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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. AppleBaby

    Has anyone read that study that the people that are most educated in the study of religion are atheists/agnostics? 😀

    February 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  2. Bible Scholar 2

    The author shows a clear ignorance of the ancient near eastern sitz-im-leben in which Scripture was written. The early Church fathers are all rolling in their graves.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  3. maggie

    the bible does not tell anybody what they want to hear but rather it tells them what you need to hear. god know human nature and the bible was written for our benefit and let human has not changed with time. so does the bible. When all of us mirror our father in heaven then there will be no need for the bible, but before then it stands like it or not.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  4. LJR

    This is it: http://lds.org/scriptures/nt/2-tim/3.1?lang=eng#primary

    February 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Sergio

      Perfect.

      February 25, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  5. Michael

    Ridiculous article. People try to spin things to reduce their own guilt and feel better about their sin.

    If we are honest, we all fall short of doing the right thing and we all need God's grace. Thankfully, God is big enough to forgive all of us, no matter we have done, if we have a relationship with Him and ask Him. Aren't you glad Jesus paid the price of your sin so that you can be with God eternally? My sin list is long and ugly, but I'm (very, very) glad I'm forgiven. You can have that too....if you just ask.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  6. oladipo

    Here is the prove you need (idiots) that Jesus Christ existed.
    I dont know any of your grandfathers therefore they never existed and similarly in another 150years you never existed.
    All idiots like to think that they are intelligent.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  7. Marco

    To all you self righteous "Christians" saying this woman is wrong, bla bla bla:

    Matthew 7

    1 "Judge not, that you be not judged. 2For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. 3And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?
    4Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? 5Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

    Keep assuming YOU know what God's plan is. Keep acting as if your interpretation of an ancient book is "the" correct one. All you're doing is sending yourself on a path straight to hell. By judging, all you do is prove your own hypocrisy.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  8. Christina E

    You cannot (truthfully) be called a "Bible Scholar and Pastor" and spew out this disgusting garbage. This article is proof that many people claiming to be religious in the Christian-leaning way can say a great many words....but have absolutely no clue of what they're talking about.

    Please pick qualified Christian 'article writers' to represent us, the Bible, and Jesus......this gets a big F-

    February 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  9. Dr. Ummer

    Psst, god is fictional and the bible was made up by a bunch of dudes. That is all.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  10. Vanilla Gorilla

    the author obviously is giving it a best effort on this and she is wrong. The Bible is the greatest work of science fiction ever written – by man. While it has some relevance it is a book written by man – most of the ideas and stories in the bible were around for thousand's of years before the Torah was ever written

    February 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  11. Dr. B. Good...

    Rather than try to put spin on the old cultural baggage that is left over in the Bible, why not just admit that there is a lot of stuff in the Bible that is irrelavent. People who cite Bible verses as an excuse to hate gays are not true Christians. Christians are to be known "by their love", not by their hate.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  12. JWB

    Show me a "God" and I will believe in him...show me. Explain to me how life works...go ahead. NO PROOF!!

    Call me what you want, but I believe that Science has traced everything back to the Big Bang?...I believe we evolved from the Apes..and so on and so forth...There is proof in that!

    @ PDXAerric...so true...so true!

    February 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  13. afriend

    Ah, there is nothing like taking the ramblings of a delusional schizophrenic and trying to make sense and logic of them. Why debate something that clearly never occurred. Oh yes, I forget religion is a massive debate over a shared delusion.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  14. sand

    God does not see a gay person, the Almighty sees his own child, made in His image, deserving the same amount of love from God and Christians as anyone else. That was the message that Jesus was telling, and that is the message that I will spread.

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

      That is true. We are all sinners, straight and gay alike. But that doesn't mean that you justify and accept the sin. My family has a history of alcoholism. It's genetic. Does that mean that it's okay to drink until I'm blind drunk every night? My uncle has the double YY chromosome. He gets angry very easily. Is it okay when he beats the crap out of someone? After all, it's the way God made him, right?

