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. ktownman1963

    This has been a very interesting read. I appreciate everyones opinion and belief systems, they are what we all choose. I for one must defer to science in this day and age, it is difficult not to. The bible was written by many many different authors and is a very good book that has survived thousands of years. But it was written to help people deal witht the same questions that we have today....why are we here....how did we come to be here.....those questions have not been answered fully but science is well on its way to explain it all. If we believe the bible then some omnipitent being created us soley for the purpose of worshipping it.....seriously? Can we truely believe this blindly? People today have difficulty with the concept that we are all just the result of a freak cosmic event and over billions of years we have gone from a cell to the beings we are today and we continue to change. I was raised a Roman Catholic but have difficulty with an organization that is based on guilt and seeks to punish us for our choices and that redemtion is only for those that believe. I have studied world religions at great length and conclude that all were created to help explain all those questions that have persisted for eons. The books chosen for the bible during the Niceane Council were chosen specifically because they supported what was then the growing myth of what would today be called a cult. An amazing book, a great read but truely can we still believe all that religions preach....science can now tell us differently how we were created, why we are here and more. Quite frankly, had the church not had so much power and created what is now called the dark ages....man would be further ahead technology wise than we are, man would have flown hundreds of years earlier and so on. The church stifled scientiic progress to keep control of the masses. One mans opinion here but I think if we have an open mind we might question that we are the amusements of an omnipitent being....

    February 10, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  2. pianomissy

    Trying to justify or rationalize your own thoughts or beliefs by manipulating scripture and twisting interpretations is pretty sad.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  3. David

    This is further proof that God removed His Holy Spirit from ALL churches and congregations back in 1988. This obvious spiritual erosion is to be expected.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • US Patriot

      You are terribly wrong, my friend. The Holy Spirit is indeed moving in the SOLID Bible believing churches TODAY! Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus... There will come a day when EVERY knee shall bow, and EVERY tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  4. Phil

    IF you knew the bible and had a personal relationship with the Lord you'd know the truth. Your opinions here are way off. The bible is clearer than what you think so open you eyes to read and your heart to receive.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  5. Philip

    One word.... "eisegesis"

    February 10, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  6. lol!

    ???! what a load of crap! (the article)

    February 10, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  7. Victor

    If there was a supreme being that cared so much that we followed a specific set of rules, he/she/it could communicate their concerns a clear unmistakable way, instead of simply writing a book that, through translations or must misreadings, people could easily misinterpret, as we would expect a human being to do. This would insure that "sinners" really are sinners, and not just mistaken, victims of a charismatic preacher, or born into the wrong church. Assuming the Bible must be divinely inspired without taking a long hard look at it first can lead us down the same road as fundamentalist Islam or the Westboro Baptist Church.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  8. Pat Ney

    Nice try, Jennifer!

    February 10, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  9. Drewjamesw

    I long for the day when the bible is relegated to the back shelves of the library with the other ancient mythology like the Iliad. It boggles the mind how it is still taken seriously on any subject.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • US Patriot

      Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus... There will come a day when EVERY knee shall bow, and EVERY tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Drewjamesw

      sigh... if there were only enough mental insitutions to properly deal with all the delusional people in the world. Talking snakes, global floods, and burning bushes, oh my.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • gogogopher

      u.s.pat... you know lord jesus killed 42 children with 2 bears? Right? God/Jesus/Spirit are 3 in one? So when God answered the prayers of a bald prophet, Jesus was right there with him.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  10. Charisse

    Nice article... Thanks for sharing your perspective. Often people get caught up in words preached instead of personal experience and reflection. Live, reflect, and choose the compassionate path.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  11. StopTryingToRewriteHistory

    I'll just say that Jennifer Wright Knust has created a god after her own choosing and then wrest the scriptures in support of that god. The bible calls that idolatry.

    She errs in the opening of this article by saying there are two creation stories. There isn't First there is a general accounting of all creation, then we get a detailed accounting of man and woman and what happened in the garden. The next 65 books continues to focus on mankind since that is its main theme.

    The rest of the article continues as it begins,.... in support of the god she created after her own liking. Her primary premise for scripture is this: "Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways."

