- Stop Misinterpreting Alma: we don’t believe in “moderation in all things”
- Is sexual sin the 3rd worst sin? If not, what does Alma chastise Corianton for?
Prior to beginning my study of Alma 39 a few months ago, I’d never considered the idea that perhaps Alma was trying to help Corianton with anything other than sexual sin.
Many Prophets and Apostles, and therefore likely millions of Latter-day Saints have taught and discussed this chapter as a warning against the severity of sexual sin. The common interpretation is that Alma gives ranking to the 3 worst sins a person can commit:
- Denying the Holy Ghost
- Shedding innocent blood
- Sexual sin (fornication / adultery)
If you’ve read many of my previous posts, you know that my scripture study is focused on the text itself. It’s not that I’m against outside commentary, and I often look to it for more insight and understanding. But only after I’ve carefully studied the text, and have questions I haven’t been able to shed any light on, with evidence in the text itself.
In short: I don’t want the traditional answers, I want to understand what the author is actually saying and whatever context we can glean from that. I’m more interested in what I can discern from the words of the scriptures themselves, the guidance and help of the Holy Ghost, and my growing understanding of the author who wrote the part I’m studying. So as per usual, I didn’t look up talks or commentary on Alma 39, until I’d had my own insights into what I thought was going on.
Why Doesn’t Alma Focus on Sexual Sin?
The first thing I noticed was that Alma doesn’t focus on sexual sin. Not even a little bit. Mirroring my study, let’s go to the text itself.
Alma first starts by listing some other sins that Corianton has committed: not being as steadfast, faithful, or diligent in keeping the commandments as his brother (Shiblon, we assume). He even points out specifically that Corianton “didst go on unto boasting in [his own] strength and wisdom.” (Alma 39:2). Then in verse 3 he gets to the heart of it all:
3. And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.Alma 39:3 (emphasis added)
Now let’s look at that verse: does he say anything about sexual sin directly? No. There’s an implication that if he’s chasing a harlot, he was pursuing her for sexual gratification. But Alma doesn’t say that here.
Instead the first of the things he mentions that’s “grievous” to him, is that Corianton “didst forsake the ministry.” Traveling to Siron, chasing a harlot, almost seems like an afterthought. The “and” used here makes it seem like Alma mentions it for context in case the events or timeline are not clear. Or as if that’s just the events that followed. Or perhaps that was the motivation for his sin, but not the actual sin. The focus seems pretty clearly not on the chasing of the harlot.
4. Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.Alma 39:4 (emphasis added)
Once again, we see Alma doesn’t seem to focus on sexual sin here either. He doesn’t say “you shouldn’t have been consorting with a whore!” as you’d expect if that were his primary concern here. Instead his admonition parallels his main concern in verse 3: “Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry….” If that’s true, then verse 5 is also not about sexual sin:
5. Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?Alma 39:5 (emphasis added)
So when he ranks Corianton’s sin as the third worst sin, he’s talking about something else. But what is it?
I’ve read and reread it, and read chapters 40-42 as well, and can’t find any hints of a better explanation when sticking to the text itself. In fact, let’s just address chapters 40-42 right now: there’s no mention of sexual sin in all of Alma’s lecture that follows this part, not even a hint or possible implied reference that I see.
If Not Sexual Sin, Then What?
So what is Alma talking about that’s so horrible?
6. For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once has had place in you, and ye know that ye deny it, behold, this is a sin which is unpardonable; yea, and whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness; yea, I say unto you, my son, that it is not easy for him to obtain a forgiveness.Alma 39:6 (emphasis added)
Try to look at this fresh, putting aside the way it’s frequently taught and discussed. He does seem to say that denying the Holy Ghost is the unpardonable sin, and therefore #1 on the list. And in verse 5, he did say that “shedding innocent blood” is in the top 2. So we’ll put it as #2.
But this is where context really changes how I see these verses. Alma talks about “murder[ing] against the light and knowledge of God.” I’d assumed this paralleled the “shedding of innocent blood” that he mentioned in verse 5. However, the wording is totally different. Plus it can’t be the same as “denying the Holy Ghost” because he just said that was unpardonable, while “murder[ing] against the light” can be forgiven, though it’s difficult.
Additionally, he repeats the warning that it’s not easy to obtain forgiveness, twice. It’s as if he’s trying to impress the gravity of it on Corianton. Then look what he says next:
7. And now, my son, I would to God that ye had not been guilty of so great a crime. I would not dwell upon your crimes, to harrow up your soul, if it were not for your good.Alma 39:7 (emphasis added)
Here Alma specifically says Corianton committed the sin he’s talking about. And, as if repeating it twice weren’t enough, Alma invokes God in a sort of oath to show how deep his desire is on his son’s behalf. If we look at it as an isolated verse, then it could refer back to something mentioned before such as sexual sin.
