Alma 39


 



MDC Contents

 

 

 The commandments of Alma to his son Corianton.  Comprising chapters 39 to 42 inclusive.

 

Textual: This introductory title is in the 1830 edition, and parallels the similar introductions for the addresses to Helaman and Shiblon. As with Helaman, the entire address is a single chapter. The division into four chapters for this address is a modern change in the organization of the text.

 

Alma 39:1

1  And now, my son, I have somewhat more to say unto thee than what I said unto thy brother; for behold, have ye not observed the steadiness of thy brother, his faithfulness, and his diligence in keeping the commandments of God?  Behold, has he not set a good example for thee?

 

Alma begins his discourse to Corianton with both a similarity and a difference from the last two. Missing in this introduction is the personalization of the Nephite national promise; that he would prosper through righteousness. Immediately we notice its absence, as it was the introduction of his address to both Helaman and Shiblon. It would appear that it was a promise emphasized to those who appeared destined to fulfill it. For those it was a promise of personal preservation if they continued to hold to the way of the Lord. As we shall see, Corianton was not as faithful in this regard, and it appears that Alma withheld the specific promise as Corianton was not in as much of a position to fulfill it as were his siblings.

 

What is similar to the other discourses is that he carries some theme from one to the other. Alma makes reference to Helaman’s blessing when he addresses Shiblon (Alma 38:1), and here he makes reference to Shiblon (and by implication to his blessing). Alma is making a linkage among the brothers. He is asserting their physical bonds as brothers and attempting to make those physical bonds into spiritual bonds. Specifically, we see that Shiblon (not Helaman) is being held up as an example to Corianton. Alma would understand instinctually that the blessings to the firstborn (as we must assume Helaman to be) would be different from and exceed the blessings of the subsequent brothers. Thus Alma does not hold up Helaman as an example, for to do so would be to present what could be considered an impossible example. How could a younger son approach the merits of the firstborn? In an ancient patriarchal society, the rights of the firstborn are paramount, and it is the violation of those rights through the will of the Lord that lends emphasis to the stories of Joseph from the Old Testament and Nephi in the Book of Mormon.

 

Shiblon, however, was not privileged by birth, but only by personal merit. It this he is the perfect example for Corianton of one who obeys for the sake of righteousness, and not for position or responsibility.

 

Alma 39:2

2  For thou didst not give so much heed unto my words as did thy brother, among the people of the Zoramites.  Now this is what I have against thee; thou didst go on unto boasting in thy strength and thy wisdom.

 

We do not have the antecedent information to know precisely to what Alma refers. Somewhere in the mission to the Zoramites Corianton “did not give so much heed” to Alma’s words as did his brother. The only evidence we are given for this problem is that Corianton “did go on unto boating in [his] own strength and… wisdom.” What might he have done that was different from Shiblon?

 

We may compare this complaint against Corianton to part of the admonition given to Shiblon:

 

Alma 38:10-13

10 And now, as ye have begun to teach the word even so I would that ye should continue to teach; and I would that ye would be diligent and temperate in all things.

11 See that ye are not lifted up unto pride; yea, see that ye do not boast in your own wisdom, nor of your much strength.

12 Use boldness, but not overbearance; and also see that ye bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love; see that ye refrain from idleness.

13 Do not pray as the Zoramites do, for ye have seen that they pray to be heard of men, and to be praised for their wisdom.

 

The admonitions to Shiblon do occur in a context that uses the mission to the Zoramites for an example, and the presence of the bad example of the Zoramites and the negative exhortation to “not boast in your own wisdom, nor of your much strength” is so clearly parallel to the complaint against Corianton that we must suppose that there is a connection. There is something about the experience with the Zoramites that created a condition where one son did not boast of himself, and the other did. What might have happened?

