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. maggie

    It is people like yourself twisted and ignorant pretending to understand something when in reality you do not. Being well versed in human philosophy does not mean to have a true understanding of the bible. Genesis account is not talking about two different stories but rather same account first in general and the latter in detail. And i did not have to go theology school for that understanding. The men in Sodom and Gomorrah did not know the men were angels. Lot did not know the men were angels, however, he knew that it was detestable thing to God for two men to lie down with each other that he was willing to give his two daughters instead the two strangers that were in his house. I hope that if you are really seeking truth, God will open your eyes and let you understand his words. Gods moral standards will never change but the world moral standards keep changing daily. There will be a time I think the world will except more disgusting things than we have today.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  2. Tree

    The truth is the Scripture is quite clear to anyone with an eighth grade reading level and an average IQ.

    Torahlessness causes the problems of the world. God promises repeatedly that bad things will happen if we abandon his laws, and yet we do and have the stupidity to ask, "why do bad things happen if God is good?" The answer is that God is good, God is not a liar, but we (humans) are bad and we are liars and cheaters, trying to twist the words of God to make ourselves feel good.

    And thats what this article is about. Its about making the trespassers of God's law feel better.

    Many will say to me in that day, Lord, lord, have we not in thy name prophesied? and in thy name cast out demons? and in thy name done many mighty things? and then I will acknowledge to them, that - I never knew you, depart from me ye who are working lawlessness.
    -Jesus the Messiah
    Matthew 7:22-23

    February 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  3. Read This Straight from the Bible

    Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.(Leviticus 18:22 KJV)
    If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.(Leviticus 20:13)
    The author can twist the passages all she wants. Twist this!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  4. The Jackdaw

    I was expecting to read about biblical evidence that Jesus was gay. What a let down.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  5. Aset

    To all those who are saying this woman is not biblical scholar: where is your degree in theology or for that matter are you ordained?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  6. Cubist Tut

    Even Satan can quote scripture... and he is a master at twisting the truth.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  7. Really CNN?

    This article has no place on CNN. There is so much misinformation in this article. The actual argument is beyond the point, the author has little grasp on the data and presents multiple false opinions as fact. Furthermore, what on earth is an assistant professor from Boston University doing speaking for Christianity? CNN, please choose authors with responsibility, or at least put an actual scholar side-by-side with someone like this.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  8. Phillip

    Nice article.

    First, I'll say that I don't really identify with any formal religion and I am gay. I simply believe that there is a divine order to things and that being a good person in all aspects of my life properly fulfills my part in that order. I don't believe that the bible is the word of God. I believe it was written by men with their own baggage, hidden motives, etc. However, that being said, I think the intent of religion is noble. It's just unfortunate that I often find myself at odds with its' followers.

    I may never know whether Jesus really was the son of God or even whether the idea of God that we've created is truly the reality of it. In the end, I may discover that there really isn't anything beyond physical life and death. However, I can safely say that I will not let the moral opinions of long dead strangers shape my own. I am a good person and I believe that the divine order of things has a way of working things out as they should.

    I think that if the entire world just took a few minutes to remember that we are ALL divine creations of human life and that is what binds us together, we'd have a lot more respect for differing viewpoints and opinions.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  9. fess

    Jesus spent all his time in the company of men. In 33 years he was never invovlved with a woman. These guys hung around in bath houses, drinking wine, Did you ever think he might be gay??!!

    February 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  10. Fred

    Christians often lament how Jews misinterpreted scripture/prophesies and did not see the Messiah (Jesus) when he showed up. Is it not possible that misinterpretations are prevalent amongst all those who read what is written by others? Whether they believe it was written by God/god or a human author (let alone translated from one language to another over many years and the interpretations of those words taught/passed down over many years with many different understandings which formed with even the best intentions by men and women who were products of their time and place?) At a certain point, it comes down to a faith. You can disagree with that faith just as easily as believe it. It is a personal choice to take the risk that all the translations, the human decisions to select one book or another, was directed by the hand of an all-knowing being. I for one, disagree with that and reject it. It is too great a leap for me to think a pastor who studied an ancient book, under perhaps brilliant teachers, has any better idea what an all-knowing, omnipresent, infinite being meant through words given to humans and passed down, than my former literature teacher with as much schooling and as brilliant professors, had any idea of the exact intention William Golding had for each word/phrase/chapter of his book, "Lord of the Flies."
    You may believe whatever you want (it's a wonderful thing about this era and this part of the world), but understandings of "the word of God" change as each person reads/rereads them., does devotions/prays/meditates, and studies under new teachers. Is it not possible, that the interpretation of this author here in this article is just as likely to be her best understanding of a complicated issue as the guy/girl standing behind the pulpit on Sunday (Saturday if you are Seventh Day Adventist) who interprets otherwise?
    I think that those who condemn her understanding and piecing together of support for her argument are themselves standing on shaky ground, indeed.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  11. Billy

    Why are Gays and Lesbians trying to prove that BIBLE IS ON THIE SIDE? Why don't they leave the Bible alone and continue with whatever they want to do? Why even does this author try to prove her point? They do not believe that Bible is correct in the first place. Then why interpret 1000 different meanings out of it?

