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10 September 2016

Nephi and Laban

One of the more difficult passages in the Book of Mormon is the one where Nephi kills Laban. At first glance, it's easy to mistake this for cold-blooded murder, but Nephi claims that it was done at the instruction of the Spirit. I've been asked by a friend to share my thoughts on this apparent contradiction.

After reading several comments, I want to clarify: there is a lot going on in this passage, and I haven't tried to address all the things that are happening in this story, and I'm not going into reasons why Nephi was commanded to slay Laban at all. This post is only addressing one narrow concern: is this a murder. I believe it is not. But there is a whole lot of other things that could be said about this episode, and many of them are, arguably more important. 

Anyway. To the topic at hand:

My husband and I have spent a great deal of time studying and discussing the fighting and killing that goes on in scripture; there is a great deal of it, and, being martial artists, we feel it's very important to understand clearly when fighting is not ok -- and when it is the right thing to do. This passage is a difficult one, and took a while for me to come to peace with. I have no particular claim to authority; I can only share the line of reasoning that my husband and I have traced in our efforts to understand this episode. The reader should, of course, do their own study and draw their own conclusions about the validity of my thoughts.

Quick recap, for anyone who isn't familiar with the story, which can be found at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, primarily in 1 Nephi chapter 3, though some of the back story in the previous two chapters becomes important, and the actual death of Laban is in chapter 4. But the story so far:  Lehi is a prophet in Jerusalem in 600BC. He tells the people that they need to repent, they try to kill him, and God tells him to take his family and flee into the wilderness, which he does. Then, he is instructed to send his four sons, Nephi being the youngest, back to Jerusalem to get the Brass Plates, which is the scriptural record of the Jews at the time, and in the care of a man named Laban. The oldest son, Laman, goes and asks for the plates; Laban calls him a robber and tries to kill him. The brothers then go and gather up the family wealth and try to buy the record; Laban steals their goods and sends his servants to kill them. Nephi goes alone into Jerusalem, following the prompting of the Holy Spirit as he goes along, and finds Laban passed out drunk. The Spirit commands him to kill Laban, which does after some hesitation and additional prompting and explanation from the Spirit, he gets the plates, and they all return to Lehi in the wilderness. That's the bare bones of the story; you can read the whole thing here.

Courtesy the LDS Media Library.

To start with, you need to understand the nature of God. God is perfect. He is perfectly consistent, and perfectly just. It is not in keeping with the nature of God to command sin or to set up situations where sin is the only option. We know that God cannot change -- Mormon teaches that, should He do so, he would cease to be God. Knowing this, we can conclude that what He forbids He will not later command; wrong stays wrong and right stays right. Additionally, because God is perfectly just, He isn't going to command an unjust killing -- not even if the guy is a creep and a crook and the good guys need the scriptures he's guarding. Therefore, the instruction to kill Laban was somehow in compliance with command, and must somehow be just, and to understand what's going on here, we have to look for a broad understanding of the revealed rules of fighting and killing.

 I've blogged a little bit about the rules of fighting as outlined in scripture before, including a bit about how I came to look at the topic so closely. When looking at the topic, the first thing to look at is the Ten Commandments, which we know are still in force today.

The sixth Commandment says:

Thou shalt not kill. -Exodus 20:13

 And for a long time I thought that was pretty cut and dried. But later, right there in the Old Testament, and still in Moses's time, I started to notice some apparent conflict: The Lord gave this commandment, but then He also said:

Rise ye up, take your journey, and pass over the river Arnon: behold, I have given into thine hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land: begin to possess it, and contend with him in battle.
-Deut. 2:24 (emphasis added)

That was not the only time that He explicitly commanded Israel into battle - into killing. Now, we know that the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so I was confident that these things could be brought into harmony with each other. The beginning of that is to consider the meaning of the Hebrew word, ratsach, that was used in Exodus 20:13.