However, Mormon didn’t write in verses and Alma didn’t speak in them. They were added nearly 2000 years after Alma spoke them. Since this longing immediately follows the part about murdering against the light, it appears he’s saying:
Murdering against the light and knowledge of God is one of the most serious sins, and it’s very difficult to obtain forgiveness. Do you understand what I’m saying? If you’ve committed this sin, it is terribly difficult to obtain forgiveness. So I hurt deeply for you, and wish God could somehow roll back time and undo this sin, because it is so particularly hard to repent of.Tevya’s translation into modern English
Murdering Against the Light
So what is the sin? What is this 3rd-worst sin that Corianton has committed? It doesn’t seem to be sexual sin but instead this “murdering against the light and knowledge of God.” Fortunately for us, I think Alma told his other son Helaman exactly what he was talking about only a few chapters before.
Before talking to Corianton he spoke to his son Shiblon, and before Shiblon, to Helaman his eldest son. He told Helaman about his conversion experience when the angel appeared, changing the course of his life and that of the Sons of Mosiah.
While Alma was unconscious, he said that there was this period of clairvoyance where all his previous “sins and iniquities” were brought to his mind, and he was tormented “with the pains of hell” for them. He realized that he’d been rebelling against God and not keeping “his holy commandments” (Alma 36:11–13). Followed by this:
14. Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.Alma 36:14 (emphasis added)
In telling his own story to Helaman (with Corianton quite possibly in the room, listening) Alma used that same word, “murder” to mean killing the spirit by leading people to spiritual destruction.
A few verses before that he said “for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree.” Then afterward in verse 17, used that word again: “…while I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins.” And in verse 19 when he finally calls out to Jesus for mercy he is granted peace and “…was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.”
So he also used “harrowed” repeatedly to describe the torture of his soul, in repenting from that sin he called “murder.” Side note: one definition of “harrow” in Webster’s 1828 edition is “To tear; to lacerate; to torment.”
Now in chapter 38, he’s using those same words to explain to Corianton how horrible Corianton’s sins are. Here’s another attempt of mine to try and put it in modern English:
You murdered against the light of God by leading people away from the gospel. You left the ministry and set those people who followed you on a course to destruction. That sin of murdering souls is so serious that your soul will have to be harrowed as mine was, because that’s what is required to repent fully and obtain forgiveness for this sin.Tevya’s translation into modern English
Jesus’ Millstone Curse
It was after going over this a few times, and not seeing any other way to interpret it based on the text alone, that I started looking for other sources. I found an excellent article written by Michael R. Ash, called “The Sin ‘Next to Murder‘” (Sunstone, November 2006).
He links the “murder against the light” to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18, where Jesus compares people who are converted to the gospel to little children. Jesus says we have to become humble (and I would translate that as “purified by the Atonement”) like a little child. Then Jesus gives this very serious warning:
6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.Matthew 18:6 (emphasis added)
People often take it out of context and teach it as a lesson in protecting the innocence of little children. And I think Jesus maybe intended that too, with some dualism. In context though, he’s talking about little children as a symbolic representation of a humble, converted follower of Christ.
Webster’s 1828 offers several very helpful definitions of the word “offend.”
1. To attack; to assail.
3. To shock; to wound; as, to offend the conscience.
7. To draw to evil, or hinder in obedience; to cause to sin or neglect duty.
While any of these are fitting, I especially like the last one. I think it gets right to the heart of this whole thing. Jesus uses “offend” in the same place Alma is using “murder.” He means to lead to evil, or at least to cause to stumble in their pursuit of discipleship. Look at how it’s translated in the New Living Translation (NLT) of the Bible:
But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.NLT Matthew 18:6
To my understanding, Jesus is saying “if you kill a soul, that’s a very serious sin and difficult to obtain forgiveness.” Alma pretty directly accuses Corianton of this and calls him to repentance, in verses 11 and 12:
…Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.
12. And now the Spirit of the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction; therefore I command you, my son, in the fear of God, that ye refrain from your iniquities;Alma 39: 11–12 (emphasis added)
The Actual Three Worst Sins
It seems Jesus and Alma agree that “murdering against the light” is among the worst sins. Therefore our list should look something more like this:
- Denying the Holy Ghost (spiritual suicide)
- Shedding innocent blood (murdering someone’s physical body)
- Murdering against the light (murder of the soul)
Think about it—it makes sense! It’s all about destroying the soul one way or the other:
Denying the Holy Ghost
First is to have a level of knowledge where you know perfectly of God’s existence and plan, and then to deny it. It’s spiritual suicide. It’s a person destroying a soul, their own, permanently. They’ve chosen to be unforgivable. But it requires a perfect knowledge of God, so it’s not a sin most people are capable of committing.
