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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. irishbluejay

    The fact that none of the religious commentators on this piece cannot agree on interpretation proves the author's point, and the hypocrisy of religion. I'm a secular person, but I applaud Jennifer on a well-drawn out argument.

    February 23, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  2. Yahweh

    4000 responses in my name......how foolish your species is. You quote from the stupid old written words of "mortal humans" who by delusion equated themselves with me....your true god. So I command you to look not beyond my father-mother...Nature herself, for meaningful answers to your humanly ignorant questions. That which you do is permitted only as long as my father-mother sees it as an advantage to your pitiful specie's survival. That you indeed survive and continue to evolve means he/she has permited some of your non-altruistic behaviors. When he/she tires of your narrow-focus and offensive self-interest, you will simply be deselected and replaced by a less troublesome species.

    February 23, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  3. James Simpson

    Imagine that, the Bible contrdicting itself. I'm sure this is the only example.

    February 23, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  4. Ralph

    Are you kidding me? God must be disgusted.

    February 23, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  5. Chase

    I think all religions are interconnected in some way. Just live your life and be a decent person, there is no need for this much thought into the matter. If you overthink and overthink it then you'll never be able to appreciate and respect whatever god you believe in. So shhhhhh

    February 23, 2011 at 1:38 am |
  6. Brad

    Wow. If you are going to do a piece about the bible, you should at least read the parts you are referring to. The biblical inaccuracy in this column is the worst I have ever seen.

    February 22, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  7. Gary

    Contrary to the point of this article, truth does exist. Truth is not what we make up as we go along. Moral relativism always sounds appealing when used to justify ones actions, but it never satisfies those desiring to do right.

    February 22, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  8. Kamakanuiahailono

    Christians came to Hawaii, imposed a man god instead of nature as god.. resulting in genocide of native people and culture.. thank you god.

    February 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  9. Kaelinda

    "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible." – Thomas Aquinas

    February 22, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • James Anderson

      "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

      February 23, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  10. Kaelinda

    Thomas Aquinas said it best, I think. 'For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, no explanation is possible.'

    February 22, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  11. Elected

    Wow Jennifer you really hit it home! Not saying it in a complimentary! This is satanic way I've ever read an interpretaion of the Holy scripture! I take you don't believe in satan either. I just hope that you come to repentance before is too late. I will not share my thoughts because you nor the majority of others who agree with you on this comment site believe in the Bible as the word fo Go. Any well imformed comments that I may share, will not move you. I am only left to wonder what kind of flock you pastor. I know but I wont share it. May God be with you all.

    February 22, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • asrael

      Just think: the English language could actually be your friend one day...

      February 22, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  12. Nathan

    And I should listen to your erroneous interpretation of the Bible because...why? These doctrines you espouse are just the philosophies of men mingled with, yet not supported by, scripture. I have read quite thoroughly the Genesis account, and your interpretation of it is one big joke from end to end. You and your ilk are wolves in sheep's clothing trying to enter into the flock and lead the children of God astray in strange paths.

    February 21, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
    • Leo Gomez

      Nathan-you're a self-righteous moron.

      February 22, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • John

      I completely agree.

      February 23, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  13. NuWinePress.com

    Top 10 Ways we know God loves Gay People http://bit.ly/Godluvsgay

    February 21, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  14. Scott

    Jesus Christ is God (eternal and everlasting, Creator and sustainer of all things). He, God, became a man. As the One who is fully God and fully Man, He fulfilled all prophecies concerning the Christ/Messiah (ex. Isaiah 9:6,7), thus He is the Messiah, who will reign forever. He was crucified, dying on the cross. He physically rose again on the third day, in the same body that was buried in the tomb. People saw Him walking around following His death. They touched Him, the holes in His wrists and in His side. They saw the marks of scouraging on His body. They saw Him eat and drink, which a ghost/spirit cannot do. Over 500 people saw Him physically alive again at the same time.

    If you're reading this thinking "Well yeah, of course this is true." According to the bible, whoever believes in Him has eternal life. Jesus Christ is eternal life. You will be with Him forever. He is the "I AM" of Exodus 3. He is equal to the Father. He is THE Way, THE Truth, THE Life. Notice the definitive article "the", stating not "a" general way, but "THE" Way. He worthy of all glory and honor and praise forever and ever.

    At the name of Jesus Christ, every knee will bow and tongue will confess that He is Lord.

    February 21, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  15. brittbratt42

    this is one of the most ridiculous articles i have ever seen, and i have seen quite a few! way to twist the Bible hun!

    February 21, 2011 at 12:22 am |
  16. brittbratt42

    @stevetherealone....you rock! saw you representin' on the bieber abortion story!!

    February 21, 2011 at 12:15 am |
    • Steve the real one

      brittbratt42
      @stevetherealone....you rock! saw you representin' on the bieber abortion story!!
      -----
      Thank you Brittbratt42 for the encouragement! May God bless!

      February 23, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  17. ruemorgue

    Stupid article. The Bible is an incoherent collection of fiction written by a committee of self-righteous retards. How anyone can think that it is the *truth* is beyond me? Even better, how one group of nutcases can think (and *believe* it is obvious) that their holy ramblings are better than another group's religious ramblings boggles the mind, any mind!

