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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. Kyle

    Her article sounds like a vain attempt to try to say being gay is cool. Everyone will be judged. However it won't be by anyone of us. But when that time comes for each of us, our degrees, education, opinions, who we are will not matter to all to God. His judgement is true and just.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:57 am |
  2. so anyways...

    if you think that it is unclear what the Bible says about this issue, then your level of reading comprehension is truly pathetic.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Smite Me

      so anyways,

      People who use 'anyways' instead of the correct word, 'anyway', shouldn't throw stones about reading comprehension.

      February 10, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  3. keepingitsimple

    I'm not sure what book this woman is reading, but let's clarify.....

    Understanding is a blessing from God. Just because you have read it doesn't mean you understand.

    God create both man and woman's spirit first. From that, Adam was created and Eve was created from his rib. No human with both male and female organs was created. Gos said that his spirit would not always stay with man and stated that his time on earth should be 3 score and ten years (70 yrs). The sons of man did look upon the females on the earth and did take them for themselves.

    The references to sodom made by this writer suggest that sodom was destroyed because the inhabitants tried to sleep with the angels.......? The did, but this was a part of their everyday existence. The city and the inhabitants did not understand or follow Gods laws.

    This article and the responses are troubling. This woman starts off by stating here credentials and she is a pastor. Two things to remember here............WHEN JESUS WALKED THE EARTH, HIS OWN PEOPLE (JEWS) DID NOT KNOW HIM. WHO KNEW HIM YOU MIGHT ASK........REMEMBER WHEN JESUS CAST OUT THE EVIL SPIRITS? THE EVIL SPIRITS RECOGNIZED CHRIST AND WANTED NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM. EVIL MASKING ITSELF AS GOOD IS NOT A NEW TRICK.

    God said one day men would become as gods. Reading these replies substantiates that. No rules to follow and however you see things is the way it is. WAKE UP!!

    February 10, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  4. Somewhere on the mountain

    So much debate, so much talk of judgement.

    Is it not as simple as...
    Live your life to the best of your ability, following the commandments?
    Do not judge others as God will judge them?
    Lead the lost to God, not ban them from attending his house?
    Obey the law of God, not enforce the law of God?

    When did we become the Religion police? Where we judge others for their decisions, deciding who can be married and who can't, deciding who can attend "our" church....which is actually the house of God, and not "our" church?

    I am a simple beliver/follower, I guess....I take this simple understanding from the Bible...
    Be kind to everyone, respectful, loving, and generous. Allow everyone to make their own decisions, regarding everthing, as to not pass Judgement on anyone. Accept that God expects me to make mistakes, because he did not create a perfect man/woman. Try to be the best person I can be while on this earth is all I can do, and all that is expected of me.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:54 am |
  5. vinlander

    When Odin created Ask and Embla, the first man and woman, he didn't weigh down the world with all this Thou Shalt Not nonsense. The Jewish Book of Fairytales has caused more than enough trouble. Time to dump it.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  6. Christian

    To my fellow Christians posting that see the error of the author....
    1Co 2:14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Angela

      Funny how the piece of scripture you cite can be understood mean the exact opposite of your claim, depending on who you call "spiritual." I could just as easily argue that your interpretation is unspiritual, particularly because it emphatically contradicts the light of Jesus Christ, through which we are called to discern God's word. 'Isaiah's question, "Is there anyone around who knows God's Spirit, anyone who knows what he is doing?" has been answered: Christ knows, and we have Christ's Spirit.'" Jesus Christ would not and DOES NOT stand for prejudice against women or gays. Amen.

      1 Corinthians 2

      14-16The unspiritual self, just as it is by nature, can't receive the gifts of God's Spirit. There's no capacity for them. They seem like so much silliness. Spirit can be known only by spirit—God's Spirit and our spirits in open communion. Spiritually alive, we have access to everything God's Spirit is doing, and can't be judged by unspiritual critics. Isaiah's question, "Is there anyone around who knows God's Spirit, anyone who knows what he is doing?" has been answered: Christ knows, and we have Christ's Spirit.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  7. rjinsd

    So, what I get from the well written article and the comments on this message board, is the thousands of years later we are still arguing about the interpretation of the Bible...........

    February 10, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  8. Christian

    Isn't it funny how liberals embrace Christianity when they claim it says what they want it to?
    This author has missed the mark.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  9. Rob

    More opinion being passed off as news.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  10. JeffreyK12

    God loves all!
    Oh unless of course you are not a straight white male republican who is good at hiding your indiscretions. LOL
    If we read this book verbatim and take what these MEN wrote literally we are all screwed.
    I believe our god is kind, accepting, and less judgemental than he is made out to be. I beleive in him and when you finally get to meet him you'll see how silly you are for condemning anyone who does not think just like you do.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  11. Jeff

    I tend to agree with your goals, but this is very poorly argued.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  12. wisdomVSknowledge

    One other thing... must religion always have a whipping boy in order to justify it's existance? I am personally tired of wars and hate crimes committed in the name of religion. My God prefers life and love. You can't have either without compassion, forgiveness and understanding.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  13. Josef

    So, maybe to please all your narrow interpretations of the Bible, I should just shoot myself, because I did a lot of soul searching and prayer before coming out and feel closer to God than ever since I came to terms with that part of myself. I don't thing God meant for me to live alone or in a loveless marriage. But gee, I'd sure hate to ask you guys to consider a slightly different interpretation of a very old book just for little ol' me. Seriously, if we still lived in the world some of you people want to see, I would just be a suicide statistic.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  14. JSS

    All hail the invisible man in the sky who is vengeful but poor and needs your money!

