What does the Bible say about sexuality?

By Jennifer Wright Knust Part II: Biblical Sexuality In the Bible, sexuality is a matter of roles, property rights, and … Continued

By Jennifer Wright Knust

Part II: Biblical Sexuality

In the Bible, sexuality is a matter of roles, property rights, and male dominance, not fixed biological predispositions. Heterosexuality, homosexuality and sexual orientation–the buzzwords of current debates–are never mentioned at all. Instead readers are invited to seek a return to primal androgyny, to conform to particular sexual roles, and to augment their fertility with circumcision.

Those looking to define biblical sexuality often turn to the two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis for their pronouncements, but even these stories disagree. In the first, God creates the human person all at once on the sixth day, both male and female. In the second, Adam is created, then the animals, and then the female, who is formed from his rib. But if God created humankind at once, male and female, then why was there a need to create the female a second time in the garden? Ancient interpreters offered a novel solution to this discrepancy: the first human person was androgynous, possessing the genitals of both sexes, but then God cut this person in two while s/he was dwelling in Eden. The original divine plan for the human person was therefore two sexes in one body, not two sexes. Genesis links the sexual impulse to the loss of this complete, two-sexed body: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his woman, and they become one flesh.” Longing to reunite with what he has lost, the man clings to the woman. Female sexual desire, however, comes later, and is described as a punishment. After the first couple is expelled from the garden, God tells the woman that she will desire her man and bring forth children for him in pain. In a world where childbirth was dangerous, perhaps the biblical writers were acknowledging what they had in fact observed: female desire was a source of risk, not blessing. Read this way, the Genesis creation stories portray sexual intercourse as a stopgap measure until such time as androgyny and paradise are restored.

Adopting a different perspective, biblical laws view sexuality as a matter of male property rights. According to the Sinai covenant, Israelite men should be careful to penetrate only certain bodies and thereby avoid wasting their semen on an unproductive union. More specific instructions in Leviticus command men to avoid sex with menstruating women, the wives of other Israelites and certain female relatives. After all, none of these women are capable of bearing legitimate children. Leviticus also identifies penetration of an Israelite man as a problem, since making a “woman” of a free Israelite violates this man’s body. The writers of 1 and 2 Samuel disagree, however, presenting a sexual relationship between men positively, as productive of God’s will. Telling the story of the rise of the Davidic monarchy, these writers imply that Jonathan was beloved by David as a “wife.” Since David was “man” to Jonathan’s “woman,” it was wholly appropriate for the shepherd to become king in place of his friend, despite the fact that Jonathan was heir to the throne.

New Testament writers also define sexuality as a matter of who penetrates whom, and under what circumstances. To Paul, “natural” sex involves the penetration of a female body by a man, a principle that he applies throughout his letters. Warning men that they must not place their “members” within prostitutes, other men’s wives, or female relatives, he describes same-sex desire as a symptom of idolatry, which is an “unnatural” form of worship that inevitably leads to “unnatural” sex. The author of the Gospel of Matthew also focuses his sexual ethics on male genitalia, recalling a surprising teaching of Jesus. When asked a question about marriage and divorce, Jesus replies by instructing his disciples to consider voluntary castration: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:11-12). Interpreted as an endorsement of celibacy by most early Christians, some nevertheless took this saying literally, to the point that the canons of the Council of Nicaea sought to stamp out self-castration among the clergy.

If Matthew recommends castration, other biblical books insist on circumcision, interpreted as a form of fertility enhancement. Thus, immediately after removing his foreskin, the ninety-nine year old Abraham is able to father Isaac with barren Sarah. Preparing to enter the land of Canaan, the entire Hebrew army is re-circumcised, presumably so that God would take their side in battle and then enable them to repopulate the land with their descendants. Leviticus compares the pruning of fruit trees to the pruning of Israelite penises, both of which are made more productive in the process. Pruning trees and waiting for fruit to mature, like pruning away foreskins, increases fertility in the land by bringing forth fruitful fruit trees and fruitful men.

Clearly the Bible offers a number of fascinating teachings about human sexuality. Still, no biblical passage describes sexual impulses as a matter of orientation. Working within a very different set of assumptions about the significance of sex, the Bible says nothing about sexuality as currently conceived.

Tomorrow: Part III, Biblical Desire

Jennifer Wright Knust is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University and has received fellowships and awards from the American Association of University Women, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. An ordained American Baptist pastor, she holds a doctorate in Religion from Columbia University and a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She is the author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire.

