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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. Miss Curry

    Well, I've heard some crap in my time, but this definitely takes the cake

    February 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • displeased

      Why? Because you hate gays?

      February 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • alex

      Well as far as History is concerned we know all to well how the gays we punished by GOD in the old days..the earth from underneath their feet was turned upside down on them burying them alive...
      Now if you want to rewrite history or the holy books then be it. but it wont change facts...

      February 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • displeased

      Alex, I seriously doubt if your statement of the earth being turned upside down to bury gays is a fact. Is there any empirical evidence of this phenomenon?

      February 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • bob

      I have to agree.
      She is really reaching – sliding in and out of half truths to support her theories.
      Garbage in garbage out

      February 9, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • TacoDave

      Definitely crap. I don't hate gays, but this "interpretation" of scripture is asinine.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  2. Maria

    This article shows the true spirit of protestantism: everyone's private interpretation of Scripture is A-ok!

    February 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      I agree, Maria!
      Sola Scriptura....even when the Bible says that Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation!

      February 9, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
  3. Mark

    Moma those dogs are under the trailer again........

    February 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  4. Augustus

    The Bible also says women can't be ministers in the church, therefore this holds no weight, and she is talking out of the side of her neck about things she knows absolutely nothing about.

    If you listen to anything this woman says you are going against the Bible.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • allanhowls

      You're cherry-Picking.
      You're also sinning if you eat shellfish or wear polyester blends.
      Nice job on picking and choosing which Biblical laws you get to follow.
      Jesus said he did not come to overturn the old law, but to fulfil it. Keep kosher, or be condemned.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Ryan

      Not true you're an idiot. In a letter written by Paul to ONE church it said to silence the women because they were causing commotion within the church. It said nothing about pastoral-ship being only for men. Woman were thought of differently back then too. Pure cultural difference than today.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Hodge

      Actually, Ryan, you are wrong. Paul wrote to several churches that women were to be kept silent in church, forbidding them to speak or teach. If they have questions, they are to ask their husbands about it at home.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  5. john g

    one day all the jugement and hate and suffering will stop and we can look into each others eyes and see the enlighten being within ! eye see you

    February 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  6. G.

    This has got to be the weirdest, most twisted interpretation of Scripture I have ever seen. Once again, someone is taking texts out of context and then interprets the out of context snippets to fit their preconceived notion. Sad.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Juni

      The entire purpose of the article was to explain the context of the various laws of the Bible. Since you missed that, it's clear that you didn't bother to read the article.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  7. Dave

    Lady? you're way out in left field!! first of all, the same Bible says you cannot be a pastor as it's a job that is only given to males. Secondly, reading your account of creation, it's obvious you don't even understand what you're reading. I don't know, maybe you're not a Christian even and as such, aren't able to understand what you are reading but you're treading on dangerous ground trying to call good what God has called evil.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Juni

      I doubt you've ever actually read the Bible, or this article, for that matter. How insulting.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Dave

      I have read it considerably and I've not said anything that isn't plainly proclaimed in The Word of God

      February 9, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • JT

      Mysoginist.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Matt

      I gotta love the vitriol. So she's wrong because she's a woman, and even more wrong because she's a woman pastor? Give me a break. The Bible can be interpreted in many different ways. That's all that she is saying. It's not as cut and dry as so many Christians make it to be. I think it is utterly ridiculous that so many of you are throwing such a tantrum over the contents of the Bible. The whole book is full of contradictions, and archaic beliefs. If anything, the Bible is 90% parable. It was written, and revised, and altered a hundred times. I find it very hard to believe everything that has been added and subtracted to a book that has passed through so many mortal hands, with their own beliefs, and their own agendas. The book is supposed to be an inspiration, and sadly, like Jesus's Parables to his disciples, I feel that many Christians are missing the lesson.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Dave

      No misogynist. It's simply the way GOD wants things to be if you believe that Christ is the only true God. It's His revealed will.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Matt

      archaic mumbo jumbo

      February 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Sally

      Dave – you do realize that the bible has been interpreted and changed by many people over hundreds of years, to bring it into line with the ideals and philosophies of the time, right? So you are basically saying that you live your life based on someone else's agenda. Good for you!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  8. Ryan

    "'If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads." Leviticus 20:13
    Any questions about the old testament Ms. Knust? You obviously are a fool. By the way I am a Christian and have gay leanings but I don't even find them justifyable. Bible is VERY clear!

    February 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Jim

      So, you support the death penalty for gays? If not, then aren't you going against the Bible . . . the very word of God?

