Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why Did Nephi Kill Laban - and What Lesson Should We Take from It?

I see the story of Nephi killing Laban as Nephi's justification for his action. By that, I don't mean at all that I see the action as wrong, and I don't mean at all that I see it as uninspired.  I just see it as a man far removed from the actual event trying to explain to others who weren't there why he did something so out of the ordinary and, to most people, including himself, repugnant. 

Frankly, if Nephi was committed to getting the plates and not getting his family killed in the process, chopping off Laban's head as he lay defenseless in the street might have been his only option. He'd tried everything else, and he'd been robbed and threatened with death or imprisonment. Now, here he was, following his instincts and promptings, and there was Laban - so drunk he was passed out.

Nephi had two choices if he felt he had to get the plates of brass:

1) Do what he did without killing Laban.

That might have been possible, but it would have been very risky. When Laban woke up naked, returned to his home and discovered the plates gone, he would know exactly what had happened - no doubts whatsoever. He would have raised a force to pursue Nephi and his family, almost surely found them, and wiped them out. With Nephi's family having only a day or less lead time, that is the only logical outcome.

I think that is vital to understand, especially when trying to understand why he killed Laban.

2) Kill Laban - and do it by chopping off his head.

Laban was a drunk. This probably wasn't a rare occurrence, meaning when his body was discovered and identified most people would probably say, "It finally happened. I told him he'd be sorry at some point." There is a good chance nobody would associate this death with Nephi and his family, since a man like that had to have had enemies - and taking Zoram with them easily could have shifted the focus of the investigation onto him. Even if Nephi and his brothers were considered, it wouldn't be the immediate assumption - and I really think it probably didn't cross anyone's minds, given all the other possibilities.

Also, by chopping off Laban's head (and, presumably, by hiding it away from the body), the identification process would take longer - perhaps much longer. That would give Nephi's family more time to make their escape, thus greatly increasing the likelihood that they actually would escape - even if they were pursued eventually.

3) In other words, I see Nephi's actions as the result of his logical conclusions in the moment - his intellectual rationalization for doing something he would never have considered doing previously. 

Assuming he was the type of visionary person he describes in his record, I also see him justifying his actions in religious terms - and attributing his thought process to inspiration. (I'm not saying it wasn't. I'm sticking purely to a logical analysis right now.) I have a bit of a problem justifying murder to get the plates, but so did Nephi, based on his own words. Therefore, in order to follow through with his plan to obtain the plates, he had to construct an argument that was legal (verse 11 says it really wasn't murder), philosophical (verse 13 makes it a "humane" decision to sacrifice one person for the good of a larger group) and religious (verses 14-17 solidify it as keeping the commandment of God). It's also important, I think, to remember that the account probably was written LONG after the fact, after Nephi had decades to hone his reasoning. I'm not saying it would have been intentional, but we all know that such memories get shaped over time.

I can't reject the legal argument, if I remove myself from our modern outlook and put myself in his shoes in that culture; the philosophical argument was solidly part of his culture, and we even use it now in times of warfare (or, for example, in the case of an abortion to save the life of the mother, who, by living, can "save" her family in very practical terms - or when we excommunicate someone who truly is stirring up active and virulent apostasy within the Church, like someone who is trying to recruit for a polygamous sect among a congregation); the command aspect is the most "iffy", in my opinion - especially since he personally didn't receive the command but was trusting that his father had received it from God. That final aspect is what I think fits the Abraham and Isaac situation the most closely - a son trusting his father to the extreme.

When I read 1 Nephi 4, I see someone who had an objective in mind and had to figure out how to justify accomplishing that objective in a way that he had never considered previously. In other words, he didn't go into the excursion to get the plates thinking he might have to kill someone. The thought probably never crossed his mind. Faced suddenly with the realization that, if he REALLY was serious about getting the plates, the best course of action was going to be killing Laban, he took the time to construct a legal, philosophical and religious argument for doing so.

In that sense, if God really did want them to have the plates, Nephi did what he thought he had to do to get them - and he only had a minute or two to decide. I might not like what he did in theory, but I can't condemn or even judge him for a quick decision in a time of great stress - especially from the luxury of almost forty years of reading his account.

Finally, in reading the rest of his account, I think that decision haunted him all his life, despite his justification for it - and I think that might be the greatest lesson we can take from it.  

[Postcript]: A good friend whom I admire greatly (kevinf) made a comment in a thread on By Common Consent discussing this story that I think is profound - and something I had not considered in all my years of exposure to the story.  I am adding it to this post, since it hit me so hard when I read it.

