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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. Bobby

    I am a Christian, ex-military, and gay. I sincerely believe in God and try my hardest to be a good, decent, caring person. I think that people should realize that God is different to each one of us. And while I respect each person’s views on religion, I myself find it hard to base my believes solely on a book that was written and thousands of years ago and translated probably hundreds of times. I don’t understand how someone who claims to be “Christian” can belittle this woman for expressing your views, or condemn CNN as being “anti-god” because they published it. I proudly fought for a country that with freedoms, one of which is a freedom of religion. I know I am not perfect and I do hope that when the end comes I can stand before God and be judged not for who I loved, but for what I was as a person. I think that’s what we all should try and do…instead of telling each other how to live, be happy for each other.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Mary Magdalene

      Amen.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • AJ

      God bless you for living the way you feel is right. I truly wish more people had the courage to do so, rather than condemning those that stand up for their happiness.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  2. wow

    I would say she read some things into the BIBLE that arent there to make her argument just like she states that past generations read things into the BIBLE that arent there. She follows a very simplistic view herself when she presents her misgivings about the BIBLE=it is the facts, and I used an equal sign on purpose

    February 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  3. billi

    The only one who has clue here is SeanNJ.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Thank you!

      February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  4. zero_up

    "Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways."

    This is a key phrase to understanding this text and reflects more a liberal humanistic worldview than any Christian worldview. It is a logic that builds a force field (in the mind of the speaker) around whatever interpretation they might happen to want to present, regardless of the logical or herectical inconsistencies present in the interpretation. Sure, individuals will make whatever foolish interpretation of the Bible they choose, but they will not be any more correct in their interpretation than this article.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  5. krozareq

    Old Testament is obsolete and not supposed to be taken as law.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Ekua

      I haven't read the Bible or gone to Bible study in a minute, so I ask this because I really don't know: How do you know?

      February 9, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  6. j

    The answer is self evident. A human being has the right to choose his or her thoughts. Otherwise they are slaves and controlled by someone or something else. God did not give the ability for two men or two women together to reproduce. Only the man and woman combination is successful in propagating the race. Otherwise, the race will become extinct. The natural or correct order of things is for a man and woman to be together. Otherwise, there is no growth, no continuation of lives and all life on earth ceases.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • LoriD

      You hit the nail on the head. 🙂

      February 9, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  7. sand

    to address Steve the real one, King David did a bunch of things that would warrant him getting stoned by the crowds. remember the time he committed adultery with the woman taking a bath on a rooftop? what about sending his best man to die just so he can cover up his tracks? and yet he's called a man after God's own heart, not because his lifestyle matched up to the Almighty's standards, but because of his faith in God. Also, his son Solomon kept concubines by the boatloads and God didn't really call him out on that either. Does God condone polygomy?

    February 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Steve the real one

      Nice lesson on the Old Testament. Take a look at What Jesus said in the New Testament about A MAN leaving his parents and Cleaving to his WIFE (singular). Ask yourself why atheists ALWAYs run to the OT? Take a good hard look at the New. That is where the church was established! Yes I eat shrimp (with garlic butter, yummy!) and wear cotton blended fabrics! Your biggest stumbling is your lack of understanding the OT and NT!

      February 10, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • W247

      Bravo Steve, thank you!

      February 10, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  8. KELLY

    I heard a priest say one time, "the Bible is written by Man about God, not written by God through Man." I totally agree with him. I am Gay and was raised in a Southern Baptist home. I was always taught growing up that God did not like my kind and condemned me to Hell. I know in my heart that is not true. I still believe in God and know that he loves me. So to all the small minded bigots, I will "meet you in the morning over there."

    February 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • W247

      Kelly, the Lord loves you more then you know. He see's you as the perfect person He wants you to be, sin's covered by the life of His son. Jesus is your savior, He is the Lord of all whether we accept Him or not.

      Peace

      February 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  9. Pimp'n begot pimp'n

    If anything God accepts polygamy. Examples: Solomon, David, and Moses just to name a few. Thats worth talking about!

    February 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  10. GoPack

    Why doesnt god just come on back to earth and settle this once and for all? Maybe he could make long weekend of it. Take in a few sites, have a nice meal. Maybe a little alone time to recharge the batteries.
    I have to say, it was not very considerate of him to leave us with these ambiguous instructions on such an important topic....

    February 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Normon

      Better make it a long weekend, though, lots to cover, say 3 days?