    It sure can if your hermeneutics are a mess and you need to promote your own idea of what god is instead of what God says He is and what He says is right and what is wrong.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • Are you kidding me

      I agree, sounds like she saw a market to make some money and randomly picked a side to go with and then misquoted and misinterperted the written facts and stamped her opinion on it to facilitate that specific group of people.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • Nonimus

      Sounds to me like she is just presenting her interpretation of the Bible, which is the only thing anyone can do. No one knows the perfect interpretation of the Bible, so unless God wants to show up in person and say, "This is what I meant..." isn't anyone's interpretation just as valid as anyone else's.

      February 10, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  12. momofone

    All I can say is WOW...you have GOT to be kidding me. .Just when you think you have heard it all. Yes, sometimes people THINK they are too smart...in this case, it is definitely NOT for your own good. You can discuss all the theology until you are blue in the face, but until you "get" the GRACE and FAITH part you will continue to debate without true understanding as in Isaiah .....they will be ever perceiving, and ever hearing, but never understanding. It's AMAZING the patience God exudes from His throne, but more importantly the LOVE and MERCY He reaches down with every day. I wonder how many "scholarly" people such as this actually ask GOD for HIS understanding and take on it?

    February 10, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  13. Liz

    I would love to hear you debate this with Rev Paul D. Mooney. He would blow you out of the water!

    February 10, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  14. KidCanada

    If you let the bible or any religious figurehead dictate your life, is a life not worth living!
    Especially blatant plagiarism!

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

      You imply "let" as an easy way. What if a person decides to live by the dicates of a relgious text? Would you be so critical of a monk from Tibet living his lonely life as a Preacher from South Carolina? What about a believer in Darwinism (which is a belief unless one claims to understand everything about evolution).....do they let themselves be dictated in this life?

      February 10, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Nonimus

      The Theory of Evolution is not a belief, it is based on facts, scientific laws, observation, testing, and verification. As you suggest, no single person fully understands every single detail about evolution, it is too complex and there is too much data (the number of human ancestor fossils alone would be hard for one person to be fully knowledgable on.) However, it is not a matter of faith, but a matter of trust. Science is about testing and retesting, so we trust that each scientist or group of scientists that tests and each scientist or group of scientists that reproduces those tests to verify them has done their job properly. In addition, if there is a question as to validity of the data or tests, then anyone is free to retest again to verify the results. If no one can reproduce the test and get similar results, then the data is suspect until someone can. A good example of this process is the claims by Fleischmann and Pons in 1989 of possible cold fusion. It made big news for awhile until other scientist attempted the same tests and did not get the same results.

      February 10, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Kendall

      "However, it is not a matter of faith, but a matter of trust."

      There are many that "trust" in the Lord as much as you "trust" in the science. And of course evolution may be based on facts but it is a theory...and not a fact unto itself. We do not have the means to really test evolution. Sure we can string along theories and there is nothing wrong with that. However, there are just as many ppl that put their faith in evolution as those that put their faith in God.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Kendall

      @Nonimus- Of course the other problem is that we try to mix spirituality with science. They don't mesh really well. I mean, there are those that would ask how wide or tall God is. How much does he weigh? Are those fair questions?

      How much love is there in DNA? How much righteousness is inside you? Work out the equation for awe.

      Those questions are no more fair to ask a scientist than asking how tall God is to a Pastor.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Sorry I wasn't clear. It's not a "trust in science," the trust I was talking about was trusting that the scientist did their job. Science is by far the best method man has found to investigate and understand how the world works, but it is still just a method not a thing to be trusted or not. The evidence that the method, science, has worked is in the ability to use the results. Predicting a ballistic trajectory, water boiling at 212F at sea level, predicting the next eclipse, plastic, computers, airplanes, MRIs, modern agriculture, medicine, etc., etc., etc. Understanding evolution has helped in bringing about new plants for better farming and new medicines and understanding disease. Last years rapid development of vacine for the H1N1 virus was due in part to advances in genetics and evolutionary biology research.