      February 9, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • Mert

      That is exactly, precisely, and so wonderfully true !!! AMEN !!!
      End of discussion!

      February 9, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  15. ohsnap

    Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Dr. B. Good...

      That was really funny... in 2nd grade.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • HaHaHa

      Really? Not Adam and Steve? Are you 12 years old? I'd ask you to grow up but I'm pretty sure that ship has sailed.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Todd

      ohsnap you are a cliche. sad.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
    • Sergio

      Good joke

      February 25, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  16. Flora

    Why doesn't everybody just accept that there are many different ways to interpret the Bible, especially since we live in a world totally different from the one it was written in? If you want to run around bashing everybody who doesn't think/act/speak/look like you do while using the Bible as smokescreen, find some people who want to do likewise and keep to yourselves. But, if you actually want to accept people for who they are and leave the judging to God, join the party. The whole world doesn't revolve around your preferred dogma.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  17. Bel

    I think some of the commenters are missing a key point here... it is entirely possible, appropriate and correct to simultaneously accept the reality of God's existence AND understand that the Bible has nothing whatsoever to do with it. The fact that the Bible (Torah, Koran, etc etc etc) is fallible, written by humans and completely invalid as a source of morality – is irrelevant to the reality that, of course, God exists in some form.

    February 9, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  18. Shawn

    You can work around it all you want but its wrong!! Leviticus 20:13 is pretty clear, maybe she can try to finagle something out of the air on that one.

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

      Regarding Leviticus 20:18....let's look at other passages from there...

      "Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property." (Leviticus 25:44-45)"

      "For everyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother. His blood shall be upon him." (Leviticus 20:9)"

      "...do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear material woven of two kinds of material." (Leviticus 19:19)

      "They (shellfish) shall be an abomination to you; you shall not eat their flesh, but you shall regard their carcasses as an abomination." (Leviticus 11:11)

      So...and these are just a few quotes...swear at your parents, you die, can't eat fish/shellfish, and it's perfectly OK to have slaves...YEAH! I want to follow that writing! not....amazing how selective people are.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  19. ThinkingIsFun

    Here is an indestructable argument as to why we doubting the truth of the bible is the only reasonable option.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=iv&v=WsqTysSMQpk&annotation_id=annotation_283570

    I challenge anyone to devise an effective counterargument explaining why we should still trust the gospels (or the torah, or the quran)

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

      *"Here is an indestructable argument as to why doubting the truth of the bible is the only reasonable option."

      February 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  20. Shawn

    You can work around it al you want but its wrong!! Leviticus 20:13 is pretty clear, maybe she can try to finagle something out of the air on that one.

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

      How about this? It doesn't MATTER what the Bible says, as it is a wholly flawed, entirely human-written, and completely invalid source of general morality. See, once you simply take that nonsense out of the equation, you are left with pure truth. That God exists is reality; that it has anything to do with the Bible is laughable. I don't understand why people have such a hard time accepting this, and why so many people can't fathom a deity that exists outside the structure humanity has created for them. It is arrogant to assume otherwise!

      February 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • Patti

      Shawn,
      If Leviticus 20:13 is clear so is Deuteronomy 22:22. Why not enforce that one?

      February 9, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
    • Dr. B. Good...

      Shall we also stone those who pick up sticks on the Sabbath?

      February 9, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Kevin

      I agree the facts you used to circle around the truth were by human's ideas of how the first man was split, but in Revelation 22:18-19 it speaks in GODs words that any person who adds things into or removes things from the Bible will be plagued with the many plagues described in the Holy Book. When it comes down to what GOD says never take it only to what a person says; look it up in the Bible and see if GOD really says it or not.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
    • ohyea

      YOu are so right. And Romans 1:18 through the rest of the chapter. We do not hate the people it is the sin. Very different. There are some Christians that do hate and those are the ones that are always on TVm but there are some and few that really show the love of Christ. Love 1 Corinthians 13 love does not abide in wickedness. Please all believers we were taught about this in 2 Timothy 3. The number of true believers in Christ are shrinking. We have to stand strong

      February 9, 2011 at 5:12 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.