Evidence #4 | November 20, 2020

Sword of Laban

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The symbolic significance of the sword of Laban, as gleaned from the Book of Mormon itself and from analysis of ancient and modern historical sources, works together with the testimony of the Three Witnesses to establish the sword’s physical reality and historical authenticity.

The Sword of Laban: A Symbolic Nephite Relic

From the time that Nephi drew Laban’s sword from its sheath and slew him with it, the weapon held special significance for the Nephite nation. Nephi said that in order to protect his people he “did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords” (2 Nephi 5:14). Jacob noted that Nephi “wielded the sword of Laban in their defence” (Jacob 1:10). Mormon mentioned that King Benjamin “did fight with the strength of his own arm, with the sword of Laban” (Words of Mormon 1:13). And in Mosiah 1:16, we learn that Mosiah received the sword of Laban from King Benjamin.

Detail of Battle in the Sidon. Artwork by James Fullmer.

In light of these passages, some may wonder what was so special about Laban’s sword. In the ancient world—including ancient Israel—swords were often seen as a symbol of authority, kingship, or divine favor.1 Several lines of evidence suggest that this is precisely the symbolism that was attached to Laban’s sword in the Nephite record.

Sword of Joseph and Joshua?

Some historical evidence suggests that Laban’s sword was originally created by Joseph who was sold into Egypt, that it was later used by Joshua in Israel’s conquest of Canaan,  and that, like the brass plates, it was passed down through the generations until it came into Laban’s possession.2 If true, the implications of the sword’s history would surely not have gone unnoticed by the Nephite writers. As Don Bradley has explained, “Wielding a sword that was simultaneously that of Joseph, Joshua, and Laban was ideal for establishing Nephi as heir of Joseph, possessor of the new promised land, and rightful king over the land’s seven tribes.”3

Swords of Laban and Goliath: A Comparison

Several studies have also shown that Nephi intentionally connected his slaying of Laban with David’s slaying of Goliath, and that in both cases, the event signified the young hero’s foreordained kingship.4 In each story, the sword itself became a national heir loom, as well as an enduring symbol of divine deliverance and royal legitimacy.5 Brett Holbrook has noted six points of similarity between the sword of Laban and the sword of Goliath: 6

  1. Each sword was originally wielded by a man of might.
  2. Each sword’s owner had his head cut off with his own sword by a faithful youth.
  3. Each sword was finely crafted for its time and was unique.
  4. Each sword was revered by the people.
  5. Each sword was used to lead people.
  6. Each sword was a symbol of authority and kingship.

It could be added that both swords were included in their respective nations’ national treasuries. The sword of Goliath was kept with the high priestly ephod which was associated with the Urim and Thummim (1 Samuel 21:9). Among the Nephites, the sword of Laban was preserved with the plates of brass, the interpreters, the breastplate, the Liahona, and the plates of the Book of Mormon itself (Mosiah 1:16Doctrine and Covenants 17:1).7 Bradley has meaningfully compared these Nephite relics, including the sword of Laban, to the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament.8 

David and Goliath, by Guillaume Courtois. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Political Implications

Noel B. Reynolds has argued that “Nephi carefully constructed what he wrote to convince his own and later generations that the Lord had selected him over his older brothers to be Lehi’s successor. Thus, one interesting way to read the account is as a political tract produced to show that his rule was authoritative.”9 The way that Nephite kings revered the sword of Laban supports Reynold’s thesis. In Nephi’s narrative, the sword of Laban played a key role in foreshadowing his future kingship and legitimizing his divine calling as a “ruler and a teacher over [his] brethren” (1 Nephi 2:22).10 The story of his obtaining the sword is loaded with political significance, as well as spiritual symbolism.

A Relic Seen by the Three Witnesses

Understanding why the Nephites revered the sword of Laban also sheds light on why it was included among the Nephite relics shown to the Three Witnesses by the angel Moroni.11 In his dying testimony, Martin Harris declared, “Just as sure as you see the sun shining, just as sure am I that I stood in the presence of an angel of God with Joseph Smith, and saw him hold the gold plates in his hands. I also saw the Urim and Thummim, the breastplate, and the sword of Laban.”12 David Whitmer similarly said that a “glorious personage appeared unto them and exhibited to them the plates, the sword of Laban, the Directors which were given to Lehi (called Liahona), the Urim and Thummim, and other records.”13 

Replicas by David A. Baird. Photograph by Daniel Smith.