 

The danger of boasting in one’s one strength or wisdom in the context of a missionary setting has to do with the interaction with the people to whom the missionary is sent. What happens is that in the conflict of ideas, one might enter the thick of the conceptual fray assuming that one has the strength of understanding or conviction sufficient to not only combat, but to convince the other contestant in the war of opinions. What many find when they enter that intellectual fray is that they are not as well prepared as they had thought, and their strength is not sufficient to the task. Without the humility to rely upon the Lord, they are left to their own devices which begin to fail them, and rather than be the “victors” they become the “defeated.” They begin to lose their testimony rather than impress its truthfulness on others. As we proceed through Alma’s lecture to Corianton, we will see that what appears to have happened is that Corianton was insufficiently strong in his beliefs in the gospel, and was rather influenced by the arguments he heard from those to whom he was to preach.

 

There are many of the members of the modern church who fall into the Corianton syndrome. They assume that their testimony is strong enough, and so they seek out material that others have created that is antagonistic to the church. They may do so with full expectation that their faith is sufficient, but then they find that they were on a weaker ground than they had assumed, and as Corianton, find themselves being tempted by some of the ideas that come from the opposing camp. It should be noted that it isn’t the act of doing so that is the problem, but rather the preparation and humility with which it is understaken. Both Shiblon and Corianton went on the same mission, and Shiblon appears to have undergone greater physical stress (we do not hear of Corianton enduring stoning). Nevertheless there is a difference in the outcome.

 

Both Shiblon and Corianton had the same parents, the same background, the same training, and went on the same mission. They came home very different. The difference lay in their own personalities, with one willing to be humble before the Lord, and the other boasting too much in his own strength and wisdom, and strength and wisdom about which he had a false sense of security.

 

Alma 39:3

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.

 

Here is the second point of contention with Alma. The first is that Corianton boasted of his own strength. The second is the result of that boasting. By filling in the blanks of what Alma does not tell us, the evidence of which will continue to mount as we examine Alma’s discourse to his son, we may understand the nature of what Corianton did.

 

In this case we have some obvious information, and some not-so-obvious information. First, it is obvious that Corianton both abandoned his mission, and that he took up with a harlot. We in the modern world understand that both of these events would be cause for great sorrow should they occur to a missionary. What we do not as easily understand is the rest of the story that is told to us in these brief statements.

 

First, we have the fact that Corianton abandoned his mission. While this is important information, we need to understand why. We must understand that when the mission to the Zoramites began, Shiblon and Corianton were likely both considered righteous. There is no indication from Alma that Corianton was lukewarm in his approach to the gospel prior to the mission to the Zoramites. What we are told is that he boasted in his own strength. While that is a foreshadowing of a fall, it is nevertheless an indication of some beginning position of strength. Thus what we see in the departure is a personal apostasy from the gospel, something that must have been very personally painful to his father, since Alma the Younger would have well understood the temptations of that non-gospel centered life. Alma would be watching a son take the opposite life-path from the one that Alma described to both Helaman and Shiblon, where Alma turned away from apostasy and toward Christ. Corianton and gone through an event (the mission to the Zoramites) that has made a parallel turn in his life, but in an entirely different direction.

 

The second event is that Corianton did “go after” the harlot Isabel. What we might miss is that this “harlot” is “among the borders of the Lamanites.” This direction is probably as significant as the time spent with Isabel. Isabel is apparently not necessarily Zoramite, but Lamanite. At the very least, there is the implication of direction here that is more than physical. Corianton did not simply physically move towards the Lamanites, he is culturally and spiritually moving towards the Lamanites. When he leaves his mission, he does not go home, he goes in the opposite direction both physically and spiritually.

 

We do not know much about the harlot Isabel, though it s fascinating that she is named. She is one of the few named females in the Book of Mormon, and the fact of her naming suggests that she has some importance. Indeed, we will learn in the next verse that Corianton is not the only one whose heart was stolen away. While the sexual connotations are explicit and should not be underplayed, it is quite possible that there is more than simple sexual union going on here. In many pagan religions it is not uncommon for priestesses to engage in sexual unions that are considered sacred because of person or place in that religion. The naming of this woman may suggest that above the sexual connotation we should see the spiritual turning as well. Corianton’s adoption of a new worldview, a new concept of religion, would place in him in a position where his opinions of sexual congress would also have changed. While the clearly unmarried act of sexual union would be sufficient, it is not certain that this is all we are to understand here. It is quite probable that there is a cultural context that Alma does not need to explain, but which would have been very helpful to modern readers.

