Book of Mormon/Nephi's killing of Laban/Ethical considerations

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Ethical considerations related to Nephi's killing of Laban

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Jeffery R. Holland: "It is wrong to assume that Nephi in any way wished to take Laban’s life"

Jeffery R. Holland:

It is wrong to assume that Nephi in any way wished to take Laban’s life. He was a young man, and despite a 600 B.C. world full of tensions and retaliations, he had never “shed the blood of man.” (1 Ne. 4:10.) Nothing in his life seems to have conditioned him for this task. In fact the commandments he had been taught from childhood declared, “Thou shalt not kill”; and he recoiled, initially refusing to obey the prompting of the Spirit. . . .

Laban, lying before Nephi in a drunken stupor, has not been guiltless in his dealings with Lehi’s family. In what little we know of the man, Laban has at least: (1) been unfaithful in keeping the commandments of God; (2) falsely accused Laman of robbery; (3) coveted Lehi’s property as a greedy, “lustful” man; (4) stolen that property outright; and (5) sought twice to kill Nephi and/or his brothers. He was, by the Holy Spirit’s own declaration, a “wicked” man delivered unto Nephi by the very hand of the Lord. [1]


Question: Did Nephi commit "cold blooded murder" when he killed Laban?

Nephi did not commit the equivalent of a first-degree murder under the laws of his day

Nephi's action against Laban (found in 1 Nephi 4:5–18) certainly seems like a gruesome and extreme scenario. However, this is an example of the problem of cultural differences — modern readers raised in Western culture often fail to connect with Nephi's time and place.

Hugh Nibley recalled:

When in 1946 this writer composed a little treatise called Lehi in the Desert from limited materials then available in Utah, he had never knowingly set eyes on a real Arab. Within the last five years Aneze tribesmen and citizens of Mecca, including even guides to the Holy Places, have been his students, in Provo, of all places, while Utah has suddenly been enriched with a magnificent Arabic library, thanks to the inspired efforts of Professor Aziz Atiya of the University of Utah. As if it were not enough for the mountain to come to Mohammed, those sons of the desert who came to Provo found themselves taking a required class in the Book of Mormon from [me]. Naturally [I] was more than curious to see how these young men would react to the Book of Mormon treatment of desert themes, and invited and even required them to report frankly on their impressions. To date, with only one exception, no fault has been found with Nephi on technical grounds. The one exception deserves the attention of all would-be critics of the Book of Mormon.

It was in the first class ever held in "Book of Mormon for Near Eastern Students," and the semester had barely begun when of course we ran smack into the story of how Nephi found Laban dead drunk in a dark alley and cut off his head — a grisly tale that upsets Nephi himself in telling it. As we rehearsed the somber episode, I could detect visible signs of annoyance among the Arab students — whispered remarks, head-shakings, and frowns of dissent. Finally, toward the end of the hour, a smart young man from Jordan could hold out no longer. "Mr. Nibley," he said, plainly speaking for the others, "there is one thing wrong here. It doesn't sound right. Why did this Nephi wait so long to cut off Laban's head?" Since I had been expecting the routine protests of shock and disgust with which Western critics react to the Laban story, I was stunned by this surprise attack — stunned with a new insight into the Book of Mormon as a message from another age and another culture. [2]

John Welch has also argued that Nephi's action should be understood as protected manslaughter rather than criminal homicide. [3] The biblical law of murder, under which Nephi and Laban operated, demanded a higher level of premeditation and hostility than Nephi exhibited or modern law requires. Other factors within the Book of Mormon as well as in Moses' killing of the Egyptian in Exodus 2 support his conclusion that Nephi did not commit the equivalent of a first-degree murder under the laws of his day.


Question: Could Satan have deceived Nephi into killing Laban?

Nephi has experience with both the voice of the Spirit and the voice of the Lord prior to being sent to Jerusalem

Regarding the story of Nephi being told by God to slay Laban (found in 1 Nephi 4:5-18), the Book of Mormon provides abundant textual evidence which puts these issues to rest.

