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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. Ryan

    And ??? that's actually pretty funny

    February 9, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  2. Megan

    Feelin the good ol' christian love in here! By stating her opinion this woman is a moron, has blood on her hands, etc, etc. Ridiculous.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  3. Mary Magdalene

    The two most important scripture quotes not mentioned:

    "Love one another as I have loved you."

    "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone."

    February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Bill

      "Let he among you who is without sin, and has a good arm, cast the first stone." Get it right Mary!!

      February 9, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  4. Kamafe

    This commentary is truly a bizarre mixture of different irresponsible approaches to scripture. The willful misrepresentation of the Hebrew scriptures is shameful from someone who professes to be a biblical scholar and pastor. Anyone who knows anything about Hebrew literature knows that it uses restatement (as in the creation account) and the language of affection and love (as with David and Jonathon) is a different one from ours. Interpreting the biblical text with a 21st century understanding of the words is far worse than the literalism that many people become upset about some conservative Christians using. The sentence that really highlighted the illegitimacy of the arguments though was "Moreover, as Americans we should have learned by now that such a simplistic approach to scriptures will lead us astray." This is an egregious example of ethnocentrism. Intentionally applying our nationality to interpret ancient texts is exactly the opposite of responsible exegesis.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • johnnyleen

      Your argument might have merit if ancient peoples themselves had all agreed on what the bible said and meant. However, they didn't.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      This woman is like a ‘false teacher’….taking 2 Samuel and twisting it….here is verse 26 ….’ I grieve for thee, my brother Jonathan: exceeding beautiful, and amiable to me above the love of women. As the mother loveth her only son, so did I love thee.’

      Notice how the author of the article left off the last sentence which states….’As the mother loveth her only son, so did I love thee.’ How does a mother loveth her only son?….with a love that is not s3xual…above a lustful attraction.

      He loved with the same kind of love that Mary, the Mother of God, loved her only Son, Jesus.

      The Catholic Church is the one who gathered the inspired Books and placed them in the Bible and has been given the authority by Jesus Christ to interpret it. None other has the right to change the meaning. Even the Bible says that Scripture is not a matter of personal interpretation. How do people skip over these crucial verses? It is just heresy upon heresy….

      Also the Church does not condemn people and neither should we. Each person condemns himself if he chooses ‘that Path’. We do need to look at actions and determine if they are actions we should partake of or not on our earthly journey towards Heaven. Any deviation from the right Path can lead us astray [of our own choosing] so we must be vigilant and know the Truth about actions….they are either sinful or they are not…choose correctly by judging the action correctly.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
  5. Nicole

    This is a bunch of foolishness! She is a complete Moron! Enough said.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • JT

      Hearing different interpretation of belief must be truly frightening for you.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      JT,
      When it comes to Truth, who has time for fiction?

      February 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Hockey_fan

      Well CatholicMom, you evidentily have LOTS of time on your hands for fiction seeing as how you seem to know the bible so well. And by the way, can you PLEASE stop posting the same thing over and over and over again. not in this reply but you know what I mean. You obviously only have one argument to back up your faith because you keep using the same one.

      February 13, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  6. Thus Saith The Lord

    1 Timothy 2:11

    This person is a VERY selective reader, when it comes to the bible. How screwed up can one be?

    February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • kait

      how screwed up are you that you're using the Lord's words in your name? Are you the Lord?

      That's blasphemy.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  7. billi

    wow bigots run amock

    February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  8. Baffled

    What about the other books that were excluded from the bible? "The church" chose which books to include and which books not to include. Is anyone else concerned that a group of men decided what we should all read and be privy to? And yet, so many of you maniacally stand by it. I believe that god is within all of us; somewhere in the middle... Not to be dictated by a group who, many years ago, chose which books should be included to fit their doctrine. For example, John wrote two versions of "Revelations", but only 1 made the final cut. And yet, the one that made it must be right? ... C'Mon!

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

      Baffled,
      It sounds like you would rather have every Scripture that was ever written at your disposal so YOU could decide which were the inspired ones…well, have at it!
      Be thankful that God inspired good men to follow Him, and with the promise of the Paraclete were able to find the Scriptures which were inspired by God and placed in a Bible. [nearly 400 years after Jesus’ ascention!]

