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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. mdnc

    Listen to yourselves. It's all just magical thinking. A fairy tale, a myth, a fable, a fantasy, a work of fiction without merit.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  2. Stephen

    Disciples, apostles and prophets, oh my. What a crock. The bible is just a collection of stories from a wildly mixed cast of bearded dorks from the distant past. We're talking land of the taliban, people. Why today's sheep try to prove their bigoted beliefs by quoting the rants of ancient camel jockeys is a sad but hilarious mystery.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  3. AJ

    @Thinking Human....since you are aethiest, I would like to remind you that we are in the year of our Lord 2011. So no matter what you think, you are living in Christ's world and the whole calendar / human time frame has been based on Him.

    Also, I hope you are not married, because if you went through a ceremony, I would also like to express that marriage is a Christian sacrament and God is apart of the ceremony, so if you do not beleive, then you should have never got married.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • Realist

      Actually it is CE, which means Common Era, but you can call it year of our Lord if you want!

      February 10, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • tangen

      So because Medieval Europeans hooked on one religion created a calendar system centuries afterward, and over time, with the expansion of empire, it came to become the primary system, you think that's some proof of your beliefs? Makes no sense.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Jeff K.

      LIES!
      This is the year 40 AJK (Anno Jeff K.)! You people just refuse to admit the truth.
      I have conclusively proven, by your standards, that you are living in my world, and I hereby declare that I have a monopoly on truth.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • Davido

      Surely you are not suggesting that Christians invented marriage. Was that just a wine bash where Jesus turned water into wine at Cannan?

      February 10, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  4. Davido

    It is quite amusing to see people defending the legitimacy of the bible by using bible verses. Too funny.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  5. Spartan King

    This has got to be the biggest piece of crap I've ever read. This write is out of their mind. Talk about trying to deceive the masses.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • tangen

      You certainly make a strong rebuttal argument... Having your assumptions challenged is never easy, especially by a learned Biblical scholar. I will pray for you.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  6. MrEee

    That anyone can read things like" God made Man. Then God made Adam, then Eve. " and think these religious books make sense is... a miracle!

    February 10, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • daniel

      If I had similar beliefs that weren't a largely accepted religion, they'd call me insane. But I guess since they've got a centuries-old book to cite, that makes it true. We laugh at the idea that the many Greek gods ever existed, but for some reason Christianity is totally unquestioned (by Christians).

      February 10, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  7. Ben

    Sodom and Gamorra

    February 10, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  8. WB

    It's true that the Bible has become corrupted over the centuries, so it can be difficult to understand what all the conflicting concepts really mean. But the truth of what God intended for men and women can still be found. God created men and women to be together in a family unit, to have children, and to be happy. As a loving Father in Heaven he wants us all to know about His plan for our happiness. All we have to do is ask Him.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  9. Logic and Truth Prevail

    When Christ said for us to "turn the other cheek", he wasn't referring to our buttcheeks.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  10. behonest

    b. Paul to Timothy: “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

    February 10, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • Jeff K.

      ...which could be interpreted to support either side of the argument, and is thus absolutely useless.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  11. Tom Wagner

    The Word of God stands on its own. Question it or at to it or subtract from it at your own peril. As it says in Revelation 22:18. People don't like being fingered for sin, as soon as they are they begin to justify themselves. Remeber the first one? Am I my brothers keeper? The Lord said"Your brother's blood calls out ot me from the ground". He had opportunity to confess and repent and he did what ???? H justified himself! We are no different today. Your right He hates the sin not the sinner. Just look at what He did to make a way out for us! But we have to come to Him His way not our own!

    February 10, 2011 at 8:02 am |
  12. Heidi

    I love how people can interpret the bible any way they want.
    Gods an easy guy...

    February 10, 2011 at 8:01 am |
  13. Kelly

    I am so glad I don't have to worry about any of this stuff.....

    "Don’t need your bible
    I’ve got the wisdom of the crone
    Don’t need your heaven
    Into this life I’m reborn
    No ten commandments
    One fills the bill
    An’ it harm none, do what you will"

    From the song "I am Pagan" by Spiral Rhythm

    Blessed Be, y'all

    February 10, 2011 at 7:59 am |
  14. Dave

    It is simple, monotheism is all about intolerance. The Torah creation story, with Adam and Eve being ejected, is really the darkest and anti human of all ancient creation stories. The Torah goes on to vilify over and over all "others" including advocating and celebrating genocide of entire peoples with their innocent children for beliefs in other gods. Christians and Moslems by and large went on to adopt this intolerance. Even Hanukkah is really a story celebrating Taliban type Jews killing Jews who adopted some of the sophisticated, rational and humanist views of the Greeks.
    The ancient world had valid, rational and beautiful culture and philosophy. It can be foudn in Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, and also in the TOLERANCE of other peoples exhibited by the Greek city states. That most of the planet adopted the most backward and negative and hateful worldview of the bible is truly sad.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  15. Alex

    Jesus is a collective myth from other religions (Greeks, Egyptians).