      Ramen

      February 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • kait

      I might just love you.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • W247

      The Lord did come down to the earth to settle things. He ended up being crucified.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  11. Justin Lowry

    You are not a pastor of the true New Testament Church of the First Born. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. 1 Timothy 2: 11-13. Furthermore you must have the holy Spirit to accuately and rightly divide the word of truth 2 Tim. 2:15. There is only one doctrine of God 2 John 9. Woe, Woe, and Woe AMEN from Topeka, Kansas.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Normon

      Say hi to Fred Phelps there in Topeka for us. thanks

      February 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  12. Jim

    God made man(Adam) in his own image. Adam named the animals, and was closet to God...But Adam was eventually lonely and God knew that, So God made made Adam fall asleep and took a rib from him to make Eve so he wouldn't be alone. Thats what the bible says. I feel alot of "pastors" are intrepreting the bible to keep people happy and not upset them.. I mean think about it. I have gay friends, and I love them .The bible doesn't say to condemn them it says to Love the sinner but hate the SIN. God doesn't teach us to hate one another, he teaches us to love one another..

    February 9, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Chuck

      What you are saying is false. You are citing a passage from the new testament which is a revision of the old testament. All of these books you call bible have no meaning and were only used at the time to control the masses. It was the only way for the rich to control the poors and thus came new religions such as christianity which is more insanity than anything else. Religion is for fools, heck believing in a god in the 21st century must be a sin in itself, at the very least it shows pure stupidity and complete non-sense. All people believing in god should be used put in one place on earth and castrated so they do not produce more stupidity. Without beliefs in god, humanity would be at least 1000 years ahead technologically. Anyways, the good news is we are about 1 billion agnostics and atheist around the world today and it's estimated we will be around 25% of the world population in 2050. The time for stupidity is over.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  13. rapture_man

    Well the reality lady is that we are seperate male and female. Even if what you were saying was true how does it justify a man lying with a man. You are one sick pervert. Do you get involved in swinging too? Even Jesus himself refers to male and female when it comes to marriage. Who are you to come with something different?

    February 9, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Gay Christian

      In the immortal words of Zsa Zsa Gabor, 'I am a very good housekeeper. Each time I get a divorce I keep the house.'

      February 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  14. Gay Christian

    Let's face it, most people are basically haters and will do or say anything to justify their hatred.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Ruby

      Yep, that seems to be the very essence of the matter.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Brian

      and you're probably one of those haters who hate christianity?

      February 9, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  15. Peter

    PS: And I'm very sorry for your congregation... You are a personification of an apostasy.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  16. Paige

    I just cannot believe that anyone in 2011 would believe that THIS is an explanation to how humans came to be? Does the bible not smack of the same stuff the ancient greeks and romans believed? Should we expect Zeus to come down from the mountain? While this argument is a refreshing call to christians to think for themselves, it's still just arguing over the rules of a mythical story.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Enoch100

      No, it does not.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  17. Jim

    Lunch time over. I need to go back to work with all the liberal heathens!

    February 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  18. Belarius Marek

    Hehehe.. You Christians are so quaint.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  19. cacique

    billf, I do not condemn anyone nor does God; people condemn themselves for the acts they commit. In earth, if you steal you will pay the consequence, if you kill, or break the law in any way. How can we believe that God is so merciful that he will keep forgiving us and then welcomes us to Heaven with open arms after we broke His commandments every time we wanted? That is faulty logic. He sent His son to die for our sins and be forgiven through Him; if you want salvation you are free to get it and if you don't you don't. The wages of sin will always be death (spiritual and the second death – casting into the Lake of Fire) and if I do commit a sin I have my knees to pray for forgiveness and ask for mercy. (While I am still alive).

    Do not look at Christians that are living Christianity the wrong way and like to condemn others without looking at their own sins and faults, they will receive their recompense as well. Salvation is individual, everyone fights for themselves and that has kept me from looking at others because there are a lot hypocrites, but the Bible also says that the hypocrites shall also be in the lake of fire.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  20. Brian

    There are a bunch of Yahoo's in this bunch with their brainless responses – but my thughts are – Great Artical!! Thanks for sharing!!

    February 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Rob

      Brian,

      First of all I have a brain and I will tell you that Ms. Knust is just a poor little progressive whose "interpretation" is just another example of an elitist who is sure they know what is right and best for everyone. And by the way Brian, learn to spell (article not artcal).

      February 9, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Brad

      Brain, please ignore Rob, he is the type that downs anyone who doesn't believe as he does. Then, to make himself FEEL smarter, he attacks your spelling. The truth is, he probably wrote his response in word or something, then used spell check. He is just a sad little person that no one cares about, and that no one respects, so he makes himself feel better by attacking others. Ok, I'm done, reply if you want, I won't be coming back into these forums, to many no-it-alls.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Brian

      Wow – Rob, because you caught my typo your interpretation of the Bible must be valid. You are absolutely correct.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Brian

      Thanks Brad – I'm all too familiar with folk like him.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:59 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.