      February 9, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • Dog Hates Dyslexia

      @CatholicMom: I do have copies of AND HAVE READ the non-canonical gospels, the Nag Hammadi scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha... I do not trust "good men" to pick and choose for me, nor should anyone with any interest in "the truth". For the record, I am an atheist (an ex-Catholic) and while the accepted canon pushed me away from the faith, some of the non-canonical texts genuinely moved me CLOSER to an experience that I would consider to be divinely inspired. Faith (or lack thereof) should not be handed to you, but rather should come from a process of critical self-examination. Beliefs arrived at on one's own are almost certain to be stronger and more unshakable than those that are merely accepted because "that's just what you do".

      Peace.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  9. NateJ

    Aw, this is why Christianity is dying. Not you Jennifer but some of these responses, I believe the Bible should be open to interpretations. It’s more of the breath of God than the word.
    People forget the social implications that the Bible was written under, and has been edited historically. With the removal and addition of texts.
    The message should remain simple: Jesus told us to love and not to judge
    Something that many Christians have forgotten and now they focus on hating and judging others that are different. The Bible just serves as an outlet for their hate
    in their hearts

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

      I completely agree that many people already hate and use their religions, in this case Christianity, to justify their hate. I like Jennifer's words, a"cloak of divinely inspired respectability'

      February 9, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  10. JT

    I have to admit that there is very little in this world more delicious than witnessing the hysteria of so-called "Christians" when they hear something they don't want to believe and proceed to engage in flailing attacks. It's like a Tea Party convention.

    Regardless of which passages one reads and twists from teh Bible, let's all remember that it was written by fallible humans. One could argue they were "divinely inspired," but one could also argue that they were mentally disturbed. The only true word of God should come from God alone and not from mortal minions. Since He/She/It seems to be fairly silent, maybe we are all meant to be who we are and figure out how to be the best "us" we can be. I don't think that includes using the Bible as a bullying instrument or as an excuse to keep from thinking for oneself. It is truly a shame to see so many people hating and judging and maligning in the name of God. It insults Him.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  11. Mel

    I was going to get to writing my take, but Steve the Real and some of you already done so... I can't believe she claims to be a "Bible scholar and pastor"... I will pray for her, and you guys can keep us crazy, I still believe it takes a lot more faith to believe that humans and creation came from a single molecule and evolved into what we are now than to believe what I believe. God Bless you, and you and you who criticizes me too.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  12. mark

    It's because of writers like you that CNN is losing all it's credibility.

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

      haha...you're funny. amazing that one article can so easily destroy an entire news organizations credibility.

      What i'm curious about is this: do you feel this way because of some factual error in her article that you can clarify through your own scholarly investigation, her writing style, structure or because she's saying something that you don't agree with?

      In which case I would assume that you would dislike articles written about pedophilia or other negative things and consider them to be destroying the integrity of CNN's newsworthiness.

      February 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  13. Brooke

    Don't take some rabbi's "interpretation" of the Bible as gospel. Take the Gospels as gospel. Read the bible completely. Don't pick and choose which verses support your argument or beliefs. In the beginning God created Man. Not 'human'.

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

      Um...the Catholic Church picked and chose the gospels. There are numerous gospels that did not make it into the Bible. The church picked the ones that were most beneficial to their position. We've been played for millennia.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • LeeCMH

      So THERE Woman!

      February 9, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Steve the real one

      JT
      Um...the Catholic Church picked and chose the gospels. There are numerous gospels that did not make it into the Bible. The church picked the ones that were most beneficial to their position. We've been played for millennia.
      --------
      JT have you even bothered to read what is IN IT? Stop worrying about what is NOT in it. Read what is available! Otherwise you are passing out a Lame excuse!

      February 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      JT,

      Yes,The Catholic Church is the one who gathered the inspired Books and placed them in the Bible and has been given the authority by Jesus Christ to interpret it. None other has the right to change the meaning. Even the Bible says that Scripture is not a matter of personal interpretation. How do people skip over these crucial verses? It is just heresy upon heresy….

      Also the Church does not condemn people and neither should we. Each person condemns himself if he chooses ‘that Path’. We do need to look at actions and determine if they are actions we should partake of or not on our earthly journey towards Heaven. Any deviation from the right Path can lead us astray [of our own choosing] so we must be vigilant and know the Truth about actions….they are either sinful or they are not…choose correctly by judging the action correctly.

