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. Danny

    Gay people are okay...straight people are okay...all of us are okay...we are not sinners...and there is no such thing as sin...

    All religion are man made...read the Bible...the whole Bible...don't listen just to the bits and pieces during the mass...the ministers and priests pick only the good parts of the Bible. Once you read the whole Bible...you will realize that it was written by primitive sheepherders. The powers that be shoved religion down our throats for one reason...social control.

    So...open your eyes...stop being a blind lemming. You can be a good person without religion. Stop the guilt trip. Stop being judgmental of other people. There is no heaven or hell waiting for you. Life is the here and now. Live it!

    February 10, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • Selina

      Danny, if I'm right, you've lost everything...if you're right, I've lost nothing...I'll stick with what I believe because I know it has more to offer than this is all there is...I feel it in my soul, that this is not all there is and there is something so much better coming...I hope I get to see you then and say "See? I told you so!"...that's one "I told you so" you'll enjoy as much as I will...the good news is, 90% of these self-righteous jerks that believe they'll be there, won't be... :o)

      February 10, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  2. RobertL

    Leviticus Chapter 18, all you need to know, a moron can't misinterpret this...enough said!

    February 10, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  3. RA

    Who cares? F*** who you want! The bible is a story... nothing more. Is there a god? Yes, there is a higher power. Is the story of Jesus real? NO. It’s a make up by the biblical government to control its people. Duh! The bible has nice values and morals to live by, just like green eggs and ham.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  4. Chairmanbuzz

    If anything, the Bible lends a tremendous amount of credence to the theory that aliens did seed planet earth to grow humans as their slaves. If they don't worship, they will be thrown into the lake of fire (the nearest lava flow) to burn forever. Fear. Is a mighty powerful control mechanism, isn't it?

    February 10, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  5. Vic

    "I love gay people, but the Bible forces me to condemn them". No, they stand condemned already just like EVERYONE else who has not repented and trusted in Jesus for salvation. With all due respect, Jennifer, you are way off! There will always be the twisting of the Bible simply because what God says is right, we as humans want to be able to justify when we are against God. We by nature are rebelious agains a Perfect and Holy God. Simply put, Trust Jesus to save you, ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins and ask Jesus to dwell within you. Once that happens, you are guaranteed of Heaven, ALL your sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit will empower you to resist sin (rebelling against God)

    February 10, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • Chairmanbuzz

      I love all people, even moron Christians. But my intelligence forces me to condem them and cast them aside as arrogant, jugdemental, idiots that deserve no power or authority in society. They are very dangerous and should be assign meanial tasks only, like sweeping, window cleaning, and food servers (maybe).

      February 10, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  6. JoJo

    Hogwash! (or Hogwarts)

    February 10, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  7. FundyTime

    Jennifer, you're absolutely right. The bible *is* a confusing mess of contradiction that can be inferred to mean anything we want. We're absolutely justified in ignoring all of it! Amen!

    February 10, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  8. Cocopuf

    There is an old saying in my field: "If you torture the data long enough it will confess to anything you want" (period)

    February 10, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  9. Chairmanbuzz

    Christians, go watch the Zeitgeist movie and come back here a tell all of us intelligent people what you think. Hey Zeus is the "sun" and the angels are the stars, and the Bible is a myth. Nothing more. No go kill terrorist because a white, rich, powerful man said its OK.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • Atlas Hugged

      Yes, lets do...because emotionally pretentious and image based propaganda packed with self defeating argument and unreferenced, scholarly weak conjecture is a productive way to get one's point across.

      Zeitgeist...it should be believed because is was made by computers. ...and because you own a smartphone, you are smart?

      Zeitgeist is just trying to be a 100 meme mashup for the ambitionless 20-30 something washups who want an excuse for why the system seems to be against them. If the world is against you, why try. Please don't site this crap as an argument against any religion. Go read an actual book from a scholar and then site it in your arguments against whatever.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  10. canopy

    Feeling better about being a celibate, androgynous "female?"