Conclusion

The sword of Laban is more than just an incidental detail in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Its physical reality—as testified of by the Three Witnesses—supports the historical reality of the Nephite prophets who wrote the Book of Mormon, as well as Joseph Smith’s claims about its divine translation. The symbolic significance behind this sword, as gleaned from the text itself and from analysis of both ancient and modern historical sources, increases the plausibility of this artifact’s historical reality and helps explain its crucial role in the unfolding drama of the Restoration.

Don Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), 1–8, 140–142, 176–177, 200–206.

Ben McGuire, “Nephi and Goliath: A Case Study of Literary Allusion in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 18, no. 1 (2009): 16–31.

Alan Goff, “How Should We Then Read? Reading Mormon Scripture after the Fall,” FARMS Review 21, no. 1 (2009): 137–178.

Val Larsen, “Killing Laban: The Birth of Sovereignty in the Nephite Constitutional Order,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16, no. 1 (2007): 26–41, 84–85.

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.

2 Nephi 5:14Jacob 1:10Words of Mormon 1:13Mosiah 1:16Doctrine and Covenants 17:1

2 Nephi 5:14

Jacob 1:10

Words of Mormon 1:13

Mosiah 1:16

Doctrine and Covenants 17:1

  • 1 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.
  • 2 See Don Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), 140–142; 176–177.
  • 3 Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages, 177.
  • 4  See Ben McGuire, “Nephi and Goliath: A Case Study of Literary Allusion in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 18, no. 1 (2009): 16–31; Val Larsen, “Killing Laban: The Birth of Sovereignty in the Nephite Constitutional Order,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16, no. 1 (2007): 26–41, 84–85; Alan Goff, “How Should We Then Read? Reading Mormon Scripture after the Fall,” FARMS Review 21, no. 1 (2009): 137–178; Ben McGuire, “Nephi and Goliath: A Reappraisal of the Use of the Old Testament in First Nephi,” FairMormon presentation, 2001, online at archive.bookofmormoncentral.org. For a chart of extended intertextual relationships between Nephi’s slaying of Laban and David’s slaying of Goliath, see the appendix in Book of Mormon Central, “Why Was the Sword of Laban So Important to Nephite Leaders? (Words of Mormon 1:13),” KnoWhy 411 (February 27, 2018).
  • 5 For the possibility that the sword of Laban was an important relic among the Israelites, see Daniel N. Rolph, “Prophets, Kings, and Swords: The Sword of Laban and Its Possible Pre-Laban Origin,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 73–79.
  • 6 These points are adapted from Holbrook, “The Sword of Laban as a Symbol of Divine Authority and Kingship,” 48–53.
  • 7 It’s possible that the quality steel of Laban’ blade made it more reflective or shiny than other blades. The sword was perhaps kept in a Nephite temple and, if so, its luster may have symbolically represented the “flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the tree of life” (Alma 42:2–3). We know that the brightness of swords was an important concept to the Nephites because when the Anti-Nephi-Lehies buried their swords, they did so “that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have never used them, at the last day” (Alma 24:16; emphasis added).
  • 8 Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages, 8, 200–206; Don Bradley, “Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages,” FairMormon presentation, 2012, online at archive.bookofmormoncentral.org.
  • 9 Noel B. Reynolds, “Nephi’s Political Testament,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1991), 221. See also, Noel B. Reynolds, “The Political Dimension in Nephi’s Small Plates,” BYU Studies Quarterly 27, no. 4 (1987): 15–37.
  • 10 In the ancient world, armor and weapons were expensive, and high quality armaments were often only available to elite soldiers. When one soldier killed another in combat, he was often privileged to take the enemy’s armor and weapons for himself. Not only did this give him greater wealth, but if the enemy’s armaments were superior to his own, it would allow him to become a more powerful warrior. In the ancient mind, this transferal of armor and weapons could also be seen as a symbolic transferal of power. Thus, the armaments of fallen combatants were often more than mere trophies. Paul used a relevant analogy when he spoke of the need to put on the “the whole armour of God” in Ephesians 6:13. By taking upon us God’s spiritual armor, we symbolically obtain His power as well.
  • 11 The Lord gave these witnesses assurance that they could view of the sword of Laban, along with the other Nephite artifacts, in Doctrine and Covenants 17:1: “Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea” (emphasis added).
  • 12 William Pilkington to Vern C. Poulter, 28 February 1930, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (emphasis added); as cited in Holbrook, “The Sword of Laban as a Symbol of Divine Authority and Kingship,” 62.
  • 13 George Q. Cannon, “Church History,” The Juvenile Instructor 19 (1 April 1884): 107 (emphasis added); as cited in Holbrook, “The Sword of Laban as a Symbol of Divine Authority and Kingship,” 62–63.
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