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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. DAVINCIKODE

    This author is evil.

    February 10, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  2. Raymond

    It always amazes me how people who purport to be Christians can espouse such much hate. It's either their way or the highway. Why can’t you live and let live. The Bible was not written by God. The books that are in the bible were chosen by men and the selected books represented the majority view of the time, leaving out "books" which were considered not in tune with the prevailing opinion. So much for the Holy Bible or that it is God's word. The Bible is contradictory in many of its passages and many of the things in it were written for the 4th century mind, it doesn't hold water in the 21st century.
    So all you people haters who are God lovers, worry about yourselves and FORGET about the rest of us, SAVE YOURSELVES don't bother about saving anyone else. My wife and I automatically distrust people who proclaim to be Christian or of any religion for that matter as most have proved to be hypocritical, self righteous, ignorant busybodies. May God bring enlightenment to your small medieval minds permitting you to practice what you preach, LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS YOUR SELF.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  3. RG

    "Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts..." This one is a scoffer (false teacher). There are no contradictions in the word of God. It is infallible and innerant and it is also clear about what is going to happen to false teachers who lead people astray.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  4. Raymond

    It always amazes me how people who purport to be Christians can espouse such much hate. It's either their way or the highway. Why can’t you live and let live. The Bible was not written by God. The books that are in the bible were chosen by men and the selected books represented the majority view of the time, leaving out "books" which were considered not in tune with the prevailing opinion. So much for the Holy Bible or that it is God's word. The Bible is contradictory in many of its passages and many of the things in it were written for the 4th century mind, it doesn't hold water in the 21st century.
    So all you people haters who are God lovers, worry about yourselves and FORGET about the rest of us, SAVE YOURSELVES don't bother about saving anyone else. My wife and I automatically distrust people who proclaim to be Christian or of any religion for that matter as most have proved to be hypocritical, self righteous, ignorant busybodies. May God bring enlightenment to your small medieval minds permitting you to practice what you preach, LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS YOUR SELF.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  5. One_Believer

    This is the worse Blasphemy that has come out of the mouth of this woman. So much study, has twisted her brains.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  6. Concerned

    One of the worst waste of time, words and saliva... This woman cannot be more ignorant because she is not bigger..LOL
    the worse garbage I have ever heard.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  7. Mike

    All this literal translation is SO silly. So much effort, energy placed on interpreting allegory. Religion is such a waste of time.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
  8. Tekpilot

    As is written, " They did what was right in their own eyes" was just prior to Gods Judgment on Israel. Be thankful that now he looks at the world through Jesus's eye's.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
  9. sergio

    Listen all of you. GOD's main message is to love one another. PERIOD!!!!! All the bible is, is commentary. I can care less about your religious beliefs. Just honor GOD, with love for your fellow man. Use the bible for inspiration in your life. Man throughout the ages have abused the bible for their own gain. Don't continue this cycle, in your life. If you believe in GOD, as I do. Then just try to lead a good life, and help your fellow man in need. Peace be with you, SERG

    February 10, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • Hayden

      I agree with you Sergio, and I say Amen to your message. Lead a good life, hold on to "Your God" and be kind to one another. People in general agree to dis-agree, we can be a much better society if we show love and good deeds toward each other and help those out in need instead of judging one another. Make yourselve's feel better by leading a good like and hoping that there is life after death and it will be a better life in heaven then the one we have here on earth.

      February 10, 2011 at 11:42 pm |
  10. dontCareWhat Uthink

    This writer is a moron, and can not except what is written Sorry folks, you can rewrite history, squelch people's freedom of speech with politically correctness, but gods word is gods word.
    And before someone starts spewing their condemnation on me, this is the bible believe it or don't, but if you don't keep your mouth shut about how we interpret OUR belief. As for believers, stop trying to twist the bible to suit your selfish desires, you know, god knows the past & future (he wrote it) his morality is not going to "change with the times". You may not like it, but his infinite wisdom puts your moral manipulative minds to shame, he / she knows what he is doing.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • lameve

      agree with you brotha. Gbu

      February 10, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
  11. Rob B

    If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.(Leviticus 20:13) Not sure how it gets any plainer than that. I wish these people would just say that they hate God and want to outlaw christianity instead of trying to change people's minds. This isn't new, they've been trying for 150 years to say this same thing. I don't know why they keep presenting this as something new. It hasn't worked in the past 150 years since the enlightenment and it won't work now. Just say that you hate God and christians and be truthful for once.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • Jesse

      Again, this sort of reasoning and taking the Bible literally would mean then that according to Paul's gospels' it is God's will for us to own to mistreat slaves. How you can reconcile your conscience with the God you profess to believe is beyond me.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
    • Chris

      Leviticus were rules for living directed specifically at the Jews. Today most of those rules are rejected as not applying anymore. Why can you reject most everything in Leviticus as not applying to today, but you still hold on to one passage that applies to Israeli men being intimate with other men. According to Leviticus, a woman is deemed unclean when she is menstruating. You are not supposed to sit in chair of a woman who is menstruating. After her menstruation, she is to take two turtledoves or pigeons to a priest for sacrifice as an offering. It also says that there shall be no work on the sabbath. Leviticus could not be any clearer. You are also not suppose to eat rabbit, or pig. Eating Bacon is a sin. Violates Leviticus 11-7. But, guess, what, though you can't eat bacon anymore Rob, you are allowed to eat Locust!!!!! Yay!

