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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. josh

    This is just another sad attempt by the liberal masses to twist something, this time the holy scriptures, to fit their view of the world and the way it should be. The very fact that she is a "pastor" shows that she is involved with a very liberal group that is willing to change what they once thought was right to the whims of the popular.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:15 am |
  2. Lonzo

    Deut. 4:2.....“You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

    Deuteronomy 12:32 “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”

    Proverbs 30:5-6 “Every word of God is pure; he is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.”

    Revelation 22:18-19 “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”

    February 10, 2011 at 7:14 am |
  3. Jason

    Did the author of this trash even read the Bible? Leviticus 20:13..........

    February 10, 2011 at 7:14 am |
  4. SteveS

    And God said "blah blah blah..." Who cares what a mystical, self contradicting book writen by ignorant ancients has to say about anything. Evoultion explains it all. If it doesn't then you need to learn more about it. The bible also says you are product of insest(guess god didn't think that through when he only made two people to start with), jesus has multiple family lineages back to david and adam with little overlapping patriarchs (true, look it up), teaches being born is a sin (thats why they baptize), and encourages the worship of a zombie via ritualistic cannibalism(jesus after the cross and the eucharist).
    Just please stop trying to rationalize this missmash of insane stories.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:10 am |
  5. get over it

    If the bible is the truth, how can it have so many versions? Every saint or apostale modified the truth according to the times in which he lived. There are more important issues in this world to fight for. Get over it and live and let live.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:05 am |
  6. Davido

    This discussion is about as valuable as dissecting Alice in Wonderland. Fairy tales need not be taken so seriously.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:03 am |
  7. doc 77

    Leviticus chapter 18 and Romans 1:25 to the end of the chapter. Not all of the Bible is metaphor nor is all of it open to "intepretation". If it were, then it really would be every man (or woman) for him (her) self. This kind of thinking does not help; does not address the need for agape love to all, which we are all sadly lacking in.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:01 am |
  8. Joe

    BTW, the bible supports slavery, it explicitly talks about owning people and rules for such, should we bring back slavery?

    February 10, 2011 at 6:59 am |
  9. hal9thou

    The Old Testament is weirder than I thought.

    February 10, 2011 at 6:57 am |
  10. patsonln

    David Johnson, Where does your hope lie.

    February 10, 2011 at 6:56 am |
  11. MichaelInDC

    "The second human person is given the name Adam and the female is formed from his rib".

    The original Greek, which was the language Genesis was originally written in, was mistranslated. Eve was not created from a rib, she was created from a breath. Either way, the whole story sounds sort of fishy to me.

    February 10, 2011 at 6:55 am |
  12. LeeRoy

    Wow. Talk about mixing scripture with the philosophy of man (woman). I recommend everyone read the scriptures for themselves. Far too many have never done so. And pray about what we read. That is really the only way to find out for ourselves. Obeying the commandments helps too. 🙂

    February 10, 2011 at 6:53 am |
  13. AinPa

    And the "Witch Hunters" are out in full force.

    If a women has a logical and mostly compassionate view of a situation and shows by example how to really be tolerant and loving and point out that it is scripturally correct (or at least scripturally possible) to do so she is immediately at risk of being called a sinner/blasphemer.

    She is immediately censored and subject to verbal abuse and accusations of blaspheming, she’s a hypocrite, living in sin, and perverting the word of God and wants to justify herself.

    Why? Because a certain power structure has not been observed and respected by her, she dares to have and opinion that differs from the party line, she dares to step out of the role that religion has assigned her, and she dares to speak in a public forum.

    She must be dismissed, discredited and marginalized because she is a threat to the power structure of the larger organized religion and they make a lot of money teaching people how to morally justify their fears and actions.

    Religion can teach people that it’s OK to murder (for the right reason)

    Religion can teach people that owing slaves is OK, remember that just a short while ago in history our white slave owners based their right to own slaves as religious right because of the mark of Cain.

    Religion can teach people that their prejudice, against blacks, gays or other religions, is OK and even scripturally approved.

    Religion can teach people that it’s OK to deny others their human rights, liberty, justice and pursuit of happiness.

    The only way un-righteous domination, by those who would force their religion on others, has been changed over the years is by those people or risked speaking out and pointing out the flies in the ointment of religion, and thank God for them.

    Why is organized religion afraid of the status quo being disrupted, because they can’t afford to lose their loyal following, having a large membership base means money and power for the religious organization.

    They can’t afford to have their members listening to someone else who might gain a following and have influence over ‘their’ members; it’s a threat to the control and influence they have over their membership. Organized religions have an agenda, and that is to control the masses and influence society and government thus gaining money and power.