"Ratsach means 'to kill, murder, slay.' (Strong's Concordance, 266)" This same word is translated into various English words, the most frequent being, "slayer" (16 times), and "murderer" (14 times). From the ways that this word is used in other passages, I think it's pretty safe to say that this passage could have been rendered as, "Thou shalt not murder", and forbidding murder is fundamentally different from forbidding all killing. Drawing the distinction between murder and killing does not solve the puzzle of Nephi and Laban, but it does allow the possibility of there being a solution, which there cannot be if all killing is wrong every time.

It makes sense to me that the Lord would require more than expressing faith in His care to keep us safe:

Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
-James 2:17

The need for action on our parts is also addressed in the Book of Mormon:

Behold, could ye suppose that ye could sit upon your thrones, and because of the exceeding goodness of God ye could do nothing and he would deliver you? Behold, if ye have supposed this ye have supposed in vain. ... Or do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us?
-Alma 60:11,21

So the next question is, "When is killing the right thing to do?" And can be a hard question to even ask, but I believe it is a necessary question. When I was deciding if I would continue to practice the martial arts, or to drop it for being inconsistent with the Lord's teachings, one of the things I needed to find out is if it is ever ok to fight, and to potentially kill an attacker. Because if it's not ok to defend myself, then it doesn't seem ok to learn how to do it; I was raised rather non-violent, and this was a difficult departure from my early training. The next piece of the puzzle we found in the Book of Mormon's "war chapters,"  in a set of passages that my husband and I refer to as the "rules of warfare".

The passage is talking about the differences in motivations between the Nephites (the good guys), and the Lamanites (the invading bad guys). The Lamanites are invading to expand their empire and enslave the Nephites. The Nephites, on the other hand, were defending home, family, and freedom.

And they were doing that which they felt was the duty which they owed to their God; for the Lord had said unto them, and also unto their fathers, that: Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies. And again, the Lord has said that: Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed. 
-Alma 43:46-47

So you can derive a couple of rules for fighting from this passage.
  1. Don't ever start the fight: Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second...
  2. If you are attacked, it's important to defend yourself: ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies. Because of the consistency of God - He is the same yesterday and today and forever - we can conclude this this principle is still in force today, and that we, like the Nephites, have a duty to defend ourselves should it become necessary.
  3. If you must defend yourself and your family, it's ok to take it so far as to shed blood: Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed.  

If we take these rules, we can go back to the story of Nephi and Laban and evaluate it according to these rules. First, Laman went to ask for the plates:

And we cast lots—who of us should go in unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that the lot fell upon Laman; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house.
And he desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father.
And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee.
-1 Nephi 3:11-13 (emphasis added)

Laban's accusation was baseless: Laman had merely asked for the plates, not tried to steal them. Additionally, I know of no justification in scripture for deadly force to be used in retaliation for mere theft; all the passages I have discovered so far set a higher standard: our lives must actually be in danger before killing becomes justifiable. Laban's attempt at killing Laman, though unsuccessful, becomes a "first offense". Still. At this point, they ought to turn the other cheek.

Laman survives Laban's attempt to murder him, but they still don't have the plates, so Nephi persuades them to try again and they go to their place, gather up their riches, and head back to Laban's house to try to buy the plates. This doesn't go well, either:

And it came to pass that when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property. 
-1 Nephi 3:25 (emphasis added)

This is a second attempt on their lives, and after this second attempt on the family they are justified in defending themselves even to the point of bloodshed, though they are not obligated to do so:

Nevertheless, thine enemy is in thine hands; and if thou rewardest him according to his works thou art justified, if he has sought thy life, and thy life is endangered by him, thine enemy is in thine hands and thou art justified.
Behold, this is the law I gave unto my servant Nephi, and thy fathers, Joseph and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, and all mine ancient prophets and apostles. 
-Doctrine and Covenants 98:31-32

The interaction obviously isn't finished; they still haven't got the plates. Laman and Lemuel are convinced it's a fool's errand and completely impossible, but Nephi heads back into the city alone to make another attempt. He didn't have a clear plan, but was following the Spirit, trusting that he'd be shown in the moment what was supposed to happen.

Of course, the story ends in Nephi finding Laban fallen down drunk, and being instructed by the Spirit to kill him in order to get the plates. In addition to Lehi's family's need to carry scripture with them into the wilderness, the Spirit himself reminds Nephi of Laban's attempts at murder that justify Nephi in defending himself and his family when Nephi hesitates over this very difficult command:

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.
And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and 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.

