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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. student

    wow. what terrible exegesis. please go take a hermeneutics and a hebrew or Greek course before trying to comment critically on the text.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • R. Diane

      Actually that is eisegesis ..her own ideas NOT God inspired or God breathed!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Student Correction

      Dear "student",
      Before YOU decide to comment someone else critically over their lack of education on a particular subject, you should take some grammatical courses yourself. Sentences start with a capital letter. You have three statements that lack a capital letter at the beginning. I pray your not in college.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • John

      She is neither a scholar, nor a teacher. I suggest she spend some time in the book of Enoch. Jesus was speaking of both chapters of Genises here – “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female. And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one

      I suggest she start her on religion – Then she can make up what she wants. How messed up!

      February 9, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  2. BubbaCo

    Thanks for the mythology lesson.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  3. Jeanpaul

    What a learned essay. Here is a woman who uses her God-given brain and use it as intended, to understand ouselves and to use logic. First and foremost the Bible was written in Aramaic and Hebrew and The New Testament in Greek. We are at lest three times distant from the orignal languages it was written in. Has anyone here ever tried to translate our American idioms to a person who speaks French, Spanish or German it's almost impossible.

    Now as to why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed the essayist makes a very valid and erudite point. If you have a bible, open it to Ezekiel and read that prophets take on that subject. It's chapter 16, or if you are impatient then go directly to verses 46 to 58.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  4. TRob

    The Bible is truth and only one Truth. This is why you must study the Word for yourself versus letting someone else tell you what it says. This article is so far from the truth that it only proves one thing, the Rapture will occur very soon. Those who call themselves Preachers and Teachers for God and promote an incorrect interpretation of scripture will be judged first and most severely.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • TheRealGod

      I am god and YOU are and IDIOT!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Ryan

      You forgot the words "I believe..." at the beginning of your post.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  5. Dman508

    Funny, God's "original" plan? Isn't he all knowing and all powerful. Too bad his little creation got in the way of his big plans. Shame he didn't see that coming. Religion is ridiculous!!!

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

      God's one and only plan was the one we now live – Humans sin, we need to be redeemed, He gives us a choice – Accept forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross or don't and burn in hell. It is the choice of every human being. God will not force you to believe what is right, you choose of your own free will.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  6. Anne S

    Interesting how writers like this make the text subjective to their beliefs. There is little or no evidence for much of what she claims is true – really – the earth was destroyed by water because angels mated with humans? Your knowledge of the Bible, sin and its meaning wouldn't fill a teacup. The only thing more frightening than this woman and her ilk is the equally ignorant people reading it and believing it.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • AT

      Why are you so angry?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Melissa

      This reply is really to AT

      Anne is not angry, she is right

      February 9, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • gogogopher

      how did angels mate with humans? Guess they had to have a.... uh.... well... you know...
      Yes, makes perfect sense.
      One thing though, for those of us that have "mated'.... we have to question why the angels didn't come back for seconds and thirds? I mean, once you have human.....

      February 10, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  7. big j

    wow lady!!! You are some scholar...(sarcasm)

    Leviticus 18:22
    Romans 1:27

    February 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  8. Ron

    Whoa. I've never heard a Christian say anything like that...I'm kind of impressed. Certainly refreshing to hear others' interpretations rather than the ones that one has been taught. I can appreciate this type of challenge to the tradition. Good luck dealing crazed, angry fundamentalists though!

    February 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • AT

      Agreed. I grew up in the church and have had always found it very difficult to label certain people as sinners. Especially when I found so many great friends among these "sinners".

      February 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  9. k

    Judge not lest ye be judged. Just going to church makes you no more a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Rich

      Telling someone that its a sin is not judging. That's like saying that stealing is a crime. That is not judging. Next time don't quote verses you don't understand.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  10. Frank

    All I know is that many peoples lifes have been changed by believing in Jesus, that can be proved and has been proved.

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

    Jennifer, You are no scholar, and if ordained it was online. You are deliberately misrepresenting the Bible. The Bible is to clear for you to unintententionally make the mistakes you have made. Scholar implies you have studied and reflected and prayed for understanding on the matter. As for being a "Pastor" I feel as though I should appologise to non christians for this blatent misinformation. Any reasonable person can read the Bible and find the Truth about Sodom. After discovering Jennifers waywardness on this simple story, how could anyone(regardless of religious affiliation or belief) believe anything else she say"s.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      Jerry, read about her background. You just bore false witness.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Ron

      Jerry, how is what this author has done i.e. read, studied and interpreted the Bible, any different from what your pastor/priest etc. done? Someone decided what interpretation would be acceptable and then forced everyone into believing it. Now someone else has decided they believe differently and has offered that opinion. Get a grip.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Madelene

      I agree with you Jerry. I am concerned for the people Jennifer pastor or council – they will all be deceived and share the same fate that she's going to suffer.
      Jennifer – you will be held accountable for this misinterpretation of the scripture. I'd strongly suggest that you commit your life to the Lord, learn how to hear His voice and grow in an intimate relationship with Him. Ask Him to give you revelation – you need it! When you've been enlightened to the truth – I suggest you write another article, containing the truth and have it published by CNN.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  12. EmeraldCity

    It is therefore disturbing to hear some Christian leaders today claim that they have no choice but to regard h0m0s3xuality as a sin. They do have a choice and should be held accountable for the ones they are making."

