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. Edward

    Wow, it seems that the letters "W" "T" & "F," when placed altogether as an acronym, they are automatically flagged for moderator approval. since when did W T F become a bad word? It stands for many things, such as: World Taekwondo Federation and Wikileaks Task Force

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

    This is one sick and twisted "take" on the Holy Scriptures. Good Lord, don't this "take" plant a seed for the ignorant.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  3. Maria in Detroit

    Does God make mistakes? Of course not!

    Gay, straight, bi, transgender...it doesn't matter who or what we are. We are ALL as we were intended to be.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  4. Melissa

    Clarification –

    I don't usually comment on these things, but this article makes me too sick not to and so I have, several times. If that is what you chose, chose it – but I am so tired of people twisting the Word of God to give them the right to do something that The Word says is sin. If you want to sin – sin, if you don't believe it is a sin why are you twisting The Word of God to justify what you are doing? I am tired of having this issue crammed down my throat and being told that my mind is closed. If that is what you chose, chose it, but don't mess with God's Word just because you don't believe it.

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

      We live in a free society. Along with that comes your right to beleive what you choose. So, noone should be able to cram anything down your throat. But, along the same vein, you are in no position to condemn anyone else for their beleifs, we have no thought crimes in this coutnry, and its unAmerican to be accused of being a criminal just because of who you are as opposed to what you do.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Sockness Monster

      Melissa, please explaine how you are born with sin ?
      When you are born, the first thing you do is breathe.
      Is breathing a sin ??
      Another great lie, to keep you in line with fear.
      You choose later to sin, or not to sin,
      its NOT POSSIBLE to be born a sinner.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Melissa

      to Sockness Monster

      Even though I do believe that sin entered the world in the garden of eden – where are you coming from? I wasn't talking about birth and sin, so I really don't know where you are coming from.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • luigixiv

      Besides, assuming you are not one, why are you so fixated on t his? Live your life as the type of Christian you beleive you need to be, and don't worry about what others are doing. That way, at least, you wont feel like its being crammed down.

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

      Sock, the concept of being born with sin is that because Adam and Eve sinned, everyone born after that carries their sin with them. I do not agree with that concept. A person sins and he/she is the only one who carries that burden. A newly born baby is not capable of rational thought, let alone the ability to commit a sin. It's one of those ancient fear things that was created hundreds of years ago when people still believed that bad things can happen to you if you don't believe in God and obey Him.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • Melissa

      to luigixiv
      Not one – and not fixated. Just chatting with the rest of you who seem to think this is important enough to talk about.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Stacey

      The Bible does not say babies were born sinning or born with sin. They were born with a SINFUL NATURE. A tendency to sin. They are by nature people who are going to want to sin all their lives. No, they don't sin as they come out of the womb.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Melissa

      My point – if you chose to be "that way" be so, but don't screw around with God's Word to make it look like He approves it.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  5. Sockness Monster

    There was a "jesus Christ"
    His real name was Cesar son of Julius Ceasar & Cleopatra.
    Cesar was the hier to both the Roman & Egyptian throne.
    When Egypt lost the war with Rome, Cesar fled to India.
    On his return he had changed his name
    (Jesus Christ means son of isis)
    Cleopatra proclaimed herself the re-incarnation of the virgin goddess Isis.
    So Jesus was son of a virgin.
    Julius Ceasar was proclaimed a god by the roman senate
    so his son was.......son of god.
    Messiahs returning to save mankind was prophecied long before
    and adopted by those trying to reclaim Cesars throne.
    But over the years the Church in Rome has turned it into a lie, and a cash cow.
    The blood line of "jesus" lives today.
    The truth has been hidden for a good reason.

    You have no army to fight Rome with
    but you find a way to turn the Roman Empire
    into the "Holy Roman Empire"
    by staging your death and ressurection.
    BRILLIANT !!!!!!!

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

      What the heck? This doesn't even make any sense, LOL.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  6. RodRoderick

    believe what you want sparky. No – christians shouldn't condemn (or judge) – that's God's job. However, Romans chapter 1 is very clear on this...

