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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. Rob

    What?!? Inconsistancy in the Bible? That's unthinkable!
    You people that try to rationalize something as incomprehensible as the Bible just crack me up. Honestly: You'll be the death of me! Yesterday I thought I'd broken a rib laughing so hard at that women in a CNN story when she said that used to believe that AIDS was a punishment from God...until she contracted it herself and now understands that she was wrong. Now she's GRATEFUL to God for infecting her (Obviously God should've used a condom) so she can now have compassion for the sick. AIDS isn't funny. But oftentimes the rationalizations of the faithful are hilarious. See ya in H- E- double hockey-sticks, you unworthy lunatics!

    February 26, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  2. Nicklous d stanley

    Well believers or not , lets say that all living things "plants , small animals and humans " were to attempt to join as one , reproduce , how long would life exist ? well that would be unnatural ! go ahead and do what you will , I my self believe the Holy Bible . and I will cleave to my wife as long as life allows ,

    February 26, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  3. Smarty McPants

    HAHAHA Christ exists because we haven't found the body? Sounds like the kind of flogic (flawed logic) that lead to religion for the masses. This is hilariou! I LOVE seeing religious fanatics getting all up in arms and defensive. If they yell loud enough to drown out the masses who don't believe then it MUST be true. Sheeple, sheeple, sheeple, I know it's a scary concept to think for yourself and take responsibility for your beliefs and choices.

    February 26, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  4. Citizen Twain

    Religion should be banned forever.....and ever. It has destroyed the human race and killed countless people.

    February 26, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
  5. Willa West

    It is so sad that there are so many bigots posting here. If you don't like gay people- stop hiding behind your interpretation of scripture and just come out as a bigot. Hiding behind a loose biblical interpretation is cowardly. You are no different than the KKK when they used the bible (their interpretation of it anyway) to justify their actions. Those of you who are so aggressively against gay marriage and gay people in general are on the wrong side of history. I pity you. Jesus' message was clear- love one another. Not hate others for being different.

    February 26, 2011 at 12:31 am |
  6. Noley

    Anyone can interpret the Bible anyway they like. After all it is a book of legend and mythology mixed with some history, and interlaced with fictional facts and factual fictions. And remember, there are multiple versions, some with more or less "books" than the Bibles found in most homes and church pews. Which one is right? Are any of them? No one really knows. And it really doesn't matter.

    February 25, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  7. brucemo

    All this stuff is about as useful as trying to drive forward while staring in the rear view mirror. I can understand the idea of religion as a guide you can use to help you move forward, but the whole idea of using the Bible as some kind of legal case book is just repugnant, because the cases that are made are almost invariably regressive and inhuman. The Bible says you can beat your non-Jewish slaves, and there's a psalm that describes the joy of dashing the children of your enemies against a wall. You can't make any sense out of that. Don't even bother trying. People wrote it, a long time ago. Since then, times have changed, and in a lot of the ways times have changed, they have changed for the better.

    February 25, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  8. Mark

    The Bible's messages aren't even remotely "mixed". They're plainly obvious and very direct.
    1. Don't have s-ex outside of marriage.
    2. Don't have s-ex with anyone that isn't your spouse after you ARE married.
    3. One MAN and one WOMAN for s-ex....(DUH!! isn't it obvious just from our anatomy and physiology alone!)

    For Heaven's sake, what's hard to understand about that??!!

    Ms. Knust...please change the t-itle of your article to read...
    :
    "My surprising lack of understanding about the obvious stance of the Bible on God's view of s-exuality".

    February 25, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Jan Roshto

      Yes that is what happens when they try to twist things like they want it to be. I agree with your posting 100%

      February 26, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  9. Denvercherub

    Interesting thing I read every now and then, people say God preserves his word. The bible was written by men but god preserves his word. Has anyone ever tested this? I believe in god, I do not and cannot believe a book written by men. Maybe someone should deliberately change some words, meanings and phrases and see if they change back on their own in print. When it doesn't then how could anyone believe? If it does then how can you not believe? Just saying it's rediculous to form the world and opinions on a book written by desert nomads thousands of years ago. True faith comes from what's inside. Follow your heart then your mind.

    February 25, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Brad

      Denver - you don't want to believe in a book that is considered Inspired but you're more than willing to allow all people to follow their own mind and follow it? I realized you don't consider The Bible Inspired, but can you really look around you and believe that people's minds are Inspired? In this case, do we just leave relative morality to each individual and the inner working of their own mind? That's a scary world!

      February 25, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • MeInBham

      Amen!

      February 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Mr.Cranky

      Morals all start out as relative ... and remain that way. Proof of this is evident in the evolving nature of Xtian beliefs and doctrine.

