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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. jayman419

    Go to youtube and watch?v=OFkeKKszXTw. It is "Betty Bowers Explains Traditional Marriage". It can not be summed up any better than that.

    February 19, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  2. Rob

    Mumbo Jumbo! Mumbo Jumbo! Mumbo Jumbo!

    Do any of you people realize how silly this is?

    What if I say I believe in Greek Gods and Zeus says it's ok to be gay? Would you say that those are just stories and not nearly as real your religion? Don't you see it's all the same? Just old stories that explain the natural would.

    February 19, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  3. johman

    God is gay. How do I know. The dude keeps tweeting me out to go on a date with him.

    February 19, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Muneef

      Al-Anaam sura 06:
      Revile not those unto whom they pray beside Allah lest they wrongfully revile Allah through ignorance. Thus unto every nation have We made their deed seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return, and He will tell them what they used to do. (108).

      February 19, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  4. Marge

    Jonathon and David were drama queens, big time.

    February 19, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  5. Osinachi Nwoko

    You are a biblical scholar who hasn"t read her bible properly. Please read Romans 1:26, 27.

    February 19, 2011 at 4:20 am |
  6. Mike P.

    What everyone needs to understand is this article is only this delusional womans OPINION. There are no facts in her little fantasy story. She has chosen to twist God's Holy Word into something it is not, never was, and never will be, just to fit into what SHE thinks it should say. I truly pity anyone who listens to her at all, all of us should be intelligent enough to not buy any of her hooey!

    February 18, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
  7. shutahekup

    With all his knowledge he's still lost. You can read the Bible 100 times and still be lost. The Holy Spirit brings understanding.

    February 18, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
  8. The LORD

    Christians are such tools....

    February 18, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  9. agnosticone

    the guy who posted that the bible is a STORY (richard gardner) is the one who makes the most sense.

    February 18, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  10. It is common logic flaw

    The positions in this article and comment are classic examples of predisposition determines your conclusion interpretation of a text. The attempt of higher criticism of any text (Bible or any other text) requires one to first determine if they are going to hold a consistent logical position of Eisegesis or Exegesis interpretation. Eisegesis says one looks at a text to find and substantiate their own view (presupposition). Exegesis means I am going to look at text to determine what it says for its self, whether it agrees with my presuppositions or not. In other words, let the text speak for itself. One-way people reveal how they interpret text is by asking, “what does the text mean to you.” This shows a preference of eisegesis as a way to interpret text. If I am asking that of a poem, I am expressing how it agrees or disagrees with me or makes me feel. However, the question and the answer may have nothing to do with expressing what the author felt when it was written, felt after it was written, or interpreted it in the future. We use this logic when we are in literature class by studying poems and determining how they make us feel and then discussing what the author intended and how their opinion may have changed. When we read an authors poem we most generally don’t challenge if they wrote it. There is another discipline we do when we read a poets poem we apply historical hermeneutics. Meaning we use the definition of the word when the poem was written while taking in the context of the cultures use of the word. Interpreting the Bible using eisegesis means you are looking for your own opinions. When the text conflicts with your opinion the text is deemed as flawed. However, if you read the Bible with the goal of finding the author’s intent then you use exegesis logic and the flaws are not found. You may not agree with the author’s positions, but you will understand the author’s position. Only when people don’t like the Bibles opinion do people declare God does not exist. I am all right with people not believing in God and the Bible being God revelation to man. However, one point of many facts about the Bible, (do the statistical math) find another book made up of 66 books written by 40 authors (most who never new of or met each other) over thousands of years. And, when you apply exegesis logic reveals an integrated story that rises to the detail of holographic inscription. I am sorry for the author of this articles flawed logic and fact-less research. Salvation is a matter of accepting God for who He is, who we are, and our need for right relationship with Him. People who don’t want to accept God, for who he is, generally attack God and the Bible because they don’t want to be judged by God in the end. Not man, but God.

    February 18, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Magic

      "...book made up of 66 books written by 40 authors (most who never new of or met each other) over thousands of years."

      The authorship of the various books of the Bible is quite unknown in most cases. Old timey stories were handed down for generation upon generation of primitive Middle Eastern people before they were even attempted to be written down. Certainly the 'authors' of later books were aware of these stories.

      The 66 books which you refer to were chosen by church 'authorities' centuries later (for one arbitrary reason or another) from many, many others.

      p.s. Next time, please use paragraphs in your post.... this one was torture on the eyes to read.

      February 18, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • TJ

      Finally, a sound and logical summation of this article. Faith in God, Love your fellow human beings, Live – Laugh – Love...Let God take care of the rest...that is all that is required.

      February 19, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  11. Jim R

    I'm and atheist and I think this is a great article.

    February 18, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  12. Amber

    I really can’t focus on the content of this article because of the typo.
    “We often hears....”
    I’d like to offer my services as a proof-reading college student. Due compensation will of course be appreciated.

    February 18, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  13. Ryan

    Man, this chick is a quack. Cookoo! Cookoo!

