While reading one of my favorite books of scripture – 1 Nephi – I was struck again by the story of Lehi’s sons returning to Jerusalem to procure the brass plates, which contained a record of the Jews and the genealogy of Lehi’s family. So Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam all returned to Jerusalem. Laman was chosen first to try and get the plates. Laman was, if you believe Hugh Nibley, likely a successful businessman and trader, at least one who worked with Lehi in the family business; he knew how to deal with people. In any case, Laman was chosen by casting lots. He went to Laban and tried to make the case for having the plates. What was Laban’s response? He called Laman a thief (i.e., he bore false witness against Laman – maybe not to anyone other than his household but Laban was a liar) and threatened to kill Laman (1 Nephi 3:11-14). Now, we do not know all that transpired between Laman and Laban but that seems like an extreme reaction by Laban.
What happens next? Nephi convinces his brothers to try again.
“And it came to pass that we went in unto Laban, and desired him that he would give unto us the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, for which we would give unto him our gold, and our silver, and all our precious things. 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. And it came to pass that we did flee before the servants of Laban, and we were obliged to leave behind our property, and it fell into the hands of Laban.” (1 Nephi 3:24-26).
Laban lusted after all their gold and was successful in stealing it. In addition, he tried to kill the brothers. Laban was a thief, which is one reason why he was so quick to condemn Laman as one. Was Laban a murderer as well? It’s possible, although we have no evidence of that other than the fact that he so readily tried to kill Lehi’s sons. He had servants who served as hit men or at least doubled as hit men. Laban was someone of some influence in Jerusalem who possibly served in a military leadership role (see 1 Nephi 4:1). This was a dangerous time in Jerusalem; there were threats of invading armies and assassins. Maybe Laban had threats against him before and he thought Laman and his brothers were going to steal the brass plates. Maybe Laban had paranoid delusions. We do not know but Laban stood in the way of Lord’s will. We know he was a wicked person (see 1 Nephi 4:13).
So in this context, Nephi decided to head back in to Jerusalem to try and get the plates. He did not have a plan but he trusted in the Lord and was following His Spirit. Now we come to a part of the Book of Mormon that some have balked at its brutality. I hope the context I provided gives some idea of the necessity of what Nephi was commanded to do. Nephi was walking in the darkness of Jerusalem when he came across a drunken man passed out near Laban’s house. It was Laban.
“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.” (1 Nephi 4:10-11)
Nephi was prompted by the Spirit to kill Laban. He, obviously, did not want to do it. Then the Spirit reminded Nephi that Laban had stolen their property, tried to kill Nephi and his brothers, and was actively defying the commandments of God. Laban was keeping this record of the Jews and his forefathers, he was a guardian of the scriptures, but he was not faithful to the laws of God. Laban was not a good person. Also, because of his connections in the city, Laban’s sins and breaking of laws would liekly remain ignored. Besides, how could Lehi’s family protest, they had to leave the city under threat of death because of Lehi’s prophecies.
After two more commands from the Spirit, Nephi followed the Lord and killed Laban. He then dressed as Laban, went to Laban’s home, and was successful in getting the plates of brass.
There are some questions some might have.
- Why did Nephi have to kill Laban? Why could not the Lord have just caused Laban to die and spare Nephi the task?
- Did Nephi sin in killing Laban?
- Did not Nephi just do what Laban accused Laman of wanting to do – namely, steal the plates?
For the first question the answer is simple for those who understand the Plan of Salvation. Why does the Lord ask us to do anything? Why are there commandments for us to follow? Why are we given a prophet to follow? We are here on earth to see if we will remain faithful to the Lord. Are we willing to sacrifice everything for the Lord? Can we be like Abraham and be willing to give up even that which we love most for the Lord? We are not always asked to do easy things. The Lord needed to know that Nephi really would go and do all things that the Lord commanded him. Nephi needed to learn this as well. That is why the Lord could not just kill Laban to make things easier for Nephi.
Question 2. No, it was not a sin. The sin would be in not following the commands of the Lord, even if what you were asked to do seems to contradict other commandments. This is also a special case in special circumstances. If my answer seems simplistic, it is. Sometimes we try to analyze things too much when all the Lord needs is our simple faith.
Question 3. It’s not stealing if the Lord gives the plates to Nephi. Besides, once Laban was dead Lehi’s family had a good claim to the plates. There’s a lot we do not know about the circumstance though. The record we do have is abridged. Nephi with his limited time and space wrote mainly of spiritual things. He did not have time to chronicle his whole history. Lehi and his family needed the brass plates in order to preserve their family history and the laws of God. It also helped preserve their language.
What looks like a complicated and concerning situation is not nearly as concerning to those who have faith in God and in His plan. When the Lord commands, it is time to obey, even if it is a hard thing. What might look brutal and wrong to us today was appropriate for the situation. This isn’t a pandering to moral relativity, this is recognition of God’s supremacy. He knows what He is doing. It is up to us to trust Him.