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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. fjklauava

    let he among us who has not sinned cast the first stone

    February 9, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  2. james

    The author suggests that she has the ability to pick and choose which parts of the Bible are true and those that aren't. Is she so arrogant to think she is so wise? Listen not to the words of man but have faith in the truth of God. The Bible is a product of man.

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

      Isn't obvious that she is gay? She is just looking for support as she heading to hell.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Observer

      "She is just looking for support as she heading to hell."

      She'll have plenty of company from the tens of millions of Christian hypocrites who pick and choose the sins they want to attack and avoid the rest.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  3. WorldView

    To quote a theologian: "The real problem here is not that the Bible is misunderstood and in need of revision. To the contrary, the real problem is that the ethic revealed in the Bible is both rejected and reviled."

    February 9, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  4. a2rjr

    Union Theological Seminary (UTS) became one of the leading centers of LIBERAL Christianity in the United States. In other words, I'll manipulate scripture to pander to man rather than follow God's plan.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  5. MEME

    Its sad to see that those online religion courses give just enough information to confuse someone as to what the bible is saying. LOL. And so we see once again, that accepting liberal idealogy too much allows us to alter all morality to whatever society wants. God is the same now, yesterday and tomorrow. You can change your beliefs, but He and true morality are unchanging.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  6. elo

    people are just too lazy or scared to follow their own convictions and what they believe in their hearts. they have to resort to a 2000 fairy tale to justify their beliefs or hate for that matter. Theres a childrens bible song verse: "For the Bible tells me so..." Might as well say: "For Dr. Seuss tells me so..." or "For the National Enquirer tells me so..."

    February 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  7. David M

    I beg to differ with almost everything you have written, but I will only make this point. You stated that: "Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways". That is absolutely not true. Scripture has ONE meaning. It can have mulitple interpretations, but it still has only one meaning. Given that you think that scripture is open to anyone's interpretation, that allows you to make it say what YOU want it to say. That is not "rightly dividing the word of truth". The bible does not teach that Christians are to "condemn" anyone. The teaching is very clear: Love the sinner, hate the sin. That's totally different than condemning the person. You need to go back to seminary....if you actually ever attended one in the first place. And try reading the Bible for what it says, not for what you want it to say.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • Clay

      "You stated that: "Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways". That is absolutely not true. Scripture has ONE meaning. It can have mulitple interpretations, but it still has only one meaning."

      Are you confused? You say that she's wrong in saying that scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways, and then you say it has multiple interpretations. She didn't say that hers was the only true interpretation (which you appear to be doing, since you and only you know the *one true meaning* of scripture). So let's say you're right that there is only one true meaning of scripture – I'm assuming that only god knows it, being all-knowing and everything. So are you on par with god on this one, or are you coming up with your own interpretation, just like the author?

      February 9, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  8. C-Mac

    I tried posting a comment over three hours ago and CNN is not posting it-I guess my comment is too Biblical-based. Very sad. It was to go on page 22 under npulpit's comment.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  9. okiediva

    The Bible is a book, and was 'edited' by humans for the telling of a good 'story', as with any 'good book' there can be many (mis-) interpretations of the text. Even the text I write here will be mis-interpreted, I'm sure. Only "I" know my true intent and purpose, yet you are all welcome to your interpretations and to respond (or not) with your own distinct actions/reactions.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  10. sbv_chris

    I'm not a bible scholar. But the message in this article seem to be written by someone who hasn't read the Bible. In a nation with a Christian majority, I fail to see how the average person could go back home, read the Bible sections mentioned here and be led to this interpretation. CNN should not be in the business of spreading such baseless interpretations in the name of an opposing view point.

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

      As opposed to all the other baseless interpretations of the bible?

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

      your so-called Christian Majority nation has turned itself into an isolationist, second class country in the eyes of the world, dominated by countries of other faiths. China. India. Wake up morons. Its your belief system that is making us all go down the drain.

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

      Friend, this isn't my nation. Nor am I about bashing a group. You may or may not agree with the Bible. I will find it surprising if a person that has read the Bible, agrees with the author's views in this article.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  11. Bee

    Well, ya can take bits and pieces of the bible and make it say whatever ya want it to explain.....

