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Question: Do the legal concepts in the Book of Mormon better match Joseph Smith's day, or the ancient world?
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
"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. 
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.  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: 
|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. 
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. 
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." 
He also repeatedly emphasizes that the Spirit told him that the Lord "hath delivered him into thy hands."  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,  and Saul got into trouble for not executing a king that Samuel had ordered to be put to death. 
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" 
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. 
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,  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:  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.  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. 
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).  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). 
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. 
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, and Heidi Harkness Parker, "Better That One Man Perish," Insights (June 1998), 2.
- Jeremiah 36:1
- 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.)
- John W. Welch, "Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992): 119–141. wiki
- See Numbers 35:25; the cities are established in Joshua 20:1-.
- 1 Nephi 4:6
- 1 Nephi 4:11,12,17
- Joshua 6:17-21 and Joshua 8:26
- 1 Samuel 15:2-3,14-23
- Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Converse, 1828)
- 1 Nephi 3:25
- 1 Nephi 3:13
- Exodus 22:2
- 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.
- 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
- Exodus 22:7-9
- Proverbs 6:30
- Alma 11:2