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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. 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 is inspired by God. Just as I believe that certain aspects of evolution is inspired by science.

    February 10, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  2. B.J. Moritz

    I always knew David and Jonathan had a little something-something going on between them!

    February 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  3. zach

    This is an exegetical nightmare

    February 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  4. zach

    this article is an exegetical nightmare

    February 10, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  5. joelpilon@gmail.com

    You have absolutely distorted scripture! You have tried to make God conform to your divisive, heretical beliefs.

    Furthermore you call yourself a pastor! What does the Bible have to say about women as pastors? Or do you want to distort that as well? Shame on you! You are leading people astray, and God will hold you accountable. Severely accountable.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Bethay

      Very well stated! I agree totally, and I find it very saddening that people who call themselves "christians" like to interpert God's word so it can fit their lives.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  6. EME

    i am more concerned about the evils associated with Christianity. it appears to have eroded the mind of most Nigerians. nobody want to think any more, they trust what their preachers say more than what their brain says.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  7. Interesting

    I don't agree with pretty much any of this.
    If you're curious about this topic check this out: http://rivchurch.com/grow/weekend-services/messages/
    Under the tab that says "series" go to the one that says "eXposed"

    February 10, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  8. Mark

    Wow, how saddening it is to find so many people who, rather than seeking for the ultimate truth, they'd rather bruise anything they can in order to feel like they are in the "right." We are an ignorant , self-seeking, complacent people who would rather spend all day arguing for something that simply sounds good or trying to defeat something that would threaten the way they live. Only lifelessness can summarize the people who act in this way.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  9. Pastor Justin

    Twist not scripture lest ye (Jennifer) be like Satan! Jennifer obviously doesn't know anything about properly exegeting pericopes of scripture.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  10. Reality

    Saving Muslims and Christians is quite easy!!!

    Muslims believe in the existence of angels.

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam

    And to put a final nail into Christianity:

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

    "Heaven is a Spirit state" as per JPII and Aquinas i.e. there can be no bodies. i.e. there was and never will be any physical resurrection/ascension of human bodies."

    And is it not ironical that JPII along with Aquinas are the ones who put finality to the words "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless."

    February 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  11. Michael

    Your entire approach to scripture is completely skewed. Parts of this article made me laugh, they were so ridiculous, but overall I was saddened by how you've been manipulated into believing and supporting a lie. Prayin' for you!

    February 10, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Bethay

      Amen!!!!!!!

      February 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  12. gabriel

    Bible AND interpretation fail. Liberal and conservative crying. we get it. shut up

    February 10, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  13. Reality Check

    Reality, you seem to write the same misguided stuff on every blog. Why do you waste so much time? You don't seem to understand that liberal bible scholars still believe in the resurrection, just that it was spiritual as opposed to physical. Just FYI... Where you seem to see a contradiction to their beliefs in the verses from Corinthians that you post everywhere, they will not see a contradiction. Conservative Christians still believe in a physical resurrection, so they love the verses you quote. In short, the only person you're convincing of anything is yourself. LOL.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  14. J.

    Ms. Knust, you are full of baloney.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  15. Josh

    hahahaha. what a bunch of bs. this is a sad article.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  16. Steve

    Absolutely hilarious interpretation of scripture!

    February 10, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Steve the real one

      I know what you are saying but if anyone is lead astray because of this, neither the author or those she duped will find it funny!

