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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. Stady

    Again, I wonder where this person went to divinity school. The church, in the Bible, is another word for the christian people.

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

    Well written. Well Done. Great argument. My opinion doesn't matter in the "grand SCHEME" of things, but I find religion to be the reason for 95% of the wars throughout human history. I understand that faith is the bedrock for sustanance for many people across the globe, but there is concern on my part when a human being expresses righteous behavior. When did judgement of righteous behavior become objective? Greater concern is had when one invokes said righteousness on something someone else wrote or said. Heresy and groupthink is a dangerous combonation. Can't one do good for the sake of doing good and not for the sake of spending eternity in an unexplored cloud?

    February 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  3. Shawn

    God=Love in my book. Where there is not love, there is not God. Very predictable that comments from obviously "Religiously Dogmatic " that cant seem to accept the spiritual truths on this topic. That all things are Gods creation and that being gay is not a CHOICE. There is such darkness that so many have created under the guise of some kind of religious righteousness in our world and hurting peoples self worth and self esteem. How can anyone say they are a follower of the supreme teacher of Love and pass out all this judgment and non loving comments? The main thrust in my opinion of the story of Jesus was to love, to accept, to support, to forgive. The practice by some to miss this and take quotes out of the Bible to create the opposite in my opinion isn't about Jesus it's about their ego and wanting to be better than. I would ask all the Bible hurting ego population... What would Jesus do? Would he say judge thy neighbor? Would he say love only straight people? Would he say use my words to pass out better than ideas? Hate is hate, it can be dressed up with some Bible quotes, but it is what it is. I'll pray right now to my god and ask for anyone in this world that thinks being gay is a moral issue to have a miracle in thinking and abandon this unloving attack on people.

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

    Leviticus 18:22 It does say it in the Bible. She is totally wrong

    February 9, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Thomas in Vancouver

      A later verse in the same book directs the faithful to kill their children if they dare to get "mouthy". You follow that one too?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  5. no truth

    Total nonsense, two sets of humans were not created . The author was explaining the actual process of making the humans .The first set-as this person put it – was stating what was created on what days. Open your eyes and read with some basic common sense.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  6. nomore

    Why is it that there is at least one article a day concerning gays on CNN???? Enough already, no one cares about gays except gays and radical liberals and radical conservatives. The rational reasonable people in the middle are sick this issue. Enough.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  7. lingisi

    A Scholar analyses the Bible OBJECTIVELY. A pastor does it SUBJECTIVELY
    Doing both like this author just did is beyond me.
    Plus, how can a pastor find confort in the fact his/her so called divine book has "mixed messages"?
    She says "they will have to be held accountable". By who?

    February 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  8. Moshe Roberts

    I don't understand the vitriol so many of you unbelievers have for Christianity, or its followers. Would you prefer the United States become like one of the countries below, where Christianity is not tolerated? Are these the type of utopias you wish to emulate in the U.S.?

    World Watch List (Top 10 countries where Christianity is not tolerated)

    1. North Korea
    2. Saudi Arabia
    3. Iran
    4. Maldives
    5. Bhutan
    6. Yemen
    7. Afghanistan
    8. Laos
    9. Uzbekistan
    10. China

    February 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Chloe Morgan

      Might want to check your facts on that list of countries. You write that Christianity is not tolerated is these countries, but there are Christians in some of these countries praticing their faith in the open.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  9. Linda

    I would LOVE for you to talk to Shirley from Westboro Baptist Church....I think you could take her.....:)

    February 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Shawn

      A perfect example of Bible crimes against humanity. That church shouldn't even be called a church!

      February 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  10. Hal9000

    so, let me get this straight-as an explanation for how humans came to be; god first made a human as a hermaphrodite with two faces, then took a rib from this creature, and made a female, and left the original creature as a male. Of course! How else could it have happened! It makes so much more sense and is much less complicated than natural selection.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • i don't condemn sinner but sin

      true that. funny i've never heard her CNN material point of view before

      February 9, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  11. GoodOleSouthernBoy

    God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

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

      yes, and one of their sons killed their own brother. Great parenting!