 

Alma 39:4

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.

 

The stealing of the hearts may either be a metaphor for physical love, or for religious devotion (or both). Once again, it is not clear. What we will be able to tell, however, is that Corianton has adopted some of the religions beliefs of “the other side.” Given this evidence that his apostasy was as much intellectual and religious as it was carnal, we may be justified in supposing a connection between the carnal and intellectual/spiritual in this case.

 

Alma 39:5

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?

 

We are on thin exegetical grounds when we base too much of an explanation on a linguistic feature in the text, but there is the possibility in this case that the presence of “these things” in the plural is actually significant. Alma is letting Corianton know that he has done something that is an abomination in the sight of the Lord, but it does not appear to be a single thing, but rather “things” – in the plural. What could be meant?

 

When Alma gets more specific in verse 11 he again mentions that Corianton should not consort with harlots. That is clearly one “thing.” However, Alma also notes in verse 11 that he should not be “led away by any vain or foolish thing.” It is probable that Corianton’s abominable sin consisted of two parts, begin led away by a “vain or foolish thing,” and also consorting with a harlot. When we place these two “things” in the context of the religious/political worldview of the Lamanites, and the possibility that the named harlot would be a priestess representative of the new religion to which Corianton had apostatized, then we see how the confluence of these things become the abomination before God. This is not a simple error of sexual passion. That would be a sin, but certainly a forgivable one. It hardly fits the category of “most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost.” What would be “most abominable” however, is the denial of the gospel and the embracing of a false gospel. Such a sin would preclude forgiveness not because it was not possible (as with the sin against the Holy Ghost, or the shedding of blood) but because the person who had apostatized would have put themselves in a position where they had lost their belief in the repentance process, and would not repent. One who will not repent is only slightly less in condemnation than one who cannot.

 

Alma 39:6

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.

 

This is the context that allows us to understand why Alma continues with this explanation. He has brought up the two worse sins, and now he explains why they are worse. They are worse because one is unpardonable and one is difficult to obtain forgiveness. The explanation of these two categories highlights the sins which make it difficult to receive forgiveness because of the sin. By implication, the next worse will be a sin from which one refuses to repent. Apostasy would fit that definition, and consorting with harlots would be only a part of the greater sin. Were there no apostasy, the consorting with harlots would be a forgivable sin, should the person come to a realization of the sin and desire repentance.

 

We should understand that Alma is contrasting the unpardonable, and the unforgivable against that which is pardonable and forgivable:

 

“Persons guilty of unchastity may receive forgiveness through full repentance.”(Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 266.)

 

“Serious as is the sin of fornication, there is forgiveness upon condition of total repentance. “ (Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972], 172.)

 

The critical difference is in the availability of forgiveness. Consorting with a harlot is certainly forgivable, but only upon complete and sincere repentance, a process that would be difficult to achieve while in a state of apostasy from the God who could forgive.

 

Alma 39:7

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 39:8

8  But behold, ye cannot hide your crimes from God; and except ye repent they will stand as a testimony against you at the last day.

Alma 39:9

9  Now my son, I would that ye should repent and forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself in all these things; for except ye do this ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.  Oh, remember, and take it upon you, and cross yourself in these things.

 

Alma exhorts Corianton to repentance. Clearly Alma is using the imagery of the harlot as the symbol for the nature of his apostasy, as Alma calls this a “lust of your eyes.” This would appear to most directly relate to consorting with harlots. However, as we will see, the focus of the bulk of Alma’s discourse will not be chastity, but rather very important and basic gospel principles. Corianton’s process of repentance necessarily will require a return to the gospel first, and then a repentance of his actions with the harlot Isabel, and perhaps others.

 

Alma 39:10

10  And I command you to take it upon you to counsel with your elder brothers in your undertakings; for behold, thou art in thy youth, and ye stand in need to be nourished by your brothers. And give heed to their counsel.

 

Of course this is good advice, Helaman and Shiblon are faithful, and they will guide Corianton. The more important question is why Corianton would not go to Alma. The answer is that Alma does not expect to be around for much longer. While Alma will be around through the end of this current year, the eighteenth year of the reign of the judges, he will leave, never to be seen again, early in the nineteenth year (Alma 45:18). Thus Alma is giving his sons a final blessing, and in Alma’s absence, the older brothers will be the source to which Corianton will need to turn for spiritual guidance.

