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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. Nel G

    Ms. Knust couldn't have written anything more stupid. It would be good for her to attend some christian bible study to educate herself.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Mark

      Really Nel? and you graduated from where? Backwater University by any chance?

      February 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  2. someoneelse

    It doesn't matter what the Bible says. It's a piece of crap. What matters is human rights and not a bunch of morons who believe in something we would normally laugh at in any other situation!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  3. Round-Earther

    Your first problem is looking to "Scripture" for any sort of moral truth. Ha!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  4. joe

    This is why people shouldn't get their morals from a book.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  5. Kyrasmom

    I have been brought up to believe that the Bible is the Word of God. I am also a very tolerant person who strongly believes that love thy neighbor should be practiced by everyone. I can't say that I'm 100 % sold that alternative lifestyles are O.K. according to God's doctrine,but I don't think of or treat them any differently. People are too caught up on labels nowadays and it truly stops them from seeing the good in a lot of people and the good things they have to offer. I love all people,of all religions of all finacial classes,of all genders. Lets get back to treating people as we want to be treated and spend less time looking down our noses @ those we don't"agree" with or understand.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  6. ALG

    When my father became ill in 1988, we wanted to put him in a Catholic nursing home, as we are and always will be practicing, believing Catholics. The only one in our area did not have a room for him during the 2 months he needed it, so we had to choose another. Within hours of my Dad passing away, we got a call from St. Mary's, the Catholic one, telling us they had a room for him. We believe this was a message to us to be comforted, as our Dad was now with God.
    Sorry, all you atheists, you've got it all wrong. If you will only open yourselves up, the messages will come through to you too.
    And for those of you who are gay or lesbian, tune out the discourse and open your ears to God, He is the only one who matters.
    God bless all.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  7. Dave

    Has Paul Haggis weighed on on this – where are you Paul???

    February 9, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  8. Cancuk86

    Wow I've never read that version of the bible before... She must have written her own version

    February 9, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Mark

      Then maybe you should read the one collecting dust on your shelf before your so quick to criticize.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  9. Jordan

    Some Bible Scholar......I don't think so. I can't believe how opportunistic you are being to even call yourself a pastor.

    Romans 1:26-27 – "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 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."

    February 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  10. Ron

    I love how all these conservative Christians have their knickers in a twist. "How dare anyone, let alone another 'Christian', interpret something different than what we believe. Don't they know that, WE ALONE, have all the truth."
    YAWN! How threaten and fearful of them... Anyone else notice how enraged they are that someone would believe and interpret things differently then them? The American Taliban at work...

    February 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  11. Johnathan

    I laughed out loud several times when I read this. Bible scholar? Really?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  12. Landon Coleman

    Lame. Shoddy "biblical scholarship" from a "pastor." Poor logic and argumentation. The premise of this article i ridiculous.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Mark

      Ohhhh so thats how it works, so you attack the scholar but offer not a single proof to refute her article. She's the scholar...and you are no one.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  13. CNN why not promote Christian values next time

    Instead of putting some anti-Christian garbage on the front page which promotes a liberal agenda why not show how 'fair' you are when it come to the news and carry a Christian view on say sodomy which is what we're talking about? Imagine the backlash of fire-storming liberals flooding your blogs with vitriol as they protest the bias. Sure would be fun to watch but then again they wouldn't know how to handle that situation as they've gotten so used to having you on their side.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • Mark

      Anti-Christian? really are you that dense? So anyone who disagrees with your world view is anti-Christian – shes a pastor and scholar, what are you? I didn't think so.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  14. @ Teepee

    @ Teepee, You are putting words in gods mouth to help deny yourself that which you can not admit you want.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  15. kd

    jeez – and people make fun of Scientology. Myths are myths. We are LONG past the time to stop being hurt by them.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  16. Flora

    Nice to see someone raise the issue of the dangers on taking the Bible literally. While it's true that there are right ways and wrong ways to have s – e – x (casual/anonymous is certainly a no-no), it's clear that God has no beef with gays. And to all of you who are accusing her of being a liar just to cling to your bigotry, I have yet to see an intelligent counter-argument out of a single one of you: just the same narrow-minded bullcrap. (I'm looking at you Steve.)

