Evidence #433 | January 16, 2024

Laban as a Military Leader

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Scripture Central


Various lines of evidence help support the Book of Mormon’s description of Laban as a military leader, including his sword, his charge over a treasury, his command over 50 soldiers, and the mention of his “servants.”

In the early chapters of the Book of Mormon, Nephi recounts an episode involving a Jerusalem official with military authority named Laban (see 1 Nephi 3–4). Laban would listen to petitions (see 1 Nephi 3:11, 24), had an archive of records (see 1 Nephi 3:3; 4:20), commanded a unit of 50 men within the walls of Jerusalem, possibly had control of a larger military force (see 1 Nephi 3:31–4:1),1 and was greedy, short tempered, and given to drink (see 1 Nephi 3:13, 25; 4:7).

Beginning in the 1950s, Hugh Nibley compared Laban’s moral character and behavior to authority figures in various records from across the ancient Near East.2 He found that, by and large, such men were “a sordid lot of careerists whose authority depended on constant deception and intrigue, … seeking before all things to increase their private fortunes,” not unlike the portrait of Laban himself.3

Hugh Nibley speaks at a symposium in 1989. Image via Deseret News.

Among the examples Nibley used to compare to Laban was Jaush (or Yaʾush), the leading military official contemporary to Laban at the fortress of Lachish in the southern Judaean lowlands.4 “The offices and doings of Laban and Jaush present a complex parallel, indicative of a special military type and calling not found in the Bible,” observed Nibley.5 Recently discovered seals in Arad, Kuntillet ʿAjrud, and Jerusalem strongly suggest that the title of the office held by men like Laban and Jaush was śar ʿir or śar haʿir, meaning “commander of (the) fortress.”6

Based on a suggestion by John W. Welch, one of his former students, Kelly N. Schaeffer-Bullock, has developed the argument that Laban was indeed the “commander of the fortress” of Jerusalem at the beginning of the sixth century BC.7 That is to say, he was “the military commander in charge of the fortified town of Jerusalem—or perhaps, more narrowly, a fortress within Jerusalem.”8 Schaeffer-Bullock reviews several details reported about Laban that appear to be consistent with what is known about the “commander of the fortress” from historical and archaeological data.

Jerusalem around 600 BC. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

The Sword of Laban

One impressive clue is Laban’s sword. According to Nephi, “the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and … the blade thereof was of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9). This was clearly not an ordinary soldier’s weapon. Based on the late-seventh century BC seal of the “commander of the fortress” from Jerusalem, it appears that the king bestowed weapons upon his military officers as a symbol of authority.9 Schaeffer-Bullock thus proposes that Laban’s sword had been ceremonially awarded to him as a symbol of his office as “commander of the fortress.”10


This 7th-6th century BC Israelite sword, held at the Israel Museum, was found at Vered Jericho, about 15 miles from Jerusalem. The blade is made "iron hardened into steel" (museum plaque). Photo credit: Lauren Perry. Image and caption via studioetquoquefide.com.

The closest parallel to Laban’s sword in Israelite archaeology is the Vered Jericho sword—a long, well-preserved sword made of iron hardened into steel, dated to the late-seventh century BC.11 Archaeologists recovered this sword at a fortress outside Jericho and believe it was a ceremonial weapon.12 This sword likely belonged to Laban’s counterpart at this contemporary Judean fortress.

The Treasury of Laban

Another detail which indicates that Laban may have been the “commander of the fortress” in Jerusalem is that he had important records under his care in his treasury (1 Nephi 4:20).13 Archives were likewise kept by the commanders of both the Lachish and the Arad fortresses.14 At Lachish, these records were copied onto delet, a Hebrew word that can refer to a column of writing on papyrus but is also used elsewhere to refer to bronze writing tablets comparable to the plates of brass in Laban’s treasury.15 As the commander in Jerusalem, specifically, Schaeffer-Bullock (following a suggestion made by Welch) proposes that Laban had charge over the royal treasury.16

Scrolls and other treasures lay on shelves in Laban's treasury. Image and caption via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Laban and His Fifty

Laman and Lemuel feared Laban because “he can command fifty” (1 Nephi 3:31; 4:1). Nibley long ago pointed out that fifty is a standard military unit in the ancient Near East.17 Of particular note is the frequent reference to garrisons of fifty in the Amarna letters.18 Nadav Naʾaman, an expert on the Amarna documents, explains: “A cadre of 50 soldiers, or multiples thereof, was the standard unit of Egyptian troops according to the Amarna letters. … Fifty was also the standard unit for manning a garrison.”19 Fifty is likewise the standard military unit in Neo-Assyrian (ca. 911–612 BC) and Neo-Babylonian (ca. 626–539 BC) sources.20 Laban’s “fifty” thus probably represents the garrison directly under him as “commander of the fortress,” according to Schaeffer-Bullock.21

