Nephi’s Honorable Execution of Laban

Nephi Cut Off Laban's HeadThe account of Nephi’s execution of Laban in the Book of Mormon is a common source of uncomfortable misunderstanding for many members of the church. It is also often used as a basis for anti-Mormon zealots to attempt to disprove the Book of Mormon. Their assertion is that God would not command Nephi to kill Laban, contrary to his commandment “Thou shalt not kill”.

Typically, the “go-to” exposition used by church members to explain God’s reasoning is found in 1 Nephi 4:13, where God explains 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.

This scripture appeases some, but for others, it is little more than an elusive rationalization for a cold-blooded murder.  A deeper study of the surrounding events and the teachings of the Savior will generate a clearer understanding – separate from this small bit of comfort the Spirit offered Nephi as he carried out God’s command. There is a much more profound lesson to be learned from the account of Nephi and Laban that harmonizes perfectly with one of the most significant morsels of wisdom the Savior shared with us.

According to the Law of Moses in effect at the time, a man could be put to death for robbery (see Exodus 22:2). This penalty could be carried out by the victim.  As Laman attempted to bargain with Laban for the brass plates, Laban became angry and accused him of robbery.  He used the law to create a ruse and provided himself an excuse to “justifiably” kill Laman.

And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee. (1 Nephi 3:13)

Not only did Laban attempt to kill Laman before he escaped and returned to his brothers, but he retained the treasures that had been offered in trade for the plates.

And it came to pass that when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property.

 And it came to pass that we did flee before the servants of Laban, and we were obliged to leave behind our property, and it fell into the hands of Laban. (1 Nephi 3:25–26)

One key element of this account that is so often overlooked is Laban’s intentions. Because of his unfair judgment upon Laman and his deceptive accusations, Laban placed himself under condemnation, and according to God’s law, brought upon himself the sentence of death that he had unrighteously imposed upon Laman.

The Savior taught:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:

 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matt 5:21–22)

In this portion of The Sermon on the Mount, the Savior states that we will be judged with the same level of cruelty or mercy that we extend to others.  In Matt 7:1–2, He goes on to say:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

This was Laban’s great error. He falsely charged Laman with robbery and sentenced him to death. By doing this, he imposed the same sentence of death upon himself, for the robbery he committed against Laman and his family.

Nephi was commanded to execute Laban and obtain the brass plates, and the Lord provided the way by delivering Laban to him in a drunken, defenseless state. Nephi struggled internally with his charge to carry out the execution, and thought: “Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.” (1 Nephi 4:10.)

He felt mercy toward Laban – despite his crimes, including the attempt on his brother’s life. At this moment, Nephi epitomizes the lesson imparted by the Savior. He offered mercy and forgiveness to Laban, though he was not deserving of such clemency.  The Spirit then offered comfort to Nephi – as he was acting according to the law of obedience, and reassured him of his righteousness.

Barring the Law of Moses that justified Nephi’s execution of Laban, the law according to God necessitated that Laban be judged and measured according to his own word. Nephi carried out justice under the law of obedience, not under the law of justice – and consequently, was blessed for his actions as well as for his intentions.

Nephi was not acting contrary to God’s laws, nor did God command him in contradiction to previous commandments; in fact, just the opposite. Nephi exemplified the example of the Savior and demonstrated mercy, forgiveness, and honorably enforced justice by acting in direct obedience to God.

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20 Responses to Nephi’s Honorable Execution of Laban

  1. Ray says:

    Jules,
    What a wonderful explanation of Nephi’s Courage to go beyond the carnal man.
    Nephi surely knew his faith would carry Laban’s guilt to the steps of honest and precise judgement.
    Nephi would enjoy many victories after this successful Abrahamic Stewardship Victory.
    Thank You again for an enlightened commentary!

  2. Paul Olsen says:

    Mathew 22:36

  3. Jared says:

    Well done!

    This article was very instructive and clear.