      February 9, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  14. Neal

    What's so sad about the negative responses to this article – aside from the apparent philistinism – is the lack of awareness of how culturally bound are their views on "what the Bible says." The great value of this piece is that it peels back some of the layers of cultural accretions that have cemented what is basically bigotry into holy writ. Thanks for the insights!

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

      Thank you!

      February 9, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  15. silvia

    you are crazy...the bible said there will be false teacher...there we go!!!

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

      Um, the only alternative to that very obvious statement would be that men were infallible (just like God) and would get everything right all the time. The question is, how correct do you ascertain your side to be? Especially considering that everything religious is simply a matter of FAITH, and completely divorced from an evidence-based discussion.

      I don't think you have any idea how easy it is to get things wrong. The simple fact that it happens should make you question your own positions.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  16. Rivie

    As a previous commenter posted, nothing that will be posted here will make a difference or change the outcome ordained by God. Yet it will serve to inflame others either purposely or unintentionally. The atheist will continue to deny absolute truth, even as he proclaims it. The blatant sin that goes on will not stop, nor the mockery of those that try to point it out and show that indeed there is but only one way. Again it does not make a difference what we choose to believe or not. When the Day of Judgment arrives, and every knee is bowed before the sovereign Lord, then you will no longer have uncertainty but know where you will spend eternity. I for one choose God and his righteousness, and will do as he commands all of my days, all the while praying for the lost and unsaved until that glorious day. Amen.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Brooke

      Geez Rivie, well said, and amen as well.

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

      See, and isn't it great to have the right and the freedom to say that? To believe that? It's everyone's right to believe what they want, no matter how other see it. That's the beauty of being human (and American). Live and let live.

      Because even though I think in very different terms as you, I'd fight for you to be able to say what you just did. (This might seem oddly out of place but it really does tie in to this whole nasty debate–that's what I think it all boils down to. Just let the other live and live your life and relax.)

      February 9, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  17. j

    The argument above is not even logical.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • JT

      According to you.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  18. Bioartchick

    It is ok to embrace your humanity, to see it embedded in the principles of religion. You are part of your creation. Consequently, you apply secular moral understandings to the Bible in order to interpret it, as there is no other possible way of going about the task. We come from the outside and look in.

    Do not condemn your fellow man, do not pass judgement, and LOVE one another. Follow these teachings of Jesus and many other thinkers and philosophers both religious and secular, as they are universal, and you will find that all controversial topics will align; answers will inevitably support the flourishing of your fellow human beings. Hate and judgement are not permitted within our ranks, nor should they be permitted as acceptable behavior from your deity, so allow this to be considered in your interpretation of scripture.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  19. Tina Thompson

    It constantly amazes me how many of you have turned the God of Love into a weapon for your own hatred.

    If you think gays abominate God, then re-read the Sermon on the Mount and go look in the mirror.

    February 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Bioartchick

      AMEN!

      February 9, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  20. Chris

    Why in the world can't CNN post opinion pieces from the Christian mainstream? Instead, they always look for the whacko on the fringe who twists scripture into what they want it to say. Good grief, why can't we just accept the Bible for what it clearly says? Please, CNN, stop asking the pastors who received their ordination off the Internet to speak for the rest of us!

    February 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • LeeCMH

      Hey Chris, Timothy McVeigh spoke for you.

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

      If the bible was as clear as you seem to think it is, then there wouldn't be so many Christian denominations. You people can't seem to even agree amongst yourselves.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • JT

      Chris, this IS the Christian mainstream. The wackos are the one with their fingers in their ears.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Bill Jacobs

      Ah, a fine example of the word according to "Chris". It's such a shame when Christians force THEIR interpretations on all other Christians. This "my way or the highway" kind of thinking is SO far removed from ALL that Christ taught us ... and ALL that he wants us to be. Shame on you.

      February 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • CeeVee

      ...Before joining the faculty of Boston University, where she currently teaches, Knust taught at the College of the Holy Cross. She holds a BS in Psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana, an MDiv from Union Theological Seminary, New York, and a PhD in Religion from Columbia University.

      The link to her at Boston University: http://www.bu.edu/sth/academics/faculty/jennifer-wright-knust/

      February 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • kait

      Why don't we just allow everyone to write what they feel as long as they're well-informed and well-spoken.

      I mean, wasn't this country founded on "religious freedoms"? To not let this woman speak would be just as bad as someone not letting African-American people drink out of the water fountain on the right...

      February 9, 2011 at 2:49 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.