Why Did God Command Nephi to Kill Laban?

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 engraved on brass plates which are in the possession of a powerful 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 those 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 crumbled. No wonder Laban felt 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 just 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. God commands Nephi to kill Laban. When he hesitates, the Spirit explains the rationale, “The Lord hath delivered him into thy hands…. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:11-13).

Why did it have to happen this way? I can imagine alternative versions of this story which would be much easier to accept. Laban could have already been dead when Nephi found him. Nephi could have left him alive, borrowed his armor, and escaped before he was sober again. But neither of those situations actually happened. Instead, the same God who said, “Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed” (Alma 43:47), told Nephi to take the life of the man who was trying to kill him and his brothers.

Nephi had promised his father that he would go and do whatever the Lord commanded (1 Nephi 3:7), and now he had received a commandment that was 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). But in the end, he did as the Lord commanded: he slew Laban with his own sword. (See 1 Nephi 4:18.)

I’m much more comfortable with other stories in which people went out of their way to protect life and minimize harm to others. The people of Alma escaped their captors by simply sneaking past them while they were in “a profound sleep” (Mosiah 24:19). Captain Moroni refused to kill enemy soldiers who were incapacitated: “He would not fall upon the Lamanites and destroy them in their drunkenness” (Alma 55:19). And the Anti-Nephi-Lehies were willing to “suffer death in the most aggravating and distressing manner which could be inflicted by their brethren, before they would take the sword or cimeter to smite them” (Alma 27:29).

I can’t fully understand why Nephi’s situation was different. The chaotic environment in Jerusalem helps to explain why more moderate alternatives were not available to him. But it’s an extreme story, and perhaps it’s that way for a reason. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once said, “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” “The Will of the Father,” Brigham Young University Devotional Address, 17 January 1989).

Nephi saw it as a test: was he willing to follow the Spirit in every situation, however difficult? Even his final words illustrate how important this principle was to him: “Thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey” (2 Nephi 33:15). I can admire his commitment to follow the commandments of a perfect God, even though I can’t fully understand why God would place him in a circumstance like that.

Today, I will remember Nephi’s example of obedience to God. I will strive to grow closer to God so that I can live in a way that is more in harmony with His will.

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