  4. G. Michael Craig says:

    The Founding Fathers utilized these same principles in designing American jurisprudence. The principle in question is that a man loses a God-given right, in this case the right to life, the moment he attempts to deprive another of that same right. It’s called the law of retribution. Laban clearly violated that law, therefore, he wrote his own death warrant, and the Lord carried it out through the arm of Nephi. Besides, this incident also served two other needful purposes: It helped to emotionally prepare Nephi for the necessity of many such uses of his sword in defending his people, and it furnished him with an excellent sword from which the record states he used as a standard in building many more swords shortly after he and his people separated from his brethren.

  5. sean says:

    Just imagine if nephi just took his sword, armor, and the plates. Laban would have hunted them down in the wilderness with his great number of men. Nephi still went back one more time after that. Amazing times…….thanks for the piece

  6. Alan says:

    Personally I find this explanation for Nephi’s killing of Laban quite weak. Mental hospitals are full of people who claim God told them to kill someone.
    My view is that Nephi panicked and killed him in similar vein to Moses killing of the Egyptian. Nephi is the only witness of this event and the account was written some years after the incident occured. I certainly don’t believe God really told him to kill Laban.

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  8. Aaron says:

    Awesome! A Mormon that applies confirmation bias to make it perfectly okay for one man to brutally chop the head of another man off. Everyone can sleep better at night. Are you kidding me?
    First you are accepting the premise that death is a suitable punishment and that it was fine for Nephi to carry out the sentence. That is scary. Let’s say the murder was okay morally. Is making Nephi do it moral? How old was he then? 16-20? The time period means the best sword would have been iron which would not have taken the head off in one blow. It would have been a bloody horrid nightmare. Not to mention manipulating the body to disrobe it and dealing with the blood and feces. For Laban the pain was over quick but Nephi had to carry all that with him. Thanks God!

    • Peter says:

      Not everything Heavenly Father asks of us is easy.

    • Dahveed says:

      And all this for plates that our church now admits were not needed or even used to produce the BOM. That’s the difficult part for me. Why all the work if they weren’t used?

      • Tom says:

        The plates were not needed for the Book of Mormon because we have the books of Moses and others. The writers of the New Testament still needed the Old Testament to guide them, as Nephi needed the plates of brass.

  9. Christine Soria says:

    What about the Story of Nephi Killing Laban?
    In the “I have a Question” section of the September 1976 Ensign, Elder R. Holland, then Commissioner of
    Church Education, wrote the following response to the question: “How can I explain Nephi’s killing Laban to
    my nonmember friends? Some really reject it as scriptural.”
    Here are at least a few things I try to keep in mind when discussing the taking of Laban’s life:
    Nephi intentionally records this experience in elaborate detail, even though his small plates were limited in
    both size and subject matter. Why did he take such pains to preserve for future readers an action which was so
    difficult for him to perform and which has been so widely misunderstood? Why not simply leave it out? Why,
    indeed, when the small plates were to be restricted to “things which are pleasing unto God” and “of worth unto
    the children of men” (1 Nephi 6:5,6)? Maybe there’s a clue in all of that.
    It is wrong to assume that Nephi in any way wished to take Laban’s life. He was a young man, and despite a
    600 B.C. world full of tensions and retaliations, he had never “shed the blood of man” (1 Ne. 4:10). Nothing in
    his life seems to have conditioned him for this task. In fact the commandments he had been taught from
    childhood declared, “Thou shalt not kill”; and he recoiled, initially refusing to obey the prompting of the Spirit.
    Bible students will remember that the same Moses who received on Mount Sinai this very commandment
    against one man taking another’s life also sang that the Lord could kill as well as make alive, wound as well as
    heal (Deut. 32:39). Indeed, Moses himself, descending from Sinai’s summit with the Ten Commandments as
    fresh in his mind as they were in his hands, immediately caused 3,000 Israelite idolaters to be slain. Looking
    with an unbiased eye, one simply cannot disparagingly grimace when Nephi takes Laban’s sword and, for the
    protection of an entire nation, slays him, and then with a change of facial expression, enthusiastically applaud
    when David takes Goliath’s sword and, for the protection of an entire nation, “drew it out of the sheath thereof,
    and slew him, and cut off his head therewith” (1 Sam. 17:51). The Bible and Book of Mormon are clearly
    shoulder-to-shoulder on such an issue.
    Laban, lying before Nephi in a drunken stupor, has not been guiltless in his dealings with Lehi’s family. In what
    little we know the man, Laban has at least: (1) been unfaithful in keeping the commandments of God; (2) falsely
    accused Laman of robbery; (3) coveted Lehi’s property as a greedy, “lustful” man; (4) stolen that property
    outright; and (5) sought twice to kill Nephi and/or his brothers. He was, by the Holy Spirit’s own declaration, a
    “wicked” man delivered unto Nephi by the very hand of the Lord (1 Ne. 4:13).
    Even if we reject an Old Testament standard of legal judgments against “wicked” men, we still find the basis
    for Nephi’s strict commandment in the laws governing our own dispensation. The Lord declared to the Prophet
    Joseph Smith:

