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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. Chris

    her interpretation of the relationship between David and Jonathen is absurd and discrediting to her larger point. "You're love was wonderful to me, passing the love of a woman" is the same as saying "bro's before hos, dude" but without all the flair and class of a modern frat boy. It is not saying anything about a gay relationship between biblical characters.

    February 10, 2011 at 2:25 am |
  2. Daniel

    Wow. Typically liberal rationalization on CNN. Absolutely typical. The little light of hope that I still had with CNN has now been extinguished.

    February 10, 2011 at 2:17 am |
  3. Kay

    No, Claude...you just believe that we'd all be in a state of damnation. The cool part is that you actually have zero say in what happens to all of us when we die. Not a single darned thing.

    February 10, 2011 at 2:01 am |
  4. Kay

    Too bad women were integral part of early Christianity...including as leaders...and spreading the word, isn't it? Those darned women. Thank goodness we had the Nicene folks eliminating anything that gave women power.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:59 am |
  5. Joe Smythe

    The bible is a book of made up fictional stories, it's seems hard to believe that a 1000 years later it is still referred to as law by so many ignorant people.

    Christianity –

    The Belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.. yeah, makes perfect sense.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:58 am |
  6. Hannah

    This is the most ridiculous article. It is so offensive and very ignorant. Makes absolutely no sense and totally twists God's Word...

    February 10, 2011 at 1:26 am |
    • Paul

      Just because you are too thick headed and set in your ways to understand it doesn't mean it makes no sense.

      "I don't understand what you just said ... But I don't like it!" Haw!

      February 10, 2011 at 2:09 am |
  7. Buzz

    Jennifer Wright Knust reminds me of the saying 'a little education is a dangerous thing'. She makes so many assumptions in her writings and gets everybody riled up, because they missed the fact that she is often assuming. ....Then so many idiots write in and say things which are not even relevant to her article.

    Jennifer is reputed for making comments and remarks which are unsubstantiated – and often makes up quotes as she goes along. Just ignore her attempts for publicity.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:57 am |
  8. Micah

    This article is a shallow load of crap, twisting the Bible to mean whatever this woman wants it to mean.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:51 am |
  9. Ben

    Thanks for sharing your insight, Jen. But I think I'll trust the 2,000+ years of church teaching.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:42 am |
  10. Saint Apropos of Nothing

    There are some really stupid, uneducated, ill-educated, close-minded, self-centred, self-absorbed hidebound, dumb, cartoon hicks commenting here.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:34 am |
  11. C James Tournbleau

    Jesus was a man. God is not a human and has never been a woman or a man. Jesus was one person like many who are in touch with the devine/ god.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:26 am |
  12. Amanda

    She doesn't sound like a Biblical scholar to me. I have an AA in Bible and I can see so many mistakes in just the first few paragraphs. Putting aside the argument of this article, the author does not seem to have credibility. She has taken many Scriptural references out of context, and does not seem to understand the Biblical narrative as a whole. I am always willing to hear an argument that will challenge my faith, but this does not do that at all since it is inaccurate and completely biased.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:24 am |
    • JAMES

      Taking the verses out of context in the bible is done in churches every day. So how are you going to use that as an argument? There was the whole "Prayer of Jabez" fade a few years ago that was basically telling christians that God was a great cosmic cash machine, then there is the verses that teach people how to be true followers of Christ...but the part of giving up your worldly possessions to the needy seems to be left out of that list. I can go on for days about how Christians take the verses of the bible out of context so long as they are "make me feel good" verses. So, I call you a hypocrite.

      February 10, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • Hannah

      I completely agree. I've studied the Bible my entire life and will continue to study it. This article was completely out of line and very ignorant. I found it very offensive.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:31 am |
    • Hannah

      @James- How can you call her a hypocrite? She's right. And yes I agree, churches do take scriptures out of context all the time, hence the reason you need to go to a church where that doesn't happen. Those churches where you've seen that clearly aren't the true religion. So that's why it's important for every individual to do their research, study the bible continuously, and try their best to live by it.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • Nunya

      Ooh, yeah...it's a good thing no true god-fearing Christians would take anything in the Bible out of context.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • Ivanna

      Arguments should have some specifics. I can say I studied the Bible and you are wrong, and that would get us nowhere, would it? If you're not going to tell us HOW the author is wrong, you're not arguing at all, you're just talking crap.