    February 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  18. Tom

    Christianity all boils down to one concept... Love. If you don't love then you dont know God because God is love. You can claim to believe in Christ but if you do not love then you are a liar, and therefore unsaved. We have our faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love. Everyone do yourself a favor, quit arguing and complaining and just pursue love. It is the only thing required of us. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. It is not rude, not self seeking, not easily angered. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. Lets try working on this and my guess is that everything else will fall into place. May the love and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with each and every one of you.

    February 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Joann

      Amen!!!!

      February 21, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
    • paintpaintpaint

      OK. Good.

      February 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • TrannyGirl

      Tom, let me first say that I respect the right of everyone to believe whatever they wish, so long as it harms no one. However, the actual history of christianity is far from being able to lay claim to a religion based on love. The history recorded in the book called the bible is one of murder and conquest, in the name of an angry and vengeful god. Cities were laid to waste. Entire families were slaughtered, merely because they failed or refused to believe. All of this was done in the name of a god, seeking to establish his collection of worshipers in a home. The god of the christians also marched his followers out into the desert and starved many of them to death, before he forgave them; not a very loving act, in my mind.

      Then we have the history of the last two thousand plus years since the messiah incident was to have taken place in Jerusalem. Personally, I find the long history of religious executions by the authorities of the newly powerful church, to be of particular interest. Healers were burned as witches, in order to steal their lands and property, among other things. Others were merely killed to get them out of the way. Entire tribes of natives in foreign lands were converted by force to christianity, and their precious cultures were destroyed, in the name of the god of love; not a history of love at all, would you say?

      Then there is the tantalizing lack of historic evidence to back up the existence of Jesus at all. Why do you think it is that there were no records of the execution of "the king of the Jews" at the time it was to have occurred? Why did the Roman army that had a reputation for being so meticulous about record keeping that it counted everything, right down to the last nail, fail to record the execution of a man that was supposedly put on public trial for claiming to be the King of the Jews? Then, there is the historic record of Pontius Pilot being in Rome for dental work at the time that Jesus was supposed to be killed. The only known record of this historic event comes from a known criminal by the name of Josephus, many decades after the fact. By some accounts, Josephus wrote the trial incident in question to buy his way out of being executed himself. The manuscript was supposedly given to a former Roman army officer that later became a priest of the new christian religion that suddenly swept through Rome like so much fire. There's not even anything written by any of the contemporary historians of the time. Why is that, do you think? I would like to know.

      February 22, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  19. Gumby

    Who cares what the Bible says about ANYTHING! It is a dusty old book of often-vicious fairy tales written by primitive goatherders thousands of years ago. One of the biggest disasters ever to befall the human race is that too many of us continue to give credence to that book of trash here in the 21st century. Religion has caused more death, misery and sorrow than anything else in human history. Why do we continue to allow the monsters of organized religion to keep inflicting this harmful nonsense on us, despite thousands of years of absolutely no evidence that any of it is based on anything real? If we can't shake the malignant cancer of religion, we will never mature as a species.

    February 20, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • Evan

      Religion does not divide; abuse of it does. Jesus Christ tells us to love each other, and each other does not just mean "friends" or "holy people", but everyone. I am a Christian, and I admit many of us, myself included, act like hypocrites from time to time. If you read the Bible, you will see how far off track many Christians are today.

      The Bible is not a dusty old book; even though it was written thousands of years ago, it still applies today.

      February 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • momtwotwins

      WOW..as if I said it myself!!! Really.

      February 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Something

      The Bible has *some* pearls of wisdom which are valid in fostering peaceful human behavior (as do most religious scriptures). The fantasy tales of supernatural beings and happenings are not proven to be valid and are perhaps useful only as daydreams and emotional (spiritual?) adventures.

      February 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Evan

      Christianity is not a fairy-tale. There are many religions that are just philosophy, and do things like try to explain the creation of the world. There are many religions that are ritual or rule-based, and try to come up with a rational list of "things we can do to become right with God". Christianity is different: it focuses on how imperfect each one of us really is, and that only God can restore us. Christianty focuses on what God has done for us, and how God loves us just the way we are. Christianity is not a fairy-tale.

      We could go on for hours debating whether or not God really exists, but the point is you can never prove to me that God does not exist.

      February 20, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Anton

      Religion has survived only because it has two faces. When asked about being archaic and cruel, the religionists are answering with Jesus' words: "Love ye another". But when it comes to condemning people for anything, their answer is always "the bible says so".

      February 21, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Evan

      Which leads back to my first argument: there are numerous Christians who are hypocrites. However, 1) by no means is the entire faith "bad" or "wrong" because a handful of people abuse the religion, and 2) arguably, "Christian hypocrites" are not really Christians at all (in the Gospels, for example, the Pharisees, extremely religious Jews who took extreme measures to follow all of Moses' 613 laws, proved to be Jesus' "enemies", because they did not love other people.)

      If you would like to know what true Christianity should be like, read the Gospels.