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.

And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause—that I might obtain the records according to his commandments.

Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.

Further Reading:
Was Nephi's Slaying of Laban Legal? -A look at Jewish law in relation to Nephi & Laban.
Nephi's Honorable Execution of Laban -Another look at Jewish law's effect between them.
The Symbolic Story of Nephi and Laban -A look at this story as a "type" of Christ.


Dorine said...

Excellent look at this. This has long bothered me. I came to the point where I said, I don't understand this, but I trust Heavenly Father. When I prayed about it, I felt peace and thought that understanding would come later. Thanks for giving me some of that understanding.

Ritsumei said...

I am very glad it was helpful!

misskate said...

To me, this story is consistent with God in the Old Testament (which would have been contemporary with Nephi). So much in the books of Joshua and 1 Samuel is the Israelites running around slaughtering Canaanites at God's command. To cleanse the land, yes, but also to make way for the Israelites, as God's favored people, to prosper.
Killing Laban allowed Nephi's family, God's favored people, to have the tools necessary to stay righteous enough to continue to be God's favored people.

Ritsumei said...

The Israelite entry into Canaan is the last major fight passage (if you can call something so huge a "passage") that I'm still working on. In modern language, we'd call it a genocide, and it's one that I'm still waiting for understanding about. Usually, when a nation is ripened in iniquity, they wipe themselves out, or there's some natural disaster that flattens them -- it's not typical for the Lord's people to be commanded to go through and kill men, women, children, and even animals. I don't know what's going on there, and I'm really looking forward to figuring out how that squares with the various commandments and principles. But Nephi and Laban, them I'm good with. There's a lot of additional reasons - like the ones you give - that are all layered in there. But to me the fact that the killing was justified seems like it sits at the foundation of the conversation, and the rest of the reasons can move forward because that was in place. If Laban had not be so corrupt that murder was, apparently, an option he turned to pretty readily, then I think it likely they would probably have been provided for in some other way. If nothing else, both Lehi and Nephi saw the entire history of the world in vision; they could have written it down and started with that as the base of their scriptural record.

Rozy Lass said...

I've always thought the answer was so simple: "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 4:13

On the other side of the coin: "But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory: and he doth suffer that they [the wicked] may do this thing unto them [the innocent], according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day." Alma 14:11

And: "For the Lord suffereth the righteous to be slain that his justice and judgment may come upon the wicked; therefore ye need not suppose that the righteous are lost because they are slain; but behold, they do enter into the rest of the Lord their God." Alma 60:13

When God commands us to do something contrary to what we understand (think of Abraham, Nephi) we have to trust Him and His purposes. When God allows something to happen that we don't understand (the slaughter of innocents, the martyrdom of prophets) we have to trust Him and His purposes.

A friend of mine, in his eighties now, summed up his philosophy of life in these words. "God is in charge and he knows what he's doing." Wisdom!

Ritsumei said...

That *is* good wisdom!

I'm like you, and this story has never been a serious problem for me, for the reasons that you cite. But it *did* bother me when I saw people essentially saying that Nephi was a murderer -- and because of the time we'd invested in studying fighting in the scriptures, we'd found that there's actually a pretty good explanation for why this is NOT a murder. It just blows my mind that people would think that a prophet would also be a murderer- or that the Lord would command murder. Which is what I was hoping to communicate when I shared this.

Obviously, there's a lot going on in the story, and a lot of reasons why they needed the scriptures. This is a very limited look at just one aspect, and was never intended to be a comprehensive look at everything that was going on.

Anne Chovies said...

Another thing that I think factors in to these situations is the fact that God, as the one who makes the rules and has a far greater understanding of the reason for the rules and what the rules are to accomplish, is the one person in a position to make exceptions to the rules. Or what appears to be an exception to us with our limited view of the whole picture. We do this as parents all the time, just on a scale far less than life and death. And when we do, to the child it can be confusing but to the parent there is valid, justified reasoning behind it.


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