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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. Jon

    "justify their action with "God's Blessing"" Is that the same as "If God can forgive me, you should"?
    "the original Greek" How can the Greek version be the original if Jesus was Jewish?
    According to Acts, Jesus is preparing a place in heaven for believers. According to Revelations, a new Jerusalem will come down to Earth. Which one is it?
    Is God really so materialistic that he has to have gates made of pearl abd streets paved with gold?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • JP

      1. Nice challenge
      2. The Christian Scripture (New Testament) WAS written in Greek. In those times, Greek (like today's English), was still the dominant language of commerce in that region and most people used it every day
      3. Those Scriptures refer to separate groups of people
      4. 'Pearl' and 'gold' are there being used in a symbolic sense

      February 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  2. iveeno

    This site is ridiculous. It is a story about h0m0$exua!ity and says so, with references to the bible, and comments may not contain the words h0m0$exua!ity or be@t!tudes. Out!!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  3. Ryan Simmons

    i had to stop reading about 2 paragraphs through when i got to the part about god creating an androgyne with two faces.

    shouldn't that really illustrate the deeper problem here? that people use absurd creation myths like this to justify prejudices against people in modern society?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  4. Boo

    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. You tell this to a logical child and the child will think it's stupid, why are you all adult believe in this trash?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  5. Readthis

    Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
    Romans 1:27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
    Leviticus 18:22 "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Robert

      Lev 19:27 Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. (Don't shave or cut your hair.)
      Lev 11:10 But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to detest. (Don't eat shrimp or shellfish)
      Lev 19:28 Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD. (No tats or piercings)
      Lev 19:30 Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the LORD.
      Lev 19:19 Keep my decrees. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. (No donkeys, no rayon)
      Lev 11:6 The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a split hoof; it is unclean for you. (No hosenfeffer for you)
      Lev 17:10 Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood—I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. (No rare steaks for you!)

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

      i am so glad the word is so clear to read.... what part of this message sounds confusing.....we can all start new...with the help of the most high..... he loves you and want all to back to him.... chose right.....

      February 9, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  6. iveeno

    The word "be@t!tudes" is censored as well.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  7. Jason

    This lady calls herself a "bible scholar". Hmmm... I guarantee there isn't a credible bible scholar out there that would agree with one of her biblical translations. She's full of it.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  8. SMART MAN

    BEING GAY IS A LIFE STYLE CHOICE .WHY ARE PEOPLE TRYING SOOOO HARD TO MAKE THE WORLD GAY. IF I WANTED TO WEAR THE SAME CLOTHES EVERYDAY SHOULD I GET UPSET WHEN OTHER PEOPLE TALK ABOUT ME? OR SHOULD I MAKE A NEW LAW THAT SAYS NO ONE CAN SAY ANYTHING TO ME ABOUT MY CLOTHES? NO IF YOUR GAY YOU SHOULD EXCEPT WHAT COMES ALONG WITH IT BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL OR BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE IN THIS WORLD.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Melissa

      True!!

      February 9, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • luigixiv

      Well uness you are one how do you know?

      February 9, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • SMART MAN

      because they have a law that says if you fight a gay person its a hate crime. or how about this there trying to pass a law about bullying kids that are gay, what abou all the other kids that get bullied? are they not good enough?

      February 9, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • luigixiv

      I mean really humans typically embrace the path of least resistance, to the extent there is a choice, so its very suspect that one would elect to be something that will invite hatred, ostracism, and prejudice. Think about it.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • luigixiv

      The theory there is that the bully is evidencing hatred toward a whole group, and the law is trying to protect ppl who have hisotrically been targeted. I mean, how many times do you see strapping jocks being targeted by bullies? Not much, ipso facto, there is no law protecting them. Same way that historically, majoirties have not been the targets of segregation and represssion, so such laws aim to protect the weak who are the targets. But, the point I was raising was that if hes not gay, hows he know its a choice?