      February 9, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • DJ

      For what its worth, admitting to "gay leanings" is the most half-hearted and entertaining attempt at coming out of the closet that I have seen in a long time. I do feel bad for hyper-indoctrinated, self-loathing christians that have to come to grips with the disagreement between their true selves and their religious training. Best of luck to you...

      February 9, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • ???

      Why don't you just say you are a Republican congressman. You don't need to be so subtle.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Ryan

      The former laws came to pass with the new covenant. God made a new covenant with His people. He said He would never destroy His people again. In this new covenant we are told by Jesus to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and to love God. It doesn't however make the old testament irrelevant. But God removed His law for Grace through the death of Jesus. This doesn't mean we just sin then and Jesus died to forgive it. The Old Testament plain and simple; God created a bunch of laws knowing that no man could follow them. He wanted to show man he can't do it on his own and that he needs to turn to God. The New Testament is about Grace and the perfect sacrifice for forgiveness of sins. Bible surely is complicated and it is no help from bad doctrine such as above.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Ryan

      Knowing that men COULDN'T follow them*

      February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Hodge

      Thank you for providing the biblical reference with the actual text. Well, not the actual text since the actual text was written in Hebrew, but nothing every gets lost in translation. I am sure that the bible gives specific instructions on how they should be put to death. Could you provide more insigt into this? Also, since I have friends who are gay but I am a Christian, am I personally responsible for carrying it out? Do you know anyone who is gay and how did you handle their deaths? I am assuming no guns because they did not have those in biblical times.

      And, being able to properly quote biblical text, can you tell me if I can own a Canadian while living in the US? "Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?" (Google "why can't I own a Canadian?")

      Thanks for your insightful wisdom in this matter.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • W247

      Thank you Ryan for the clarification.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  9. Henry

    How about the interpretation of Jesus himself as in Matthew 19:4-6

    "He said in reply, "Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate."

    February 9, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Neeneko

      As written by another person, decades later, then translated by a long line of people over the centuries,... each time being edited to meet the current political climate of the day.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • W247

      Neeneko – where is your research to back that up? Have you read on how scholars pain-stakingly made sure that what they have copied was word for word, letter for letter? And if they made a mistake, they would start over again? There are more early manuscripts of the Bible then ANY OTHER TEXT from around that same time period.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • geekgirl42

      @W247 – unless you are fluent in Hebrew, you are not reading word-for-word, letter-for-letter the original Bible.

      February 24, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  10. J

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Wright Knust."

    Truer words have never been written...

    February 9, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Juni

      And of folks who actually take the time to read her well-researched and well-balanced opinions. Unlike yourself.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Adam

      Truer than the words written in the bible.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  11. displeased

    She's a lot prettier than most other pastors I've seen.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  12. allanhowls

    Amazing how many mortals tell us that God works in mysterious ways, yet turn right around and tell us that they have perfect, clear understanding of human-written-and-translated texts passed down through thousands of years that claim to be absolute statements from this inscrutable being.

    Mixed message much?

    By the way, I talked to God, and he told me to please stop bugging his children. He loves the gay ones as much as the straight ones, and wants you to quit worrying about how he made somebody else.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • displeased

      From what I understand, he keeps himself a mystery by not making his presence obvious, but then will make us suffer in eternity if we don't believe. Makes sense to me...

      February 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  13. randy S

    Wow...
    The bible proves its self true over and over. Steve, it can't be made any clearer than the way you did by showing what God's word actually says. The only thing I'd like to add is that we are to love one another like Christ loved the Church. I don't think there is anything that says we are to love one another only if they are perfect meaning we love unconditionally. Condeming with anger helps no one.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  14. Dondy

    Sounds like you have a form of godly devotion but are proving false to its power (2 Tim 3:5)? Or are you just tickling the ears of your followers(2 Tim 4:3)? Either way you are discrediting yourself as a minister by discrediting your source. Maybe you need a new line of work?

    February 9, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  15. don

    And your heavenly fathers loves you more than your parents ever could.....BUT....if you disobey...you are going to spend eternity in hell....what a crock of bs........

    February 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  16. Dondy

    Sounds like you have a form of godly devotion but are proving false to its power (2 Tim 3:5)? Or are you just tickling the ears of your followers(2 Tim 4:3)? Either way you are discrediting yourself as a minister by discrediting your source.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  17. David

    It's a shame when non-Christians take the Bible and twists it's words. It's more of a shame when someone who claims to be a Christian does it. Of course it's happened throughout history so it's not really a surprise, just a shame. Taking a very straight forward text about creation and twisting it to say God created an androgynous person??? and then realized His mistake and then "fixed it." Wow! Might as well say the angels were aliens coming to take us away. Sorry, L.R. Hubbard beat her to that one.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Edwin

      David,

      Just because the author interprets the bible differently than you have been taught does not make her wrong. But your reaction is fairly normal - historically when two groups of people interpreted the bible differently, it meant there would be a war (because allowing others to *misinterpret* the sacred text is worse than killing them).

