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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. David

    Your thinking is all messed up... God is God & He is not a man that He lie; so your just talking foolishness.

    February 11, 2011 at 4:16 am |
  2. mike

    Perfect example of "selective" theology -justifying licentiousness. Why not just quote John 13:27 and apply it to anything?

    February 11, 2011 at 4:02 am |
  3. osiversen

    Now you have insulted the Christian faith, why about you try to interpret the Koran next! Surely you are not afraid of a few muslims?

    February 11, 2011 at 4:02 am |
  4. Leonardo

    The Bible is fiction and this discussion banal !!

    February 11, 2011 at 3:56 am |
  5. Ioan Emil

    " Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable." Leviticus 18:22. I wonder if "pastor" Jennifer Wright Knust has in her bible that verse? Anybody who reads the Bible once becomes a pastor!, and than interprets the Holly scriptures upon his or her will. Is that the case here?

    February 11, 2011 at 3:48 am |
  6. WillyLeaks

    God save us!

    February 11, 2011 at 3:44 am |
  7. A believer

    We are truly in the end times 1 Timothy 4:1-3. Maranatha!

    February 11, 2011 at 3:39 am |
  8. Ann

    Wow! Jennifer Wright Knust, obviously you know nothing about Bible truths! I hope you really take the time to study the Bible. Your opinions are so far away from what the Bible teaches. You should be very careful when tackling important topics like this.

    February 11, 2011 at 3:38 am |
  9. Rogie

    The Bible is a man-made random series of letters and philosophical treatises that refelect their authors politics, prejudices, pedantry and plain delusions too. It has been translated, edited and politicised countless times to give us the mindbending mish-mash that it is today...and the process continues into tomorrow.
    But what it does do is invite you to use the 'Godgiven' power of your own mind. Good luck with that.

    February 11, 2011 at 3:20 am |
  10. Lucio

    Hi reading that I was just reminding what my parish priest used to say: "Bible is like old women skin you can stretch wherever you want. I apologize with old women it is just an example. Anyway great fantasy and huge goodwilling but it is not enough for a meaningful book about Bible.

    February 11, 2011 at 3:15 am |
  11. Jessica

    The bible was written by people and personally I think who pretend to know what God knows or thinks or wants are taking quite a high-minded stand...

    February 11, 2011 at 3:14 am |
  12. MD

    Jennifer Wright Knust are you a born again Christian or just a Bible scholar and pastor ?
    Have you really experience God ?

    February 11, 2011 at 3:11 am |
  13. KP

    Christ is my life! And until you really know Christ, you can't and won't understand what life is all about. If you sincerely ask God to show you the truth(,God knows your heart)He WILL show you that Jesus is the only way , the truth and the life. Jesus says this about Himself. He wants to know you and is giving you the opportunity right now as you read this, to find out the truth. If anyone sincerely wants to know Him, He will reveal the truth to them. Works every time! But it's only to those who are sincerely searching. You can't fool God.

    February 11, 2011 at 3:07 am |
  14. flo

    Sodom is always used to slander and defame same-gender love. In fact the story of Sodom is about violation and selfishness, not about love. Had the people of Sodom been honorable and responsible lovers, nothing would have happened.
    It is longing for the Angels of God, demanding something violently that is based on selfishness that is the sin.
    Same-gender couples and love based on mutual respect and care have nothing to do with this.
    Stop slandering and defaming people based on wrongly inferred assumptions.

    February 11, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  15. klinejo

    The bible is not for anyones interpretation. Let the bible interpret itself. It is God's divine word in print and therefore has the only valid interpretation. This article just shows a lack for biblical knowledge!

    February 11, 2011 at 2:36 am |
    • flo

      the bible was written 1850-4000 years ago, by authors with a horizon limited by the state of knowledge of their time, and often speaking to a specific societal situation. Interpreting it without taking this into account is very dangerous.

      February 11, 2011 at 2:58 am |
    • HotAirAce

      The bible is a piece of crap, manmade mythology and bad fiction that should be discarded at every opportunity. I allow none in our home and routinely dispose of any I find in a hotel room.

      February 11, 2011 at 3:28 am |
  16. Jude

    Jennifer, what have u done?

    February 11, 2011 at 2:25 am |
  17. Tango Bravo

    Frank Johnson (aka Jesus Christ) was a time traveler who wasn't able to return to this timeline because a critical component failed on his machine. I work with him at the time travel research center several hundred years in the future. He says hi.

    February 11, 2011 at 2:03 am |
  18. watzerface

    Garbage in, garbage out. Pathetic, twisted and perverted interpretation. God help us.

    February 11, 2011 at 1:54 am |
    • Anita

      I agree with watzerface, garbage in, garbage out. If she knew her bible better, she would know what happened to Sodom, what sodomy means and what it points to, and she would realise that the "spirit man and woman" was created, then put into the body called Adam, and the female (byproduct) was taken out of Adam body, together with her feminine spirit, and both, are actually one, because they came from one unity, and so, WE are a spirit, that was in Christ, and when He was put to sleep, WE. his bride, were taken from his side. She also ofcourse will know that she has no business interpreting (preaching) as a preacher, is the HUSBAND of one wife and not the Wife of one Husband. She is NOT to USURP authority over the man, but to remain silent in church.

      February 11, 2011 at 2:58 am |
  19. Sir Crispin

    1 Corinthians 6:9 in the original text only referred to the catamite, the catcher, as not inheriting the kingdom. The giver was perfectly ok, it was just bad to be the effeminate, submissive one on the receiving end. Get your facts in order people before you start citing a book you faithful know pitifully little about, yet make it the focus of your lives. Those of you attacking Ms. Knust because she contradicts your narrow, blinded interpretations only demonstrate what ignorant automatons you really are. No wonder you need religion to dictate every aspect of your lives, you are too dense to think for yourselves.

    February 11, 2011 at 1:53 am |
    • Gustav

      Clearly you didn't read the article properly, or the Bible. Almost everything this woman said has either been carefully misconstrued or taken out of context. Study, not read!

      February 11, 2011 at 2:12 am |
    • Mike

      @ Gustav: Clearly you have not read the Bible. You'd be better off not commenting at all.. at least you wouldn't make a fool of yourself..

      February 11, 2011 at 2:37 am |
  20. Tim

    Well from what I have read the bible is mostly made up human man, (that had prejudices, biases, failures, fears) there is alot of interperation by the person who preceived or believes they translated the wording correctly. We all know that the people of the time were mostly illerate and uneducated. Depends where you go in the middle east or even other countries, there are difference meanings to almost the same word spelling. When I read the Bible I get a feeling what is truth and what is false. I believe it's god leading in what he truly gave to the world. If you can find a old bible that discuss salvery was fine, or even white people were better then black people. Do you really think Jesus believed that? I believes there too many unanswered stories in the Bible to follow it 100% in life.

    February 11, 2011 at 1:41 am |
    • Vijay

      CNN should be sorry about publishing this kinda of crap, if they continue like this may be after 50-100 years later they might say Harry Potter really existed and lived sometime back...This is all crap..its all ones interpretation, take couple of chapters from bible and twist it what you think about it and CNN publishes it, this is stupidity on CNN's part and they should be responsible on what they are publishing

      February 11, 2011 at 2:10 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.