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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. Dave

    This article is just another part of CNN's bi-weekly pro-gay propaganda. CNN – how about running a truly different point of view? or at least not blocking people who disagree? Are you afraid of having real discourse on this issue?

    February 9, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • John Nichols

      AMEN ! Dave hate the sin, love the sinner.

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

      CNN is a joke today with the blind leading the blind on their gay crusade! They don't report news today! Not with their agenda. Knust has no clue what is written in the Bible and now she's twisting and contorting scriptures to fit your crusade.

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

      Is this author really trying to paint the Bible as something factual ???/

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

      Instead of going off on how CNN is pro-gay, why don't you re-read the article and let the information soak in?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • GoodGrief

      John Nichols, Hate the sin, but love the sinner is a popular evangelism technique not written in scripture,

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

      I Have to agree. CNN never has any articles about the other side its all pro-gay.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • GoodGrief

      Flynn, Knust hasn't a clue to what she's reading in scriptures. She's written a book to make a buck.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Sybaris

      It's not so much a CNN pro-gay agenda. It's more about exposing the absurdity in basing your prejudices on ancient man made tales and legends.

      If "The Night Before Christmas" included a line that Santa Claus hates cats would you also hate cats?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Billy

      Very True => CNN posts a bi-weekly PRO-GAY propaganda... Many other newspapers around the World are also following lead. Very soon it will be that Bible is for Gays and Straight people are NOT normal anymore!!!

      February 9, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • jeff pennington

      first of all as a so called pastor u misconstru what is written ,,it doesnt say 2 hate th sinner but it does say 2 hate th spirit of perversion that cause someone to sin ,as adulterous spirit of glutten spirit ,[ephesian 6]th real truth is sin is sin n its more so 4 those who try 2 justyfy it n cause others to join em on thier road 2 hell ,,whom much is given much is required ,we r required 2 walk in holiness as christ did as god is

      February 9, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  2. Nobody

    The bible was white mans way of controlling women and the forces around them. Just as L. Ron Hubbard said in a public interview, "I bet I can make up a religion and make money off it," some white men sitting around thought they could do the same thing. Religion is as religion does, and every culture has had one. Why? Because nobody has the answers, and it is easier to use peoples ignorance to control them. Some religions promote love and peace, while others promote power and supremacy.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Ryan

      "We shouldn't take the word of anyone claiming to be a scholar"?? Are you insane? So formal education and training mean nothing?

      People like you are why this country is lagging behind the rest of the world in every educational metric. When America comes crashing down, I will blame you.

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

      Whoops! I replied to the wrong post. I agree with you completely, haha.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  3. rn@stl

    wow, another typical liberal progressive "pastor" trying to justify sin, sorry that the word of God makes you uncomfortable, but trying to legitimize sin is pathetic.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  4. i am god

    this bible thing was an utter failure.

    :walks out of thread kicking stones:

    February 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  5. phoenix

    this is not the original human race God created this is an offshoot hybrid automaton species. gay is ok and s and m

    February 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  6. Church Lady

    Satannnnnnn?

    February 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  7. EK

    EK

    The bible is often used as a weapon, interpreted at will by master manipulators in order to control those who are desperate or weak of mind and are afraid or feel helpless. Religion can be blind and devoid of logic and thought; but spirituality requires that you dig deep within yourself and THINK, actually THINK about your relationship with God and what it means to do/be good so that your soul can grow and serve our creator. I don't understand why people can't look inside themselves for answers. God is perfect, good and each of us is a part of of God. Since God is perfect and all-knowing, nothing can happen here that God did not intend. We were each built with the ability to know right from wrong. If you do something that is wrong/bad, you are only hurting your own soul and hindering your own spiritual growth (you'll just have to keep trying until you get it right). God is good and God is love... he-she is not wrathful, vengeful or cruel and will never turn his-her back on you. You are here to exprience life for God, as God's hands. Of course, I could be wrong – point being – none of us really know for sure, but the best we can do is stop being sheep and use your our brains; run from the stupid masses and let your soul (which is part of God) guide you. Oh... and it's OK to be gay 🙂

    February 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  8. Friend

    these posts/comments are absolutely ridiculous.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  9. Greg S

    This article is so funny. One could even envision the devil himself laughing at it, thinking; "these people are so depraved and easy to decieve".

