Book of Mormon/Legal issues/The slaying of Laban by Nephi

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    The legality of the slaying of Laban by the hand of Nephi


You do not get very far into 1 Nephi before confronting a jarring ethical dilemma that has disturbed modern readers almost from the very beginning. Hugh Nibley pointed out,

If the Book of Mormon were a work of fiction, nothing would have been easier than to have Laban already dead when Nephi found him (killed perhaps in a drunken brawl) or simply to omit altogether an episode which obviously distressed the writer quite as much as it does the reader. [1]

Yet, the text of the narrative appears to reflect an intimate understanding of Israelite law, making a case for the legality of the act. [2]


The account of Nephi's slaying of Laban appears to be deliberately written in order to defend the act as legally justified according to the laws of ancient Israel. As John W. Welch explains, “precise words and technical concepts used by Nephi show that he wrote this story with biblical laws in mind that justifiably cast this episode in a favorable light.” [3]

While the primary text upon which this law was based is Exodus 21:12–14, this is not something that could have been accomplished by any yokel with a Bible, as the Laban text reflects proper nuances of interpretation that would not have been available to Joseph Smith. Welch explains that the crucial factors are:

  1. state of mind—did the killer “lie in wait,” seeking to kill the victim? Did he “come presumptuously” with guile and murderous intent?
  2. did “God deliver him into his hand”? (See Exodus 21:12–14.)

Both of these justifications and other legal technicalities are captured in the text. Welch carefully analyzes 1 Nephi 4 and ancient interpretations of these requirements, finding that, “Nephi may have broken the American law of Joseph Smith’s day, but it appears that he committed an excusable homicide under the public law of his own day.” [4] Welch concludes,

The Laban episode is a case where the nineteenth-century environment offers little help. Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century audience was just as scandalized by Nephi’s killing of Laban as is a modern audience…. In its ancient legal context, however, the slaying of Laban makes sense, both legally and religiously, as an unpremeditated, undesired, divinely excusable, and justifiable killing—something very different from what people today normally think of as criminal homicide. [5]

All of this gives greater weight to the observation made by Nibley decades earlier: “Those who would strike the story of Laban’s death from the Book of Mormon as immoral or unbelievable are passing hasty judgment on one of the most convincing episodes in the whole book.” [6]

Further reading

The Neal A. Maxwell Institute provides additional information on this subject

John W. Welch,"Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban", Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 1/1 (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 for full article)


  1. Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 115.
  2. Text provided by Neal Rappleye, Studio et Quoque Fide: A Blog on Latter-day Saint Apologetics, Scholarship, and Commentary (August 21, 2014) off-site
  3. John W. Welch, “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1 (1992): 120–121.
  4. Welch, “Legal Perspectives,” 121.
  5. Welch, “Legal Perspectives,” 140–141.
  6. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 114.

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