The Latter-day Saint scriptural tradition contains two great cautionary tales about sex: the first is the story of King David, who saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof and summoned her to his quarters—an assignation that ended with the betrayal and murder of Bathsheba’s husband. The second is the story of Corianton, the son of Alma the Younger, who abandoned his missionary duties among the Zoramites and dallied with “the harlot Isabel”—thus imperiling the entire mission and bringing disrepute on the followers of Christ.
On the surface, these cautionary tales seem to have the same message, which is something like, “don’t follow your sexual impulses (except under carefully controlled circumstances) or bad stuff will happen.” It’s a message that Mormons hear a lot. But when we start looking at the differences between the two stories, we start to see very different understandings of human sexuality and religion at work. And, in this case, the differences are much more important than the similarities.
Let’s start with David, a man who has wives and concubines all over the place (2 Samuel 5:13). As the king in a polygamous society, David has very few restraints on his sexual behavior. “Stay away from the wives of top officers who might lead a rebellion against you.” That’s about it. His actions with Bathsheba show us a man whose appetites and sense of entitlement are so great that he can’t even observe the minimal sexual boundaries that his society has set for him. And, of course, things end very badly for him as a result.
But here’s the thing: we repeatedly read in the Bible that, whatever else might have strayed, David’s heart was always with the Lord. He replaces Saul because he is “a man after [God’s] own heart.” After he dies, the narrative tells us that his heart was “perfect with the Lord” (1 Kings 11:4) and that he followed the Lord “with all his heart’ (1 Kings 14:8). This constant emphasis on David’s heart tells us that, AS THE TEXT PRESENTS IT, David’s sexual impropriety was not tied to any theological error (he continued to believe correctly) or any deficiency of love (he continued to love the Lord with all his heart). This is why, for all of his sins, many people still see David as a hero today.
But what about Corianton’s heart? In his lengthy blessing of his son, Alma makes it very clear that Corianton’s heart is not right. His sexual sin has resulted in the alienation of his heart from God:
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. 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 (Alma 39:11-12).
Corianton’s sin, unlike David’s, becomes evidence of a deficient heart. Perhaps even more importantly, though, it also becomes evidence of a lack of religious understanding. After rebuking Corianton for his sexual sins for one chapter, Alma spends the next three chapters correcting his son’s theological errors. In chapters 40-42, Alma takes the unusual step (for someone giving a blessing) of clarifying doctrines that Corianton has presumably not understood: the nature of the resurrection, the doctrine of the spirit world, outer darkness, the corporeality of the afterlife, the nature of spiritual death, mercy, justice, atonement, and so on.
The curious juxtaposition of moral rebuke and theological correction in Corianton’s blessing casts sexual sin as an essentially theological problem—either the result of, or a symptom of, a faulty understanding of the Gospel. This means that the solution to sexual sin must be theological instruction of the kind that constitutes the bulk of the blessing. Such an approach implicitly denies sexuality as a primary part of human identity. We are not (like King David) sexual beings who have a theology; we are theological beings who have sex—and whose sexuality must be entirely contained within theological bounds unless we don’t love God.
There are limits to these kinds of generalizations, of course—the most obvious being that they work much better for men than for women. The two texts treat David and Corianton very differently, but their treatment of Bathsheba and Isabel is almost identical: both women are presented as stumbling blocks to male spiritual progress and not as actual people whose spirituality or sexuality matters for its own sake. This is a huge problem in both texts, and Latter-day Saints all too often pass this flawed understanding on to our daughters by telling them they are responsible—through their dress, their words, and their actions—for making sure that men don’t become Davids or Coriantons.
This is one of the reasons that our traditional scriptural cautionary tales have limited instructional value for teaching our youth today. Another is that the two stories end up teaching opposite lessons about what it means to love God, accept the Gospel, and have a sexual identity. Proof-texting both passages to come up with “sex is bad and ugly until you are married, when it becomes a Godly act of co-creation” has not actually worked very well. Mainly it has helped to created several generations of neurotic Mormons. Instead, I would suggest, we should try reading both stories carefully and really grappling with the complicated and difficult issues that they raise for us all.