Shedding Innocent Blood
Second is to murder an innocent person’s physical body. This prevents them from further spiritual progress in this life, and is one of the darkest, most soul-crushing actions a person can commit. It’s not as serious as #1, because there’s room for mercy and perhaps further repentance after death for the person whose life is ended prematurely. And so perhaps there can be forgiveness for the murderer too? Especially if they do it without the light of the gospel like King Lamoni. In either case, Alma seems to omit this the second time he talks about the unpardonable sin, perhaps because it’s not very applicable to his point.
Murdering Against the Light
Third is murdering a humble, converted person’s faith. It’s effectively destroying or killing their soul. It’s horrible, but still ranks slightly lower than the previous two, because (I assume) the affected person’s agency is involved, and they are still alive with opportunities to repent and regain their faith. They might still repent and continue the path of discipleship that they were violently removed from. And so the murderer also can gain forgiveness, though it’s “not easy for him [or her]….”
In Opposition to the First Two Commandments
While pre-reading this, my brother pointed out another interesting correlation: the first two worst sins go directly in opposition to Christ’s first and second commandments.
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.Matthew 22:37–39
Denying the Holy Ghost is exactly the opposite: to hate God with all your heart and soul. Murder is to despise your neighbor to the point of deeming their life worth nothing, or even less than nothing.
Put another way, the worst sin is the purest form of enmity toward God. Rather than loving God, a person with perfect knowledge of him is rejecting him of his own free will. And shedding innocent blood is the perfect antithesis of “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The person committing the act is deeming themselves as worthy of life, while judging their neighbor’s life as completely invaluable or even worthy of the work of murdering them and covering it up.
Murdering against the light, or offending a converted follower of Christ then, is a mix of the two. It’s showing antagonism toward God by killing the faith or soul of a fellow human and child of God. This suggests that the person committing the sin must have some knowledge of what they are doing, to be held responsible. But as mentioned above, it is also less permanent, thus leaving some room for repentance and forgiveness, as Alma was able to obtain.
Sexual Sin Is Very Serious Too
Now don’t get me wrong. My point is not to argue that sexual sin is not serious. It is! My point though is that it’s not #3 on the “top 3” list, and it’s not part of what Alma is teaching his son about. As I mentioned before, the only time he talks about it is in the verses we covered above, and a lot of that is by implication or assumption on our part. After that, he only mentions anything about it once more in verse 11:
11. Suffer not yourself to be led away by any vain or foolish thing; suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots. Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.Alma 39:11 (emphasis added)
After that he continues talking to Corianton for another 80 verses and doesn’t address it again from what I can tell. It appears it’s not even a little bit of the lesson.
Could sexual sin have been part of what Corianton did? Yes, most definitely. But compared against the third worst sin he could commit, it’s of much lesser importance to Alma. That’s why he doesn’t focus on it, if Corianton did actually “sleep” with Isabel the harlot.
Here’s the other thing that I think is often missed when Alma 39 is taught: Alma walked this path himself. He knows what it’s like to murder against the light. He also knows the pain and suffering that is required to repent of it. He uses words like “racked,” “tormented,” and “harrowed” to describe what he went through himself.
Alma seems terribly motivated to lead his whole life doing exactly the opposite of his early life: bringing souls to Christ, instead of driving them away. With that perspective, he’s chosen not to focus on sexual sin, if Corianton did commit sexual sin in addition to the third worst sin.
What About the Harlot?
I couldn’t think of any explanation of this mention of Isabel the Harlot, except for context. But in the article I mentioned before, Michael Ash points out some intriguing possibilities that could suggest there was no sexual sin involved. Or once again, that it was incidental to what was actually going on.