    February 9, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  7. Rim

    Sorry but the story lost major/all credibility right after a Eve was made from Adams rib.
    Ladies, don't let anyone convince you that you are just a byproduct of our rib, you're better than that. And anyone with at least one working brain cell, dont let anyone convince you that a talking snake who tricks people into eating apples ever existed. C'mon we've split the atom and flown to outer space, we're smarter than that.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • run

      Actually, according to the book of Genesis, Eve was made from Adam's rib. God put Adam into a deep sleep, removed one of his ribs, and fashioned Eve around it. However, there was only ever one Adam, contrary to what our expert article writer says.

      What's interesting is that in the Bible is the phrase "you shall not lay down with men as you do with women". If all Christians are supposed to follow the Bible exactly as it's written and not allow for interpretation to a certain degree, that means that women should only be intimate with women. I highly doubt that was the intent of that phrase.

      This author is a dummy and needs to do a little more studying on a real Bible, not one of the newly-fashioned ones that says God is our father AND our mother and other such drivel.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Stacey

      I'm a women who isn't bothered in the least bit by being fashioned from Adam's rib. God made Adam, and saw that he would be lonely. Woman was the last thing God made. God made everything and Creation was inadequate without woman. God used the rib, as an intimate way of making Eve be the same material as Adam, to make them two of a kind. It's not demeaning at all. It is beautiful.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  8. thoughts

    I do not understand how Christians (or other religions) feel they have the right to tell others how to conduct their lives. Well I guess I do...they feel the need to justify their own faith and the rules that helped maintain thier religion for thousands of years. Think about any regilion has a living orgnaism having handled thousands of years of evolution. The rules for its follwers have been so finely critizied (natural selection) for their beliefs that they are left with this tremedously fine tooth set of rules that keep their religion progressing....

    The problem is it still doesn't make sense. There a voice in all of you telling you something isn't right, its not temptation from higher evil power.. its your common sense telling you something wrong. Listen to it.. Its the closest your going to come to hearing God.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Stacey

      In fact, Christianity, under the New Testament, is anything but rules-focused. Jesus died on the Cross. This atoned for our sins. If we ask his forgiveness, He forgives us. We then WANT to live a life that glorifies Him.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • thoughts

      @ Stacey,

      Even your New Testament requires a narrow band of beliefs to stay within a life that glorifies Jesus. Either you expcept these beliefs in your faith or burn in ever lasting hell. This is not an open minded religion. This is a religion based on an angry god who's going to put most of the people on this Earth in Hell for eternity.

      Come on Stacey doesn't it seems a little odd that God would create man imperfect only to send most of them to an eternal hell after a breif few years on Earth...

      February 9, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  9. Edward

    this is a test cnn.com

    February 9, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  10. Birger Draget, Pastor

    It's a sign of the times that even pastors are twisting the Scriptures to fit their views. It's rather telling that most of her arguments come from non-Biblical sources, fables, and legends. The good book says humanity was created in God's image. Well, today's mentality is to create God in our own image, to our own liking, to accommodate our own inclinations. To paraphrase what the father of modern humanism, Erasmus Rotterdamus, said, "Let me define who God is. There are things in the Bible I don't like. I will reinterpret them to my liking. While other Christans say, "Let God be God", I say, "Let God be good". In other words, "Rather than consider the wisdom and authority of God, I'll be my own ultimate authority."

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

      The bible is based on alegory. We know this because the same things that were true back then are true today. Like...men can't walk on water, serpents can't talk, they lack the vocal cords to do so. If you believe these stories are true, I have a bridge i'd like to see you.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  11. Edward

    this is a test eid

    February 9, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  12. Are you kidding me?

    This drivel was pathetic. 'Bible scholar? From where the K-Mart school of liberal mythologicans? Speculation run rampant. Even Dick and Jane can't be interpreted 'in any number of ways.' Go bake some cookies and READ the Bible and better yet do it. Your tripe is nauseating to those of us who truly understand it.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  13. John John

    The Bible has remained the same since it was written, People held it in high esteem for over 2 thousand years. It's only in the last century that people have tried to make the Bible fit their beliefs rather then align their life with what the bible says, and look at the results, the world is in turmoil and on a downward spiral out of control and this article is a good example of trying to make God's word an excuse to do every wrong thing there is real good reporting.