      February 10, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
  17. del

    Biblical interpretation FAIL

    February 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Knust is a heretic

      comment win

      February 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  18. Jose Augusto Acevedo

    Bible passages related to the topic for Ms Wright Knust. I think she needs to learn how to read again

    1.Génesis 19:1-29 (pecado de Sodoma)

    2. Levítico 18:22

    3. Levítico 20:13

    4. Deuteronomio 23:17-18

    5. 1 Reyes 14:24

    6. 1 Reyes 15:12

    7. 1 Reyes 22:46

    8. Jueces 19:22

    9. 2 Reyes 23:7

    10. Romanos 1:24-27

    11. 1 Corintios 6:9

    12. 1 Timoteo 1:8-10

    13. 2 Pedro 2:6

    14. Judas 1:7

    15. Éxodo 20:14 (incluído en Hebreos para “adulterio”)

    16. Deuteronomio 29:23

    17. Génesis 13:13

    18. Isaías 3:9

    19. Isaías 13:19

    20. Jeremías 23:14

    21. Jeremías 49:18

    22. Jeremías 50:40

    23. Lamentaciones 4:6

    24. Amós 4:11

    25. Mateo 10:15 (véase 13. 2 Pedro 2:6)

    26. Lucas 17:29

    Pasajes que directa o indirectamente condenan el travestismo:

    27. Deuteronomio 22:5

    28. 1 Corintios 11:14-1

    29. Génesis 1:27

    30. Génesis 1:28

    31. Génesis 2:18-24

    32. Salmos 139:14

    33. Marcos 10:6-12

    34. 1 Corintios 3:16-17

    35. 1 Corintios 6:19-20

    36. 1 Corintios 7:1-4

    37. 1 Tesalonicenses 5:22-23

    38. Romanos 6:12

    39. Filipenses 3:21

    40. Timoteo I 5:14

    41. Efesios 5:22-25

    42. Tesalonicenses I 5:22

    43. Isaías 5:20-21

    44. I Pedro 2:11

    February 10, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • Josh

      Like.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Steve the real one

      Excellent my brother! This is the 1st time I 've seen anyone on this blog speak this truth in Spanish! Please don't be a stranger to this blog!

      February 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  19. PeterVN

    Given all the debate and commentary about different interpretations of the bible, it seems that the Christian god, a purportedly omnipotent being, has a communication and marketing weakness. It can't reliably get its message out.

    So, Christians, think about this a bit more. This is an all-powerful being that you are claiming, yet it apparently needs a physical book to get its message across. and the messaging is subject to multiple interpretations. That's utterly ridiculous for a "god". An all-powerful being could easily just insert its message into its subjects minds, no book required and no room for interpretation.

    Therefore, the Christian god must be pure fiction. Case closed.

    Tax the churches! And shut them down, for their fraudulent claims.

    February 10, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Cheerupcharlie

      To be fair, it's people who are distorting and interpreting the message... I've been in some lovely debates about different authors, screenwriters, playwriters and what they meant through different narratives and statements.. It doesn't make them not exist, it just means people like to find interpretations of things and debate them... Just lime the 3k people debating thi article- it's message is very clear and yet we pull it apart and debate.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Tyshan

      Burned by the church much?

      February 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Brandon

      @ PeterVN
      Thank you for your comment. You just confirmed what I believe. There were two plans in heaven. One was to have everyone follow Lucifer no one would sin and we all would return to heaven. The second was we would be given free agency to have knowledge of good and evil. Which thus there was a war in Heaven and 1/3 the host of heaven was kicked out to dwell without a physical body on the earth and the other 2/3rds is us. You didn't believe what you wrote when you were in heaven. If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God that giveth to all men liberally and upbradeth not and it shall be given him. Pray and ask God.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Brad

      I understand the point you're making but disagree. You're saying that because God is all-powerful, he shouldn't have to reveal Himself through a book. Why not? If He is really God, does He have to operate on what is, in your mind, human logic? What "power" do you have to be able to say how God should operate? Just my thougths. Thanks.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • PeterVN

      The disagreement over your "god"'s intent and how to interpret its message merely further illustrates my point. Your "god"has a communication problem, and therefore isn't perfect or omnipotent.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  20. ChunckyMonkey

    Ms. Knust, Can we changes the Bible's instructions on taxes too?

    This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Romans 13:6-7 (New International Version, ©2010)

    February 10, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
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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.