    February 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Matt

      good question. also I believe the bible people should leave the gay people alone in return.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Nick

      Are you seriously that stupid? Maybe gays and lesbians try to reinterpret the bible, because bible thumpers like you ignorantly refuse to acknowledge that, yes, texts that are thousands of years old and were written by HUMANS can indeed be interpreted differently, and you are the ones attacking gays and lesbians with it in the first place. OF COURSE they're going to respond. Also, I assume you can't read very well, because you're a christian, but the author is a biblical scholar and a pastor, unlike you, and she said nowhere in the article that she is a gay or a lesbian. Don't be so pathetically stupid.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  12. Bryan

    OK, think about this from a gay person's perspective:

    "God made me this way on purpose. It was not a mistake. If I do not make God happy he will sentence me to burn in a lake of fire for all eternity. The only way to make him happy is to lead a very long, loveless, lonely, miserable life. God made me in order for me to suffer to make him happy. God is a jerk"

    Yeah, it's tough to see the whole traditional "God is love and mercy" thing when you look at it from another person's perspective, and apply the current conservative Christian viewpoint.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  13. Beth

    Beautiful glimpse of a wonderful book. Dr. Knust is brilliant, and the scholarly work she's done is more than impressive. She not only attempts to unfold new meanings from the biblical text, but she also knows the ancient cultures in which she is studying like the back of her hand. I would challenge those speaking against her to learn Greek, study the ancient biblical cultures, and find resources outside of the Bible that are from the same time period and complement the stories and lessons actually found in the Bible. It's amazing how much you can learn and grow in your faith when you're willing to ask critical questions and work together to understand what it means to truly love people, as Jesus commanded.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • Camar

      Well, I've done that kind of research. Are you suggesting that it will change the facts? If anything, after that research was done, I was even more convinced of the veracity of the Bible than I was before.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Cornelius

      I read all the comments for this this article up to yours. Yours, by far, is the most relevant, intelligent, and sensible empathetic response. It takes a lot of self-reflection, especially if you identify as a Christian, to put your value-system under a microscope. As you said, we should all challenge ourselves to research the foundations of our beliefs. Kudos.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  14. Jesus

    I see so much hate from so many people, love all the people as you would love me.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • m

      that is not what jesus said. he said we should love the lord your God more than you love others. will you please go get a bible and read it before you make such statements.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  15. Dr. B. Good...

    Those who hate gays are the actual sinners.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  16. TimBar

    God gave Moses the 10 commandments for the Jewish people to live by. Jesus explained gifts given to those who persevered in the Sermon on the mount. The rest is history and fluff to show why the above 2 are the truth. It is that simple.

    The bible brings forth teachings of Universal love for everyone. To push on even when you are being beaten down verbally, physically, and emotionally to rise above this human experience to love all.

    Maybe I am right and Maybe I am just crazy but this is what is spoken to me.

    Religion is man made.........Faith is personal Whether you choose to believe or not.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  17. JR, San Diego

    What a blessing to the world if the Rapture myth were true, we would get rid of all thumpers at one time.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Nick

      I can only hope against hope that you are right and that happens hahaha. Imagine a world without christians...it would truly be a wonderful utopia.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
  18. sand

    all you guys and gals saying that this woman is leading people astray, what in the world is wrong with you? didn't the Almighty give you a brain to determine for yourself whether or not you want to believe in something? or do you consider yourself sheep that will be lead astray by a human being? new ideas about God are hatched every day, and some have taken a foothold like, God doesn't want us killing in His name as a front to re-take Jerusalem. some ideas are brilliant and some ideas are awful. that's where discussion begins. once you become fearful of a new idea, that is when advancement stops. so people that are trying to burn her at the stake, stop it. that is not very Christ-like.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Prays4U

      Why yes I do consider myself a sheep and Jesus is my Sheperd. 🙂

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

      ...but a stubborn sheep will find its way into the jaws of a wolf no matter the effort of its shephard...

      February 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Exar Kun

      Forget it Sand, the Talibangelicals aren't interested in such ungodly things as logic and intelligence. The people are supposed to be kept dumb and docile and not question what they're told is the word of their abusive jerk of a god.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  19. Kyjoe1

    This is one of the scriptures that the author glanced over in her article. It is Romans 1 from the NASB which is a literal translation. You read it and decide what He means. I believe it to be obvious...
    Romans 1:18-32
    18For (AJ)the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who (AK)suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
    19because (AL)that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.