  • Kater2

    I believe that the conceptual approaches in your article (thank you for bringing these topics into public discussion and exploration) are simply trying to fit the biblical sexuality into a specific area of sexuality. Approached from the placement of sexuality within a total picture of the Bible and God and the purpose in and of itself for sex and marriage, for procreation and as a symbol of the relationship of unity that the Bible teaches will eventually occur I think biblical sexuality is incredibly relevant to every aspect of how sexuality is currently conceived. Issues of the Roman Empire in the New Testament so constantly reminds me of society today in its social issues. For another perspective on sexuality and the Bible,

  • YEAL9

    And continuing to assist Pastor Knust in her quest for truth:From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.””Heaven is a Spirit state” as per JPII and Aquinas i.e. there can be no bodies. i.e. there was and never will be any physical resurrection/ascension of human bodies.”And is it not ironical that JPII along with Aquinas are the ones who put meaning to the words “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless.”

  • JPDG

    Wow, so I can do whatever I want sexually with no eternal consequences at all?! I LOVE Christianity! All the pleasure of the flesh and no need for any sort of repentance! Heck, and I thought Paul says that there shouldn’t even be a hint of sexual immorality among you. Guess I was wrong. Worthless column. Read the New Testament and get a clue. Stop justifying your position by being educated beyond your belief and take a stance on what it means to be set apart (i.e. “holy”).

  • YEAL9

    And does Pastor Knust actually believe in angels? Apparenty, she does:”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 se-xual activity with angels, God obliterated the city with fire, delivering only Lot and his family. S-ex with angels was regarded as the most dangerous and offensive s-ex of all.”So again, we come to her rescue:Pastor Knust: It is called the Great Angelic Con Game:Joe Smith had his Moroni.Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tin-kerbell” got around).Jesus and his family had Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day dem-on of the de-mented. The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to do their dirty work or other assorted duties. Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty wingie thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us. Some added references to “tink-erbells”.”Latter-day Saints also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”Apparently hallucinations did not stop with Joe Smith.

  • ThishowIseeit

    Want to know about sexuality in the Hebrew Bible? Ask a Rabbi, not a Christian Pastor. Don’t like his answer?. Ask a Rabbi of a different denomination.

  • separker02

    Thanks, Dr. Knust, for a very well done set of essays. I look forward to the 3rd. The Genesis 1 creation account has, to me, allowed for the reality of intersexed persons who fit neither the “male” nor “female” binary distinctions we’ve created. Just as there is a continuum on which one’s sexual orientation lies, there is also a continuum of gender.

  • Rongoklunk

    Really – who cares what the ancients thought about sex? We know a great deal more than they ever knew. We are the ones with knowledge. They were illiterate and superstitious, and didn’t know a lot about anything.

  • jwschultz127

    Dr. Knust, I am again surprised that someone with your credentials can make some very fundamental mistakes and have such an outdated view of Scripture. You do realize that you are simply repeating theological insights from another era, albeit with an attempt to put a (post)modern twist to it.You engage in some very bad exegesis and operate with some improper hermeneutical presuppositions, both of which lead to some interesting – and very incorrect interpretations.Your first paragraph contains some wonderful rhetoric! “…return to primal androgyny, etc…” What words! All empty of course, and again only a very fertile and creative imagination could come up with such insights. And of course those “buzzwords of current debates” are not in the Bible. Just about every buzzword of current debate won’t be found in the Bible – but the concept, the idea, the teaching IS found in the Bible. If, of course one reads it correctly.And I’m sure as a biblical scholar you understand the structure of the Genesis text, how it moves from the general to the specific. Those are not two creation accounts that disagree, it is how the narrative is constructed. And of course you know the “ancient interpreters” you reference is actually probably more of an early middle ages Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) interpretation. A very loose and creative commentary on the biblical text, based on supposed “hidden” meanings and numerology. I wonder why a biblical scholar would use such an interpretation?Your next two paragraphs are just plain bad exegesis. I do hope your pedagogical skills are better that your exegetical skills; college tuition is expensive and I hate to see any student not getting their money’s worth. You miss the Old Testament call for God’s people to be “holy” (set apart, separate, from the neighboring peoples), hence the Levitical prohibitions. 1&2 Samuel do not imply Jonathon “was beloved by David as wife”. I do not see how you could translate the Hebrew text to come up with that interpretation. And surely you know the difference between literal and literalistic? Jesus does not instruct his disciples to consider voluntary castration. Surely as a NT exegete you’re aware of hyperbole.Circumcision was a sign of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people. I’m not sure why you would try to read something sexual into that. You’ll have to consult an MD about the impact of “pruning foreskins” on fertility. The only thing I see fertile is your imagination.There’s so much more to point out, but I’ll leave that to others. I would love to hear more about your methodology. I invite you to perhaps let everyone know what methods and presuppositions you operate with. That would only be fair, and honest. As a pastor and scholar, I’m sure you value honesty.We agree-the Bible is not a rulebook. The Bible tells us that our world today is corrupted since sin entered the world; this includes our notions and practice of sexuality. The answer? Jesus