How could going after a Harlot not be sexual sin? It all hinges on the definition of “harlot.” I’m going to lean heavily on Bro Ash’s article here. But here’s one possibility: the word “harlot” was used in the Old Testament as a label for Jerusalem and/or Israel when they had stopped following the Lord and His Prophets. Their infidelity to the “one true God” was symbolically compared to a harlot who sleeps around. Here are a few examples:
21 ¶ How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.Isaiah 1:21
1 They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the Lord.Jeremiah 3:1
The whole of Ezekiel 16 is written to “…Jerusalem to know her abominations,” and uses the words “harlot,” “whore(s),” and “whoredoms” over and over. But it’s not about sexual sin specifically, it’s using the idea of an unfaithful woman as a metaphor for all of Jerusalem. Here’s a couple good examples:
17 Thou hast also taken thy fair jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given thee, and madest to thyself images of men, and didst commit whoredom with them,
35 ¶ Wherefore, O harlot, hear the word of the Lord:
36 Thus saith the Lord God; Because thy filthiness was poured out, and thy nakedness discovered through thy whoredoms with thy lovers, and with all the idols of thy abominations, and by the blood of thy children, which thou didst give unto them;Ezekiel 16:17, 35–36
So one possible interpretation is that the “harlot” is not a single woman named Isabel, but a whole city, or the cult of Isabel, or some other kind of group or organization that’s leading people away from the Lord and the church, including enticing Corianton.
How Did She “steal away the hearts of many”?
Nephi and Alma both repeatedly use “heart” as the primary indicator of a person’s faith. If their heart is turned toward the Lord then they are on the right path, but if their heart is led away after wickedness, then they’re in trouble. In fact, earlier Alma used similar language when describing Korihor:
18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.Alma 30:18
That’s very similar to the harlot Isabel who, “did steal away the hearts of many.” In talking about Korihor, Alma even used the word “whoredom” to describe their wickedness. Once again, in context, it’s not about sexual sin, but wickedness in general. They’re acting like a whore, by being unfaithful to their God who has thus far taken care of them, like an unfaithful wife who leaves her husband and sleeps with other men.
He uses similar language again, for his next challenge, the Zoramites:
…Alma having received tidings that the Zoramites were perverting the ways of the Lord, and that Zoram, who was their leader, was leading the hearts of the people to bow down to dumb idols, his heart again began to sicken because of the iniquity of the people.Alma 31:1
Then jumping forward in time, back to his talk with Corianton, Alma’s final mention of anything potentially sexual is “suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots,” (Alma 39:11, quoted in full above). Note that he uses the same language and this time uses the plural “harlots.”
So it’s possible that the “harlot Isabel” who stole many hearts, wasn’t just a particularly beautiful seductress. Instead, “she” might have been a city or a cult, that were worshiping false idols as a community. Perhaps that cult even involved sexual rituals, or fostered a sexually “open” lifestyle. Or perhaps Isabel was a leader in such a cult or community. It’s quite possible it was both: most importantly turning away from God and his commandments, but also including sexual sin.
I think we can assume Siron was somewhat near Antionum since both are near the Lamanites, and that would make sense as to why Corianton takes this particular opportunity to go find this harlot.
Assuming it was more than just a woman enticing him, we can also find a clue as to what kind of heresy or apostasy Isabel and the people of Siron were engaged in. If they are close to the Zoramites, then perhaps they’re also practicing idol worship like the Zoramites were?
If that’s true, it becomes easier to understand why Alma spends the rest of chapter 39, plus chapters 40-42 talking about specific doctrinal concerns.
If the people of Siron (or Isabel) are an apostate group that are teaching and practicing idolatry, it makes a lot of sense why Alma would refer to Isabel as a harlot. They are a people who are “whoring” after false Gods. And Corianton joined them. Plus if the apostate doctrines they’re teaching include things similar to the following list, then it makes sense why Alma addresses issues with those doctrines and explains them better in the chapters that follow.
- We can’t believe in a Savior who hasn’t yet come (Alma 39:17–19)
- Resurrection means to be perfected despite wickedness (Alma 40)
- Resurrection isn’t real or doesn’t include a restoration (Alma 41)
- God doesn’t care what we become and will make punishment quick & easy (Alma 42)
It seems like Corianton has a number of doctrinal “faith challenges” he is struggling with along those lines. Those could have caused his faith to be too weak to overcome sexual temptation. But they could also be the very problem he’s struggling with. He already had questions along those lines and heard the people of Siron/Isabel were teaching some “amazing” doctrines or approaches and Corianton thought they might help his spiritual conflict?
This part is clearly a lot of speculation. However, looking at the various alternate interpretations of the key word “harlot” opens a lot of possibilities. In turn, it fits that Corianton’s “whoring” wasn’t giving in to the enticements of a woman and sexual desire, but instead a metaphorical lusting after apostate doctrines and groups.
A Parallel in the Odyssey
An interesting parallel came to mind from Homer’s Odyssey. In it, Odysseus and his men sail past the Sirens. They were forewarned of the Siren’s song, so they planned ahead.