      February 26, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Denvercherub

      Inspired and truth are not the same. I do appreciate what you say I see many beautiful things in life that come from great inspiration. Do you think that is enough to base your entire life from? Even in the bible Jesus said the kingdom of god comes from within. In the end you stand alone so why not search inside for real answers. You are your own master; you create your life through actions. Morals are a parents responsibility not a book that many people read parts of, thumb through and choose the best parts and ignore the rest. Looking inside provides a surprisingly good feeling and teaches self appreciation that eventually leads to good nature. One can’t help but emanate good positive energy and influence the rest. I guess it all depends on you in the end. How strong you are or how needing of a path you are. Those who stray from a path see and experience more, good or bad you only become stronger.

      February 27, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  10. Dan

    This is the craziest, most incoherent and nonsensical article I've ever read on the CNN "Religion" page. Just proves some universities that have a "theology department”….probably should not.

    Read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ to review the opinion of some actual experts regarding the reliability of the Bible, origins of Christianity and Lordship of Christ!

    February 25, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  11. mak

    Interesting there is not a thumbs down category. Shame on you! God forgive you for your false representation of His holy word.

    February 25, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Roger

      Prove it Mak.

      Oh wait you can't. Because it is interpretation.

      The only thing we can all agree on about the bible is that no one can agree on the bible. Well that and the fact that it is filled with blatent contradictions which have been used to justify hatred and evil actions for 2000 years.

      February 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  12. Upperhand

    Another hell bound false teacher.

    They are so easy to spot, funny thing is she really believes the venom she spews is truth.

    February 25, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  13. Upperhand

    "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Wright Knust"...and CNN.

    February 25, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  14. cristi

    Horrible uneducated article

    February 25, 2011 at 3:32 am |
    • sammy

      not a spec of proof any of you "hypo-christians" have a leg to stand on regarding existence of "GOD" or anyone else from that book of ghost stories you use to keep from having to think on your own. i fully respect individual "spirituality" but this organized corporation of religious groups doesn't do anything but perpetuate ignorance and hate. ( just my opinion of course)

      February 26, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
  15. Bill Fitzgerald

    Thankfully we have the Book of Mormon in these latter days of confusion. This lady is interpreting her version of the bible of which there are thousands of different versions. While there is only one Book of Mormon.

    February 24, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
    • Flora

      Which is why Mormons aren't Christians. Nothing wrong with that, but you're not. Like Muslims, you have a book which post dates and supercedes the New Testament. And the words of your prophets superecede the words of Christ. Nor should you be so arraogant about interpretation. Mormonism started out not allowing blacks a decent palce in the church. it was only outside pressure that provoked a new, reinterprting 'revelation'.

      February 25, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Q

      Yeah, one book of nonsense...just like the Bible

      February 25, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Sergio

      Bill: And we have prophets to, we the members of the Church of Jesucrist of later day saints have no problem , we know.

      February 25, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  16. Dina

    This article this woman whom claims to be a preacher really disturbs me.I think she needs to read the Bible again.

    February 24, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
  17. Observer

    People the Bible and most of the events chronicled therein are 2000 years old. The messages and proverbs have been through several translations to make it to English (Greek, Aramaic). Moreover, everyone knows that the inherent meaning of literature is culture and time-specific. Imagine watching a sitcom that uses lots of topical humor, only 1000 years later. How much of the humor will translate? If we are indeed hinging our social conventions and personal convictions on Scripture, don't you think common sense would mandate we try to interpret the Bible in a less literal sense?

    February 24, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • elm

      'Imagine watching a sitcom that uses lots of topical humor, only 1000 years later.'

      Are we talking a God-inspired sitcom? God knows no time or place, therefore His Word is timeless.

      This is why the Magisterium of The Church does the interpreting. To weed out the heretics and the loonies.

      February 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  18. MyLogic

    I was worried for a second. Then I remembered this is CNN.

    February 24, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Denvercherub

      You were worried? Does everyone else influence you that much? Time to think for yourself and let the world move on. You will find it enlightening.

      February 27, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  19. TwistnShout

    Please don't feed the troll, especially when she's hawking her book.
    Typical CNN bait.

    February 24, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • silencedogood

      Sorry this was a general comment, it wasn't a response to you...

      February 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  20. renill mayes

    This is why Paul told women to shut up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 24, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • Enrique

      All you theists should keep this in mind: We humans are the only beings who think we are aware of the existence of "god". This, of course, implies that without us "he" is nothing. So, eschew religion and its much ado about nothing and get a life.

      February 26, 2011 at 10:48 am |
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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.