Thursday, May 16, 2013

Corianton's Sins: Sex ≠ Murder

Since we're talking about sex this week, let's look at one of the gems of Mormon conventional wisdom: sexual infidelity is a sin next to murder.

This piece of wisdom is so pervasive that I never really started to question it until recently.  But the way we use this conventional wisdom in our culture has begun to bother me.  So I did what anyone ought to do when evaluating cultural notions in religion: turn to the source document.

The genesis of the sex-murder association comes from the Book of Mormon.  The prophet Alma led a missionary effort to some apostate religionists who were known as Zoramites.  The group of missionaries he led included one of his sons, Corianton.  Apparently, Corianton got himself into trouble and hooked up with the city's famous whore.  After returning from this missionary effort, Alma sat down with Corianton and had a heart-to-heart on the matter.  Alma tells Corianton:
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 39:4)
The common interpretation of this passage assumes that "these things" is referring to Corianton's sexual improprieties.  Thus, the only sins greater than sexual sins are murder and denying the Holy Ghost.

Let's entertain this, for a second.  This doesn't have to mean that sexual sin is as bad as murder, or anywhere near the same severity as murder.  Organizationally, the Church doesn't believe this.  If it did, your garden variety missionary wouldn't be able to authorize a potential convert's baptism if sexual sin existed.  The First Presidency must authorize the baptism of any person who has committed murder; mission presidents have to authorize baptism of people who have had or participated in abortions, or who have engaged in homosexual activity.  But vanilla sexual sin (or even the not-so-vanilla type) only need to be cleared by a missionary as young as 18.

To draw an analogy, if murder and sex ran a race, murder would win and sex would come in second place.  That might make it look like a close race, but in actuality, murder ran a 3:57 mile and sex ran a 7:43 mile.  They're nowhere close to each other.

Now that we've entertained that notion, let's move on and challenge the idea that Alma is even talking about sexual sin.  To make my challenge, I'm going to employ a very sneaky trick I like to call "reading the verse before."
4 Yea, [the whore] 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.
 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 39:4-5)

So does the term "these things" refer to Corianton's tryst with the whore, or does it refer to the fact that he left  his ministry and damaged the credibility of the missionary effort?  The text isn't clear.  But we get more clues if we employ another trick I call "reading further ahead."

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.
 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;
 13 That ye 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: 11-13; emphasis mine)

It appears that a large part of Corianton's sin was that he interfered with the conversion of people to the Gospel.  His actions dissuaded people from hearing the word of God.  To put it in more modern terms, it would be like an LDS missionary putting on his name tag, strutting into a strip club, and blowing all his money on lap dances--how seriously do you think people are going to take that missionary?

This interpretation actually make more sense that the sex-is-next-to-murder interpretation.  Interfering with someone's spiritual conversion is to put them at risk for spiritual death (or separation from God), which sounds a lot more similar to murder than having sex.

Now for something a little different:

Lay off of Corianton already.  We tend to hold him up of the poster boy for all things bad about sex, and the only thing we talk about with respect to him is that he went and had sex.

Again, I say, lay off of him.

Alma's instruction to Corianton consisted of four chapters. In only one of those chapters does Alma directly address the sins among the Zoramites.  That means only 25% of the chapters were about the sins.

Or if you look at it in terms of the 91 verses, of which only 14 were about the sins, or 15%.  That percentage holds up if you look at the number of words.  The point being, Alma spoke about other things about 5 times as long as he spoke about Corianton's sins.  Those other things were the Resurrection, the plan of Salvation, the Atonement, and repentance.  You could argue that Corianton was getting this lecture because of his sins. And you'd be partially correct.  But there's more to it than that.

Before I wrap up, let me point out that the mission the the Zoramites is estimated to have happened around 74 BC.  The discourses to Alma's sons are dated for that same year.  So the amount of time that could have elapsed between the end of the Zoramite mission and Alma's talk with Corianton is at most a year and probably much, much less.  I would imagine that this talk happened within a couple of weeks if not within a few days.  At the end of the lecture, Alma tells Corianton
And now, O my son, ye are called of God to preach the word unto this people. And now, my son, go thy way, declare the word with truth and soberness, that thou mayest bring souls unto repentance, that the great plan of mercy may have claim upon them. And may God grant unto you even according to my words. Amen. (42:31)
That sounds an awful lot like "go thy way and sin no more."

Think about that.  In the span of 91 verses and maybe a couple of weeks, Alma has gone from "the sin next to murder" to "go preach the gospel to the world."  How does our dialog about sexual sin compare?


  1. Modern prophets are within their rights to declare that sexual sin is next to murder as a matter of modern revelation. But if they're not going to do so, I agree with your assessment of the textual evidence.

    Other neglected things about the admonition to Corianton: He is called out right up front for relying his own strength and wisdom. He is admonished right at the end to give full sway in his heart to God's justice, mercy, and longsuffering.

    These bracketing passages suggest reading everything between in terms of the contrasts between his virtues and God's, between relying on himself and depending on God, between following his own agenda and following God's. Surely such issues are richly involved in his decision to forsake the ministry. Surely they underlie all our other movements toward eternal life or away from it. Surely they touch upon the most crucial questions of character that mortal life is designed to answer. Indeed, they are the very issues at stake in the sin of denying the Holy Ghost and in the grace of making one's election sure.

    I think the doctrines of atonement and redemption, on which the admonition centers, can probably be read as commenting on these themes and offering motives to take God's side of them seriously. I'll have to pursue that more fully next time I read.

    One other neglected thing about Corianton himself: He is mentioned a good while later as being honest and upright and faithful. So there. Whatever it was that this great doctrinal exposition was designed to rectify in him, it did the trick.

  2. Just one word to describe this post: BRILLIANT.