The Servants of Laban

In addition to Laban’s fifty, Nephi mentions “the servants of Laban” who were “sent … to slay” Nephi and his brothers (1 Nephi 4:25). As Schaeffer-Bullock points out, these do not appear to be domestic servants or overseers of commercial affairs, since they follow orders to kill the sons of Lehi. An inscription found at Kuntillet ʿAjrud mentions naʿarê śar ʿir. The Hebrew term naʿar usually refers to an adolescent boy, but in this context William M. Schniedewind suggests that it likely refers to a “servant” or “apprentice.”22 Thus, the naʿarê śar ʿir would be “a young person receiving military training” under the direction of the “commander of the fortress.”23

Others have argued that in military contexts, a naʿar was actually an elite warrior and highly trusted advisor or officer under a military commander.24 Schaeffer-Bullock proposes that these are “the servants of Laban”—including Zoram who, as keeper of the treasury keys, may have been Laban’s chief naʿar—who would follow his orders to execute the sons of Lehi.25

Consistent Narrative Details

If Laban is understood to be the commander of the fortress at Jerusalem, it may explain several narrative details. For instance, it can help us better understand why Laman and Lemuel were so fearful and why Nephi’s courage is emphasized. That Laban “[could] command fifty, yea, even he [could] slay fifty” would have been no hyperbole from Laman and Lemuel (1 Nephi 3:31). Such a commander would be a powerful, dangerous man, not one to be trifled with by ordinary citizens. Nephi and his brothers truly would have been putting their lives on the line to fulfill what the Lord commanded.

Laban’s position may also help explain, at least to some extent, why the Lord had Nephi slay him. If left alive, Laban may very well have sent his “servants” to track down Lehi’s sons as they tried to flee Jerusalem.26 All in all, the full range of emotions and behaviors displayed by the whole family—the courage and fears, failures and triumphs—are consistent with Laban’s position as a military leader with a whole garrison of troops at his beck and call.

Lehi comforts Sariah who is worried about their sons. Image and caption via churchofjesuschrist.org. 


As Hugh Nibley determined in his groundbreaking study comparing Laban to military officials from the ancient Near East, Laban is “seen to be the very type and model of a well-known class of public official in the Ancient [Near] East. Everything about him is authentic.”27 This conclusion still rings true decades later, as Laban compares favorably to even more recent discoveries about the “commander of the fortress” in ancient Judah.

Significantly, one piece of evidence for the title and role of “commander of the fortress” comes directly from a seal found in Jerusalem in the late seventh century BC. This not only proves that the office existed in the exact time and place where readers are introduced to the powerful military official named Laban—but it could very well be an artifact directly linked to Laban himself, as he or one of his predecessors may have used this seal for official affairs.

Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1988), 120–134.

Kelly N. Schaeffer-Bullock, “Rediscovering Zoram: The Chief Naʾar of the Commander of the Fortress” (forthcoming publication).