The angel's credentials are established by his telling Laman and Lemuel something which God had previously only told Nephi. The fact that the Nephi is having his "discussion" with the spirit while standing over Laban is clear evidence that he is not discoursing with a demonic power. The "inner discussion" is also unlikely to merely be a delusion, since

(a) Nephi is being told to do something he does not want to do;
(b) He gets the same message repeatedly, with further information
(c) The further information invokes what God has told him previously by both the Holy Ghost and the voice of the Lord;
(d) The angel, visible to Nephi and his brothers provides another witness, since he commanded Nephi to go back to the city and promised/warned than Laban would be delivered into Nephi's hands.

Any witness alone might be questionable—but, the interlocking witnesses available to Nephi give him ample reason for confidence. No other explanation matches all the data, except that the angel and the voice of the Spirit both spoke from a divine source.

(This analysis presumes, of course, that the Book of Mormon is true history, and not fiction—but, the critics cannot dismiss it as fiction, or insist that its lessons should be disregarded simply because of the Laban episode, since the narrative permits only one conclusion: the command to slay Laban was from a divine source.)

Nephi's receipt of the command to kill Laban was not his first communication from God

Nephi's receipt of the command to kill Laban was not his first communication from God. He was already familiar with the manner in which God communicated with him. Prior to being sent back to Jerusalem for the brass plates, Nephi had previously had a number of experiences with God:

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers. And I spake unto Sam, making known unto him the things which the Lord had manifested unto me by his Holy Spirit. (1 Nephi 2:16-17)

Nephi began his "spiritual journey" by having his heart softened by the Lord by the Holy Ghost. This then leads to a more direct experience with the Lord:

19 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.

20 And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands.

21 And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.

22 And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren. (1 Nephi 2:19-22)

Nephi here has more than the "Holy Ghost." He has the Lord "speaking" to him, which seems to be something more direct than the Holy Ghost. Nephi has actually heard the divine voice speaking to Him.


Question: Could the angel which came to Nephi have been a demonic "angel of light" sent to deceive him?

Since Satan does not know the mind of God, a demonic messenger would be unaware of the Lord's previous message to Nephi

Nephi and his brothers twice attempt to recover the plates. In both cases, Laban attempts to murder them. (See: Nephi and Laban: Legal issues.) The brothers hide in a cave, and Laman and Lemuel begin to beat Nephi and Sam with a rod:

And it came to pass as they smote us with a rod, behold, an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them, saying: Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? Behold ye shall go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands. And after the angel had spoken unto us, he departed. (1 Nephi 3:29-30.)

Some Christians charge that this could be a devil appearing as "an angel of light" to mislead Nephi. The critics, however, overlook the contents of the angel's message: he has told Laman and Lemuel that Nephi will rule over them, which is something that God has already told Nephi privately. Since Satan does not know the mind of God (Moses 4:6), a demonic messenger would be unaware of the Lord's previous message to Nephi.

The divine messenger's words would also be accompanied by the spirit of the Lord, with which Nephi also already has experience. Thus, his spiritual witnesses form an interlocking, mutually reinforcing witness. Satan cannot counterfeit the influence of the Holy Ghost, nor can he access the mind of God to mimic the Lord's message to Nephi, unless the critics wish us to conclude that Satan can "eavesdrop" on God's conversations with others.

Nephi is not speaking aloud—one cannot, therefore, conclude that the voice of "the spirit" was, in fact, an evil power giving him commands

Nephi has been told by the angel that he is to go back to Jerusalem, and that the Lord will "deliver Laban into your hands" (1 Nephi 3:29). Thus, the idea that the Lord will cause Laban's death has already been mentioned by a divine messenger, as discussed above.

Nephi finds the drunken Laban, "[a]nd it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban" (1 Nephi 4:10). Nephi's reaction is interesting: "but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man" (1 Nephi 4:10, emphasis added).

Nephi is not speaking aloud—one cannot, therefore, conclude that the voice of "the spirit" was, in fact, an evil power giving him commands. LDS theology holds that Satan cannot know the thoughts of mortal hearts, save if mortals express those thoughts through words and actions.[4] Nephi thus replies to the voice in his mind, and gets a reply to his concern—clear evidence that it is not an evil spirit with whom he is conversing, since an evil spirit would have no access to his inner thoughts, as God or the Holy Spirit would.


Question: Was Nephi simply listening to "a voice in his head" telling him to kill Laban as the result of a psychosis or delusion?

