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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. PDXSerric

    Personally I don’t understand what all the hubbub is. Ms. Knust is interpreting the Bible just as many have been doing so for thousands of years. Even Jesus encouraged, through his use of parables, laymen to interpret their own meaning into the teachings of the Bible. He would often ask ‘what does this mean to you?’ and force those who chose to follow him to think for themselves, much to the chagrin and frustration of the predominant organized religion of the time.

    That’s the thing about the Bible. It is a book of stories and myths meant to encourage those who read it to draw their own conclusions and their own truths. It is not, nor has it ever been, as some may contest, a book of whole truths.

    Ms. Knust’s interpretation is no more correct or incorrect than any other interpretation before it. It is, in essence, the proverbial elephant being described by three blind men. It is a pillar, a rope, and a branch, all in one.

    In fact, it is these interpretation which lead to the division between the religions in the first place, and the creation of multiple denominations – and, as a consequence, war. All because people demand that THEIR interpretation is the ONLY interpretation. Until people can learn to allow faith it lead the teachings, and not the other way around, may we see peace again.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • outawork

      and getting it wrong.

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

      She should take the Whole Chapters ... in there (Their) TEXTS ... not pick and choose sentences.

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

      According to who is she getting it wrong? Do you talk to God or Jesus? Maybe your preacher does. You know about as much for certain about what God and Jesus intended as anyone else you small minded fool.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • robert

      Man, shut up. You sound like the village idiot that somehow found the highway out of town. Find your way back

      February 9, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • PDXSerric

      “She should take the Whole Chapters ... in there (Their) TEXTS ... not pick and choose sentences” – curious. But isn’t that what preachers and pastors of today do every sermon? Pick and choose that which they wish to express?

      I’ve been to many sermons in several Christian-based denominations and I have never heard a religious leader read an entire book. They often pick a few that drive the point of the day home, flipping back and forth between chapters and books between their personal pontifications.

      As I recall, it is up to the parishioner to read the entire texts. It is not the responsibility of the pastor/preacher to teach them. Why should we hold others to higher standards than our religious leaders?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • PDXSerric

      “According to who is she getting it wrong? Do you talk to God or Jesus? Maybe your preacher does. You know about as much for certain about what God and Jesus intended as anyone else you small minded fool.”

      Assuming this was directed at me – you are so eager to attack you don’t even recognize when someone is arguing the same point as yourself. I am supporting her comments, not condemning them. An excellent example of interpretation here.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • GoodGrief

      PDXSerric, Knust doesn't even know that there are two creation events. Without comprehending this, she does not know about their differences.

      Adam and Eve were not the first people on the earth. The Creation event in Genesis 1:27 is different that the Genesis 2:7.

      This was a special event, no other woman was made from any other man by any other ribs (aka meaning the helix curve). Eve was from Adam, but all other women were created alongside the other men in the sixth day of God's Creation. There is no way that this Genesis chapter two event regarding Eve can be construed as simply a further explanation of all the women being created in Genesis chapter one.

      I can go on and on. Better yet, read the Bible, find a Christian scholar to assist you with questions.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Valerie

      Truth?

      The bible is NOT open to interpretation in the sense you make up meanings of it to suit yourself. Jesus said, "I am the way, the TRUTH and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

      Jesus is TRUTH, not man's teeny tiny understanding of it. Also, our Lord Jesus Christ said, "If you love me, keep My commandments"......."MY COMMANDMENTS". Jesus is God in Flesh. God's commandments. THIS is TRUTH. Saying you love the Lord is nothing. We must SHOW Him by keeping His commandments. This is TRUTH.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Christopher

      The absurdity of this article is beyond belief. The bible is so clear on this subject that it is almost insane to believe that such twisting can take place. I am no hate monger – scrip[ture speaks to itself. I have many frriends who live the life style and they clearly know where I stand on the subject – I love the people but hate the sin as I have and still have my own sinfuyl baggage – Only difference is someone else by the name of Jesus is carrying that load – I pray for the author as she will ultimately be held accountable for leading people astray especially from the pulpit.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • thatmikeguy

      There is a big difference in loving a person, and loving what a person does. You can love people but not love what they are doing. Sleep not man with man, or man as with woman, is straight forward, and extremely more so than this interpretation. Marriage is sanctified by God, and is described over and over. Sin is sin, period. Many people would like to add this to the list of things God hates, yes hates. Even if that written list of hates includes things that many people would be more comfortable with today. God loves us, but not always our choices. There is respecting an action that is in the past, and there is respecting a person. God is no respecter of persons.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  2. mayzo

    The authors argument is poorly constructed. It contains as much BS as the bible itself. The bible is collection of stories written by men and used to construct opinions. The story is review of bible stories used to construct an opinion. I think too many organized religions are about judging others and try to make yourself feel better, by pointing at the evil in others. Spend more time doing things for others and less judging them.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • biCurious

      You do realize that trying to argue logic and reason with the religious is moot, right? You have to remember, Christian dogma is no different that the Muslim or Jewish version of the Lord of the Rings – errr.. I mean – religious text.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  3. Red

    I bring you these 15 ....***CRASH***............10 commandments

    February 9, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • biCurious

      LOL +10.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  4. Atreyuth

    Babies are a product of a male and a female, and as a result offsprings can have emotions of a male, female, and in between. Just take a look at nature of the behavior of bi gender species.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  5. petemg