    Religion does not exist to help humanity, to teach love and kindness or spiritually, they exist solely as corporations selling a product and to making a profit.

    Religion has packaged and marketed God for profit.

    February 10, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • Ray

      AinPa,
      Thanks for saving me alot of typing. You have an amazing grasp of what organizied religion is all about.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  14. Lou Cypher

    I see the fruits and nuts are out early today!

    February 10, 2011 at 6:48 am |
  15. connect the dots

    Well isn't this a nice article? She is published by Harper Collins–> who simultaneously owns Zondervan and Avon Publishing. Zondervan launched and miserably failed at a "new" version of the Bible called the TNIV which was a "Gender Neutral" Bible.

    "Christians" rather than rallying to ban their Bible publisher for changing their hallowed book continue to inject Billlions of dollars into a publisher that serves prophet over Prophet. Zondervan in turn churns out whatever the koolaid drinkers emotionally crave.

    For some reason Harper continues to maintain a division called Avon Publishing. Avon publishes the Satanic Bible. So before anyone goes crazy because I injected Satan into this please note this is just stating the facts not calling anyone a sinner.

    I am merely pointing out that the publisher essentially prints the Bible and the Satanic Bible- huh go figure, just a mild conflict of interest.

    All ye Bible thumpers shall knowest that thou own flock is destroying thy religion. By following a buffet of pick and choose Christianity the very faith that you claim is being eroded by yourselves. With thousands of "denominations" out there who is one to believe? What is to stop this pastor from claiming and pro-claiming her beliefs? In the fog of this war questions and confusion will destroy any unity that is left. Look at the track record from the last 100 years.

    As for those who embrace this article. I am sorry but it is truly trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. You may be able to force it, but in the end, it simply is not made with that in mind no matter how desperately you try.

    February 10, 2011 at 6:47 am |
  16. liz

    The article actually lost its credibility in the first sentence where it reads "we often hears that Christians..."

    February 10, 2011 at 6:43 am |
    • Guest

      I know, right? Clearly, if someone makes a typo, they'can't *possibly* have any credibility.....right?

      February 10, 2011 at 7:14 am |
    • MAJBSK

      Sure, right, if one made a typo in a brief response typed quickly......but can CNN, and this author, not do the simplest of proofreads before international publication of an article? Wow.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  17. Luis Wu

    It never ceases to amaze me how anyone with half a brain could believe in such utter nonsense. It's just old archaic myths, written thousands of years ago by ignorant, primitive people! How is it that supposedly intelligent human beings get sucked into such a totally ridiculous fairytale world? It makes me fear for the future of the human race if people are that stupid.

    February 10, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • Barb from PA

      You are beyond RIGHT!

      February 10, 2011 at 6:53 am |
    • Guido

      Exactly! Why are we even discussing this fairytale book as if it is based in REALITY?!! There is no scientific evidence anywhere (never has been and never will be) that anything in the bible is true! Get a grip and grow up people, "god" the old man in the sky is not real, just as Santa is not real

      February 10, 2011 at 7:13 am |
    • MAJBSK

      It never ceases to amaze me that people will denigrate others because they believe that there is a God who created –or guided the appearance of– man while in the same breath have their own faith in the appearance of a universe out of nothing with no cause and no source. I know, let's both recognize that both beliefs are based in faith (one in a God and one in an unguided void), accept each's right to have his or her belief, and recognize that both doctrines have their followers and their propaganda.
      Finally, let's agree to use the right "you're"/"your" when we write to insult others' stupidity.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  18. guestioh

    CNN..are you crazy. Not only does this "pastor" disagree with established Christian theology for over 2000 years, but she also offends Jews and belittles both by essentially labelling them all bigots. Could you not find a less offensive person to give a mouthpiece to and did your editors and producers not realize that this "enlightened discussion" is hate towards mainline Christians (like all but a sliver percentage in one part of the world) and espeically towards Jews who take their God seriously?

    February 10, 2011 at 6:40 am |
    • Randy

      Sadly, CNN and this lady both have the same agenda.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:05 am |
  19. CK Catholic

    Everyone can have an opinion and interpret literature how they see fit. In this case the literature in question is the Bible which every person has an opinion on. The Bible has had wars fought over it because people feel very passionately about it. Now I will admit that some will find what I say blasphemous but given the nature of the Bible my comment is no less relavent and insightful... The Bible was inspired by God who is perfect.. written by man and man is not perfect... which makes the Bible somewhat infalable and imperfect.

