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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. Dee

    Wow! Take it from one bible scholar and preacher to another, you don't know what you are talking about. You are so far off base on what you are saying here that some would probably accuse you of outright lying. At the very least, you are misled in your facts your understanding of those facts.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  2. Isaiah

    I have always asserted that the bible is so rich and deep that if you want to steal or lie or murder or cheat on your wife, if you can search enough, you will find a passage in the bible to twist to satisfy your own lust. It is the same concept adopted by this "Pastor" of a lady trying to interpret the scriptures to suit her own intentions. For people like her, the Bible says what you simply intend it to say, and nothing else. God will have mercy on your soul!

    February 9, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  3. CalgarySandy

    Your saying things are factual does not make them so. Every different branch of Constantine's Christianity differs on interpretation. As a matter of fact, based on linguists, Bible scholars, historians and archaeologists are the places to go to find the facts of Christianity. A few cherry picked books, primarily letters to specific communities around the middle east, do not give a genuine view of what the Bible is about. They were selected specifically to give Constantine control; a political move. They attempted to destroy all other works but many were located with the Dead Sea Scrolls. They also slaughtered those who believed a different way. It is only legitimate if ALL the books and letters that were written in the same time period as the other gospels are used along with history, linguistics, archaeology, and objective Bible analysis. 3 of the 4 main gospels are all from the same source. I.e. 2 are based on the other one. None of the writers lived during or after Jesus. So it is all hearsay from a biased group. Despite the fundamentalist about how important all this is there is no real historical proof he even existed. The one mention was likely faked. Books written by believers are not proof of anything.

    Your English is nearly incomprehensible and I can almost hear you raving to the point of spitting on your listener. Not much good if you want respect.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  4. conatantlyamazed

    Wow, look at all the vitriol and hate this kind of discussion brings out in "Christians." Hypocrisy, thy name is (choose any number from the list of commenters on here).

    February 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Melissa

      I haven't seen one person say they hated anyone – It just seems that you all think it is hateful because you don't want to believe the truth.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  5. iveeno

    Apparently the word h0m0$xua!ity is not allowed by CNN censors.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  6. geez

    There is so much hate in this thread. Its no wonder that Religion stands behind so many wars and so many innocent killed and persecuted. If God is LOVE, then surely you are not demonstrating what you so proudly preach.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  7. DJ

    My, I have not heard such tripe in a long time, and from someone who claims to be a biblical scholar. Puhleasse! Ok:
    1. Cite scripture for the 2 accounts of creation (If there is another other Gen 1-2)
    2. Jesus said love the sinner, hate the sin, so you can hate murder, but you can love the murderer in hope that they change their ways
    3. You speak that Paul condoned slavery. Apparently you forgot to read how Paul instructed Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother and a friend and not a slave.
    4. I could go on more, but lastly, when Christ speaks of the church, He speaks of it as His Bride (female)

    Ms. Knust, please go back to college, because what you espouse, is not in my Bible.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  8. Abd al-Latif

    I'm so glad that, as a Muslim, I don't have to actually defend the so-called "Bible" which is actually a collection of books edited over and over again by many people. Their origin was in fact Divine, but they have been so heavily redacted that we'll never know what is truth and what isn't. If you want the real truth, read the Qur'an–and make sure you have access to a good "tafseer" (interpretation/commentary) when you read it.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Phil

      Your book has just as much stupid cr-ap in it.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Magic

      Abd al-Latif,

      There is some lovely, poetic material in the Quran, and a few areas of guidance for civilized behavior; but the claims of a supernatural basis for it are in no way substantiated (as is the case also with the Bible).

      There are some pearls of wisdom which are useful in life in many philosophies and scriptures - this does not make any one of them absolute truth.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Tom

      Islam was developed 600 years AFTER Chrisitanity as an Arianism response. The prophet Muhammad and the Quran are essentially fiction written by misguided souls not much different than prophet Joseph Smith and Book of Mormon. Stick to what is real and has proven Divine revelation and proof.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Magic

      Tom,

      [the Bible] "has proven Divine revelation"