  • detroitblkmale30

    jwschultz127I couldn’t have said it better myself. Well said. It seems apparent the author is intent on taking theological shortcuts to offer a “new spin” on an age-old text to stir “debate”. Speaking of sexuality, its kind of akin to masturbation in the end, it may make you feel good for a short amount of time, but it has no true endgame in and of itself nor does it change the truth of the texts.


    IN REPLY TO (IRT)IRT:ANS:IRT:ANS:Have you ever heard of St. Paul? Try reading Romans 1: 18cf. While at it look up Leviticus. If homosexuality is never mentioned in Scripture, someone sure played a joke on Sodom and Gomorrah. In addition, read Is. 1:9-20, Ezek. 16:46-51, Jer. 23:14. St. Paul also nullified the necessity of circumcision. That’s been out since Jesus established His Catholic Church.“Wherefore, God gave them up to the desires of their heart, unto uncleanness: to dishonor their own bodies among themselves. They’ve changed the truth of God into a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. “For this cause, God delivered them up to shameful affections. For their women have changed the natural use into that use which is against nature. And, in like manner, the men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts, one towards another: men with men, working that which is filthy and receiving in themselves the recompense that was due to their error. “And as they liked not to have God in their knowledge, God delivered them up to a reprobate sense, to do those things, which are not convenient. Being filled with all iniquity, malice, fornication, avarice, wickedness: full of envy, murder [Abortion], contention, deceit, malignity, and whisperers. “Detractors, hateful to God, contumelious, proud, haughty, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, foolish, dissolute, without affection, without fidelity, without mercy. Who, having known the justice of God, did not understand that they who do such things, are worthy of death.” it’s clear that the primary sin, the sin which provoked God’s wrath, was homosexuality.”So go back and get a Catholic Bible and read it before commenting on it, otherwise remain silent.

  • usapdx

    In the average person life, has any religion try to control it’s members through it’s teachings using the bible as a base of their control? Who, when, where and why where these books of the bible written and who chose them and why as they rejected other books. From day one to the present day, all humans natural urge for food and sex. The sixth commandment was written so that the jewish father would be able to will his track of LAND to his first REAL SON.


    NO CONTRADICTIONS:That man on the other hand has something in common with the animals is implied in the one case in his creation on the same day, and in the other by his attempt, though ineffectual, to find among them a suitable companion. He is the lord and the crown of creation, as is clearly expressed in the first account, where the creation of man is the climax of God’s successive works, and where his supremacy is explicitly stated, but the same is implied no less clearly in the second narrative. Such indeed may be the significance of placing man’s creation before that of the animals and plants, but, however that may be, the animals and plants are plainly created for his utility and benefit. Woman is introduced as secondary and subordinate to man, though identical with him in nature, and the formation of a single woman for a single man implies the doctrine of monogamy. Moreover, man was created innocent and good; sin came to him from without, and it was quickly followed by a severe punishment affecting not only the guilty pair, but their descendants and other beings as well. (Cf. Bennett in Hastings, Dict. of the Bible, s.v.) The two accounts, therefore, are practically at one with regard to didactic purpose and illustration, and it is doubtless to this feature that we should attach their chief significance. It is hardly necessary to remark in passing that the loftiness of the doctrinal and ethical truths here set forth place the biblical narrative immeasurably above the extravagant Creation stories current among the pagan nations of antiquity, though some of these, particularly the Babylonian, bear a more or less striking resemblance to it in form.In the light of this doctrinal and moral excellence, the question of the strict historical character of the narrative, as regards the framework and details, becomes of relatively slight importance, especially when we recall that in history as conceived by the other biblical authors, as well as by Semitic writers generally, the presentation and arrangement of facts — and indeed their entire role — is habitually made subordinate to the exigencies of a didactic preoccupation.