This position would be a possibility, were it not for the fact that Nephi has already seen an angel

A secularist critic might insist that Nephi is merely listening to himself in his head—he is delusional or psychotic. This position would be a possibility, were it not for the fact that Nephi has already seen an angel, whose divine credentials are clear. And, Nephi has not seen this being alone—his three brothers have also seen, including Laman and Lemuel, who are not inclined to do more to recover the plates. Thus, Nephi can be confident that the angel is no delusion, and the angel has both reinforced what God told him earlier, and given him a command to go back and find Laban.

After Nephi's initial mental refusal to kill Laban, the Spirit speaks to him twice more, and provides Nephi's mind with thoughts and reasons to obey the Lord:

  • "Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands." (1 Nephi 4:11 - the Spirit says the same thing that the angel told Nephi would happen.
  • "I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property." (1 Nephi 4:11).
  • "And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands' Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief" (1 Nephi 4:12-13).

The Spirit again repeats the angel's message, and Nephi then realizes that this commandment ties into something which the Lord told him earlier:

I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise. Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law. And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass (1 Nephi 4:14-16).


Question: Why didn't God simply preserve Nephi's life using divine power instead of requiring him to kill Laban?

The Lord actually did preserve Nephi and his brothers two times from being killed by Laban

The Lord actually did preserve Nephi and his brothers from being killed by Laban....twice.

God is not a magician who waves his wand and removes all obstacles. He expects us to do as much as we can. For example, God could have caused Laban to have had a heart attack, or cirrhosis of the liver, and died before Nephi got there, but that is simply not how God works.

If Joseph were making the story up, then why not just have Nephi just find Laban already dead in the street? Nephi's account actually seems to have been written to deliberately provide all the proper legal justification for the act, according to ancient Israelite law. This may not appease the ethical concerns, but, the point is, how did Joseph Smith know ancient Israel law so well? This is evidence that it was written by someone familiar with the legal code of that time and place.


Question: Do the legal concepts in the Book of Mormon better match Joseph Smith's day, or the ancient world?

A number of ancient legal concepts quite foreign to Joseph Smith's Jacksonian America are found in the Book of Mormon

Apostate cities

See:Book of Mormon and warfare: apostate cities

"Better That One Man Should Perish"

Nephi's experience in which he is commanded to slay Laban (1 Nephi 4:1-19) closely parallels two other cases in Jewish scripture in which there appears to be approval for one person to be slain for the good of a group of people. [5]

In 2 Samuel 20:1, we read of Sheba, an Israelite who rebelled against David, and led all the tribes away from him (except for Judah). He is eventually beheaded so that Joab, David's general, won't destroy the entire city in which he is hiding.

In 2 Kings 24:1 and 2 Chronicles 36:5-8, we hear of Jehoiakim, the king of Judah who burned Jeremiah's prophecies. [6] Jehoiakim started out as a puppet king of Egypt, and ruled from about 609–598 BC, when the Babylonians finally got frustrated with him.

The following table compares Nephi's experience to these Biblical examples: [7]

Element Laban Sheba Jehoiakim
Ruler of Israel issues judgment the Lord King David Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (remember that Jeremiah was always telling the kings to submit to Babylon to avoid the city's destruction).
Person already guilty of crime against the leader Refusal to give plates, attempted murder of Lehi's family Rebellion against the king Disobey the king of Babylon; See 2 Kings 24:1. "filled Jerusalem with innocent blood" (2 Kings 24:4).
Person named specifically Nephi finds Laban, and spirit says the Lord has delivered him Sheba named (2 Samuel 20:21).] Jehoikim named in scriptures
Those who "deliver up" the person are innocent of the crime Nephi is innocent City (Abel) is innocent (2 Samuel 20:16-19). Shed innocent blood
People will be utterly destroyed if they do not surrender the guilty person Entire Nephite nation (and Mulekites, as we see later) City of Abel about to be destroyed Babylon comes to "destroy" the city of Jerusalem

Justified homicide: Nephi vs. Laban

It is clear that the choice to behead Laban was a difficult one for Nephi. He writes this account many years later, and we can still see how much it troubled him:

And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.(1 Nephi 4:10)