    February 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  14. dslguy

    I do belive in god just to be clear and the concept of everything it stands for as far as being good to other human biengs and all living creatures alike, it's a good way for us to live, be kind, be giving and just love instead of hate. To me the question of god is to big for man to know, we could never know if such a thing is true and the only real way to know is in death and faith, it is to me just to big for us to know. god bless and be kind to one and all.

    February 18, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  15. mc

    The easter bunny demands his blood sacrifice! HE IS COMING! And as the purple unicorns fly through the sky, all ye shall know the wrath of the bunny. REPENT, dye some eggs, wrap yourself in that fake plastic grass-stuff that comes in easter baskets and the bunny shall shower you with gold as he rides his gleaming unicycle through the heavens!

    February 18, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  16. Summer

    i BELIEVE IN JESUS CHRIST. I KNOW HE LIVES. I KNOW THE BIBLE IS THE WORD OF GOD.
    i don't believe these things, I KNOW them. I don't know them because i can prove them scientifically, mathematically or otherwise, I know they are true because the Spirit of God has wispered to my heart that they are true, and once you know His voice, you cannot deny it.
    In the name of Jesus Christ, this is my testimony! Amen.

    February 18, 2011 at 2:18 am |
    • mc

      Yeah, that same voice keeps "whispering to my heart" but it always says stuff like "kill john lennon" and "shoot up a post office"...

      February 18, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • WallaWalla

      Which is weird, because John Lennon's already dead.

      February 18, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • Summer

      I don't believe God sanctions murder... that would be a contradiction. duh.

      February 18, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • babzilicious

      Summer, have you read the Old Testament lately? God sanctioned all kinds of murders – of entire tribes of peoples, so that the Israelites could have their land/women/cows/whatever. Add to that all the people whose murders were sanctioned by God because they didn't follow one of the over 500 Mosaic laws, and it's a miracle anyone survived to write the New Testament. Duh, indeed.

      February 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Muneef

      Was that Jerusalem of Old Era or Palestine of New Era.? How thoughtful !

      February 18, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  17. kevin

    this is a perfect example of what is happening to our churches......and God aint happy..

    February 17, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  18. richard gardner

    Interesting argument, but it fails in one important point. The bible is a STORY book, not fact. To all of you who use religion to write laws you are wrong. There really is no argument about it.

    February 17, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • allfaith

      There's some good ideas in the bible, but you're right, it's just a book. A book that was written a long time ago when the social structure of the world was much different. And to top it off, it was written in a language that does not use the same verbal devices or nuances, then over a couple of thousand years it was edited and abridged to suit the needs of different countries and churches.

      February 17, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • agnosticone

      a man with whom I can completely agree! Bravo for one of the few sane posts!

      February 18, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
    • Jen R

      I once heard the bible being referred to as being the most successful fantasy novel of all time. I like that description. I just wish that it wasn't used to justify hateful laws which deny consenting adults the right to marry.

      February 18, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
  19. Will

    I'm gay, and I'm a Christian, and I forgive you all for judging me. Just remember what the Bible says about passing judgment.

    February 17, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • Summer

      Hi Will, I'm not gay, but I am a Mormon/Christian and I don't judge you. In the Bible, Jesus Christ tells me to love you and everyone else. He tells me not to judge you. And, even though I do not disagree with your lifestyle, it doesn't mean I think you're a bad person. We just have a different way of living.

      February 18, 2011 at 1:57 am |
    • TruthSeeker

      Sorry, that is a cop out. God's Word is very plain and clear on the subject. We are all just sinners, some of whom have received God's unmerited favor. None of us is "better" than you. But sorry, your behavior is described in God's Word as sin if you are willing to take the Scripture at face value. Romans 1:27 "and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error."

      February 18, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  20. Rob D

    For all of you who think the last book of The Bible is Revelations you NEED TO LOOK AT THE SPELLING. In mine and everyone else's that I have looked at it is Revelation.

    February 17, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Mike K.

      Suffice it to say, I would not go to this so-called lady preacher's to hear her preach The Gospel.

      Man's problem is and always has been about his disobedience to God. God never ordained a woman to preach; there's no such birthday of Christ as December 25th; Easter is a practice brought in by the Roman Emporer, in concert with the Roman Catholic Pope @ the Council of Nicea in 325 A. D. Parents still teach their children 'the Christmas Lie'. The Bible contains none of these dates, holidays or people (i.e., Santa Claus and the Bunny who lays hard-boiled painted eggs!). These things came from the minds of men – NOT God!

      A lot of folks today don't believe the Books of the Old Testament; niether feel bound to practice any of God's Commandments to men which are contained therein.

      February 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • allfaith

      Judge not lest yee be judged... Remember, what we see in others is what we see in ourselves. Do you see any good when you look at another human being?

      February 17, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
    • Julibear

      Mike K, just because you've never been told that God ordained a woman to preach doesn't mean it didn't happen. Check out the Gnostic Gospels. Mary known as Magdalene was Jesus' wife and his apostle.

      February 18, 2011 at 4:07 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.