      February 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  12. dan

    Leviticus 18:22 It does say it in the Bible

    February 9, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • Thomas in Vancouver

      A later verse in the same book directs the faithful to kill their children if they dare to get "mouthy". You follow that one too?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  13. Aaron

    WoW CNN!!! As usual you have no clue what you are talking about and leave out things that make this entire article wrong for example Romans 1. One chapter proves the entire article false. No where in the Bible does it tell Christians to hate gays but it does tell us to stand up against sin. For example accepting gay marriage/ gay rights....etc

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

      and using the just the one part of the bible that defends your argument. typical

      February 9, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  14. mcbride

    Can I report this whole article as abuse? Proof again of 2 things:
    1. Anyone can be a pastor now a days
    2. Anyone can write for CNN

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

      any anybody can comment....

      February 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • kso

      "Anyone could be a pastor these days"

      you must not have been paying attention to the past 10,000 years (or so).

      February 9, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  15. My take on it

    How sad ... she actually beieves this.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  16. boromir50

    God didn't leave any visible trace both in nature and history. The bible is a myth like any other.It is about men and men's dream that there are gods that can resolve the problem of men's mortality.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  17. My take on it

    How sad ... she actually believes this. Sign of the times.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • thewilson2004

      Its so amazing how people read the bible and fit it into their own way of thinking. God says "My ways are not your ways and My thoughts are not your thoughts". I feel sorry for her.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Eric P

      @thewilson2004, so, using that way of thinking you're 100% wrong about what you believe God is. Way to self-defeat your own argument leaving me time to eat this Kit-Kat bar.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  18. HotJalapeno212

    This article is trash.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • thewilson2004

      I agree.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  19. Shawn

    God=Love in my book. Where there is not love, there is not God. Very predictable that comments from obviously "Religiously Dogmatic " that cant seem to accept the spiritual truths on this topic. That all things are Gods creation and that being gay is not a CHOICE. There is such darkness that so many have created under the guise of some kind of religious righteousness in our world and hurting peoples self worth and self esteem. How can anyone say they are a follower of the supreme teacher of Love and pass out all this judgment and non loving comments? The main thrust in my opinion of the story of Jesus was to love, to accept, to support, to forgive. The practice by some to miss this and take quotes out of the Bible to create the opposite in my opinion isn't about Jesus it's about their ego and wanting to be better than. I would ask all the Bible hurting ego population... What would Jesus do? Would he say judge thy neighbor? Would he say love only straight people? Would he say use my words to pass out better than ideas? Hate is hate, it can be dressed up with some Bible quotes, but it is what it is. I'll pray right now to my god and ask for anyone in this world that thinks being gay is a moral issue to have a miracle in thinking and abandon this unloving attack on people.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  20. Eric P

    I think Christians should be allowed to believe whatever they want, but let's be honest, anytime you introduce God into anything the pscyhotics come out of the woodwork. If you want to analyze Christian texts, fine...whatever. You'll NEVER reconcile 95% of Christian belief with reality, but religion isn't about finding answers to or making sense of anything. The story of Jesus Christ isn't Christian, either. It's milliniums old and has been passed from culture to culture throughout the ages, and when it got to Jerusalem, they made it their own and put their own spin on it. If you look at the anthropology of Christianity, it's morphed so many times it's ridiculous. If it's so solid, why does it have to be modified? An even better question is why would seemingly perferctly rational human beings voluntarily choose to feel guilty about pursuing worldly desires and pleasures; because that's a precept of Christianity as well. You can't be a Christian and place yourself before "God"...it's absolutely essential to deny your own wants and desires in order to appease an imaginary figure. I'm not saying Christians are wrong, it's probably right to them, which is fine, but seriously, God freaks are the reason there is so much misery in the world. How many humanists do you see committing genocide or starting wars or all that good stuff? Now think about how many self-proclaimed Christians and Muslims do that. There you go... Reason trumps faith any day of the week...and leaves more people alive in the process.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • darkstar

      Well said.

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

      excellent commentary

      February 9, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • ErikO

      You really are a clown bro! The Truth (not story) of Jesus Christ is 100% true and valid. I can only pray that you accept him as Son of Man/Son of God, which in turn, will give you eternal life! Just because you are a born-loser, doesn't mean that you can't be saved!

      February 9, 2011 at 4:05 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.