Nephi wants to make very clear that his killing of Laban was sanctioned by the Lord, and was not murder. He arguably provides several aspects of this perspective in his account. [8]

The "Charge" against Nephi

What is the potential legal "charge" against Nephi? Murder. The Law of Moses (which Nephi is killing to take possession of, ironically) says:

He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.(Exodus 21:12)

Like many modern laws, Biblical law recognized that there were different types of killing. The same chapter goes on:

13 And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.

14 But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.(Exodus 21:13-14)

This ties into the "cities of refuge" principle. Someone who did not intend to kill, but committed what we might call "manslaughter"—killing someone without premeditation—was allowed to flee to a "city of refuge" in Israel, where they could not be killed by family bent on revenge. [9]

A key aspect in all this was pre-planning. Did you "lie in wait" for them? Did you try to "slay him with guile", i.e. did you plot and plan it out?

So, Nephi is quite clear about this: he went into Jerusalem, "And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do." [10]

He also repeatedly emphasizes that the Spirit told him that the Lord "hath delivered him into thy hands." [11] So, Nephi is clearly placing himself into this Jewish legal framework—he did not plot the death of Laban, did not go into the city with the intent to kill him, and the Lord merely "delivered him into his hand.”

Exceptions to the Law

Since the Lord is the Lawgiver and Ruler in Israel, He can command that His people kill. Such commands had reportedly been given to Joshua in the days of the conquest of Canaan, [12] and Saul got into trouble for not executing a king that Samuel had ordered to be put to death. [13]

So, Nephi ties into this same idea when he mentions the Spirit "constraining" him to kill Laban (verse 10). It's an interesting word: "constrained." In Webster's English dictionary, published in the United States about a year prior to the Book of Mormon's translation, this word is defined as:

"to compel or force; to urge with irresistible power"; "to produce in opposition to nature" [14]

We are to conclude that the Spirit's command was both overwhelming, and totally out of Nephi's personal inclination and character, and only done because the Lord commanded it "irresistibly."

Was Laban worthy of death?

Is Laban's death one that we can imagine the Lord sanctioning? We saw above some examples of other wicked men who were killed for the "salvation" of their community. Furthermore, Nephi calls Laban's behaviour as a "witness" that under Jewish law, Laban should already have been condemned to death:

1) Laban "had sought to take away mine own life.” He sent servants after them to kill them. [15]

2) Laban "would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord.” He won't give them the plates, and he likely wouldn't heed the warnings and commandments which Lehi had given before he fled.

This is a fundamental violation of the covenant under which the Jews may live in the land of Jerusalem:

9 Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations;

10 And repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them: he will not be slack to him that hateth him, he will repay him to his face.(Deuteronomy 7:9-10).

3) Laban bore false witness against Laman and Lehi, at least.

As an important man in the military, Laban may have been the one charged with carrying out the sentence of death on Lehi for his "treason" by prophesying Jerusalem's destruction. (Jeremiah was to learn how much this would endear someone to the political rulers!) No wonder Laman and Lemuel murmured when told they needed to get the plates from this man.

Denying that someone was a true prophet was the equivalent of saying they deserved death:

And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.(Deuteronomy 13:5)

20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.(Deuteronomy 18:20)

This isn't an idle charge—if Laban was involved in saying Lehi (and Nephi) were false prophets (which he must be, since he will not give up the records which they say the Lord has told them to get), then he is "bearing false witness.” What's the penalty for that in Israel?

18 And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother;

19 Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.(Deuteronomy 19:18-19)

So, if your false testimony could have caused a punishment to come on someone, you are to receive the punishment they might have received. Laban's refusal to accept true prophets opened them up for execution; under the Law, that was the penalty which he deserved.

Laban also accused Laman of being a robber, [16] which was a serious charge:

10 If he beget a son that is a robber, a shedder of blood, and that doeth the like to any one of these things,

11 And that doeth not any of those duties, but even hath eaten upon the mountains, and defiled his neighbour's wife,

12 Hath oppressed the poor and needy, hath spoiled by violence, hath not restored the pledge, and hath lifted up his eyes to the idols, hath committed abomination,

13 Hath given forth upon usury, and hath taken increase: shall he then live? he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.Ezekiel 18:10-13).