    20For (AM)since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, (AN)being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

    21For even though they knew God, they did not [c]honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became (AO)futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

    22(AP)Professing to be wise, they became fools,

    23and (AQ)exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and [d]crawling creatures.

    24Therefore (AR)God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be (AS)dishonored among them.

    25For they exchanged the truth of God for a (AT)lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, (AU)who is blessed forever. Amen.

    26For this reason (AV)God gave them over to (AW)degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,

    27and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, (AX)men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

    28And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, (AY)God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper,

    29being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are (AZ)gossips,

    30slanderers, (BA)haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, (BB)disobedient to parents,

    31without understanding, untrustworthy, (BC)unloving, unmerciful;

    32and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of (BD)death, they not only do the same, but also (BE)give hearty approval to those who practice them.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • sealchan

      "...men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error."

      I'm curious, what is it that is the "due penalty" here?

      February 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • mrdrew

      Not withstanding that if it were true it would also be true that those left behind would be in for the worst near decade that the world has ever seen and then most likely committed to an eternity of torment.

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

      Well, if taken literally it seems God is the one who instigated all this this 'degradation' by 'cause'ing it. Nice god, this deity you worship....

      February 9, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  20. The Sacred Cowtipper

    This is no different than some young people going to college and leaving their brains at the door and swallowing evolutionary theory and purposely rejecting the obvious of what creation clearly shows except this is leaving your brain at the door of theology school and accepting man's opinion over what is clearly stated in the holy scriptures, and then teaching others false doctrine. I lvoe gay people too adn I also love fornicators, liars, thiefs, etc. and BECAUSE I LOVE THEM, I am going to give them the truth not what I think they want to hear. Lady, quit making excuses for God.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Jim

      The author does not fully understand the Bible.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Adam

      Hating gay people because a book thousands of years old tells they are bad.

      My pet dog told me to kill the president because Jesus says he's evil.

      c wut i did thur?

      February 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Exar Kun

      Is that like the shutting your brain off that is required of you when you become "saved"?

      Evolution is a provable theory. There is copious evidence that backs it up. There is nothing at all that backs up the idea that the planet is only 5,000 years old and was created out of nothing.

      As for your god loving everyone, you certainly couldn't prove it by me. The god I know from the Bible is an abusive jerk who rules through fear and intimidation, and I am glad that I have nothing more to do with him–and I'm even happier that I've decided to return to the old ways of my ancestors, because at least we Heathens aren't afraid of science (and unlike the Talibangelicals, we freely admit that our story of creation is a myth).

      February 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
    • Seth

      Bravo! Well written about her interpretation of the scriptures.

      Let's talk first things first lady! The priesthood according to Paul is something "that no man taketh unto himself" (Hebrews 5:4). So let's get this straight lady (and any one for that manner), going to a seminary and receiving a degree or certificate does not equate actually being given divine authority to act on earth on behalf of God. In other words, the Priesthood can only be given by the laying on of hands, like Aaron was, by someone who has that authority. Considering that the Priesthood was lost after the death of all the Apostles, there is no Church that claims to have stemmed from the time of Christ who has such authority. The only Priesthood authority that can be given to man has to come after the Restoration of Christ's original Church and gospel (which cannot come from the Catholic Church or any splinter group from this Church), so any claims to having divine endowments of authority are void because those who bestowed this upon you did not possess any priesthood themselves. This is equivalent to Simon of the New Testament attempting to buy the Priesthood from the Apostles. This being said, you have no authority to act or speak for God.

      Secondly, just because you study the Bible, does not make you are a scholar to whom people should give credence. Remember in Mark chapter 10 it says: "6But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. 7For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; 8And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. 9What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." So you see here that humans were made in the "image of God" (Genesis 1). God is not androgenous and your interpretation of man as such cannot be concluded upon based upon scriptural evidence in both Genesis and Mark. Reading anything beyond that is to look for something that is simply not there.

      Lastly, according to the 10 commandments, adultery (and by extent fornication) is not permitted by God's Laws. As Mark says, "a man shall cleave unto his wife". There can be no mistaking the interpretation. From antiquity, marriage has been sanctioned by God as a holy act between man and woman. Any other relationship besides a unification of man and woman within the bonds of marriage, is fornication and is not permissible. You madam are making a mockery of God's laws. Marriage between man and woman is part of "God's ways" and His "ways are not our ways neither are His thoughts our thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8).

      February 9, 2011 at 6:27 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.