      February 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • paintpaintpaint

      As a Catholic, I was raised to use the Bible only as a reference. To take the spirit of the Word – in its highest form – and try, every day, to be a good person. Not to judge. So they will "know we are Christians by our love, by our LOVE..." Sadly, many Christians take and twist the Bible to say anything they want it to – including instructions as to who to hate. Can we just let people be who they are and worry about our own souls? Can we just let people worship how they will, and concern ourselves with our own spirituality?

      February 22, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Jim

      @ Anton. Actually, the Bible does not say to condemn people. It teaches to hate the sin but love the sinner.

      February 22, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • JW

      You obviously have never read the Bible. Read it before you pass judgement on it. Take my advice, because you will be sorry, oh so sorry, if you die feeling the same way.

      February 22, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • Maya

      I agree. Christianity was cobbled together entirely out of stories and ideas from older religions, with Jesus haphazardly slapped on it.

      The arrogance of religious types is astounding: "Everyone's holy book is a myth, EXCEPT for MINE."

      February 23, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Kodiac

      It seems chick and accepted to say that the cause of most of the worlds wars and violence is because of religion. But is that fair? Not at all. Religion has been a factor in wars and even been used as a tool to rally people to war. But some of the real reasons for war are glossed over.

      1. Resources and energy. Energy seems to be a more modern reason than in the past but fighting over resources has always been a role in wars. 2. Food and the need for more land.

      While I am not a religious person myself I realize there is more to the picture than what many would have us believe. War is never as simple as it looks.

      It is not all religions fault for the bad that goes on because even with out it there would still be wars fought. What better reason to go to war than over oil then disguise it as a righteous move to liberate a suppressed people.

      And for those who think oil will last forever you might want to look up what Peak Oil is and ask yourself what the next big war will be over...or even if we will have the energy to wage a war.

      February 23, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • fireforjesus

      yes u r right..religion is absurd and doesn't make sense..but Jesus makes sense...

      February 25, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  20. Aud

    Every single one of us is a sinful human being in need of God's grace provided through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. NONE of us can earn a right standing before a holy and just God, but He has done the work and provided the ultimate sacrifice and we are called to put our faith in this rather than our own ability to "make ourselves right." We can't be perfect enough, we can't love enough, so we are called to rest and be restored in the one who loves perfectly and humbled himself to the point of dying a criminal's death even though He never sinned and was one with God Himself.

    We are not to judge people, but are to judge sin and to turn from it to the victor over Satan, sin and death: Jesus Christ. Concerning this article, it is seriously sorrowful that these texts have been so twisted. Please do further research before trusting this, because it is VERY misleading and general research will prove it wrong.

    Please do not look to Christians, even ones who TRULY have faith in Christ, for salvation... because we will absolutely fail to be saviors and will be poor representatives of the true Savior. Look instead to Christ for salvation and LOVE and show grace to ALL people. Scripture is very clear that anyone who hates his brother, but says he loves God (whom he hasn't even seen with his own eyes) is a liar. We are all in danger of that...

    If you are reading this as a Christian.. please please don't be tempted to put on an air of perfection or to take pride in your own works. Christianity is not about making our selves look good! Our works are "filthy rags" compared to knowing Christ, and salvation is not something we get for being "good people"... Scripture is clear that none of us are good, and the only way to true Life is realizing how jacked up we all are and how much we need to be saved. I am totally guilty of being into myself or being prideful... and the Lord convicts me of this and by His grace is faithful to complete in us the good work that He has started.

    Sadly, it is no wonder that so many people are over-churched and despise Christians... I am sorry for this and pray that God will humble us to love well and put others before ourselves.

    February 19, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
    • meiguoren11

      Well said!

      February 20, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • mike

      +1

      absolutely well said!

      February 21, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Norma

      Could not have said it better myself!

      February 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • just me

      God has never changed, but man clearly does.

      February 21, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Evan

      You've just about summed it up: Christianity is not a religion for "holy people", it's a religion for forgiven sinners.

      February 21, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • muslimah

      Dude, thank you for that much needed refutation. Unfortunately, I'm not surprised that the author would twist the Bible to conform w/ the times. But, I mean – aren't there standards for exegesis in Christianity? Can any pastor or "biblical scholar" just reinterpret the words of Christ and his disciples and have them accepted by the mainstream? I'm Muslim, and I knew this message was waay off track.

      February 22, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Bullish!t! Assumming that your mythology applies to everyone is the heightt of arrogance. The fictional book known as the bible and the jesus christ myth only apply to those foolish enough to believe it. I am not a member of your tribe and no wishful thinking or prayer on your part will change that, or the basic truth that there are no gods..

      February 22, 2011 at 12:37 am |
    • MNBluess

      Thanks AuD. No more needs to be said about the misleading info.

      February 22, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Ralph

      Are you kidding me? God must be disgusted with mankind.

      February 23, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Maya

      Christians have to be the most hypocritical, self-loathing lot in existence. You condemn pridefulness on the one hand, yet proclaim your knowledge of the will of God on the other.

      February 23, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • CBW

      Perfect summation. Thank you for putting my feelings into words.

      February 23, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • James Anderson

      Answer this & then think of your religion . . .

      "When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

      February 23, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
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About this blog

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.