    Jesus tells us to love one another... why cant we see thru the eyes of love like he askes us to and not thru prejudice eyes and condemn that which is different. More to the point let he/she who is sinless cast the first stone... you'll find that no one is sinless and each of us are no more or less perfect than the next.

    Jesus preached acceptance & love not condemnation & hate.... one would think that following Jesus's example would be better than justifying an interpretation of the Bible that may or may not be there.

    February 10, 2011 at 6:35 am |
    • Steven

      I agree. IF there is indeed a judgment day, I think that whatever deity sits in judgement will actually take into account how one has lived and not how one has interpreted writings. And, it seems to me a rather useless exercise (even hypocritical) to blast people with one's beliefs. Why not just get out there and BE and DO good instead of trying to see what is bad in others?
      If folks can just get over the "I'm right, you're wrong" mentality, I think we may just start to see that each of us has a piece of the truth (just as ech of us has a piece of Light).

      February 10, 2011 at 7:02 am |
  20. Jeremiah2911

    This article lost its credibility in the 6th "paragraph". Anyone with any in-depth knowledge of the Scriptures at all knows that the first chapter of Genesis is a summary of what God did in the first seven days. (Genesis 1:1-31) It also CLEARLY states in the sumary of day 6 in Chapter 1 that He made them male and female, in His image. (1:26-30) After that, scripture in Chapter 2 CLEARLY reiterates certain elements of creation and basically acts as a "How He Did It", in-depth story of the creation of humankind on the earth. (Genesis 2:4-7, 21-23) And finally, anyone who uses the scriptures to HATE anyone is also CLEARLY missing the point. A lot of Christians stand on John 3:16, which IS the crux of the whole purpose for Jesus' ministry, but they fail to finish the "sentence": citing John 3:17, "For God DID NOT SEND HIS SON INTO THE WORLD TO CONDEMN the world, but TO SAVE THE WORLD THROUGH HIM." Not sure where this young woman is a pastor, but she might need to invest in some continuing education. Listen, everybody - if you'd just stop the "he said, she said" stuff and actually pick up the Scriptures and read them, maybe we'd all gain a little better understanding. Now, everybody be nice.

    February 10, 2011 at 6:34 am |
    • Rich

      I confess, I know nothing of the bible, but from watching the news, aren't Christians gay?

      February 10, 2011 at 6:45 am |
    • hal9thou

      So, are those literal days your talking about there, Jerry? Or do you think those verses might be more of an allegory?

      February 10, 2011 at 6:53 am |
    • Randy

      Leviticus 18:22 – "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable."

      February 10, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • Steven

      @Randy Do you (honestly) follow every single rule proposed in the bible? Really? Do you wear clothing that has two types of fibers? Work on the Sabbath? Eat pork?
      Flinging bible werses only just shows that you know how to go into a book and pick them out and then repeat them. How do you live? (I actually don't need an answer to that. Simply, it is an affair between you and the god you serve.)

      February 10, 2011 at 7:06 am |
    • David

      I fully agree with Jeremiah...this female "pastor???" has a Bible grudge and wants to justify her own sinful and rebellious behavior by cozing up to those who God condemns for their sins, especially the one of perverting His plan for procreation.
      I'd hate to be in this female's congregation...what a mixed-up bunch and off the map teaching must be going on there.
      Anyways...this imposter and many like her will have all eternity in torment to ponder on their lack of Biblical knowledge through the absence of the Spirit they never had. Under Moses, she would be lapidated in public as an example to all like her.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:13 am |
    • Jonnyola

      Actually, I've read the Bible several times. It's funny, the Bible is pretty clear that there should be no women pastors and that women should stay silent. Hey, that's what is says.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:14 am |
    • Lonzo

      @ Steven..you should..

      Deut. 4:2.....“You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

      Deuteronomy 12:32 “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”

      Proverbs 30:5-6 “Every word of God is pure; he is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.”

      Revelation 22:18-19 “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”

      February 10, 2011 at 7:18 am |
    • Davido

      "Off with their heads". And what was that Cheshire Cat grinning about.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:22 am |
    • Confused

      Which bible are you looking in to determine life's mysteries? The Bible is the word of god, but I don't recall hearing about when he sat down for an interview. All of the books were written by man and they were chosen by man to represent god. These people weren't divine, they were capable of error. To me it seems the bible is god's way of speaking to man, in order to hear what god say's you need to listen to the MESSAGE not the wording.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • Davido

      I have read the "Scriptures" from cover to cover. Very entertaining. However, Grimms Fairy Tales are more entertaining and easier to understand. I am a little curious however. Does "Scripture" condone incest?

      February 10, 2011 at 7:50 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.