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Who Was Laban?

KnoWhy #709 | January 11, 2024

“For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass.”

1 Nephi 3:3

The Know

In the early chapters of the Book of Mormon, Nephi recounts an episode involving Laban, a Jerusalem official with military authority (see 1 Nephi 3–4). Laban listened to petitions, had an archive of records, commanded a unit of fifty men within the walls of Jerusalem but also had control of a larger military force, and was greedy, short tempered, and given to drink.1

Beginning in the 1950s, Hugh Nibley compared Laban’s moral character and behavior to those of similar 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

Among the men Nibley compared Laban to 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, Kelly N. Schaeffer-Bullock (a former student of Welch) 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.

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 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

The closest parallel to Laban’s sword in Israelite archaeology is the Vered Jericho sword—a large sword made of iron hardened into steel, dated to the late-seventh century BC and well preserved.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 indicating 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 Important archives were kept by the commanders of both the Lachish and the Arad fortresses.14 At Lachish, these records were copied onto delet, most likely meaning a column of writing on papyrus or possibly bronze writing tablets comparable to the plates of brass in Laban’s treasury.15 Schaeffer-Bullock (following a suggestion made by Welch) proposes that Laban, as the commander in Jerusalem, specifically had charge over the royal treasury.16

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, explained, “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 also 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 his fifty, Nephi mentions “the servants of Laban” who were “sent … to slay” Nephi and his brothers (1 Nephi 3:25–26). 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

The Why

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.”26 This conclusion still rings true decades later, as Laban compares favorably to even more recent discoveries about the office of “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 also could very well be an artifact directly linked to Laban himself, as he or one of his predecessors may very well have used this seal in official affairs.

If Laban is understood to be the commander of the fortress at Jerusalem, the courage all the sons of Lehi—but especially Nephi—displayed in approaching him to obtain the plates of brass comes into greater relief. That Laban “[could] command fifty, yea, even he [could] slay fifty” was no hyperbole from Laman and Lemuel (1 Nephi 3:31). He was a powerful, dangerous man, not to be messed with by ordinary citizens. Laman deserves some credit for making an attempt, however feeble, to approach such a man, and all the brothers should be acknowledged for whatever part they played in attempting to bargain with Laban according to Nephi’s plan (1 Nephi 3:11–26).

Most especially, understanding who Laban really was and the power he could wield helps readers better appreciate the courage it took for Nephi to put his trust in the angelic promise that “the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands” and then proceed to seek out Laban without the support of his brothers, being led “by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do” (1 Nephi 3:29; 4:6).27

Furthermore, if “the servants of Laban” were themselves elite warriors and high-ranking military personnel—and Zoram was chief among them—then Nephi further displayed his courage and trust in the Lord as he approached Zoram wearing the armor of Laban in order to obtain the plates of brass. If Zoram had not been fooled by the ruse and recognized Nephi, then Nephi’s life would have been directly at risk, illustrating the seriousness of his conviction when he swore an oath: “As the Lord liveth, and as we live, we will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us” (1 Nephi 3:15). Nephi truly was willing to put his life on the line to fulfill what the Lord commanded.

Nephi would swear a similar oath to Zoram himself, assuring him his freedom if he joined Lehi’s company (1 Nephi 4:32). That Nephi should be able to “seize upon the servant of Laban, and [hold] him, that he should not flee” while doing so is even more impressive considering Zoram may have been a well-trained warrior. It emphasizes the fact that however “large in stature” Nephi may have been, he still needed “much strength of the Lord” in order to hold Zoram down (1 Nephi 4:31).

It also highlights the faith of Lehi in commissioning his sons to go to Laban as the Lord had commanded, trusting “that the Lord will deliver my sons out of the hands of Laban, and bring them down again unto us in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 3:2–4; 5:5). It also deepens our appreciation for Sariah’s rejoicing when her sons returned safely—she knew they had been sent to a powerful and tempestuous military leader and understandably feared the worst (1 Nephi 5:1–10).

All in all, the range of emotions and behaviors displayed by the whole family—the courage and fear, failures and triumphs—can be better appreciated when Laban himself is better understood. Studying the plausible military positions of Laban and his servant Zoram truly brings to life the gravity of the dangers and risks Nephi and his brothers faced in their adventures in Jerusalem and also the courage, trust, and faith in the Lord that Nephi showed through his actions. This understanding also better highlights the Providential hand of the Lord in safely preserving all four brothers for their return to their father’s camp.

Further Reading

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” (unpublished manuscript).

  • 1. See 1 Nephi 3:3, 11, 13, 24–25, 31; 4:1, 7, 20.
  • 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, and 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: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 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” (unpublished manuscript), 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 that it was originally Laban’s and was among the items Nephi armed himself with when he donned Laban’s armor.
  • 10. Schaeffer-Bullock, “Rediscovering Zoram.”
  • 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 sword to Laban’s sword, see Book of Mormon Central, “What Was the Sword of Laban Like? (1 Nephi 4:9),” KnoWhy 401 (January 23, 2018).
  • 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. 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.”
  • 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, MD: 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.”
  • 22. Schniedewind, “Commander of the Fortress,” 41–42. For further discussion of meaning of naʿar, see Schaeffer-Bullock, “Rediscovering Zoram.”
  • 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.”
  • 26. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 120.
  • 27. On the importance of these details from a legal perspective, see Book of Mormon Central, “Was Nephi’s Slaying of Laban Legal? (1 Nephi 4:18),” KnoWhy 256 (January 2, 2017). That article points out that Nephi had not been lying in wait or had preplanned to kill Laban and that thus this slaying was not a culpable homicide, allowing Nephi to flee to a place of refuge or to leave the holy land. The fact that Laban was wearing his military armor also makes readers wonder whether he had already taken offensive steps that night to pursue and kill Lehi and his four sons.
Book of Mormon
1 Nephi
Laban
Sword of Laban
Jerusalem

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