      No, it does not.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • Randy

      OK Abdul, as if anyone can believe the Quran. It is merely the jabbering of a lunatic who was illterate, performed no miracles. He made journeys into the west as a young man and heard stories of the Jews and of the Christians. He confused stories, he could not remember them accurately and since he couldn't read he couldn't go back to the source. He was delusional and psychotic. His words were written down years latter by others and at one time there were many versions of the Quaran. It took many years for Islam to come up with a united Quran. The only reason there is no Muslims argueing over the Quaran is that they are afraid of a fatwa being issued against them. It is a religion of fear and hate. Its legalism is Satanic in nature and is Satans answer to God's love. Iron fist beats all who come just like Satan would rule the world if he were allowed. There is no choice only death. You either live a life of death or you are killed for not believing. That is what Christians in America think of Islam.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • FSM4EVER

      Oh yes, the old "your very old book is wrong, but my very old book is completely correct and was penned by the creator of the universe" argument. In case you are wondering, this is not an example of rational discourse.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  9. Snc735

    Wait a second. She's a pastor? I thought women were not allowed to teach god's word?

    February 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  10. Phil

    Thats a fairly in depth examination of a three thousand year old story someone simply pulled out of their butt.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  11. Stokely Carmichael

    It's articles like THIS that have SO many people confused and why SO many people will be lost...it's sad...just sad..

    February 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  12. iveeno

    If you are a believer, the Bible is very clear on gender roles, both New and Old Testaments.

    If you are not a believer, this really does not concern you.

    (I'm reording this statement to see what will be allowed by the censors. If it shows up multiple times, forgive me.)

    February 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  13. Phyl

    First strke is "women shouldn't be preachers" 2nd...by the time I read this artical. I was very confused.....she has NO idea what she is talking about. SIN isSIN..Being gay is WRONG...God made Adam & Eve NOT Adam & Steve!!! Yes God loves all but he hates the sin...

    February 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  14. Barabus

    All hail the flying spaghetti monster!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Tom

      All Hail He Who Is! Alleluia! No flying spaghetti monsters or spontaneous creation of science.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • dude

      Yes !! the flying spaghetti monster!!! Thank you evolvefish!!! Darwin is the answer

      February 9, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Jeff

      like

      February 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  15. slothbuddha

    She's HOT!!

    February 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  16. vmaxnc

    "We often hears" is how the article begins. It is entirely unthinkable that an article posted by one of the largest news organizations in the world would have an error of any kind within the first three words. That immediately lessens the credibility of the content.

    That being said, the Bible and religion in general, all religions, can be twisted to mean pretty much anything that a person or group needs it to mean. Beyond the obvious fallacies in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, everything else is open to interpretation by those who need it to say whatever they're supporting. Over time, the Bible has gone from absolute fact, to a reference whose meaning is open to discussion, and is headed to being just an op-ed piece.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Van Beaurbo

      The Bible has always been interpretable. Nothing has changed. If it wasn't interpretable, then it wouldn't be readable.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  17. Steve

    you say "I love gay people, but the Bible forces me to condemn them".......God does NOT condem the GAY person he condems the GAY ACT....GO BACK TO SCHOOL....WOW

    February 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  18. RWF

    Rom 1:26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:

    Rom 1:27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

    Rom 1:28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;

    Rom 1:29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,

    Rom 1:30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,

    Rom 1:31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:

    Rom 1:32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Jsaltz

      you're an idiot

      February 9, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • ReasonablePerson

      Hello

      Can you present any evidence that the book you are quoting from was written by a supernatural being? Please provide citations wherever necessary.

      Thanks

      February 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  19. mike

    Wow, there are a bunch of bigoted religo nutjobs posting on this article. What a sad world

    February 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • nutjob

      Nutjob– I'm sure your pretty good at it right?

      February 9, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  20. Why are you all so against gays?

    We are not in a position to judge gay people. It is god who will judge them. Just keep praying for them. Being gay is their choice and lifestyle. Judgement day soon to be!!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • anon

      um...no need to pray. It's not like we have some kind of disease or something.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Tom

      anon – we must pray for you all becasue you have a disease of the mind and spirit.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • FSM4EVER

      Prayer is ineffective and can be harmful.
      http://www.templeton.org/pdfs/press_releases/060407STEP_paper.pdf
      Don't pray for your loved ones (or anyone else) as this has been shown to increase the rate of complications in patients undergoing cardiac bypass surgery (who were aware that they were being prayed for).
      Also, if prayer is effective, why has no amputee in the history of the world regrown a limb after being prayed for? Better question: why doesn't anyone pray for amputees to regrow limbs? Surely this is not beyond the abilities of an omnipotent creator.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • LJ

      @Tom it just shows you haven't read the recent reports from the numerous experts that have clearly stated that ho-mo-s3x-ual-ity is not a mental disorder.

      February 14, 2011 at 1:18 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.