      February 10, 2011 at 2:53 am |
  13. C James Tournbleau

    I cannot imagine that god is going to send my neighbors sweet loving dog to hell. At least I hope not because he has been going at it with the male dog next door for months now. Actions expressed via love are only punished by rudimentary creatures such as human beings. Are we the only animals that should be subjected to this punishment? Burning hell fire exists only within those who hate and fear.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:17 am |
  14. Jess

    Actually, ask any theologian and they will tell you how historically the written accounts of those "events" were not written centuries after the life of Jesus, but shortly after. There are 4 books that supposedly account for Jesus' life (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The Dating the gospels is very important. Since the gospels were established No later than 70 years of his life (as historians believe), we have good reason for believing that the gospels were written by the actual disciples of Jesus himself and were somewhere in their 50-60s when they wrote it. If those accounts were written by the disciples (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), then their reliability, authenticity, and accuracy may better substantiated. Also, if they were written early, this would mean that there would not have been enough time for myth to creep into the gospel accounts since it was the eyewitnesses to Christ's life that wrote them. The writer of the gospel of John was obviously an eyewitness of the events of Christ's life since he speaks from a perspective of having been there during many of the events of Jesus' ministry and displays a good knowledge of Israeli geography and customs.Luke was not an eyewitness of the life of Christ. He was a companion of Paul who also was not an eyewitness of Christ's life. But, both had ample opportunity to meet the disciples who knew Christ and learn the facts not only from them, but from others in the area. Some might consider this damaging to the validity of the gospel, but quite the contrary. Luke was a gentile convert to Christianity who was risking death...and who would die for something that A LOT of other people are telling him is false? Luke talked to people who actually saw Jesus and came to the conclusion that Jesus was a pretty cool guy. Mark was not an eyewitness to the events of Jesus' life either. He was a disciple of Peter (who did interact with Jesus) and undoubtedly it was Peter who informed Mark of the life of Christ and guided him in writing the Gospel known by his name.

    To make it simple...Let's say you never heard of Elvis. Your friend who is 80 years old tells you about how this Elvis guy made real good music but there are no records of his music. Then you have another 80 year old friend who tells you about Elvis, it makes it more reliable...You could think it's a conspiracy, but all I got to say is if this whole Jesus thing was a conspiracy, don't you think the disciples would have stopped and said "Dang, there are way too many people dying" or "I don't want to die, so I am not going to involve myself"? If Jesus' death did not happen 2011 years ago, what happened that the course of history/ human kind changed drastically?

    February 10, 2011 at 12:08 am |
  15. C James Tournbleau

    The Word is a language, a language that is much like a programing language. The double helix is a product of this language as well as everything we experience and everything can and cannot imagine.

    February 10, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  16. Slow Down Gwith3

    Proverbs 9:7-10 "Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse. Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding."

    February 9, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  17. Kings KIdd

    Blasphemy!

    February 9, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
    • Josh

      Scholarship!

      February 10, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  18. Kay

    And just what version of the Bible that didn't exist until more than 1,000 years after Jesus died are *you* referring to?? (And do you realize that the word "cleave" wasn't included in *any* version of the Bible until 600 or so years ago?)

    February 9, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
    • Kay

      This was directed to @Steve the real one...sorry it didn't get posted that way.

      February 9, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  19. Wonder

    People should just stop believing everything that they read. including the bible. THINK FOR YOURSELF! being gay may be a choice in life style or nature made but at the end, it's THEIR choice. no one is forcing straight people to be gay! so lay off. no one is telling straight people they can't get married and divorced multiple times over. let people be what they want and accept them for who they are. stop using bible as an excuse for every ridiculous thing. i hate how religions devide people in this world. STOP IT ALREADY!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • Claude Jennings

      If we all stop believing in the Bible, where would we be. We all would be in a state of damnation. I want to see those pearly gates of my heavenly home when my lord brings me home. People like you are what gives christians a bad name. Maybe if you opened the Bible and read it, you would understand what is needed of you to be able to live in that wondrous place when God brings us home.

      February 10, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • Sarah

      I completely agree. People should stop believing everything they hear at church and start thinking for themselves. At church, when listening to a Pastor or Preacher, people always seem to forget that they are listening to one person's opinion or interpretation of the bible, not God's. Just because you hear something at Church doesn't make it true. To me the very nature of organized religion, church and the bible screams "set up". Every religion uses one or more methods of "converting" people. Once you are "converted" and become a "believer" you'll be saved but "by the way, we accept cash, checks and credit cards so don't forget to make your weekly donation or you will be hounded until you do". I honestly believe that separating people from their money is what most modern religions do best.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:38 am |
  20. listenclose

    Oh go be gay (happy) what did you think i meant? shame on you for thinking this is all about you and your gay (happy) self.

    February 9, 2011 at 10:47 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Right on!! I am gay all the time. I hate living a miserable. God created me to be gay (happy), ; – }

      February 9, 2011 at 10:49 pm |
    • mmi16

      The Bible is a book written by MEN for MEN for the purpose of controling MEN. The fact the certain books have been included or excluded from the test of the Bible in it's editing should be more than enough to indicate that it was not written by GOD!

      The multiplicity of relgions that exist on Earth should be sufficient to prove that GOD speaks with a multi-forked tongue.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:31 am |
    • Tim

      Romans 9:18 supports your conclusion; God is in charge of hearts, he hardens or softens hearts as he alone understands. It is ridiculous for christians to live by such bigotry, when Jesus never even spoke about it. They miss his most important teaching, the golden rule.

      February 10, 2011 at 2:49 am |
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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.