1 Nephi 3–5

1 Nephi 3–5

  • 1 When trying to rally his brothers to courage, Nephi declared, “Let us go up again unto Jerusalem, and let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?” (emphasis added). It is uncertain, however, whether Nephi’s description of Laban’s troops should be taken literally, hyperbolically, or as completely figurative. Without more information, it is hard to rule out the possibility that a Jerusalem military leader could command so many troops (and if not necessarily “tens of thousands,” at least many more than 50). This is especially so if one considers that the number of potential soldiers under a leader’s command could be drastically different in times of relative peace versus times of war. On the other hand, Nephi’s following statements establish a figurative association between Laban and Pharaoh, who commanded hosts of Egyptian soldiers (v. 5). It is also noteworthy that Nephi’s statement echoes other Old Testament passages (such as Leviticus 26:8, Deuteronomy 32:30; 1 Samuel 18:7–8) which discuss individuals or small groups overcoming these same enormous odds. It may even be that Nephi’s words were both literally true (or not that far from the truth) and given for rhetorical effect.
  • 2 Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1988), 94–104; Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1988), 120–134.
  • 3 Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 121.
  • 4 For background on the Lachish Letters, the only known source of information on Yaʾush and his role, see Dana M. Pike, “Israelite Inscriptions from the Time of Jeremiah and Lehi,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 205–210.
  • 5 Hugh Nibley, “Two Shots in the Dark,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 121.
  • 6 William M. Schniedewind, “Commander of the Fortress? Understanding an Ancient Israelite Military Title,” Biblical Archaeology Review 45, no. 1 (2019): 39–44, 70.
  • 7 See Kelly N. Schaeffer-Bullock, “Rediscovering Zoram: The Chief Naʾar of the Commander of the Fortress” (forthcoming publication), manuscript copy in possession of Scripture Central research staff.
  • 8 Schniedewind, “Commander of the Fortress,” 43.
  • 9 Schniedewind, “Commander of the Fortress,” 43–44. The weapon displayed on this seal is specifically “a composite bow and three arrows” (caption on p. 44). Interestingly, scholars have proposed that Nephi’s bow “made of fine steel” was a composite bow with metal fittings, as discussed in Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Nephi’s “Fine Steel” Bow Break? (1 Nephi 16:18),” KnoWhy 548 (January 31, 2020). How Nephi came to possess such an elite military item, superior to the hunting bows of his older brothers, is never explained in the text. One speculative possibility is it was originally Laban’s and was among the items Nephi armed himself with when he donned Laban’s armor. The fact that Nephi took Laban’s sword and it became a symbol of Nephite kingship and authority thereafter should also not go unnoticed. See Brett L. Holbrook, “The Sword of Laban as a Symbol of Divine Authority and Kingship,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 39–72; Brett L. Holbrook, “Sword of Laban as a Symbol of Divine Authority,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 93–96.
  • 10 Schaeffer-Bullock, “Rediscovering Zoram,” pp. 6–8 (all page numbers refer to pages of the manuscript copy in Scripture Central’s possession).
  • 11 Avraham Eitan, “Rare Sword of the Israelite Period Found at Vered Jericho,” The Israel Museum Journal 12 (1994): 61–62. For comparison of this and other ancient blades to Laban’s sword, see Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Laban’s Steel Sword,” Evidence# 0135, January 4, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.  
  • 12 Avraham Eitan, “Vered Yeriḥo,” in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, 5 vols., ed. Ephraim Stern (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society; Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008), 5:2067–2068.
  • 13 In later Hebrew and Aramaic sources, the same word used to refer to a “treasury” where money and valuables were kept is also used to refer to “archives” where records and books were kept. Hence records on the plates of brass being kept in the “treasury of Laban” is consistent with ancient practice. See John A. Tvedtnes, “Books in the Treasury,” in The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Records: “Out of Darkness unto Light” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 155–166.
  • 14 Nibley, “Two Shots in the Dark,” 115–116. In addition to background on the Lachish ostraca (see n.3), Pike, “Israelite Inscriptions from the Time of Jeremiah and Lehi,” 203–205 provides background on the Arad ostraca, some “comprising a portion of the archive Eliashib, Arad’s Judahite commander from the later portion of Josiah’s reign until about 595 BC,” thus a contemporary counterpart of Laban.
  • 15 See Nibley, “Two Shots in the Dark,” 105–106; Pike, “Israelite Inscriptions from the Time of Jeremiah and Lehi,” 209; William J. Hamblin, “Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 45–46, 53–54.
  • 16 Schaeffer-Bullock, “Rediscovering Zoram,” pp. 10–12.
  • 17 See Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 97–98; Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 126–127.
  • 18 See EA 132, 139, 238, 289, 295 in Anson F. Rainey, trans., The El-Amarna Correspondence: A New Edition of the Cuneiform Letters from the Site of El-Amarna based on Collations of all Extent Tablets, 2 vols., ed. William Schniedewind and Zipora Cochavi-Rainey (Boston, MA: Brill, 2015) or William L. Moran, ed. and trans., The Amarna Letters (Baltimore, ML: John Hopkins University Press, 1992).
  • 19 Nadav Naʾaman, “The Contribution of the Amarna Letters to the Debate on Jerusalem’s Political Position in the Tenth Century BCE,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 304 (1996): 25n2. See also Moran, Amarna Letters, 338n6: “50 is a common number for manning a garrison.”
  • 20 See Joseph Offord, “Archaeological Notes on Jewish Antiquities,” Palestinian Exploration Fund Quarterly 48, no. 3 (1916): 148; A. Leo Oppenheim, Letters from Mesopotamia: Official, Business, and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millennia (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 177.
  • 21 Schaeffer-Bullock, “Rediscovering Zoram,” pp. 5–6.
  • 22 Schniedewind, “Commander of the Fortress,” 41–42. For further discussion of meaning of naʿar, see Schaeffer-Bullock, “Rediscovering Zoram,” pp. 19–27.
  • 23 Schniedewind, “Commander of the Fortress,” 42.
  • 24 John MacDonald, “The Status and Role of the Naʿar in Israelite Society,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 35, no. 3 (1976): 147–170.
  • 25 Schaeffer-Bullock, “Rediscovering Zoram,” pp. 9–10, 19–36.
  • 26 While this may have been a contributing factor, there would likely have been other reasons as well. See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Nephi’s Slaying of Laban,” Evidence# 0099, September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org. See also, Charles Swift, “‘The Lord Slayeth the Wicked’: Coming to Terms with Nephi Killing Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 28, no. 1 (2019): 137–169. A precedent for Jerusalem rulers sending men to track down a fleeing prophet can be seen in the story of Urijah, as recorded in Jeremiah 26:20–23. For commentary on this incident and its apparent corroboration in the Lachish letters, see Hugh W. Nibley, “The Lachish Letters: Documents from Lehi’s Day,” Ensign 11, no. 12 (1981): 48–54.
  • 27 Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 120.
Biblical History

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