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. robert

    Whst bible are you reading. Look at the fitst chapter of Romans. What about the men who were struck blind trying to get to the guests in Lots home. What kind of pastor are you?

    March 3, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  2. David S.

    Just an author trying to make up scriptual intent to serve her own purposes. What part of the word "Abomination" does she not understand?

    March 3, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  3. yer2slw

    Its funny how much christians take the bible, first off in the book it says man shall not lay with man but never says that woman shall not lay with woman so that ones out the window. Second it says if you repent and ask for forgiveness a guy blowing another guy then sending the ham up the ole pooper is all good. Oh yeah and for everyone thats ever bought a bible you better prey your ass off because you just helped someone else steal the bible. You cant copyrite the damn book unless you admit it was written by man!

    March 3, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  4. Veritas

    And why is it important what the bible says about anything. It's just a freaking old book!

    March 3, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  5. Jabi

    Jennifer, I thank the heavens that you are not my spiritual leader.

    March 3, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  6. Author is Confused

    The author states... I love gay people, but the Bible forces me to condemn them

    Apparently the author of this article is confused as well as many of the people who are commenting. The Bible doesn't force you to condemn anyone. The Bible should direct us to condemn sin. God will do the judging and condemning. It's our duty as pastors and Christians to show the truth in the Bible and then it is up to each individual to decide for themselves what they will believe. It's called free will.

    March 3, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  7. JB

    Its a book of words......words lie...stop pretending your make believe God had ANYTHING to do with your little made up rules.

    March 3, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  8. Jabi

    “For the thoughts of YOU people are not my thoughts, nor are my ways YOUR ways,” is the utterance of Jehovah.  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than YOUR ways, and my thoughts than YOUR thoughts. Isaiah 55:8

    March 3, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  9. Carolyn Hilker

    What a shame you are to us who believe the whole word. The Bible is simple but not twisted. My heart is saddened by your concepts. How many will be lead astray by you, and end up facing judgment for the lies you have tried to sell as gospel. SHAME ON YOU!

    March 2, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • chocolatee13

      but god loves us all right? your a total hypocrite

      March 3, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  10. Luigi Enrico Pietra d'Oro

    Has anyone ever really researched our beliefs in Heaven and Hell. They are states of mind, not actual places. If you want the naswers to the Second Coming, and what we humans have to do about it, order the new book The Second Coming, The Last Parable of Jesus from http://www.revolvingdoorbooks.com. Jesus Himself will tell you where we have gone wrong and what we have to do!

    March 1, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  11. Luigi Enrico Pietra d'Oro

    Has anyone ever really researched our beliefs in Heaven and Hell. They are states of mind, not actual places. If you want the naswers to the Second Coming, and what we humans have to do about it, order the new book The Second Coming, The Last Parable of Jesus from http://www.revolvingdoorbooks.com. Jesus Himself will tell you where we have gone wrong and what we have to do! There was never an immaculate conception, but Jose and Maria cleaned the house before the birth to insure an immaculate reception!

    March 1, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  12. bobsroad

    does the bible not have mixed messages on any subject ? im kinda mixed up about how noah fed all them animals

    8 people, 6 millions animals even if it took one minute per animal , with 8 people with no breaks or sleeping, just working constantly would be 520 days .

    March 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Tirza

      There's a lot of theories on how Noah fed the animals. The one I believe gives the best explanation is: It would have been dark in the ark, and this darkness would have caused most the animals to go into deep hibernation, eating nearly nothing. As for the millions of animals I for one believe that the most of the animals we have now are a result of micro-evolution.

      BUT THIS IS ALL CONJECTURE. I will not follow any of these ideas over a cliff, and neither should anyone else–because none of it is found in the Bible. All we can do while reading the Bible is approach it with an open mind, and pray that God makes His main points clear, without us trying to prove our own feeble ideas while we read.

      March 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  13. Bill

    This article is the goofiest explanation of trying to 'theologize' ones own warped mindset I've ever seen. I too have been a pastor for over 15 years and can recognize stupidity when I see it. Obviously this article has generated many comments, and thus it makes both the author and the topic popular. But that does not make it right. So many of the 'teachers of the law' were enemies of the real Jesus because they did the same thing, trying to make His simple teachings much more than they were. The heart of the Good News (Gospel) is simple, straightforward and powerful. "So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world's brilliant debaters? God has made them all look foolish and has shown their wisdom to be useless nonsense." I Cor 1:20 NLT

    February 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Dawn DIckinson

      Bill, Bill, Bill. Get over it! You're just devastatingly wrong! And she is right!