 

Alma 39:11

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.

 

As noted in verse 5, we may see here two “things” that constitute the sin of Corianton. The obvious one is being lead way after the harlots. The first listed, however, is that he was led away by a “vain or foolish thing.” Of course it is possible that the vain or foolish thing might be the same as the harlot, but it is doubtful. The more probable explanation would be that there is a different aspect of his sin described by the vain and foolish thing, and this must in some way describe his apostate state.

 

The last part of the verse is yet another sin compounding his personal sin. Because of his actions, he caused unbelief on the part of others. It is quite understandable that this should happen, as we are very aware that one person who does not live the gospel can make it difficult to teach the value of the gospel to others. Alma’s inability to assure his son’s orthodoxy was seen as a weakness in the doctrine, not rebelliousness in the person of Corianton. The Zoramites were able to use this as one of their excuses for not believing Alma. 

 

Alma 39:12

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 must remonstrate his son. As with most fathers who love their sons, this is not a task that Alma relishes. He would much rather praise his sons, as he has done with Helaman and Shiblon. Nevertheless, he must because the Lord has commanded him to do so. Notice that the Lord’s commandment is generic, not specific. Even though Alma has only had one son who has led people away through his actions, all of his sons might do so. The command is for all, but the necessity of the command at this time is for Corianton.

 

Alma 39:13

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.

 

The commandment to Corianton is simple, as it is to us all. Stop doing the things that lead us away from the Lord, and return to him. One of the most important aspects of repentance is that we “acknowledge [our] faults and the wrong which [we] have done.” This is the essential first step. Unless and until we admit that we have been contrary to the will of God, we will not be able to rectify our standing before God. Before we can move closer to God, we must recognize that it is we who have moved away.

 

Alma 39:14

14  Seek not after riches nor the vain things of this world; for behold, you cannot carry them with you.

 

We have another specific command to Corianton. While this one does not have the immediate impact on our imaginations as does consorting with harlots, it is nevertheless perhaps the more serious crime Corianton has committed. In our understanding of the Nephite world, the mechanism for social segregation was economic. The prophets continue to decry the use of wealth to make class distinctions. We may see in this phrase, then, that Corianton has been seeking riches, and seeking them in the context of the world – of the “vain things of this world.” This is the commandment to return from his apostasy. His pursuit of riches is not simply a pursuit of wealth.

 

Once again, we must remember that the nature of the society, and the nature of economics, were quite different for the Nephite world. There were no stores, there were no banks. Wealth did not buy large houses and cars. Basic food was a common resource, and in the Nephite egalitarian ideal, should have been available to all. What we would have in this case is a chasing of riches for the trappings of power that are defined by those riches. Corianton apparently began this quest for wealth while on his mission to the Zoramites, and as we have seen, Zoramite society refined the art of public display of wealth for the purpose of social differentiation. When Corianton pursues wealth, it is literally a “vain thing” for the function of the wealth was not comfort, but public display and self aggrandizement.

 

Alma 39:15

15  And now, my son, I would say somewhat unto you concerning the coming of Christ.  Behold, I say unto you, that it is he that surely shall come to take away the sins of the world; yea, he cometh to declare glad tidings of salvation unto his people.

 

Alma will now begin a fairly extensive discourse on the saving role of the Atoning Messiah. Why does he do this? Corianton has grown up with a belief in the coming of the Atoning Messiah, but apparently he has recently abandoned that belief, a point we presume from the nature of his described sins.

 

When Alma needs to teach Corianton about repentance, he does not need to tell him that the Atoning Messiah will come, if Corianton is at all repentant, he understands that he must return to this belief. What Alma does need to do is make sure that Corianton understands the true process of repentance, a process that cannot be understood, indeed cannot occur, without the Atoning Messiah’s mission.

 

Alma 39:16

16  And now, my son, this was the ministry unto which ye were called, to declare these glad tidings unto this people, to prepare their minds; or rather that salvation might come unto them, that they may prepare the minds of their children to hear the word at the time of his coming.