      February 10, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • Bob

      Jessie,
      Slavery is a fact of history. There is not a person alive who does not have a slave ancestor some where in their family tree, it may be a couple thousand years ago or merely a hundred and fifty years ago in the U.S. Matter of fact there are still slaves on earth in the enlightened 21st Century. Paul was not writing to encourage slavery, but to admonish slave and master to love and care for each other, to do right by each other. Christianity offers the ultimate infreedom and equality.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
    • Rob

      The ignorant will never understand your point Rob B. This generation is a blind perverted generation. They are drunk and blinded with perversion. However when the Lord comes their knees will buckle with fear. Let them laugh for now. Peace and love my brother.

      February 10, 2011 at 10:11 pm |
    • Jet

      I'm a Christian. I love God. I love my fellow Christians. I love you. Also.........I am gay. You & I don't agree with this ONE issue. I'm OK with that. You & I simply don't interpret the scriptures exactly the same way about this. I don't hate you for that. So, when you ask for people like me to just go ahead & admit that I hate God and want to outlaw Christianity, it really saddens me. It makes you come across as an angry, closed minded, judgmental hater. If you're a Christian, then I know that can't be the case, because people who have Christ in their hearts are loving, compassionate, kind, forgiving, etc. I just wanted to remind you of that. Thanks and God bless.

      February 10, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • Chris

      @Bob, thanks for informing everybody the obvious. I did not know slavery was a fact of history. What does that have to do with the other commenter's intent? You still avoided the issue....

      Let me ask you Bob, yes or no, is slavery wrong? Yes, or no, does the Bible say slavery is a sin? If yes, where?

      By following your logic, one would arrive at the conclusion that slavery is ok as long as you "treat" your slave well........

      February 10, 2011 at 10:17 pm |
    • Ben D

      Wait, wait... Rob. The Enlightenment was 150 years ago? I mean, it's one thing to believe that the Bible was written by the Hand of God, when it never claims to have been... but to insinuate that The Enlightenment occurred in 1861.... That's a little silly.

      February 10, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  12. ismael

    the Bible is the truth. What does the Bible say about what you have said? There is no way that the Bible can give mixed messages. The Bible says one thing: men with men is an abomination to God. It is sin. You can't let outside philosophical ideas or rabinical debates influence the interpretation of the Bible. These are just sayings of men. The Word of God is what stands. Just let the Bible speak for itself.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • Jesse

      So by your reasoning we should still have slaves. Real intelligent.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • Chris

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RB3g6mXLEKk

      Everyone should watch this....

      February 10, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • Martell

      Too bad "Man" and not "God" has changed the words in the Bible thousands of times.. So if it ever was the "word of God", that message has since been scewed many times over..

      February 10, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  13. Peter

    Great article and AT LAST someone uses religion to unite, not to divide, not to make a buck. The simple fact that this was written in a way that does not prosecute is in my view what God intended...heaven.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • B

      I'm a Christian and believe whole-heartedly in gay marriage. People would be surprised how many Christians feel the same way I do. We're just not as vocal as the extremes. No doubt, we should be more vocal. But like Jon Stewart says, "There's no rallying cry that goes 'Let's be REASONABLE!'"

      February 10, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
  14. E.M.

    So, lady, where are your references from Scripture? It sounds like you're pulling this crap out of thin air and you have no idea what the Bible really says. Educate yourself, don't come up with your own interpretation just because you don't like the truth. You're distorting Scripture, putting words in God's mouth. If someone actually believes this foolishness, shame on you for leading them astray.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Leo

      "don't come up with your own interpretation just because you don't like the truth"

      Ironic, seeing how you take thousand-year-old writings as "truth" LOL

      February 10, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  15. hi

    Where does jesus discourage marriage?

    February 10, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
  16. Kazz

    You ought to be a shamed of yourself with this dribble...........it's no wonder people are turning in record numbers away from the bible and the True God.......there is huge accountability in the eyes of True God when you misrepresent him so horrifically and mislead others........you dont represent Him at all........no othere words need to be wasted here.

    February 10, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
  17. Mike

    Oh please, Christians need to realise that this is an absolute non-issue....live and let live

    February 10, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
  18. Cami

    Gay lifestyle gives a lot of pleasure i support it it's awesome, the bible should teach about it since childhood, thumbs up

    February 10, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • Nolan

      Ew. I'd rather not hear about your "pleasure" would you like to know mine before I was truly following Christ? Haha. I could go in detail? Some people are unbelievable.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  19. SurRy

    Why not include what Grimm and Aesop thought?

    February 10, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
    • matt

      Good idea...since it's all fiction anyway.

      February 10, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  20. Camar

    You know what it comes down to, don't you? If you can get past the first verse of the Bible, everything falls into place. "In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth"
    Now, personally, I was once asked, "What is easier to believe? That nothing exploded and became the Universe or God said "BE" and it was? Hmmmmmm. I'll stick with the Intelligent choice, the thinking mans choice.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:52 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.