    February 9, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  12. Vic of New York

    Actually Karl Marx and John Lennon had it right: religion is the enemy of the people. Religion has traditionally been the vehicle by which a group of Authoritarians has sought to establish dominance over submissives. This ploy especially plays into the hands of the Conservative mentality. Whether it's the Vatican and its priests luring young boys into the sacristy, or the Ayatolla extolling women to submit to their husbands and stoning them to death, or Conservative Christian leaders scamming thier followers of money while they lead lurid secret lives, the game is the same: scare your patrons into the fear of "God" until they submit to your wishes.

    Our founding fathers knew this well when they told Religion to stick it in its ear by separating church and state. Long live Thomas Jefferson! Huraah!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • GT

      Actually, Jefferson never said that. The Founding Fathers didn't want gov't to force religion on the people, that it what King George was doing in England. So they knew full well the implication of the mixture of govt and religion.

      Second, you shouldn't mix up religion and the Bible. Religion is made by man.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  13. Morgan

    I'm really amazed at the response of the "Christians" to this, this cant be the right interpretation, so attack the messenger, good thing they weren't around when Jesus showed up!!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Melissa

      Why is it when Christians speak up for what they believe in we are always deemed evil – you speak up for what you believe in. Right? I can speak my mind too.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  14. Observer

    Easy Hypocrisy Test:

    How many Christians on here talking about gay sin have EVER told their Christian friends specifically that those who have divorced and remarried are guilty of ongoing adultery and should get out of their adulterous marriage? Let's see if the count goes over ZERO.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • lccmcc

      Well, the count isn't zero. It is at least 1, me. That being said, sin is sin is sin is sin, and many Christians need to realize that gossip, lying (yes, white lies), and gluttony are also sins. As a matter of fact, those are mentioned more than other sins. Hmmm. The point is we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That is why we have Jesus and grace. No one is good enough. But here's another one: God doesn't send people to hell. It wasn't created for us. We choose hell when we reject Jesus. It's either or.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • HeDied4Me

      I have. I remind some folks of that who are going through marital problems that there is no Biblical way out of a marriage. It's a covenant, not a contract.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  15. bigbed

    Like so many scholars, she's obviously trying to make a name for herself by being a provocateur. Simply seeking truth won't get you published, tenured, or paid, so she's making outlandish, meritless claims, that get her face on CNN, that get people so riled up, that hopefully, one or two of them will buy her books. Doesn't hide the fact that she's way off base.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • mari

      I agree.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  16. Steve B

    usually dont comment on articles, but this one kind of got me fired up. THis is the most ridiculous article I've read in a longggg time. Lady...you say that you're a Pastor and theologian? Really??

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

    First chapter of Genesis is a SUMMARY of Creation and God summarizes that He created humanity – both male and female (v27). It is an overview. For example, 1st chapter is like saying that I went Sking last weekend and it was really fun. 2nd chapter is like me giving all the details of my sking (how i skied, description of the mountatin, how many times i fell, etc.) and how it was fun. Same principle. In the 2nd chapter of Genesis God dwells on details of how he formed man (v7) and then woman (v21, 22). It is as simple as that. There are no two versions of creation.

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

      Very well put, Sony. Storytelling is always fluid and the Bible is the greatest story ever told. Maranatha!

      February 9, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Noel

      I so agree with you...I couldn't believe what I was reading. My niece (who is trying to wrap herself around Christianity) had the same question about 2 separate creations. After reading Genesis again, I arrived at the same conclusion as you did...he mentions he creates humanity, then goes on to explain to us how He went about creating them. In Revelation, God punishes so many churches for being tolerant and so forth...I see this beginning to be a trend. I don't think we have to hate people who are gay...love the person, hate the sin.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  18. Slomoven

    Being a pastor doesn't give her credibility. She appears to be trying to prove her belief is correct. How does that serve God?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  19. mat

    More christian bashing from CNN. Predicatble. How about publishing a cartoon of the muslim pedofile prophet? Its all about an agenda. Cowards.

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

      how about a cartoon of the Catholic Pedophile? look in the mirror before looking and hating another religion.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  20. Dave

    Ok, I just found she has a page on the Unitarian Universalism Church of Va. Anyone, who's a Bible believing Christian will reject this church so quickly it would make one's head spin. If you believe the Bible, and you believe the Words Of Jesus, you will believe this church is satanic all day long

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

      The soul has no gender. And we were put here to love. ---leslie jordan

      February 9, 2011 at 4:43 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.