      February 9, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  9. Joey

    Thank you ! Very well written. I have studied Biblical history in college and you have obviously, like me, done your homework! I wish more Christian leaders would stop using the bible politically and to justify hatred.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  10. Paul

    This woman has clearly never studied the scripture with the intent of learning truth, but rather to explain her own beliefs.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • SMART MAN

      Perfectly said!

      February 9, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • kt

      amen, brother..... if we take time to interprate the scriptures instead of the holy spirit do it for us.... then we will not come up with this conclusion.... God reveals all truth...not man....praise god

      February 9, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • GW

      Really Paul? She never studied scripture with the intent of learning the truth? How do you know that? And if she had said something you agreed with, or could wrap your mind around, she would be brilliant, right?

      February 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  11. Sao

    “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ MATTHEW 7:21-23

    February 9, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  12. Clickclack

    It is not the person who sins or the degree of the sin that we should put all the focus on but rather the fact that the bible says the soul that sins shall surely die, and that ALL HAVE SINNED and fallen short of the glory of God. AND THAT WHEN WE DO sin we have an Advocate–Jesus Christ–who took the penalty for sin so that when our bodies do die, OUR SPIRIT can move into ETERNITY with God.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  13. Jay

    Nice try at historical and biblical revisionism. We've heard it all before. Why do liberals have to deceive themselves in order to embrace what they want anyway?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  14. Dee

    Wow! Take it from one bible scholar and preacher to another, you know what you are talking about. You are so right on with what you are saying here that some would probably accuse you of being enlightened. At the very least, you are helping others with your facts and your understanding of those facts.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  15. Hello

    Hi Everyone.
    It kind of break my heart to see everyone yelling at each other. Of course we are all going to have different looks on things, and yes it is true that people tend to take the Gospel and twist it for there slanted agurements-says Tyler.
    But I realise that no one is looking at the bigger picture, what she says should not matter or get you all mad. beacause if you have Fatih and know in you heart that Jesus is your Lord and Saviour. then this debate is useless. and if you dont know or are unsure of this go pick up a bible and read. Go to talk to a pastor. Find out for your self, do resaerch. Don't let other people control your thoughts and sides to things. Becasue you'll only end up confused.

    Love you ALL
    -Hello

    February 9, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Debbie

      AMEN!!!!!

      February 9, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Right back at you

      Yeah, but that's the problem, actually. No one minds their own business. The "bigger picture" is much easier to behold when the people around you stop screaming at you, telling you what to see and, if you don't agree with them, you're told you're wrong. That goes both ways, by the way.
      Most people that reject any form of religion usually HAVE educated themselves and that is the reason why they reject religion. From our point of view (and yes, I am one of them) is that we would have to deny this because if we don't, we immediately get told that we'll "burn in hell" (and worse). Don't get me wrong, our side has some yahoos screaming that "you're stupid" and worse. No inoccent ones on this one.
      I agree with you and I am hoping that you will lead by example. I will try my best to do that too.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Jeff

      Amen. All prejudices and disagreements aside, there are in fact, universal truths that we all knowingly or unknowingly abide in that have origin in one faith, one God, one creator. Even premier scientists of our day and past, when faced with the unexplainable rely on the existence of God.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  16. Mike

    Robin
    The biblical Jesus Christ was the greatest liberal ever. He was also the greatest conservative as well. Jesus was, is, and forever will be God. God came down as a man to take upon Himself our sins to make us right with God, the Father. He was raised from the dead to prove His death was an acceptable sacrifice on our behalf. His empty grave is our hope for eternal life.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • LEBFORCES

      God bless you and the words you have spoken

      February 9, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  17. dan

    to Melissa, darte, and Timothy C. And everyone else who's thinking about what I said. Thanks for your support, critisizms(?) and comments. Myself, I don't believe because of fear. I believe becaise I believe and that's my choice. And yes, I was raised in a Christian home, with extended family that shares my faith. But I try not to be a snooty holier than thou Christian and I have a lot of close people surrounding me daily that I would call among my best friends that are non believers, Someday I hope I can help change their minds, but I'm not going to be pushy about it. That's not who I am.
    But then again, isn't fear enough of a motivation to cause you to look a little deeper, Once you take the time to look, you might just find out there's a lot more to it than that.