    February 10, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  15. christopher

    Well I won't go so far as to say it isn't a sin but I'll never understand why a country such as the U.S.A that claims to be civilized thinks this is the one sin that matters more than the rest of them. I see good ole boy 400 pound church going "christians" wearing suits made of 3 different types of fibers who indulge in alcohol regularly telling gays they are condemned to hell. These folks are committing several sins at the same time and don't even know it yet they condemn someone who has a real struggle. I hear other countries are much more accepting.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  16. thankyou

    Thank you for your open and honest opinion on this matter. i always feel so frustrated with the Christian POV of no, i understand that not everyone agrees on this issue, but it is encouraging to see actual conversation over the issues and not running into stone walls of unflinching refusal to debate.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  17. Christian

    What a ridiculous article. Worst off, the author claims to be a pastor. Its no wonder that she interprets the Bible to her liking as the very Bible teaches that a woman cannot be a pastor. So it makes sense that she would intentionally misinterpret the rest as well. The Bible was not given by God to be personaly interpreted, as it declares that "no scripture is of any private interpretation", but to be accepted by those who belong to God. It just proves the Bible again where it says "1Co 2:14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."
    That says it all.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • JPR

      Excellent response, spiritually sound. In your short post people will find more Biblical truth than in the entire flawed diatribe of the author that caused the response.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • Photonerd

      Where in the bible does it say women cannot be pastors they are just as loved by god and it does not take a man's touch to know god.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • ckckck1

      You do understand that Dr. Knust has a Ph. D in New Testament studies from Columbia, a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological, and sits on the faculty of one of the most prestigious colleges in America where she teaches the New Testament as it was written in greek prior to any English translation? She's dedicated her whole life to "just reading it." Perhaps you should heed your advice and go back to just reading the Bible yourself.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:55 am |
    • Angela

      Women can't serve as pastors? That would come as a surprise to millions of women who have heeded GOD's calling on their lives to ordained ministry.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  18. movement

    I knew this article would strike a blow at the religous society. What if its all worng. You trust in a book that was written by man(man who has killed, stole committed all acts of negativity) and society tells you that every word in it is correct. The honest truth is that no one knows the truth and just because you grew up with your belief, you want admit to that. I understand that beleif gives people a safe blanket when times are hard and when its good but your blanket is doubtful. I'm open to theories and ideas and knowledge of life. I hope to one day find the truth but I WILL NOT condemn others because they do not believe in my belief. Please take another look at this world. We need a serious awakening and enlightment.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • Aaron

      If we're wrong, we're wrong. What if we're right? There is no condemnation by a Christian. If you decide not to see the truth and keep living in sin, who is condemning whom? Jesus is the way, the truth, and the Life. If you choose not to believe, YOU seal your fate.

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

      You need to study scripture before you condemn it. Reports of the life and purpose of Jesus was written and reported during the lifetime of the people that saw and lived with Jesus. We will both find out. If I am wrong I will be with you and if you are wrong, I will be roasting marshmallows on your forehead.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Shari Shovels

      It was easy to spot you as a nonbeliever. Someone who is grasping at straws for your version of the truth to avoid the possibility that you may be wrong and the life you are living, will follow you after death. (Rev 15) Any one who is a Christian knows the truth behind the bible. It was not written by man. It was actually written by the Holy Spirit. Many of these individuals in the bible didn't know how to write. But no one thinks about that. They were not highly educated. It was not they who wrote the bible. It was God, through divine inspriration through the Holy Spirit. But it takes a high act of faith to believe that. I am not judging you. But I am reminding you that while you are not being judged, you should do the same. There is only one judge. What people do here on this earth will follow them. If they have not called upon the name of God and followed his simple easy little rules, they will spend eternity in hell. While I cannot tell you what to believe, just know that we are not here on accident. While you may just blow me off as some religious nut job, several million people can't be wrong. Have a great day.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Davido

      Rodboy is too funny. "Roasting marshmallows on your forehead." Yuck! Have seen no reference of cook outs in heaven. I thought we'll just float around on clouds playing our harps.
      Will w have hot dogs also. I hear they are unhealthful.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  19. Scott from another galaxy

    You humans amaze me. Where do you come up with these stories?

    February 10, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  20. 2saymore

    Lady you are so off, there is a lot in the Bible saying against it, and I don't care what people will respond me, it is the Word of God, and it's a sin. Now if someone choose or like they say was born gay, well I don't care is their live and problem. But saying the Bible mix messages about common read it and then change your little olive brain, and stop being a dumb.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • God

      2saymore,

      Say no more. You are an idiot.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • Thomas

      could you specify which passages you are talking about? it's easy to refute by just saying someone is wrong, but can you give examples?

      February 10, 2011 at 9:05 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.