    February 10, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  16. LBCSongbird

    Scripture also warns of false prophets who misinterpret the Word of God for their own agendas. Shame on you!

    February 10, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • jim

      i think you should be talking to the westboro baptist church before you talk to this author.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • tangen

      So you assume you have the 1 correct interpretation and that no false prophet has deceived the weakminded who accept simplisitic, literalistc interpretations?

      February 10, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  17. Davido

    When Cinderella's carriage turned into a pumpkin was this a miracle or just an illusion. How can we interpret this?

    February 10, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • Buddy Kowalski

      But Cinederella does prove that pumpkins DO turn into carriages!

      February 10, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  18. peewee

    bible is truly man written,not from God..its fith..paul is the founder of christianity,not jesus. paul was an apostate not apostle. he never met jesus in real. christianity is pagan

    February 10, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • Emmitt Langley

      There is no evidence to back what you want to believe. Even the apostle Peter believes that Paul was a true disciple of Christ and refers to Paul's writing as Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16. In fact all the disciples and Apostolic fathers of the next generation regard Paul's writing as authentically "breathed" by God. You can disagree, but you have no evidence to back your assertions.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:58 am |
  19. Robert C

    Jennifer Wright Knust is extremely deceived. Such believes are condemned by Jesus Christ and that condemnation is confirmed by the apostles and the prophets... all of them. She is speaking from ignorance and has no idea what she is saying.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • jim

      and you know this because ... ?

      February 10, 2011 at 7:55 am |
    • Mike

      I think you don't what to make of this because it does not match up with your fairy tale. Thus, your little head is exploding.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • Chairmanbuzz

      She is living proof that the Bible is indeed a myth, by definition. Religion is merely man's idea of controlling the behavior of the masses, manipulating the weaker minded as slaves, and stripping them of their possessions and wealth through guilt and other means of mind control. Its such a crock that I laugh whenever a Christain starts their programmed testimony, speech, or conversion attempt on me. I just tell them to "fock off", and laugh in their moron faces.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • tangentamor

      Interpretation: i never thought of this before, so she must be wrong because i'm not ready to have my beliefs challenged by a Biblical scholar.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Indiana Voter

      People have been trying to make excuses for their sin since the beginning of time. Doesn't change the fact that people sinned and are still sinners. This is nothing new. Just another sinner trying to justify sin. You may choose not to believe it, but that doesn't change anything either.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • Jeff K.

      Please cite your sources. She doesn't cite chapter and verse, but it is easy enough to find the passages she refers to. Your argument, which exists solely of the claim "she is wrong," is by comparison laughably thin.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Neil

      This is just the type of perversion the bible warned about. How anyone can interpret the story of Genesis like she does is beyond belief. Just goes to show how accurate the bible is in predicting how depraved people will get close to the return of Christ. People will believe anything their itching ears want to hear.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • tangen

      There's brilliance in the Bible: it's rigged in such a way that anyone who challenges the most simplistic, unlearned misinterpretations usually held by the least educated can be cast aside as being deceived by the devil or a false prophet. it ensures that people who buy into it never think for themselves and are always able to be easily controlled and manipulated by powerful humans.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  20. lee

    the exodus decoded

    February 10, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • lee

      watch it it is pretty interesting on explaining physical evidence of the bibles timeline of events

      February 10, 2011 at 7:47 am |
    • Bill

      I'm a born again Christian .. gays are no more sinners than I am....... we ALL need salvation and ALL need a savior..... That said, this writer is out of her ever-loving mind. If you try real hard, you can also pervert Scripture to say that murder and war and pedophilia are allowable.... after all, the people in the OT did it, so it must be OK.
      Let's square away one thing ... the patriarachs of the OT were MAJOR SINNERS, they lived terrible lives and did terrible sins. They were not perfect, and in many ways were not role models in conduct.... so why do we care about them ? because the OT teaches us that EVERONE needs a saviour, NO ONE can follow the law and that even though we, as humans are major screw uops, God can still use us.
      Here is the part where i will get flamed .. i believe God created gays as gays ... BUT I also believe God created people with spinobiphida and downs syndrome and other genetic defects. I do believe that it genetic, as gays say, but i beleive it is a genetic defect that God wants people to overcome, not surrender to and wallow in. Does this mean a "straight cure"? By all means NO! No way! Gays are gays. However, abstinence is possible and should be followed. We are not animals with no self control. Just one man's opinion.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • tangentamor

      Bill – Telling us what you believe based on a modern-day born again Christian interpretation does not make you right. That's the point of this article.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:13 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.