Question: Is the story of Nephi killing Laban and then putting on his clothes believable?

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Question: Is the story of Nephi killing Laban and then putting on his clothes believable?

Nibley: "Those who are familiar with night patrolling in wartime, however, will see in Nephi's tale a convincing and realistic account"

Hugh Nibley pointed out:

From time to time the claim is put forth that the story of Laban's death is absurd, if not impossible. It is said that Nephi could not have killed Laban and made his escape. Those who are familiar with night patrolling in wartime, however, will see in Nephi's tale a convincing and realistic account. In the first place, the higher critics are apparently not aware that the lighting of city streets, except for festivals, is a blessing unknown to ages other than our own. Many passages might be cited from ancient writers, classical and Oriental, to show that in times gone by the streets of even the biggest towns were perfectly dark at night, and very dangerous....

The extreme narrowness of ancient streets made their blackout doubly effective. From the Greek and Roman comedy and from the poets we learn how heavily barred and closely guarded the doors of private houses had to be at night, and archaeology has shown us cities farther east (e.g., Mohenjo-Daro) in which apparently not a single house window opened onto the public street, as few do even today at ground level. East and West, the inmates simply shut themselves in at night as if in a besieged fortress. Even in Shakespeare's day we see the comical terror of the nightwatch passing through the streets at hours when all honest people are behind doors. In a word, the streets of any ancient city after sundown were a perfect setting for the committing of deeds of violence without fear of detection.

It was very late when Nephi came upon Laban (1 Nephi 4:5,22); the streets were deserted and dark. Let the reader imagine what he would do if he were on patrol near enemy headquarters during a blackout and stumbled upon the unconscious form of some notoriously bloodthirsty enemy commander, renowned for his brutal and treacherous treatment of friend and foe alike. By the rough code of war the foe has no claim to a formal trial, and it is now or never. Laban was wearing armor, so that the only chance of dispatching him quickly, painlessly, and safely was to cut off his head—the conventional treatment of even petty criminals in the East, where beheading has always been by the sword, and where an executioner would be fined for failing to decapitate his victim at one clean stroke. Nephi drew the sharp, heavy weapon and stood over Laban for a long time, debating his course (1 Nephi 4:9—18. He was an expert hunter, a skilled swordsman, and a powerful man:11 with due care such a one could do a quick and efficient job and avoid getting much blood on himself. But why should he worry about that? There was not one chance in a thousand of meeting any honest citizen, and in the dark no one would notice the blood anyway. What they would notice would be the armor that Nephi put on, and which, like the sword, could easily be wiped clean. The donning of the armor was the natural and the shrewd thing for Nephi to do. A number of instances from the last war could be cited to show that a spy in the enemy camp is never so safe as when he is wearing the insignia of a high military official—provided he does not hang around too long, and Nephi had no intention of doing that. No one dares challenge "big brass" too closely (least of all a grim and hot-tempered Laban); their business is at all times "top secret," and their uniform gives them complete freedom to come and to go unquestioned.

Nephi tells us that he was "led by the Spirit" (1 Nephi 4:6). He was not taking impossible chances, but being in a tight place he followed the surest formula of those who have successfully carried off ticklish assignments. His audacity and speed were rewarded, and he was clear of the town before anything was discovered. In his whole exploit there is nothing in the least improbable.

How Nephi disguised himself in the clothes of Laban and tricked Laban's servant into admitting him to the treasury is an authentic bit of Oriental romance (e.g., Haroun al-Rashid) and of history as well. One need but think of Sir Richard Burton's amazingly audacious masquerades in the East, carried on in broad daylight and for months on end with perfect success, to realize that such a thing is entirely possible.[1]

As a writer, Nephi's concerns are elsewhere

But as LDS author Ben McGuire noted, an ancient text like the Book of Mormon is ill-suited to answering this kind of question:

Nephi doesn't talk about the blood because it isn't a part of his purpose in writing the narrative (and he is in part concerned with the difficulty in writing and in having space for the things he is concerned with). He may well have taken Laban's clothing prior to killing him (having already planned that part of his evening) - but then felt constrained to finish the job so to speak. The bigger issue is that we shouldn't feel a need to fill in the gaps - because no matter how we fill them in, we will be speculating - there isn't anything in the text that will actually provide us with the kind of answer that we want.[2]

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), Chapter 9, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. Ben McGuire, e-mail to FairMormon Answers Wiki editors (21 Sept 2010), used with permission.