      Is Evolution a Theory or a Fact?
      "It is both. But that answer requires looking more deeply at the meanings of the words 'theory' and 'fact.'"
      ( U.S. National Academies of Science, http://www.nationalacademies.org/evolution/TheoryOrFact.html )

      February 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Nonimus

      I can understand that God's height is at a minimum irrelevant and possibly a nonsensical question. However, even if there is a God and He is supernatural, i.e. outside the purview of science, His actions in this world would leave evidence of those actions. For example, "In the beginning..." if God created the universe 6K to 10K years ago, how is it that we see light from stars more that 10K light years away? He might have created the universe already 'old' with light already in transit, but that would mean that some stars that we see never existed, which seems deceptive. My point, however, is that His actions in this world have consequences which we should be able to detect, so some science questions about God are perfectly valid.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Nonimus

      PS there are 3 micro-cupids or love in each base pair of DNA.

      Sorry, just couldn't resist.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Kendall

      "PS there are 3 micro-cupids or love in each base pair of DNA"

      Lol...well...gotta have some fun with this stuff after all.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • Kendall

      "His actions in this world would leave evidence of those actions."

      As you sort of pointed out, some would say just being is evidence. And your point about how old the universe is would be relevant if one was a literalist with the Bible. I personally am not since I know man put the book together and like science..can screw up the facts. Though to be clear, I do believe that the Bible was inspired by God. Just as I believe that certain aspects of the theory of evolution is inspired by science.

      February 11, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  15. Tom

    Wow. Over 3000 replies. Apparently CNN got just what they wanted by publishing this lady's load of bilge. As with all this nonsense, non-believers will flock to it as somehow providing conclusive evidence that justifies their non-belief. For that, the author will someday be held responsible.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • ryan

      at least lots of the replies are calling the bible what it is...BS. Yes, its no coincidence that "Bible Study" and "Bull $h|t" use the same letters.

      February 10, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  16. Rubiconis

    There is no god you fools, just live a good life, dont hurt others around you and you'll be fine. This bible mumbo jumbo means nothing in today's modern world.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • US Patriot

      Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus... There will come a day when EVERY knee shall bow, and EVERY tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord. That day is approaching. Our Lord will come as a thief in the night... when all least expect it... are YOU ready?

      February 10, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Kendall

      Why should we live a "good" life? What the heck does that even mean if one does not equate a spiritual quality to it?

      February 10, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  17. Bubba Schmo

    Yeow!! Could anyone possibly read the Bible and get it more wrong than her??? How many bottles of whiteout do you suppose she went through to get to these conclusions???

    February 10, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • Are you kidding me

      At least 666. lol

      February 10, 2011 at 9:09 am |
    • kelsey

      i agree, she is jsut looking for loopholes that allow her to get away with telling me its okay to sin. shes playing with words.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  18. ryan

    Or, instead of straining to interpret a book written by delusional desert wanderers who were probably convinced the earth was flat...you could just ignore it and realize that god is imaginary, and that we have to take responsibility for our problems ourselves, and not trust "the invisible hand" to guide us.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:01 am |
    • ken

      OK. First off, can you name one point in History when humankind has ever been able to handle "our own" Problems? Have you read the news lately? Let me know how that goes for you(waiting on people to fix their own self made issues).

      February 10, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Kendall

      Wow...either you are bold or dumb to basically call an entire ppl delusional and ignorant. Maybe you have some deep understanding of the nature of the universe that the normal human does not....or you are just a typical modern day sheep following what you have faith in but probably don't undertsand.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  19. Mark

    To start off, the grammar to this article is bad. One example: "We often hears that Christians have..." Huh??? Your interpretation of the Bible is off as well. Pretty steep price tag on your book.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  20. gisele

    Jennifer Wright Knust why are you trying to be EVIL...Jesus Christ love you too. SIN is a SIN...no matter how you want to justify it. Jesus is Lord ..Get closer to God and He will teach you more and more.

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

      Great article! Too bad many of the other comments insist on flattening the beautiful complexity of the Bible to turn it into a crutch for their bigoted brand of evangelistic hate.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • GW

      Yes, Knowledge and Reason are EVIL, aren't they? Sooo scary!!

      February 10, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Kendall

      @Chuck- Actually....the author got quite a bit wrong with this article. One of the most blaring is the screw up she did with Genesis. There are 2 stories but of the same event. The northern kingdom of Israel had one story (the first story) and the kingdom of Judah had another (the more detailed second story). The evidence of this is in how God is named in the hebrew versions. In Chapt 1 God is referred to as Elohim while in the 2nd chapt he is referred to as YHWH.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:38 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.