Evidence #99 | September 19, 2020

Slaying of Laban

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Scripture Central

Abstract

When placed in an ancient legal and religious context, Nephi’s slaying of Laban can be seen as a morally and legally justifiable killing.

Nephi’s slaying of Laban plays a crucial role in his autobiographical record, allowing his family to obtain a record of scripture written on plates of brass (see 1 Nephi 5:10–14).1 When Nephi’s account of this event is placed in an ancient legal and religious context, it appears that he carefully worded his narrative to demonstrate that his slaying of Laban was neither immoral nor technically illegal, based on the laws of his time and culture.

Nephi’s State of Mind

"I Did Obey the Voice of the Spirit" by Walter Rane.

Legal scholar John W. Welch has noted that the typical modern legal definition of a premeditated action, such as murder, “merely requires awareness and determination, and such determination need not have been formulated any earlier than the instant at which it is given effect.”2 In contrast, premeditation in ancient Israelite law “required a murder to have been preplanned, thought out, schemed, or implemented through some kind of treachery, ambush, sabotage, or lying in wait.”3 Furthermore, avoiding culpability for a homicide required that “the slayer had not ‘hated’ his neighbor in time past (Deuteronomy 19:4), had not come ‘presumptuously upon his neighbor to slay him with guile’ (Exodus 21:14), or had not injured him in ‘hatred’ or with ‘enmity’ (Numbers 35:20, 22).”4

Nephi’s statements seem to consciously draw attention to these stipulations in order to justify his actions and prove his innocence. He specifically stated that he “was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Nephi 4:6). He therefore didn’t have any specific plan to kill or harm Laban. Moreover, Nephi elaborated upon his desire to not kill Laban: “And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him” (v. 10). Thus, he didn’t harbor violent hatred or enmity toward Laban. In addition, Nephi said he was “constrained by the Spirit” to kill Laban (v. 10). According to Welch, Nephi’s action based on this wording would have been considered “involuntary under either … Hebrew or Greek conceptions.”5 

The Role of Divine Will

Although a number of practical reasons could be proposed for the necessity of Laban’s death,6 the ultimate reason for his execution was because the Lord commanded Nephi to slay him. In response to Nephi’s reluctance, the Lord repeatedly affirmed that the slaying of Laban was according to divine will and that “the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands” (1 Nephi 4:11–12). Welch identified this phrase as a nearly “verbatim quote from Exodus 21:13” which justifies a homicide if “a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand” (emphasis added). Welch proposed that Nephi was most likely familiar with this passage and that “under this unusual and extraordinary circumstance, the killing was on both counts legally justifiable and religiously excusable.”7

Better That One Man Perish

As further justification for this killing, the Spirit explained to Nephi, “Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13). After pointing to early biblical precedents for this legal concept,8 Welch noted that “there can be little doubt” that this principle “was recognized under early Jewish law and that it was consonant with the rationale expressly stated in Laban’s case.”9 

Some rabbis reasonably held that the legal principle was especially applicable if the man who was slain for the good of the people was guilty of a crime that was worthy of death.10 Laban would certainly fall into this category because he falsely claimed Laman was a robber,11 stole Lehi’s property, and then unjustly attempted to slay Nephi and his brothers (see 1 Nephi 3:13, 25).12

Flight into an Appointed Land

Moses Slays an Egyptian.

Instead of being put to death, those who committed a non-premeditated homicide were required by law to flee unto a place that God had appointed (see Exodus 21:13). Like Moses, who fled into the wilderness after killing an Egyptian, Nephi fled into the wilderness after slaying Laban. Then, as the law required, he and his family were eventually led to a land that God had specifically appointed unto them (see 2 Nephi 1:5).13 

Conclusion

Welch noted that “Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century audience was just as scandalized by Nephi’s killing of Laban as is a modem audience. Early Book of Mormon critics readily viewed this episode as a clear indication that the Book of Mormon was not inspired by God.”14 Yet when placed in an “ancient legal context … the slaying of Laban makes sense, both legally and religiously, as an unpremeditated, undesired, divinely excusable, and justifiable killing—something very different from what people today normally think of as criminal homicide.”15

Book of Mormon Central, “Was Nephi’s Slaying of Laban Legal? (1 Nephi 4:18),” KnoWhy 256 (January 2, 2017).

John W. Welch, “Introduction,” Studia Antiqua 3, no. 2 (2003): 9–12.

John W. Welch and Heidi Harkness Parker, “Better That One Man Perish,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 17–19.

John A. Tvedtnes, “The Slaying of Laban,” The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar, 1st ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Cornerstone Publishing, 1999), 110–112.

John W. Welch, “Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1, no. 1 (1992): 119–141.

1 Nephi 4:6–18

1 Nephi 4:6–18

 

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