    February 9, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  17. Haley

    That is the biggest load of crap I've read in a long time. Seems more was inserted into scripture in that piece than actually interpreted.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • bob

      really? You've read the original hebrew texts? Please do enlighten us then.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  18. Mike

    Ali

    The above article by Jennifer Wright Knust is a good example of how, Bible has changed from the time when it was given to Jesus (Peace be upon him) (translated and explained by Jesus due his wisdom which he was blessed with, by God) till the time of today. As time passed Christians and ppl like above who claim to be Christians have changed it (the bible) with their own translations and explanations, because they don’t think that Jesus’ translation and Explanation is worth following resulting in different versions of the original bible (which is lost). More ppl like Jennifer Wright Knust are coming up with their own translation which is dependent on their thought process not Jesus’ (peace be upon him) not God's. This is History in the making again ppl watch as the bible changes again. End of days is around the corner. Sad.......The Word of God has not changed. Yes, there are different translations from the original text that are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Yes, some English writers have taken great liberty in translating the scriptures, like Ms Knust. There has always been an attempt by the devil to lead God's people astray with false teaching and doctrine. Jesus wasn't just a man, but God also. I know Muslims don't accept this. He didn't come to establish another religion, but to reestablish a relationship between God and man. He gave His life as a sacrifice; taking upon Himself our sins. His grave is empty as evidence our Savior lives and His death was an acceptable sacrifice. God also became man to identify with us. As both God and man; Jesus knew what it was like to be human. I know for many that are blasphemous. If Jesus was not God, where is his body? They tried to discredit His followers, but could not. They put them to death when they refused to deny His resurrection; why? Why would anyone be willing to suffer and die for a lie? There are many people today, who are willing to die for what they believe is true, but they wouldn't if they knew it was a lie.

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

      First of all – this is the longest single paragraph that I have ever read and you still confused your point!

      Secondly I am troubled by many of the commenters that are like Mikewho are questioning the author's interpretation of the bible, when they,in fact are choosing who's interpretation they choose to accept, whether concious or sub-conciously. My guess is that Mike has probably been to church a couple of times in his life and probably listened to a sermon or two – which have informed his opinion. I highly doubt that his "expertise" on the bible comes from readining it idependently and forming his own opion in a vacuum. As such, he is guily of the same thing he is rallying against.

      Also see my post below about arguing over the English translation.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Mark

      When Mike has shown which seminary he attended I might take him more seriously. She's a scholar, he isn't – his opinion is of little value to anyone.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  19. frank

    Wow, talk about putting your own spin on things. There is a difference between truth and made up stuff.

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

      Precisely and conservatives have their own spin? It goes both ways, lol apparently so do a lot of things 😉

      February 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • beks

      Wow, what a bunch of made up garbage by someone who clearly doesn't understand what they are talking about.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • APPALLED

      @ frank: AMEN!!!! this woman is clearly being deceived. as angry as i am right now that she can sit here and openly commit blasphemy and deceive many people- we need to pray for her because clearly she is a person of influence. we all need to remember that just as she will- we will all 1 day stand b4 HIS judgment seat. it is truly sad and appalling how twisted some ppl are and what they tell others the Bible to be. but it is also their job to read it for themselves- which im not sure WHAT Bible she is claiming to read- but it clearly is NOT the Word of God.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • matt

      I agree...my goodness this lady makes every assumption possible to get to the point she is trying to prove. Those who Wrest the scriptures for their own gain with receive their reward. Can we get off the "you conservatives and your hate speach" crap already. Can't you come up with a better agruement than that you ignorant people.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  20. Seenen

    You conservatives sure do pick and choose which parts of the bible you want to listen to. Christ would roll over in his grave, if he were in his grave, if he heard the hate you spew in His name.

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

      Actually Christ would be accepting that people sin, and know that their comments are natural to man.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:49 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.