Removing the Masculinity from Alma 39
“Which do you like best,” asked my brother. “The Book of Mormon, or the Old or New Testament?”
He was only a year older than me, and at the time of this question, we were each only about 6 or 7 years old. “The Bible,” I said, not sure what he was talking about.
“Old one or New one?”
“The one with Jesus.”
“I like the Book of Mormon best.” Then he added with a sneer, “Because it has more wars.”
“Mine is better because it has Jesus,” I said.
“The Book of Mormon has Jesus, too.” he victoriously announced before adding, “And wars. Lots of wars.”
I stood by my choice, the New Testament ! Sure of this, I began to leaf through the scriptural picture books that my mother collected for us. Finding drawings of Jesus in the New Testament, I knew: This was my favourite book of scriptures. But I decided to have a look at the Book of Mormon picture book, because I didn’t believe Jesus was in there. And to be honest, I can’t recall if I ever did find drawings of Jesus in that particular children’s edition of the Book of Mormon, though I know now that Jesus also appears in the Book of Mormon.
But as a child, looking through the pages of the children’s Book of Mormon, I became distracted—it has so many drawings of boys and men. I liked the men who were painted in bright red outfits, but I struggled to find images of women. From memory, I saw three: One of Sariah, being doubtful and looking forlorn. Another of the Lamanite girls screaming as the priests of King Noah took them. And lastly, Abish. She was dressed in dank, dark colours, looking every whit a slave. None of the women looked happy.
Compared to the New Testament picture book, this was nearly void of women—especially happy-looking women. Yes. I was assured that my choice was best: images of happy women with Jesus. My favourite was the New Testament.
Even at such a young age, the masculine and feminine influences of Book of Mormon picture books, and likely the words, influenced me in regard to gender. They also influenced my brother as his voice pounded out verses to “Book of Mormon Stories,” which were a masculine fit for boys bent on adventure. Even within the later-added additional verses, not a single female is mentioned within this song; armies, battles, arrows and sons—it is a march of masculinity, meant to be sung by a chorus of children.
It is no wonder then that the song, the picture books and all of the early influences that I had in regard to the Book of Mormon were masculine. The book itself seemed subject to masculine perceptions, on more than on occasion, men have told me that there are no women in the book of Mormon. These were not daft men; they most certainly had read the book. But they read it with a masculine vision, disregarding the females. (masculine = power, male = gender see Connell, Gender and Power).
As I grew older and sought for more than pretty pictures in children’s scripture books, I searched the women in the book for Mormon. As I began to think that I might never marry, and therefore might never be a parent, I likewise began to search for women in the scriptures who were not identified by marriage or motherhood. And, upon my father’s death, I sought for women who were not positioned as daughters. Those women are few and far between, especially in the Book of Mormon. But it was here that I first was introduced to Isabel. She has only two sentences, but is yet important enough to be included in the scriptures meant for us today.
Alma 39: 3-4 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. Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son.
Ouch. Can you imagine being recorded in scripture as only a “harlot”? Even King David is remembered primarily as a hero and prophet, and secondarily as a fallen prophet. But Isabel is limited to a single, unkind, label. And why? She seems to have stolen Corianton’s heart, when his father intended for him to serve a mission.
Most often, this scripture is intended to highlight the grossness of sexual sin. However,
but for the term “harlot,” the only other mention of sexual sin might be in verse 9, wherein Alma uses the term “lust” when he speaks to Coriantion: “Now my son, I would that ye should repent and forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes…”
So was a physical sexual sin committed? Or was it just in Corianton’s heart and mind? Would a father who is angry at his son for ditching a mission then go to label the son’s crush in a demeaning manner, as means of insulting his son? I think so.
A few years ago, a friend’s daughter went to a church dance. This young woman was beautiful- inside and out. She was a physically fit basketball player, in line to graduate from high school, then was on her way to BYU. She wore a dress that went past her knees, covered her shoulders and had a conservative neckline. It was not tight, nor was it snug, but fit her comfortably. Yet…. she was forbidden from entering the dance. The man at the dance entrance, a father of sons, deemed her attire “immodest.” When she pointed out that she could comfortable wear garments if she needed, and that the dress was chosen by her and her parents, he remained firm. Her feminine, statuesque form, though draped appropriately in copious amounts of fabric, was to blame; in other words, her body and the idea of her body – not her clothing or dress– was too physically attractive. Thus, she was forbidden entrance by a man, who deemed her a harlot. He saw and labelled her as someone who would lead young men away from clean choices.
I argue that this is the same manner in which Alma spoke of Isabel. I think he labelled her with a sexually derogatory term because it was the most demeaning way in which he could attack the young woman his son seemed to think was special. (So far as we can tell, she might not have even known Corianton existed; maybe he just had a crush on her from afar.) It was her presence and ability to distract Corianton that seem to have contributed to his lack of desire to serve a mission, not the possibility of physical, sexual sin. In fact, in further scripture, it says nothing of adultery, but rather the words emphasise unnamed sins, focusing heavily on the sin of omission because “Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.” (verse 4)
Because the Book of Mormon is a masculine collection of stories, we often read it through a lens that has been contorted by the male gaze. In this, we miss a powerful concept that otherwise becomes lost in a haze of perceived sexual sin; this is the sin of omission.
I personally feel the sting of the sin of omission much more powerfully than I do when I think of sexual sin. I feel the burn of omission in not being a good enough missionary, mother, wife, servant of Christ and everything else.
Perhaps that is why it is more conformable for us to look upon Isabel in a masculine light; by blaming her for sexual sin, we can ignore our own sins of omission. After all, what do we really know of Isabel, other than the fact that Corianton was distracted by her, and Alma did not like her? In the end, I don’t think she was the sinner, because when we remove the label of “harlot” from the story, the story changes immensely.
What do you see when you read this story from a feminine perspective, rather than through the lens of masculinity? What is the story Isabel teaching you?