All his crew plugged their ears with wax. But Odysseus was curious and wanted to hear. So he had his men tie him to the mast and promise not to let him go, no matter what he bargained or commanded them. The plan works as expected: Odysseus pleads, bargains, and commands them to let him loose, but they only tie him tighter until safely out of earshot of the deadly bird-women.
Modern translation and interpretations (think: O Brother Where Art Thou?) often depict them as having sexual appeal, their song luring men to physical pleasures. But that doesn’t seem to be the case:
It is strange and beautiful that Homer should make the Sirens appeal to the spirit, not to the flesh. To primitive man… the desire to know—to be as the gods—was the fatal desire.Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Jane Ellen Harrison, pp 198 (emphasis added)
These sirens don’t offer a fulfillment of sexual desire, but instead the satisfaction of our desire for knowledge and godlike power. Perhaps in the same way, in modern times we often interpret Isabel the harlot as being a sexual seductress, when in fact she was seducing Corianton with heretical “knowledge” and falsehoods?
The sirens offer Odysseus what Satan offered Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: knowledge that would help them become “as the gods.” They claim he’ll live to benefit from the knowledge he gains from them. But like Satan in the garden, it’s a deal that ends in death. If he goes to them, Odysseus will have to give his life for the enlightenment he receives, just as Adam and Eve became mortal and would eventually die as part of their transgression and reception of god-like knowledge.
In much the same way, Corianton could have found Isabel’s teachings seductive, whether she was an individual woman or religious organization of some kind. Like Odysseus, he longed to go to this supposed source of enlightenment. But as with the words of any ungodly messenger, there are lies mixed with the truth. Because he choose to hear and follow the siren’s song, Corianton suffers a spiritual death in that he’s led to commit “murder against the light.”
Did Corianton Repent of His Grievous Sin?
Fortunately for him, spiritual death is not final. Repentance, redemption, and spiritual resurrection are available to him as to all of us. His own father reveals the authentic truths, in contrast to the counterfeit “truths” that Isabel offered. Alma teaches him all about justice, mercy, repentance, resurrection, judgement, and the atonement, including mysteries Alma himself had only learned through much study and prayer. Alma seems to plead with him to begin the repentance process:
…turn to the Lord with all your mind, might, and strength; that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly; but rather return unto them, and acknowledge your faults and that wrong which ye have done.Alma 39:13 (emphasis added)
Then again at the very end of talking to Corianton:
29. And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.Alma 42:29–30 (emphasis added)
30. O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility.
But did Corianton follow this advice and take advantage of Christ’s atonement? Does Corianton hear the genuine gospel when his father teaches him in the chapters that follow? I went looking for clues, hoping to find indication that he repented of this very serious sin. The first 2 verses of Alma 43 says that Alma and his sons went out and,
…they preached the word, and the truth, according to the spirit of prophecy and revelation; and they preached after the holy order of God by which they were called.”Alma 43:2
It doesn’t exclude Corianton from this, plus the context is immediately following Alma’s speaking with each of his three sons. So I think it’s very safe to assume he’s included in the group.
An online search of the scriptures revealed that Corianton is again mentioned in Alma 49:30, where Amalickiah and his Lamanites have lost their first great battle to Captain Moroni and the Nephites. It notes that the Nephites had peace and prosperity, partly
…because of their heed and diligence which they gave unto the word of God, which was declared unto them by Helaman, and Shiblon, and Corianton….Alma 49:30
So Corianton was declaring the word to the people, contributing to the peace they experienced.
Then finally, in Alma 63:10 Shiblon dies, and Corianton goes into the land north via ship to carry provisions to the people there. Helaman was dead by then and had passed the sacred things (plus office of High Priest, I assume) on to Shiblon. Without Corianton around, Shiblon passes the mantle to Helaman’s oldest son, also named Helaman. But the implication is that Corianton would have been the next in line to receive them, if he hadn’t gone to the land northward. This seems very likely another indication of his righteousness.
It appears that’s the end of Corianton, or at least what we know about him. I think we can safely assume that he had fully repented of this great sin and lived out his life as a righteous prophet who taught the word with power. He likely helped many more people to realize their divine potential, than those he’d hurt by chasing the harlot. Corianton seems to mirror his father Alma. When his personal watershed moment arrived, he chose to repent of murdering against the light no matter how difficult the process might have been.
We can all find Corianton in ourselves: we all sin and need to repent. We all die spiritually through our sins, and need the atonement of Christ to heal us. We all have it in us to destroy the faith of our neighbors, and need to be careful to challenge church culture and false doctrines in positive and constructive ways designed to increase the faith of others, rather than causing them to stumble.