4) Laban "also had taken away our property.”

Not only did Laban falsely accuse Laman of being a robber, with the risks to Laman's life that this involved, but Laban actually was a robber: he took their goods by force and threat of death.

A thief killed in the course of a theft was not murder: [17] one could even argue that Laban was participating in the on-going "theft" of either Lehi's goods or the plates which the brothers had tried to "buy." One of these items must belong to Lehi's family; Laban's seizure of their treasure without providing the plates they wanted in exchange, coupled with threats to kill them, makes him a robber and worthy of death under Jewish law.

Robbers vs. thieves

The Book of Mormon is often very careful to make the distinction between being a "thief" and a "robber", and this reflects ancient biases. [18] A "thief" takes property by stealth or guile; a "robber" is little more than an out-law, someone who seizes goods by murder, plunder, or the threat of such. [19]

Thieves were simply fined under the law of Moses, unless they sold an Israelite into slavery (in which case they were put to death—not unreasonable, since they'd "stolen" someone's life). [20] Indeed, a thief was even understood to be someone who might steal because they were hungry or otherwise in need, thus mercy was encouraged (though the penalty of repayment still applied). [21]

Thieves in the Book of Mormon are likewise caused to repay their debts, only being considered "a robber" if they will not give just compensation. [22]

By contrast, all readers remember Gaddianton "robbers," and the fact that conversion to the gospel or extermination were the only options—these were armed bands, seizing goods by force or threat of it.

Warfare and legal matters

John W. Welch, "Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban"

John W. Welch,  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, (1992)
This article marshals ancient legal evidence to show that Nephi's slaying of Laban should be understood as a protected manslaughter rather than a criminal homicide. The biblical law of murder demanded a higher level of premeditation and hostility than Nephi exhibited or modern law requires. It is argued that Exodus 21:13 protected more than accidental slayings or unconscious acts, particularly where God was seen as having delivered the victim into the slayer's hand. Various rationales for Nephi's killing of Laban are explored, including ancient views on surrendering one person for the benefit of a whole community. Other factors within the Book of Mormon as well as in Moses' killing of the Egyptian in Exodus 2 corroborate the conclusion that Nephi did not commit the equivalent of a first-degree murder under the laws of his day.

Click here to view the complete article

Notes

  1. Jeffery R. Holland, "I Have a Question," Ensign (September 1976).
  2. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), xii.
  3. John W. Welch, "Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 119–141. wiki
  4. D&C 6:16: Yea, I tell thee, that thou mayest know that there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart.
  5. John W. Welch, and Heidi Harkness Parker, "Better That One Man Perish," Insights (June 1998), 2.
  6. Jeremiah 36:1
  7. Drawn heavily from John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, Utah: FARMS and Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Texts, 1999), chart 115. ISBN 0934893403. (Permission in digital version granted for non-profit reproduction and distribution if copyright notice intact and material unaltered.)
  8. John W. Welch, "Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 119–141. wiki
  9. See Numbers 35:25; the cities are established in Joshua 20:1-.
  10. 1 Nephi 4:6
  11. 1 Nephi 4:11,12,17
  12. Joshua 6:17-21 and Joshua 8:26
  13. 1 Samuel 15:2-3,14-23
  14. Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Converse, 1828)
  15. 1 Nephi 3:25
  16. 1 Nephi 3:13
  17. Exodus 22:2
  18. John W. Welch and Kelly Ward, "Thieves and Robbers," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 248–249. See also Bernard S. Jackson, "Some Comparative Legal History: Robbery and Brigandage," Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 1 (1970): 45-103; Bernard S. Jackson, Theft in Early Jewish Law (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972); and Bernard S. Jackson, Principles and Cases: The Theft Laws of Hammurabi, in Essays in Jewish and Comparative Legal History (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 64-74. For a thorough legal treatment of robbers and robbery in the Book of Mormon, see John W. Welch, "Theft and Robbery in the Book of Mormon and Ancient Near Eastern Law," F.A.R.M.S. Working Paper, 1985.
  19. John W. Welch, "Law and War in the Book of Mormon," in Ricks and Hamblin, eds., Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 86–87.GL direct link
  20. Exodus 22:7-9
  21. Proverbs 6:30
  22. Alma 11:2

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here