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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. Carlos

    I've always been impressed by fiction writers and their imaginative story lines. Wow! You're good!

    February 9, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  2. lynnej

    This is very insigtful. This is the very approach that the Bible should be regarded still coveted and respected but also as history.

    We must understand that the Bible has been played with to suit the whims of popes, priests, bishops, monks and royality. We need to learn to take it with a grain of salt.

    Mrs. Knust has done a fantastic job of breaking it all down in plain English. Bravo!

    February 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  3. hello

    your article is total NONSENSE, Lev Cahpter18 is CLEAR!!!!!!!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Tymm

      Hello...I certainly hope you don't eat shrimp, pork, or halibut. I hope, if you're a woman, that you go outside the gates of the city during your period, or, if you're a man, you send your wife outside the gates of the city during her period. I hope you don't wear clothes made with cotton and wool. I hope that you dig holes, outside the city, to poop and cover it up. I hope that if your children backtalk you that you take them outside the gates of the city and stone them to death. For, all of that is written in Leviticus 18

      February 9, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  4. The Half Baked Lunatic

    The bible is nothing more than a bunch of bedtime stories that were handed down from generation to generation, elaborated upon each time the stories were told, and finally put down in print and sold to a guilible public. I just can not believe that there is anyone on the planet who could ever consider taking anything the bible says seriously.

    February 9, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  5. man hole

    Come get my sausage especially right winger's

    February 9, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  6. Jim Massey

    Before someone criticize her, please look at her qualification. She is more qualified to discuss this subject than any of your demi-gods, namely Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh etc.

    See her qualification at:
    http://www.bu.edu/sth/academics/faculty/jennifer-wright-knust/

    And for the rest of you, where did you learn about Christainity? Rush Limbugh radio program, Benny Hinn, Ted Haggard or Eddie Long?

    February 9, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  7. Puleaze

    The bible. What a collection of bunk. True, too, of other "holy texts". You sheeple keep doing what you're doing. The rest of us will live in reality.

    February 9, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Renee

      You live in reality, while we Christians will live in eternity.

      February 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  8. Eubrasilo

    Clearly the readers wanted this article to conform to a belief that they already held. While I agree that she doesn't present all sides, it is an interesting take from a theologian's perspective. As an agnostic I believe that most arguments on this subject boil down to whatever belief a person has on this subject cannot be swayed. We see the world through the eyes of a gay or a straight or an American or a Muslim or a European. Beliefs cannot be easily changed but tolerance levels can be.

    February 9, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  9. Kay

    No...you're not reading God's mind. You're reading words written down by human beings who believed what they were writing was divinely inspired. NOT the same thing.

    By the way, reading a Biblical concordance only works if you're reading the concordance for that particular version...and the translation of the Bible itself is decent. (As an example, the King James Bible is beautifully written, but notoriously poorly translated.)

    Compare the concordance for the Vulgate Bible to that of, say, the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek). Try Genesis 4:7 and see the vast different in meaning between the two Bibles.

    And don't forget that there are countless words in one language thatdo not translate directly to another language.

    I'm not questioning your faith..just your belief that the Bible you are reading is somehow like the one written millenia ago.

    February 9, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  10. Al

    Jennifer Wright Knust you are clearly lost.

    February 9, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • Puleaze

      In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

      February 9, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  11. ptknight

    To Mr. Brenchley:

    I'm quite familiar with the families and men referred to as giants in the Old Testament. This this is evidence of angelic-human copulation is simply fiction. These giants were the lines of families who retained similar to predeluvian heights as the human race declined in both stature and longevity. The only people who try to make these the result of s** between angels and women are those who misinterpret the creation account to begin with. There's no evidence for what you suggest.

    February 9, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  12. Shane

    This woman is no pastor, she has no understanding of scripture, she has blatantly twisted scripture to pervert it. She needs to repent, and stop reading the bible without the help of the holy spirit to understand it. Lord help us!

    February 9, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • zax

      I'm truly at a loss at how you can write that drivel and not laugh yourself silly. What a bunch of nonsense.

      February 9, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  13. cj

    the author (pastor/scholar).....is sadly mistaken.....not to offend in any way, but some more study is required...
    to teach from a private interpretation cause confusion. perhaps this author will return and post a correction later.....lets hope.

    February 9, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  14. Brotherboy

    Noun 1. hypocrite – a person who professes beliefs and opinions that he or she does not hold in order to conceal his or her real feelings or motives
    dissembler, dissimulator, phoney, phony, pretender
    beguiler, cheater, deceiver, trickster, slicker, cheat – someone who leads you to believe something that is not true

    February 9, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Brotherboy

      Why do you all keep profeesing that 'God loves you", but then tell me 'unless you're gay'? You're hiding in your book.

      February 9, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  15. Magic

    Reverend Knust,

    I know that you have a great deal invested in your belief. I can only hope that as you delve further into using the Bible as the basis for anything fades farther and farther into the background.

    Arguing these things is sort of like debating what is the correct number of buttons to sew on your leprechaun's vest or what to feed your unicorn for breakfast.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Josh

      what is your basis of belief magic?

