Near the beginning of the Book of Mormon, there is a troubling story. Nephi and his brothers have been sent by their father, Lehi, to retrieve a sacred record contained on brass plates which are in the possession of a man named Laban. Lehi testifies that this assignment came from God, and Nephi responds that he knows God will prepare a way to fulfill His commandments.
Twice, they attempt to convince Laban to give them the plates: once by simply requesting them, and once by offering to purchase them. Both times, Laban accuses them of being robbers and threatens to kill them. I don’t know how law enforcement worked in Jerusalem at this time, but the text implies that Laban felt empowered to serve as judge, jury, and executioner, and that there would be no adverse consequences if he took the lives of these four innocent young men.
This does not sound like a stable society with strong institutions of justice. It sounds closer to anarchy, which is consistent with the biblical description of Jerusalem in 600 B.C.
The city had in fact already been conquered by the Babylonians. King Jehoiakim had died when he rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar. His son Jehoiachin reigned only three months and ten days before being taken captive to Babylon with his treasures, the treasures of the temple, and ten thousand of their warriors, craftsmen, and political and military leaders. According to the author of 2 Kings, “none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:8-16).
The king of Babylon had then installed Jehoiakim’s twenty-one year old brother, Mattaniah, as the new king, “and changed his name to Zedekiah.” And what kind of king was he? “He did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that Jehoiakim had done” (2 Kings 24:17-19). This evil included “[filling] Jerusalem with innocent blood, which the Lord would not pardon” (2 Kings 24:4).
So this was the Jerusalem of Lehi, Nephi, and Laban. Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem and the return of his sons for the plates happened during the first year of the reign of Zedekiah (1 Nephi 1:4). Civilization in the city had been crippled. No wonder Laban felt he had little accountability to the law.
Against this backdrop, Nephi goes back to Jerusalem, shortly after he and his brothers have barely escaped with their lives. He walks directly toward the home of the man who has tried to kill them. His brothers are done: “How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands?” they ask. “He is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?” (1 Nephi 3:30).
But Nephi trusts that, in these dangerous circumstances, God, who delivered Moses from the Egyptian armies, will deliver them from Laban. There’s a foreshadowing in Nephi’s response to his brothers: “Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 4:3).
As he approaches Laban’s home, Nephi sees him lying on the ground, incapacitated by alcohol and utterly alone. How did this happen? Nephi didn’t know, but it must have seemed surreal.
The Spirit commanded Nephi to kill Laban. When he hesitated, the Spirit gave him several reasons why it was the right thing to do. Nephi thought of other, related reasons. Eventually, he was convinced. He killed Laban with his own sword, dressed himself in Laban’s clothing and armor, and by impersonating Laban was able to obtain possession of the brass plates.
This story raises many questions. The biggest one for me is this: Why did it have to happen this way? Instead of incapacitating Laban, couldn’t God have simply taken his life? For example, why didn’t Laban die of a heart attack?
Or after finding Laban drunk, why couldn’t Nephi borrow Laban’s armor without killing him? The people of Alma would later escape their captors by simply sneaking past them while they were in “a profound sleep” (Mosiah 24:19). And Captain Moroni would later refuse to kill enemy soldiers who were incapacitated: “He would not fall upon the Lamanites and destroy them in their drunkenness” (Alma 55:19).
I don’t know why Nephi’s situation was different from those, but it was. He had told his father that he would go and do whatever the Lord commanded (1 Nephi 3:7), and now he had received a commandment from the Lord that seemed abhorrent to him. Writing about the event many years later, he said, “I shrunk and would that I might not slay him” (1 Nephi 4:10).
So when he later reported, “Thus far I and my father had kept the commandments wherewith the Lord had commanded us” (1 Nephi 5:20), those were nontrivial words. And when he ends his record with the words—”Thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey.”—we know he means it. Nephi has proven definitively that he will obey God’s command no matter what it is.
In 1989, when Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was serving as president of Brigham Young University, he spoke about the significance of this event and its placement in the Book of Mormon:
There it is, squarely in the beginning of the book—page 8—where even the most casual reader will see it and must deal with it. It is not intended that either Nephi or we be spared the struggle of this account.
I believe that story was placed in the very opening verses of a 531-page book and then told in painfully specific detail in order to focus every reader of that record on the absolutely fundamental gospel issue of obedience and submission to the communicated will of the Lord. If Nephi cannot yield to this terribly painful command, if he cannot bring himself to obey, then it is entirely probable that he can never succeed or survive in the tasks that lie just ahead (“The Will of the Father,” Brigham Young University Devotional Address, 17 January 1989).
Today, I will remember Nephi’s extraordinary example of obedience to God’s commandments. I will remember the clearest manifestation of my love for God and of my trust in Him is my willingness to be obedient to the commandments which He has given to me.