    The Bible were stories written God through the writers. It was the only way to explain to people to understand. We must go in faith on daily living. The Bible should not be taken word by word. It has been interpreted and has been watered down by the people who interpret and reinterpret. there are now so many versions that we would have to go back to the original writing to truly get anything from the Bible. It has been stated in the Bible about all sin. We people of these days have now decided to state it the way we want so we do not have to be responsible. God wants to hate the sin and to love the sinner. To really understand the Bible is to first pray that our hearts may be opened and that the Holy Spirit will show us what needs to be learned. Everytime one does this they grow each time they read the Bible. We have all strayed from the faith we need to have in God and not in fellow human beings.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  6. bishop

    I cringe when I see theses articles pop up from time to time.
    People who write them are not looking for the truth in the scriptures,
    they are simply leaning on their own understanding, and trying to push their twisted agenda.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  7. Tony

    So sad that this lady uses the privilege of the pulpit to take such an un-Biblical view of this topic. The Bible is the Word of God – period. It is not a book of fables, or a book of man-made stories. It is God's Word divinely inspired through the hands of men. It is both inerrant and infallible. This lady is not portraying a view that is acceptable within Christian orthodoxy. God's Word doesn't need anybody to defend it – just read the passages and their context that she mentions and you will likely see it differently than she does. Apparently she has neglected to consider these passages: Leviticus 18:22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.

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

      Just curious... does it say anything about girl on girl action? Because that's what I want to know... hot.. girl on girl action...

      February 9, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  8. Geer

    Has this woman lost her cotton pickin mind?

    February 9, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  9. Kevin

    All this discussion over a book of fiction.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Kevin's Friend

      If it's fiction, why does it mysteriously change a person when they read God's Holy Word? It's the breath of God connecting with us on a level that is incomprehensible! Read it and may you be open to hear what our Lord and Saviour has to say specifically to you.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  10. superhit

    Ignorance at its utmost, Coming soon in acceptable list, pedophile, incest etc.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  11. Atreyuth

    Babies are a product of a male and a female, and as a result babies can have emotions of a male, female, and in between. Just take a look at nature of the behavior of bi gender species.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  12. Rock

    I was nailing Snooki last night and it was a religious experience tbh – i really like it when she gets on her knees and prays

    February 9, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  13. Scott Morrison

    Unfortunately yet another perversion of biblical teaching. Completely ignores Oral Tradition in addition to Written Tradition (scripture).

    February 9, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Kevin

      hahaha....you said "oral"

      February 9, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  14. R F

    Absolutely no mention of Leviticus 18 & 20, I see...

    "Thou shalt not lie with makind, as with womankind; it is an abomination" – Leviticus 18:22 KJV

    "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them – Leviticus 20:13 KJV

    If the author wishes to address these points, I'm listening. In other words, don't bash my religious beliefs and try to justify your views within it, all while claiming that I'm intolerant. Square the above points or you're doing nothing but whining...

    February 9, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • K L

      R F,
      Why would you pick and choose as well? Leviticus 11:10-11 states "And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination."
      This means that eating shellfish is also an abomination, equivalent to the "abomination" of men laying with men or women laying with women, yet I don't hear anyone in clergy protesting our shellfish industry.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  15. g

    Pastor and Professor of Promotion of Peter Puffing

    February 9, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  16. Criminy

    I read the first sentence... and am making a comment on that alone. I will go further when I have read further. I quote the first sentence... "We often hears...."

    Does CNN edit anything anymore, or are you just trying to throw up controversial stories to get people to comment that you do not want to take time for that?

    February 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  17. Michael

    I love God,Jesus,My Family,My Son & Spartacus

    February 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  18. WoRdup

    YOU may have thought arguing about biblical interpretations was a sin. But you were wrong it does't say that anywhere. Except in your mind.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  19. 22Matthew37

    Jesus said that two of the commandments underlie ALL of the others:
    1) Love God with your whole heart, soul and mind
    2) Love your neighbor as yourself.
    I think the great sin of most church-goers in the US is that they have focused on more complex social issues, and have not fully and solely attended to these 2 simple and direct commandments.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Steve B

      This is true .....however,...we also cant just let the other very important issues of the scriptures go by the wayside. Like this one!

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

      The problem with curchgoers is that they get the path for their life out of an ancient manuscript that has been highly edited over the years to include and omit writers and stories that don't fit into the dogma. Mythology is Mythology... whether it be the Ancient Greeks or contemporary society.

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

      Actually, Matt 22:34-40 does not "pass muster" with many contemporay NT scholars as being said by the historic Jesus.

      e.g. "Gerd Lüdemann

      Lüdemann [Jesus, 85f] suggests that Mark was handing on the tradition he had received without any significant change, but he sees the two fold summary of the law as a reductionist and anti-cultic development from the early Christian community, rather than as a saying of Jesus:

      The historical yield of the tradition is nil, since it is firmly rooted in the community and is to be derived from its needs. This community has detached itself from the temple cult and justifies this with reference to 'Jesus.' Moreover at another point Jesus gives a completely new definition of the term neighbour (see on Luke 10.30-37)."

      February 9, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • 22Matthew37

      Steve B:
      We can, we should, and are instructed to let ALL of the other issues fall by the wayside. Our commandment is solely to love, period. Christians need to start focusing on their OWN families, and leave others to do the same.

      February 9, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  20. what?

    Everyone has a right to believe what they want but you should not be put in print!!!! Your ideals are more atheist than Christian. You are not following the God of the Bible.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:10 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.