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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. DavidKCMO

    wait, are you guys seriously, in 2011, trying to outdo one another with buybull knowledge. if i buy all of you magic sky daddy believers a one way ticket to meet him in heaven right now, will you kindly accept this gift as an offering to the population of earth who can think?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Elliot

      I would rather take my chances and believe and live a good life and find out when i die if i was right or wrong.....if i am wrong then i am dead like the rest of ya anyway...if i'm right..then Amen.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  2. MEME

    There are many, many reasons we don't see "proof" of things in the bible. The ancient writers did not foresee all of the evils of this world. People back then didn't even think about two people (man and a woman) living together unmarried, let alone two people of the same gender wanting it.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  3. Elliot

    This nuts. What kind of Pastor is Jennifer. She is completely manipulating scripture and taking it out of context. G-d did not make man to be alone, that is why he created woman. Read the Word. For the first time, He says, it was NOT good for man to be alone. Secondly, read the laws of Moses. I man shall not lie down with another man.
    What a crock this woman is and the sad part is that those who don't know the Word and walk by faith will easily believe this garbage.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  4. cindy

    There is only ONE way to inerpret the Bible and your "way" Jennifer is very wrong and will mislead many, many people. You might want to "rethink" your views and do a little more studying.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  5. Reality

    Obviously, the moderators of this blog, have not conquered the chronological placement of replies once the comments get above 50. Just another fly in the ointment of this blog with the biggest fly being the ridiculous word filter.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  6. Bill55

    Dominance as in control!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  7. elo

    Add one 'B' to the work Bible, and it becomes just that: BIBBLE.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  8. Ron

    Isn't it the Unitarian church that ordains its ministers online with a credit card?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  9. elo

    The bible is a 2000 year old fairy tale that might as well be written by Dr. Seuss. In fact the world would be a better place if we all followed Dr Seuss' writings. Stupid masses. Wake up. Youre gonna all kill yourselves. Oh...duh...thats happening already.

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

      And exactly how does believing in the Bible kill anyone? No more than any of your beliefs killing anyone.

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

      you know when someone is insecure and doesnt know what they are talking about when they start throwing around insults as their defense... weak "elo". very weak.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • realist87

      What Elliot says is right!

      February 9, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  10. realist87

    God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve....

    February 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Shawn Trueman

      God didn't create anyone named Adam and Eve. That story is an allegory.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • elo

      and you probably get wet when you think of Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh...

      February 9, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  11. MEME

    There are many reasons we don't see "proof" of things in the bible. The ancient writers did not foresee all of the evils of this world. People back then didn't even think about two people living together unmarried, let alone two people of the same gender wanting it.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  12. luke2343

    What? This woman is so deceived. This is the biggest load of crap I have seen so far on CNN
    when it comes to lying about what the Bible says.

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

      "lying about what the bible says"
      how about "saying what the bible lies about"???

      February 9, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Kendall

      @elo- and what does the Bible lie about? Seems like you have some understanding of it...so plz explain it to us.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • realist87

      Amen!!!!!!!

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

      You all dont know that Xenu is the true ruler.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Kendall

      @Elo- Oh I see....you don't know what the Bible "lies" about and hoped no one would actually ask you such a question. Understandable...happens to wannabe debaters all the time.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  13. Mimi66

    If people spent more time focusing on their own path, and less time condemning and judging others, the world would be a much better place. My children are encouraged to show love and kindness to all the people around them, and I try to lead them by example. I personally do not wish to waste what little precious time I have here on Earth focused on things that are none of my business, or finding ways to justify or criticize someone else's choices when they really don't affect me personally. If that's what religious people do, then I am relieved my family opted out.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  14. jsw46

    With all the interpretation that can come from the Bible...it sure would be nice to have direct revelation from God again wouldn't? A living prophet? Twelve Apostles? Without direct revelation from God himself, anyone can interpret the Bible anyway they would like.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • KRB

      The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints have all those things. Look into it at http://www.new.lds.org

      February 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • AA

      The bible forbids it's own interpretation. Look it up.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  15. Scott

    Interesting. Everyone is quick to state their support for their former views, not no one is actually attacking her facts. "She's wrong" hold's no value in intelligent discourse unless you can actually disprove her facts. I like what she has to say, and I'm glad that someone is framing the argument in a way that they can actually be an opposing side.

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

      read the Word yourself Scott. Don't take anyone's opinion on it. BIBLE -Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Genesis.
      G-d created woman because it was not good for man to be alone. Leviticus: A man shall not lie down with another man..that is an abomination....... kinda clear to me... Yes, love one another and accept one another... love the sinner, not the sin...

      February 9, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  16. PDXSerric

    It's scary when we Agnostics are more versed in the Bible than most thumpers....

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

      Unless your passion and hobby and degrees are in Christian theology, I seriously doubt most agnostics have a clue about sacred tradition and scripture and the divine revelation.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • Eddie

      Whats even more scarier is when Agnostics use the word of God for an excuse to be immoral. Now that is something to be afraid of.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  17. Marco

    Bar none one of the BEST articles to appear on cnn.com in a while – thank you for proving what a lot of us non-theists have been saying for years now!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  18. Godzilla

    Yes Andrea Lesbians are okay for God loves us all, I don't think carpet munching will get you into heaven though.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Mila Jake Stetser

      No, but it might get someone's partner there 🙂

      February 9, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  19. MEME

    Taking an online course and having a buddy at the newspaper who will let you write a commentary on their website, does not make a person a scholar, nor correct in their "interpretation" of anything.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
  20. Eddie

    And the Bible states there will be people like Jennifer and warned us of them. Again the Bible rings true!

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

      The Bible also says that incense is an abomination (like being gay) and look at all the Christian hypocrites who praise "THE WISE MEN" who brought that abomination to Jesus.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • elo

      and I bet you can see Russia from your house and believe the President is muslim and was not born in the USA.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • AA

      The book of Leviticus states that men who lie with other men should be killed.

      The bible also states that it it not to be interpreted.

      Dear "Christians," please read the bible before trying to interpret it's meaning and spew half truths at us. Interpreting the bible goes against it's own teachings, and according to the bible, the old testament is equally relevant to the new testament. Jesus himself chastised people for not following the "old law."

      I'm here all week.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • lthomas

      I agree; can't you see this woman standing on stage with Joel Osteen, thus uniting their deception! We are in the last days and I hope these folks realize what awaits them at their judgement. I pray they wake up and stop deceiving themselves and others.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:30 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.