about what you wish to say before you actually say it.

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

      Who created Steve then?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  5. hontodesu

    The Tell (rubble mound) for Sodom has not be found in Israel. Lot was intimate with his daughters. Abraham had children outside his marrage with a slave girl. Herod died in 4 bce, so this is 2015. Mohammad died in 630 so calculate your calenders from then. (Not sure, if the counting starts with his birth, flight, or death) but its different from the chrisian counting. Three kings from the east visited Nero. Following a star at night will stear you in the general direction, but will not point out the location of a manger. At least one Egyptian god was born of a virgin. David had concubines, had Uriah killed so he could covet his neighbors wife. Solomn had concubines. Why was adam created one gender, and eve another, while in the garden. You don't need the ying and yang unless you know you are going to be evicted and have to repoduce. Do you think the literal translation of scriptures from Jewish, to Greek, to Latin, to the Kings English survived. Do you think all the books of the bible which were not politicaly correct, in the bishops view at Nicea had more to say were not included. If the flood covered the earth in forty days and nights (960 hours, Mt Everest 29000+ feet = 300,000 inches). It would have to rain 6 inches a minute all over the world at the same time to to cover the land mass. That would take a cube of water about 704 miles on each side. Since we have gravity, where is all that water now. Its not in some bottled warehouse waiting to be sold to yuppies. David's liniage to jesus, well you had to have a good bloodline in those days if you were goring to rule over people. Why the upgrade path in religions and prophits, Judiasm to Christianity, to Islam. You people need to get a grip on reality.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  6. Lewis

    A professor at a liberal University says it all. She is also focusing on the bible from a non-biblical perspective, so, of course, she will fuzzy-up the bible. Reason is a far flung idea in the "scientific/scholarly" world. How can you examine a theological book when you look at it through a non-theological perspective? My history of christianity class was taught by an atheist. No surprise we ONLY read the books written by atheist scholars, ie Bart Ehrman. What are atheists and liberal scholars afraid of if they don't present all the evidence and both view points? Cowards.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Question

      If you need both perspectives why do you suggest that it takes a religious instructor to provide them?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  7. Doggydaddy

    I wish I could agree with the author, but believing in God, Christ and the Bible, for me, would be similar to beliving in ghost, vampirs and werewolves. It all comes down to what a person chooses to believe.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  8. Moshe Roberts

    To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree (Charles Darwin).

    I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate (1Corinthians 1:19).

    For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1Corinthians 1:18).

    February 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Kevin

      Great post Moshe... nailed it. No pun intended.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  9. Anthony

    As a university professor and religion expert myself, I have to say this piece is weakly argued and researched, and is ultimately quite unconvincing. I would have hoped CNN would have higher standards.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • ctd

      Well, since you are a university professor, who are we to argue with you?

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

      I liked the article. It was written so I, obviously NOT a university professor, could understand and relate to it.

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

      Hahaha.....oh wait....were you serious????

      February 9, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  10. DrClank

    All this goes to show is that the Bible is just a mess ...

    February 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Jesus Saves


      February 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • colin

      this just shows people will tell you want you want to hear...

      February 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  11. Rob

    Interesting article. I like this idea much better than most posed by religious folks. It involves acceptance and respect which is usually lacking in most religious arguments.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  12. Dave

    Romans 1:26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. 29 They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Jeffry

      What type of "unnatural relations" were the women having? Can you please tell me?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Dave

      Jeffry. Can you not read what it says?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Dave

      Everyone...This is for Jeffry: "27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error." LIKEWISE....means "in the same way"...making refernce to the women....so if the men were committing unnatrual acts with other men...then women with other women were "unnatrual" as well.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  13. Jere

    This lasy is a moron and is delusional in her own theology. I don;t really agree completely with the other side either, but she needs to find a job on a box in the middle of Chicago

    February 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Brotherboy

      WalMart sounds appropriate...

      February 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  14. mightyfudge

    No one knows what happens when we die, and anyone claiming such knowledge is a liar who probably wants your money.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  15. draeggo

    Thanks be that the Lord is more forgiving and tolerant than some of the devout followers posting comments on this story.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  16. gloria harrison


    February 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • I wonder...

      if typing in all caps makes someone appear to be more or less crazy?

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

      GLORIA – you're kidding, right?

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

      You are absolutely correct.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Zee

      too late... too... just saying... bad spelling doesn't help your authority...oh wait, you have none anyway 🙂

      February 9, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • colin

      gloria I agree with you that these social issues are often misunderstood and this essay is far from the truth, But please, as a brother in christ, don't approach christianity to people if you are doing it to condemn others. Jesus never did so, so why should you

      February 9, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Doney Larive

      AMEN to that ! All who don't believe, IT will be too late when there time comes. GOD WILL JUDGE AND THEN THEY WILL KNOW THAT [GOD IS GOD ] AMEN !!!!!!!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Outside the Box

      There may be a being that we would classify as a "god" then again there may not be anything so simplistic. When you really think about it, the bible tells a story of a childish supreme being that is prone to fits of rage and jealousy because mankind doesn't do what he is supposed to do. But then it tells us that this god loves us unconditionally and wants to desperately have a relationship with us on his terms. We are taught, as Christians, to believe that we are unrighteous, not worthy, condemned to hell but for this loving god's grace. But we only have a lifetime here on earth to accept his grace and mercy, otherwise it's an eternity in some hell that burns for ever whilst the true believers are admitted into His glorious presence.
      I am sorry but there is something fundamentally wrong with that story. We are told to worship and love this god under penalty of death. It is salvation staring down the barrel of a gun. There is no greater punishment than to be condemned to burn in an everlasting fire for actions committed in a life that may have only spanned some 80 years (if your fortunate). Any god that would allow this is the epitome of injustice, hate, and jealousy. I have a tough time accepting this view on its face, regardless of the logical flaws. I honestly would not want to worship a god like this if one did indeed exist. If god truly "loved us unconditionally" there would be no lasting consequence for rejecting his love. You would not go to hell, there would be no such place.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  17. Rick

    Wow, there are people that actually still take the bible seriously?

    February 9, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  18. Klaus

    lol i suppose then that Julius Caesar didn't exist either? Give me a fking break!!

    February 9, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  19. Ieat

    My Catholic RCIA class instructor was clear that many old testament stories are... STORIES. They are there to teach lessons. The details on whether they happened or not are up to interpretation. Besides there are plenty of records showing Genesis "borrowed" ideas from other older religions in that region. I can't believe these "scholars" take them so literally.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  20. David

    "sniff sniff.... I smell smoke."....

    February 9, 2011 at 2:26 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.