    That's going to burn more than a few a$$es here. lol

    Either way, this article doesn't affect me much, since I"m not religious. But it is nice to see that it focuses on the self-contradictory aspects of the text.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  13. Darlena

    All of you who believe the Bible is "not real" or believe that you can pick and choose what you do and do not want to listen to or learn from will certainly learn in the end. But you need to ask yourself if it will be too late? The correct answer to that question is YES! Read your KING JAMES VERSION of the Bible and make up your own mind. There is nothing left for the imagination and nothing left for "interpretation".

    February 9, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      Darleena, you must realize that the entire Bible is an interpretation in that it is translated from other languages.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Stephen McConnell

      Yes.. and Jesus spoke King James English.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • JustSomeGuy

      What makes you so sure that ver. of the Bible is correct? Because someone told you it was?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • With Grace

      I agree that people should just read the Bible from start to finish and rely on the Holy Spirit to discern how they interpret what it says. However, I cannot stand King James version eletists. Any version is applicable, excluding paraphrases like the Message. God didn't send the KJV down from heaven with leather binding, and fine gold page marker. There's grace enough for other versions.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Ed

      It is the fundamemntalists that are most guitly of "picking" and "choosing" the passages they forward as revealed word. It is they who conveniently ignore all of the contradictions, morally reprehensible assertions, and other passages that are completely devoid of any reason or logic.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • jt22

      interesting notion, because aren't you picking and choosing to read THAT version of the bible.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • readandthink

      The KJV is written in English whereas the original Bible verses were written in Aramaic, Greek, etc. Since there is not a perfect one-to-one match between English words and words in these ancient languages, interpretation was implicit in the translating. Moreover, the shades of meanings of words in all languages change over time. Consequently, to say that one is reading the Bible "literally" and that no "interpretation" is allowed is illogical and, therefore, meaningless.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  14. Michael, Chapel Hill

    They very notion defeats the purpose of man and woman. If men could deliver babies; there is some meaning.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  15. Melissa

    Way to go CNN – I see you deleted my previous entry. Where is the free speech now? I said nothing hateful – I stated the truth straight from the Bible. I guess we all know what you support.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  16. Isaiah 5:20

    Read the Bible from beginning to end straight through, not by jumping around. This article is sad because it is coming from a Pastor and a P.H.D. Professor. The author is wrong.

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

      I trust the scholar's opinion over some random person on a message board.

      Why does everyone in America think they are some expert on every subject, regardless of their schooling? I don't understand the rampant anti-intellectualism in this society.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • R. Diane

      AMEN and AMEN!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • JustSomeGuy

      You have read the Bible cover to cover? You didn't start questioning all of the very odd discrepancies, inconsistencies and contradictions? The author is right in assuming that the bible can be interpreted countless ways. Pick a metaphor or passage and turn it into something literal then condemn others for not seeing it your way. Religion seems to be a pick and choose kind of approach. It would be impossible to live according to the entire Bible's teachings.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  17. Mike

    All you need is love

    February 9, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  18. listenclose

    cnn puts up every post made by an athiest however I put 10 that simply have scripture that shows this article is blatantly false and misleading and they wont post any of them

    February 9, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  19. Khue

    Hey trumpet, Whatever you do to you brother, you do to your God. Then, did you just said that your God is a dog?

    February 9, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Stephen McConnell

      @Khue

      If you're dislexic... 😉

      February 9, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  20. david

    wow really i find this article stupid i mean as it says about king david being gay maybe he just expressed that he loved this man because he was a really good friend jesus said he loved everyone including men and hes not labled gay is not ok and it should be illegal because it is not right look at the two genitals they are different and they fit into one and other but two of the same does not work it is wrong adn this is my opinion

    February 9, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Oh, the irony...

      So you chose to write a long, pointless run on sentence to declare the that you find the article "stupid"? Despite your obvious expertise in stupidity, I failed to find your arguement convincing...

      February 9, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • AT

      You sound really smart.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      David, is the "fitting genitals" test applicable to standing, sitting, or reclining?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:00 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.