    Also, I never did comment on who's right, who's wrong. I think we're all free to make our choice. Buddhism, Muslim. I'm not judging against any of those who believe. In fact, I'm not judging against anyone. I believe in Christianity. That's it. And those that believe in other religions are at least taking the time to learn, and put the faith in . There's no way of knowing :who's right" until we cross the gate. But in my opinion, only those who try even have a shot. Do you have a shot? Do you have any idea how many billions of dollars are spent every year on accidental life insurance, freak storm insurance, and even alien abduction insurance?? But those that are willing to spend thousands of hard earned dollars on "what if" insurance, and then stomp their foot and insist that any religion is a farce and aren't willing to spend a few free hours of their time to just learn a little more are the ones I'm concerned about.

    I'm no saint. I'm probably the worst backpeddler in Christianity that I know, so I'm not judging anyone here – I can't. I don't have the right, and that's not what the Bible teaches. I'm just expressing my opinion. But at the same time, thank God that I keep finding my way back , and at the end of the day, my belief is unwaivered. I'm pretty sure my insurance policy hasn't been voided. How's yours?

    February 9, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • RUJoking?

      Dan, you're missing the point: we don't want to drink your koolade. It's not real. Just because you believe in it, just because it was written down thousands of years ago, just because you attribute everything good in your life to Jesus, doesn't make it real. Truth is too important for mankind to continue believing in ancient myths. Why don't you take a few hours and try to think of another explanation, such as, we're just here, the whole universe, as one. Maybe God is everything, yet completely noninteracting.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Jeff

      RU Joking,
      You have greater faith than I. It takes true faith to believe in something that is completely void of evidential basis. Provide evidence to suggest that God does not exist.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • dan

      I like koolaid! LOL! no seriously, I'd better stop opinionating and get back to work, or I'll be praying for a new job.

      But in closing, I have taken the time to think about all perspectives. I watch the shows about the universe, big bang, explanations as to where an how and why our galaxy is moving and expanding. It's a lot of informative interesting stuff. No question.

      But I have chosen to believe in Christianity. That's my choice, and that should be cool with everyone here. Those of you who would deny me that can go jump off. But my point is the same as yours. I don't believe in Christianity from a fear factor, but if that's what it takes to just get someone to think about it and take the time to learn and educate themselves, then great.

      At the end of the day, the purpose of this comment section was to comment on the article written. And the person that has written it claims to be some kind of an expert on the topic. But from a true Christian perspective – if that's what you choose to believe in – or not – she's misleading the readers. Unfortunately this comment section has evolved (see I'm using "evolutionary terms") into a debate on whether or not God exists and if religion is true or false, and what religions are right, and who's wrong.

      My point is to hopefully cause you to take the time to educate yourself – not just form an opi nion based on personal desires and convenience. And if you have, and now this is the choice that you made, then hey – who am I to tell you what to do. But on that note, you can't tell me what to do either, so I'll pray for the best for you. And that's it.

      good day, all. Nice talking to you.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • dan

      Good luck on that new contraversial best selling, soul selling book, Knust.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  18. Mir

    Uh....What???

    February 9, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  19. Jonathan

    Ms. Knust's views are completely outside of teachings of the Early Church Fathers, as well as Orthodox Christianity through the ages.

    I will, however, say she has done a good job at gaining exposure on the CNN Belief Blog, which will likely result in the sale of more books.

    February 9, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • RUJoking?

      She acknowledges that her interpretation is different than those before her. But really, let's get beyond these silly texts written by men, not God. Either prove what you're saying or stop saying it.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  20. Brian

    Why do all you so called Christians belittle God? Do you really believe he would resort to bribery and threats ie. heaven and hell? The bible may be interesting but it is not the word of God, that's for sure!

    February 9, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Jeff

      Brian, I want you to know that there are more self-professed "experts" on scripture than we can count. There is such overwhelming evidence to prove the Bible is the word of God. I would hope that you would consider all sides before making an important decision.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
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