Alma 39:17

17  And now I will ease your mind somewhat on this subject. Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand.  Behold, I say  unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?

 

We are given a glimpse into a history that has not been given. Alma first indicates that the preaching of the Atoning Messiah is the purpose of the mission assignment that Corianton received. This is the essential message he was to preach to the Zoramites, for they had ceased belief in the Atoning Messiah. It would appear that while boasting of his own strength (as we noted above) Corianton found himself influenced by the Zoramite disbelief. He apparently found questions for which he had no answers, and he allowed those questions to fester into his apostasy.

 

Alma begins to deal with Corianton’s faulty understanding. He notes that he “will ease your mind somewhat on this subject.” This tells us that the information that follows will be a response to some of the issues that generated Corianton’s apostasy. Coriantion has been unsure of something, and the answer will not come. While we don’t get the question itself, we do get the way in which Alma couches his response, and that tells us what the issue must have been.

 

Alma says: “is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?” One of the important issues in the Nephite record to this time has been the belief in a future Atoning Messiah. The role of this Atoning Messiah was known, but it was also known that the mission was in the future. Thus many non-believers could ridicule Nephite belief because it was based on a distant future event rather than something that had already happened. For a people who lived in a culture that would be steeped in tradition (not the number of times there are references to the fathers) this reliance upon future rather than past would appear very odd indeed. Cultures such as that in which the Lehite peoples participated are frequently termed “traditional cultures” because of the tremendous focus on the power of the past to influence and dictate the present.

 

Alma’s statement has to do with the disjunction between the nature of the mission of the Atoning Messiah and the future timing of that event. The question that has troubled Corianton might be stated: “how can this Atoning Messiah be just or loving if he abandons people now without atonement, only to offer it to others in the future?” This is an issue that is absolutely pertinent to the time before Christ’s earthly mission, but one that we seldom conceive precisely because we accept that the even has already happened.

 

Alma attempts to deal with this issue of disjunction by accepting the problem of the future, but focusing on the justice and love of the Lord. Alma does not deny that the fulfillment comes in the future, but he does deny that the future promise means any less concern for the current people. Thus ““is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?”

 

Alma 39:18

18  Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children?

Alma 39:19

19  Is it not as easy at this time for the Lord to send his angel to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children, or as after the time of his coming?

 

Alma’s response to the time disjunction is to point out that it is not really there. While the coming of the Atoning Messiah is in the future, that does not mean that the present is left unattended. Alma first asks: “Is is not as necessary that the plan of redemption should ble made known uno this people as well as unto their children?” Of course the answer is yes, but if we assume that very simple answer we miss the real import of Alma’s statement. Alma’s statement has two levels simultaneously. The first is the simple justice question of whether or not the current population has the same rights before God as their children; to which the answer is clearly yes. The second aspect, however, is that the plan of redemption is being taught now, and thus this proves God’s current concern. What Alma is saying is that the evidence for the current attention from God is that the current people have the same understanding of the plan of redemption as the future children who are born after the Atoning Messiah comes.

 

Alma’s second statement is similarly dual. The first level is the simple question of whether or not it is “as easy” for the Lord to send an angel now as to send a messenger then. Of course the answer must be yes, but this is not the real message. The real message is that the angel has already been sent. While Alma does not explicitly recount his conversion story here as he did for Helaman and Shiblon, it is impossible to imagine that this was not a well known event for all of his sons. Thus Corianton would instantly know that his rather was making a very personal reference here. Is it just as easy? Not only just as easy, but it has already happened. What Alma has done to combat this question of the disjunction between justice and time is to suggest that while the event may be in the future, the benefits of that event (knowledge of the plan and the declaration by an angel) have already been made.

 

Textual: There is no chapter break in the 1830 edition, and it is somewhat unfortunate that it was place here. While there is a slight subject change, what follows must be considered intimately connected to this scenario of a Corianton on the brink of a repentance of his apostasy, an apostasy that apparently centered on his rejection of some of the some of the crucial doctrines of the Atoning Messiah, doctrines that he must now fully understand so that he may apply them to his repentance process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2001