      March 3, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  14. Concerned

    This is a perversion of scripture. If you take time to read through Genesis you would see there is a pattern of God going forward and then back in his explanation. So he did not form a male/female then go back and separate them. He says he formed male and female then he goes back to explain how. Many of the first chapters of Genesis read this way.

    Also, God did not require us to condemn anyone. He only asked us to love or to obstain from certain influences that would draw us away from our relationship with him, but not to condemn. He and his Word will be the the judge.

    It seems that Jennifer has been duped, just like Eve was by the cunning conversation of the enemy. And like Eve, she is sharing the apple with others.

    February 28, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • Accountable to whom and for what?

      "They do have a choice and should be held accountable for the ones they are making."

      What does this mean?

      February 28, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  15. kathysam

    So, why do Adam and Eve have navels?

    February 27, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  16. Elizabeth Martin

    I have read all of the above posts, and I honestly think most of them are "much ado about nothing." I believe in God because I have met God in the depths of my being and have found joy. I know God as neither male nor female, but as the Spirit Who lives in me and inspires me every moment of my life, in every situation I encounter, and in every relationship with another human being. God calls me to love wholeheartedly and unconditionally. I often fall short of God's challenge, but I continue to strive to meet it to the best of my ability, aided by the grace (gift) of God. I believe that this same God dwells within every person on this earth, whether that person recognizes God or not. I believe that God calls each and every one of us humans to live in relationships of love with all those we encounter. Instead of judging one another, I think we are called to find ways to encourage each other to live in love and to let go of all hatred, anger, and anxiety. I see God not as a judge eager to condemn us when we err, but as a Lover wanting to embrace each of us, forgive our failures, and rejoice in our efforts to respond to the workings of God's Spirit.

    February 27, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Timothy

      So true Elizabeth, may God bless you!!

      February 28, 2011 at 3:40 am |
    • marcus

      I am not religious, but when i see thoughts like you just wrote i see the good that can come of it and love for others. May your God bless you!

      March 3, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
  17. MartinC

    Everyone reads scripture as they have chosen to believe. Scripture itself is the written perspective of what certain men chose to believe. Love the Creator and love your fellow man... for real. What is right to do or wrong, To thine onself be true. I am not saying to justify whatever you choose to do, but to sincerly seek truth. And if the truth you find challenges your deepest desires, embrace truth.

    February 27, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  18. dam

    I'm shocked that we look to an ancient collection of folktales and stories to tell us how we should treat others and whom we should judge. Common sense and kindness should be our points of reference. How can any one person decide whom another should love?

    February 27, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Sarah

      Love is Love. No one on the face of the earth should EVER be denied the happiness of love. It's a basic human right. We are so proud to say "freedom" every chance we can, but when it comes to the freedom of love and marriage... Where is it?

      February 27, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  19. Sonny G

    Flavius Josephus, Ancient Jewish Historian, The Complete Works – The Antiquities of the Jews: pg.576, 18.3.3, "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men amoungst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."

    February 27, 2011 at 1:36 am |
  20. carlos

    presuming to know the mind of god is the sin of pride. So long as you live on Earth, you will never "know" which is why you have "faith" and not certainty. The article is sound. You just can't be objective.

    February 26, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Margie

      I am for equality but this article has a very skewed take. Each of the verses she brings up are very much out of context, especially David and Jonathan's friendship. As for the Bible being a trustworthy text, the Bible has more original copies than any other text including the Iliad. The Bible, as we know it today, is very close to the original and can be trusted. The Jews were incredible record keepers too and therefore one more reason why the Bible can be trusted. I am particularly irritated by her comments that Paul condones slavery. The very fact that he spoke to slaves at all in his letters was amazing for the time period. By acknowledging them he gave them humanity. He wasn't condoning slavery but simply reacting to a situation he couldn't change. He even told slave owners that they had to be good to their slaves. I imagine that obviously would mean not raping them. He told wives to obey their husbands but he also told husbands to love their wives as much as Jesus loves his church. That is an incredible statement and expects men to be incredible husbands. Paul also said that we are no longer men, women, slave or free we are ONE under Christ. This article is practically slander.

      March 1, 2011 at 3:17 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.