    February 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  10. GettheFactsStrait

    Not sure who drew the artwork, but "Adam and Eve" had no belly buttons.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  11. ???

    If Jesus were alive today he would not be advocating for a flat tax or the right to bear arms. He would find these to be meaningless in a world where respect for others is granted primarily through the legislative process.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  12. goat

    It's rubbish like this that people still believe the bible today. They keep changing its "interpretation" to try to be current, instead of using discoveries in science to realize that the book is complete nonsense.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  13. Joe Graham

    This article will persuade no one. 🙂

    For those who agree with the author's premise, that the Bible is a human work with a human understanding of God's word, it is a rallying cry.

    For those who believe that Bible is the infallible, unimpeachable word of God, it is simply another attack on their faith.

    Personally I believe that an infinite, almighty, all-knowing being's true will is ever beyond our attempts to pigeonhole Him by simple words and concepts, be they written, quoted, or interpreted, and the ultimate meaning of the mystery will not be presented in this world, but that's just me.

    I take comfort in the belief that as our Creator, God is more understanding and compassionate than we give Him credit for. As the saying goes, we'd complicate a free lunch. If we ignore the words of the New Covenant, "on these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets", then our obsession with one form of sin is understandable, but when I look around myself at the world I really think Christians have much bigger fish to fry.

    Today's church plays a shell game full of distraction, tacitly sanctioning great sin among its own by distracting them using passages that serve to demonize a small minority within our society, flying in the face of God's own words in Romans, Corinthians, Philipians, and John.

    Maybe start with Matthew 22: 37-39, 7: 1-5 , and ponder that perhaps the greatest work of evil in modern times isn't a war, or a disease, or even a social movement. Perhaps the beast's greatest work has been the twisting of scripture, acting within the church, to serve his own ends.

    -Joe

    February 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  14. POD

    Sophistry....at it's most ludicrous level

    February 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Greg S

      agreed!

      February 9, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  15. I AM God!

    You hate mongers are gonna burn!!!!!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Meh

      Is that you Eric Clapton?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  16. Glutton

    Since Ms. Knust believes there are many ways to interpret the Bible (and she obviously believes many of them are valid), I would like to thank her for the insights into the evils of sticky notes. It is indeed refreshing to have these new insight into a wasteful ecological practice.

    If you are thinking I am crazy, it's my interpretation and therefore it is valid – just following the post-modern, absence of truth, example of Knust. Although there may be many interpretations, it does not make all of them correct. Truth is truth no matter your interpretation.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Confused

      What?

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

      Truth is truth: 100% unknowable. That is one reason why interpretation, technically speaking from an epistemological standpoint, is the only option. Also, we are inherently biased as readers so no reading (indeed, no human endeavor) can ever escape that filter we each, as individuals, impose.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  17. tony

    Bible and Scholar are two words that don't make sense if used together.

    signed: Harry Potter Scholar.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  18. Margroks

    The Bible wasn't written down directly from God's mouth to the person with the pen who put it in the Bible. The Bible was compiled hundreds of years after the events described therein and so contain numerous parables and a lot of nonsense in which local cultural mores of the time were added in as if they were God's own pronouncements. They just weren't. Religious men decided what belonged in the Bible and tossed out what theyn didn't like or what they didn't want Christians to read and possibly consider.

    Yes, there are some interesting and enlightening ideas there but it's not the actual first person account of God's word or will.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  19. 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 3:06 pm |
    • David in Corpus

      If I awake from death to find a supreme being sitting in judgement of me I will say unto him, you are a poor excuse for a father and your so called representatives on Earth are poor examples of spiritual leaders. I will then spit in it's face and take my place in hell along with the other victims of our father's sinister love.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  20. jimboe

    "The world is gonna end"

    :Runs out of thread screaming and pulling hair:

    February 9, 2011 at 3:06 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.