      February 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Hasn't every Christian throughout history, with the possible exception of the actual writers, twisted the Bible at least a little?

      February 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Neeneko

      I have never met a Christian that did not twist the bible according to some other Christian. There has never been a single interpretation EVER within the religion, and what various parts mean has changed constantly over the centuries.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • DJ

      What a strange thing to say... akin to the statement, "Its a shame when a non-Ernest Hemingway fan takes The Old Man and the Sea and interprets it differently than I do... but its even more of a shame when someone who claims to be an Ernest Hemingway fan takes The Old Man and the Sea and interprets in differently than I do."

      Though maybe my comparison is off base... Hemingway's work has been the source of years of healthy debate and discussion among intellectuals, while the bible is apparently a 'very straightforward text about creation,' that anyone possessing David's insight would be sure to read and interpret EXACTLY the way he sees it.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • BloodyNose

      It appears that the author may be (MUCH) better prepared to offer insight into the Bible and its many, many interpretations than the bulk of the commenters seem to believe. Ms Knust has studied and taught religion and theology at a number of colleges and universities. To claim that "She doesn't know what she is writing", seems to a bit ignorant ...

      February 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • TP

      "Straight forward text"??? It contradicts itself over and over.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Neeneko,

      The Catholic Church is the one who gathered the inspired Books and placed them in the Bible and has been given the authority by Jesus Christ to interpret it. None other has the right to change the meaning. Even the Bible says that Scripture is not a matter of personal interpretation. How do people skip over these crucial verses? It is just heresy upon heresy….

      February 9, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • sealchan

      And yet David, if you were a person from the time in which this story was first told, and you heard the many similar stories told about the origins of humans told by many various peoples, you would not have found this idea so strange. One of the things I have learned about the Bible from reading a translation with notes discussing how the words in the original language were crafted is that the words were chosen very carefully. The similarities of the Genesis stories to other myths cannot be ignored. The significance of the androgynous first human is a universal theme in humanity creation myths. The craft, I suspect, in this Biblical story was to suggest this as a possibility but without committing to it. Realizing this one soon understands that a literal interpretation will often be very much astray on multiple levels. I believe that this Jewish myth was meant to express the qualities of God as unique against the backdrop of similar stories and not a retelling of a literal history.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • W247

      CM – The Catholic Church is the one who gathered the inspired Books and placed them in the Bible and has been given the authority by Jesus Christ to interpret it. None other has the right to change the meaning. Even the Bible says that Scripture is not a matter of personal interpretation. How do people skip over these crucial verses? It is just heresy upon heresy….

      CM – You are correct NONE has the right to change it, including the Catholic church. Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, gave us the Spirit of Truth to understand the scriptures. I do not understand why we revere a man above the Lord.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  18. Ed

    Bunch of crap. If it is true she is the closest yet to make sense. If she is right than time will tell if all the others will accept and preach the same. Maybe they are realizing all the money they are loosing from the gays.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  19. RH

    How can you call yourself a Bible Scholar? Your interpretation of the Bible makes God a fool who makes mistakes. Do you even believe in God or that the Bible is his word? If God thought marriage between two men or between two women was a good thing, the Bible would contain some examples of such marriages but it does not. You preach a gospel where there is no sin so that everyone will feel good about themselves and you will be popular. But the Bible teaches us that sin does not make us happy and that as Christ said, we would go and sin no more.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • Neeneko

      She is probably a lot more familiar with it then you are. That is part of being a scholar.. actually reading and understanding instead of just regurgitating the popular interpretation.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • sealchan

      I would be very careful about saying that anything the Bible does not provide an example of is not right...does the Bible provide an example a slave refusing to work for his master because the slave has a right to be treated equally under God and not be a slave to the will of another? Assuming, of course, the slave was never treated unjustly otherwise?

      February 9, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • W247

      Neeniko – so you know RH and his qualifications to be able to make that judgment on his/her education. Really? Really?

      February 10, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
  20. dnich67

    She lost my interest at "We often hears".

    February 9, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • Patrick

      Your comment cracked me up (in a good way, of course)... Thanks for putting a smile on my face, dnich67!!!

      February 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Dr Dog

      LOL!! LOL!! No doubt!! That's comedy!!

      February 9, 2011 at 1:07 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.