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

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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. [1]

John Welch has also argued that Nephi's action should be understood as protected manslaughter rather than criminal homicide. [2] 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.

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. John W. Welch, "Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 119–141. wiki