One interesting point is that ultimately, Nephi’s descendants did ” dwindle in unbelief.” In Nephi’s psalm, while not specifically identifying the sins that have caused him such anguish, I do believe that Nephi can see the direction his divided family is headed, and the role he played, both for good and bad. Perhaps, in his role as prophet, Nephi has seen the ultimate end of his people,and is questioning why he had to kill Laban, if in the end it results in what he was trying to prevent? How many more violent deaths are to occur, and sins be committed, he seems to be saying, despite his efforts to prevent them? 


larryco_ said...

Well thought out, as usual, Papa. It is a troubling story, but we're in the midst of going from one troubling story after another in the OT Sunday School class, so it fits right in.

I've always had two area of concern: First, why would God command His young prophet to take Laban's life? Wouldn't have been easier if the Lord wanted Laban dead to just do it Himself (again, OT references galore on the Lord doing just that)? It's kind of like Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." Couldn't the Lord have come up with 50 more clever ways to help Nephi get the plates than a beheading?

Second, the justification doesn't work. Nephi says - basically - that they need the plates to carry on their scriptural heritage and language. Without it the people will perish. Why, I wonder? The Lehites had both literate revelators and priesthood holders. LaGrand Richards makes the point in A Marvelous Work and a Wonder that if every bible in the world suddenly vanished, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wouldn't miss a beat because it is based on revelation. So were the Nephites. Obviously the brass plates were a super cool thing to teach about prophetic heritage, laws, and literature. But I don't see it as absolutely essential.

Papa D said...

larryco, I think that last question lies at the heart of kevinf's comment.

My own answer is that the culture of the time was SO focused on the centrality of the law and seeing it as indispensable that it probably never crossed Lehi's mind that he could start his own record without the history of his ancestry to use as the foundation of teaching about God. I believe God works with people as they are able to understand, including the limitations of their own times, cultures and personalities - and I also am completely open to the possibility that Lehi was so locked into the need for the plates that he attributed that view to the will of God.

I don't think that makes him any less of a prophet; in fact, I think that fits well into the view of prophets that is presented throughout our scriptures. They are great people in many ways, but they are not infallible and are subject to the same issues the rest of humanity faces.

Papa D said...

OldJen said the following in the same comment thread from which I quoted kevinf's comment. I also think it is profound and want to post it here:

"Maybe it’s because I’ve raised a son and watched the turmoil of his youth and his adult internal struggles and still consider him one of the best men on the planet (not perfect by any means, but with a heart that desires to do good continually, even if sometimes he doesn’t have a clue). But I just don’t see the problem with Nephi sinning, or mistaking his own thoughts as the voice of The Spirit, or recalling events through his Nephi-brain filter 40 years after they happened. This is Nephi, not Christ.

Saul/Paul. Alma the younger and the sons of Helaman. The people of Nineveh. Moses.
Ebenezer Scrooge, Jean Val Jean, Earl.

Sin, enlightenment, repentance, redemption. Not just A story, it’s THE story. The stuff of life, the plan of salvation, the reason we have a Savior."

Papa D said...

To add a bit of humor, with a relevant point inside the humor, JKC said the following:

"But obviously, Nephi’s real problem was that, like Feanor and his sons, he swore an unbreakable oath by the life of God himself to obtain the plates at any cost. So when asking nicely for them didn’t work, he was pretty much doomed to take them by force since breaking such an oath is not really an option. That’s right, folks, the brass plates are the silmarils.

(And obviously, the sword of Laban is the ring of power. Do you think it’s just a coincidence that when Nephi draws the sword, he describes the blade as “most precious”?)"

Kevin said...

One other thought that came to on reading this. Since Zoram followed Nephi, and agreed to go with his family, likely suspicion would have fallen on him as the possible murderer and thief. In fact, it makes the decision to go with Nephi and his brothers the logical decision. Unintentionally, he would end up being the focus of any investigation. Overall, a well thought out and clear discussion of what Nephi had to go through in making this decision.

Anonymous said...

Although Nephi's descendents eventually did "dwindle in unbelief" I think the bigger picture is that those plates were the foundation for the teachings found in the plates that eventually were made into the BOM. The writing from those plates has gone forth to influence many more people than just Nephi's descendents. I have found that in my work experience, even though I have written many documents and probably could produce them from scratch, having a starting template or examples is invaluable to creating something worthwhile.

larryco_ said...

"My own answer is that the culture of the time was SO focused on the centrality of the law and seeing it as indispensable that it probably never crossed Lehi's mind that he could start his own record without the history of his ancestry to use as the foundation of teaching about God."

Well said.