    February 10, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  11. slimjim

    It's discerning to see a pastor with what they believe to be a Godly agenda not recognize that her judgement is clouded by the sin of humanity. I doubt prayer led her to write the article but more so conviction of her human experiences.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • fred

      It's disconcerting that you don't know what "discerning" means.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  12. jk56

    CES is totally right... proverbs 3 5,6 totally shows that this woman is very narrowsighted. and thinks too much of her own pov. any one could sit and read the bible and then pick and choose words using their own ideas and interpretation of it. i bet if i put a couple hours into it, and twisted the scriptures to MYYYY interpretation, i could find scriptures that would even prove that elvis is still alive. For this "scholar" to propose such an interpretation is as intelligent as a chemist who choses to only examine part of a balanced equation because if he considers the whole equation... it might tell him something he doesnt want to know or may prove him to be wrong for his "conclusions".... any scientist who did this would be mocked and ridiculed for his lack of knowledge or even inability, so why should someone who fails to consider the context of a matter be viewed with any reasonable consideration. CONTEXT. i doubt this scholar and pastor of all professions has even considered it. Perhaps she fears losing the sensation jesus spoke of when he talked of the religious leaders of his day enjoying having their ears tickled by their own expressions and commendation. Being forced to consider the whole bible, using CONTEXT, would force her to accept a broader more accurate view,... no more ear tickling for her...PROVERBS 3:5,6,7 is totally clear..."DON NOT LEAN UPON YOUR OWN UNDERSTANDING." i guess in her great study as a scholar and pastor she must have ACCIDENTALLY skipped those verses, especially as follwing such a command would stop her from arriving at her oh so intellectual conclusion.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • SJB

      EXACTLY. Scripture can (and has been) be twisted to any POV a person wants. Why ON EARTH, would anyone build their entire perception of the world on something so easily manipulated and misinterpretable.

      Guillibility, or pure laziness. I don't have to cope with the world, I just have to follow directions.....

      February 10, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  13. Steve

    This article is gay.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  14. ross

    Look into this author/womans' eyes....she even LOOKS EVIL !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 10, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • tommy

      i dont see the evil in here eyes at all!

      February 10, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  15. DL

    I don't care if you are Christian or Atheist.....this author is a nut!

    February 10, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  16. Rabbi Joseph

    Romans 1:26-32 – "26 For this cause God gave them up to vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. 28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; 29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, 30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 Without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: 32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them."

    February 10, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • Selina

      And let's also include what follows in Romans 2, so often people try to make a point without all the facts or leave out what is convenient to make their point:

      God’s Righteous Judgment:

      1 Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. 2 But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. 3 And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who “will render to each one according to his deeds”:[a] 7 eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; 8 but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, 9 tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; 10 but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 11 For there is no partiality with God.
      12 For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law 13 (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; 14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, 15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) 16 in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.

      The Jews Guilty as the Gentiles:

      17 Indeed[b] you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God, 18 and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law. 21 You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? 24 For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,”[c] as it is written.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Mike

      Thanks for this. This explains it all. God doesn’t hate the person he hate the lifestyle or life choice.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:51 am |
  17. 3Nirvana

    The real question is why we should even give two s**ts about what the bible says about anything. It's a barbaric outdated book that will, thankfully, one day go entirely by the wayside.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • HereticX


      February 10, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  18. silly people

    woe unto men who call good evil and evil good-

    February 10, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • 3Nirvana

      People who get their morality from a 2000 year old book are morons.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  19. Theodore

    This Just in....bible written by a gay Jew named Antoine. (he was gay in the biblical sense of the word)

    February 10, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  20. Pastor Evans

    Deuteronomy Chapter 7 – 6 “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. 7 The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; 8 but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
    9 “Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; 10 and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. 11 Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today, to observe them.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • Selina

      Quote: 9 “Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; 10 and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. 11 Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today, to observe them.

      My personal interpretation of this is, the people of Israel have not loved God and have not kept his commandments...which explains why they are in the mess they're in right now. They don't even believe His Son came and was crusified for goodness sakes...so why in the world would they think God wouldn't "repay those that hate Him to their face"?

      February 10, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • zappafan

      Shellfish are an abomination. I don't see too many people trying to uphold that commandment. Aren't all of God's commandments equal?

      February 10, 2011 at 8:49 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.