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

      Really? Where have you been the last 2000 years. There have alowyas ben secrtarian disputes, from the Council of Nicea, to Martin Luther, to the Jesuits, and Janseiis, Calvinism, I mean one thing that we should be able to agree on is that noone has ever agreed on what the Bible means.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • AnonymousCoward.III

      You need to review the history of the Bible. Most of the NT was written between 60 and 400 AD, which isn't quite 2000 years old. What was decided on as canon and wasn't is a fascinating study: look up the Gospels of Peter and Thomas for starters. Lastly, look up the word "gloss" in the context of ancient manuscripts. The Bible has been rewritten by copyists to fit their own local prejudices a number of times...

      February 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Stacey

      Anonymous Coward III,
      The gospels of Peter and Thomas were not chosen to be part of the canon because of their inconsistency with the teachings of the rest of the Bible.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  14. Bryan

    The bible allows for all kinds of things we find reprehensible in modern times: slavery, incest, polygamy. It also has all sorts of rules no one bothers to follow anymore (such as treating a menstruating woman, and anywhere she has sat, as unclean).

    Moral of the story: most religious folks tend pick and choose which parts of the bible to get feisty about. The result: mostly it's just looking for an excuse to treat some group or another badly (see slavery, justifications for)

    February 9, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  15. Edward

    On Christmas day, they plastered an article on Atheism in the most prominent location of CNN com. I thought that was very wrong of them, even if I wasn't a Christian. They didn't place any similar articles on E i d...

    And now this article...

    February 9, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  16. Ryan Stephens

    If Jennifer Wright Knust considers this biblical scholarship then the academy is in serious trouble. Her position is not only unbiblical but also just plain bad scholarship. She makes no effort to engage in the serious minded and easy to find rebuttals of her position by biblical scholars like James White, Donald Wold, James DeYoung, and Thomas Schmidt. She seems content to rehash John Bosewell's long since refuted arguments and pretend as if Christian scholarship has not already handled these bad arguments. The arguments not only represent terrible exegesis, but also (especially in her section about Paul) straw-man misrepresentations. She would not last long in a debate on the issue. I encourage any serious minded person who really wants to know what the Bible says about this issue to read books on the topic by those mentioned above. there are also great debates available: James White vs. John Shelby Spong available at aomin.org.

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

      I agree with your post, Mr. Stephens – insofar as I believe that a cobbled-together patchwork of Bronze Age myths that sanction slavery, genocide, human sacrifice, and child murder should not be arbitrarily invoked as the sole determinate for notions of morality in the modern world. Nothing could be more absurd. It doesn't matter to me whether this is "correct" exegesis – either the Bible finds some way of adapting to the modern notions of morality, or it gets left by the wayside on the ever growing dung-heap of rejected holy texts of human history – in my opinion, that's the historical moment we are currently faced with.

      No amount of academic self-service on this topic or any other is going to erase the mindless cruelty inflicted on millions of human beings because of slavish devotion to these absurd prejudices. Whether this is a correct exegetical position or not means next to nothing to me. The position is barbaric, and if the Bible takes this position, then it is barbaric as well and the world would be better off without it.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  17. dgc

    An article wriiten by a claimed 'Bible scholar' who apparently knows nothing about the Bible.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  18. Christofer

    Christian faith... allows me to hate AND be forgiven for doing so!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  19. R

    Here is some food for thought.
    All the religious books are written in languages, which only few people can speak. Also are written in confusing language, that can be mostly mis interpreted. Then what is the point in having such scriptures ?
    Also, in western religions like Islam, Christianity are based on set of belief system. Unlike eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism there is no way one can follow these religions without believing in defined set of belief. Of course, even in eastern religions, there are set of belief, but they are not mandatory.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  20. MrMailman

    Does NOT! surprise me one bit she has these views....after all she seems as if she goes both ways...
    How can you "love" gay people and why not people in general?
    I see the hidden agenda from this "woman". Come out of the closet already.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
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About this blog

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.