      February 9, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  16. mike mitchell

    Thank God i am a Atheist

    February 9, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Maranda Bell

      Hope you are being Ironic because you should thank anyone but God!

      February 9, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Renee

      If you are an atheist, why are you thanking God?

      February 9, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  17. Al

    Wow. You say you're a Pastor?? Of what church might this be? I have listened to numerous Pastor's throughout my life, and I have never heard such misleading information about the Bible. You do realize you will be held more accountable than any one of us because of your influence on people? If I were you I would go back to studying Romans, where it is clear where the God stands. You can say the color green is blue but the fact remains that it is still green. Regardless, in 20 years you will be wishing that tolerant Christians were more prevalent when the USA is under Islamic Law. Unlike Christians that let you teach whatever you desire, Islam will not be so kind to your teachings. Islam is exploding in places you would have never thought just 10 years ago... England, Sweden, and Germany...

    February 9, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  18. John

    Bible stories are very similar to Greek mythology. And considering the geographical area where it was written, there's a strong liklihood that many of the passages were written by folks that were in a drug induce stupor when they were writing it. No other explanation for some of the fantasies committed to writing?

    February 9, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Confused

      What amazes me are people like you coming up with things out of thin air and believing them to be true!

      February 9, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  19. Lewis

    Androgynous? are you kidding me? Man had both genitalia? Whats the point?????? Even before he formed woman he didn't say "be fruitful and multiply." How was he suppose to mate with himself anyways? CNN you allow some of the stupidest crap to get published.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Maranda Bell

      I agree! I am just appauled that Jennifer thinks that this is what God had planned! I really wonder what her degree is in? Just because you have the ability to write an article does not mean that you actually know what you are discussing! Wish people would take some religion classes before they try to write about religion!

      February 9, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • scott

      Miranda and others, don't be ignorant. This woman has spent most of her life in church, seminary, theology, taught christianity for five years for college. Again, the bible is a book of interpretation. This is her take, and you have yours. But for God's sake, take the stick out of your rear and let others believe in their form of christianity.

      February 9, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  20. BoldGeorge

    Upon reading this article, I'm reminded that there are two types of doctors in this world. Type #1 is the well-trained doctor who genuinely cares about people and their healing, and takes his/her profession seriously enough to not ever want to commit mal-practice, and probably won't. Type #2 is the individual that has graduated from medical school, calls himself a doctor, but hasn't really grasped the reality that maybe he or she really wasn't meant to be a doctor, and has a great possibility to commit mal-practice multiple times in their imminent short-lived career. The writer of this article is obviously Type #2.

    This has got to be the worst kind of bible-twisting that I have ever come across. It's so sad to know that many people out there have made a career of something that they more than likely were not meant to be. This writer calls herself a "bible scholar and pastor", but has a mythical take on the bible. Having read this article, I'm now sure that even an atheist can be a bible scholar, without really believing in what it says, much less follow it. Jesus couldn't have said it better in Matthew 7:21 – Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

    I realize that I will be bashed by some here because of my comment. But, if my Lord JesusChrist was bashed, spat on, punched, kicked, speared and killed, I could live with a little bashing in wirting.

    February 9, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • john

      Hi BoldGeorge:
      I just wanted to say to you that I am completely with you. Also your comment about an Athiest being a bible scholor while not believing, is evident in this blog over and over. Yet they speak as fools because they do not have the Spirit of God teaching them. Keep looking Up my friend.

      February 9, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Nick

      It's funny. It seems that the only people who have spoken negatively of this article are simply personally offended that their friend Jesus was misrepresented. I don't see many criticisms that don't end with, "hands off my Jesus".

      When no rational criticisms are presented I think the content stands. Good work, very interesting.

      February 9, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • scott

      I disagree with your analogy. I took Bible Theology in school, and highly recommend it. The bible is a book for interpretation. You read it, then thirty more read it, you get together-what do you get? About 31 interpretations to any of it's content.

      February 9, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • Confused

      Well said. This has got to be one of the worst exegesis I've seen. Calling yourself a biblical scholar does not make it so. This is a prime example. May this article not lead many to stumble and continue on in sinning.'

      February 9, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Ray

      Well, this is weak exegesis; but there's no reason in general that an atheist cannot be a bible scholar. It's completely reasonable to approach the bible as literature, and interpret it with respect to the time and culture within which it was composed.

      February 9, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • ThereisnoGod

      The reason why the bible is so open to interpretation is because it is a work of fiction written by mortal men. There is nothing divine because there is no God. Look around...look at history...look at people...look at the universe..none of it is magical...it is all science. Everything around proves there is no God only science.

      February 9, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • confused

      There are two kinds of people, 1) those who can comprehend the fact that they could be wrong and 2) those who believe they (or their gods) are always correct. You are clearly the latter. This article is simply makes the case that popular biblical belief could be wrong, are you saying that the only correct interpretation of the bible is what is in your head.
      My! you are arrogant sir!

      February 9, 2011 at 7:25 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.