    “And him that repenteth not of his sins, and confesseth them not, ye shall…do with him as the scriptures
    saith unto you, either by commandment or by revelation. And this ye shall do that God may be glorified–
    not because ye forgive not, having not compassion, but that ye may be justified in the eyes of the law,
    that ye may not offend him who is your lawgiver.” (D&C 64:12–13; emphasis added).
    The judgment against Laban is being received “by revelation,” and Nephi ultimately must slay Laban for the
    very reason which initially led him to shrink from it–so that he will not offend the divine “lawgiver.”
    (See D&C 98:23–32.) We realize, then, that the application of laws changes at the command of the lawgiver. Our only safety–and
    Nephi’s–is knowing and obeying that Holy Spirit which whispers truth. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “God
    said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt not utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which
    the government of heaven is conducted–by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the
    kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason
    thereof till long after the events transpire . . . Everything that God gives us is lawful and right” (Teachings of the
    Prophet Joseph Smith, p 256).
    It would seem, finally, that obedience to divine revelation, not death, is the focal point of this story. God can
    restore life in time and eternity; he can do almost nothing with willful disobedience. The quality of our
    obedience to God’s commandments is still the clearest expression of the quality of our faith in him.
    Ultimately, what we come to through all of this (and the list of justifications for the incident could be much
    longer) is at least a partial answer to the first question posed–why is the story told at all? In addition to any of
    the above mentioned plausible meanings and legitimate reasons, this account does at least one more truly
    essential thing: it underscores the monumental–yes, even life-and-death-importance of sacred scripture, of
    records which contain “words which have been spoken by the mouth of…holy prophets” (1 Ne. 3:20).
    One who does not understand Nephi’s relentless determination to enter that city and obtain those records, no
    matter what the cost to his own life or others, will never understand why it was so fundamentally necessary to
    bring forth the Book of Mormon in this dispensation, or why the forces of hell tried so to wrench those plates
    from the boy prophet, or why every one of us must search the scriptures and live by every word of God. As with
    Nephi’s people traveling through their wilderness, it is “wisdom in the Lord” that we, too, should carry the
    sacred records with us on our own journey toward the Promised Land. (See 1 Ne. 5:22.) Our only alternative is
    to “dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Ne. 4:13).

  10. CRC says:

    It seems to me that this article is missing the real point.

    Nephi did not kill Laban, the Lord did.

    Why is this so difficult to see?

    Nephi did not take it upon himself to kill Laban. Had he done so, he would indeed have been guilty of committing murder.

    Nephi was on the Lord’s errand.

    If his account is true, and I believe that it is, the Lord commanded him to kill Laban.

    Nephi was simply acting as an agent of the Lord. He was acting as the Lord’s arm of judgment.

    As uncomfortable and politically un-correct as it may appear to be, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away when it comes to the gift of mortal life. The Old Testament is filled with accounts of God killing wicked people, directly, or through his servants.

  11. francislee says:

    1 Nephi 3:29 – An angel stood before Laman and Lemuel and said “the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands”, which is a death sentence. Nephi no more murdered Laban than Joshua and the children of Israel murdered the inhabitants of the promised land. The Lord passes judgment on Laban and sent a Angel to tell the Sons of Lehi How to administer his judgment. Laman and Lemuel did not obey, Nephi did obey. Laman and Lemuel questioned how the lord could deliver Laban in their hands, because they knew he had a steel sword. They also knew he was very skilled at using it. They also knew he would be protected by his armor. It took incredible faith for Nephi to obey the angel, because all Laban had to do was see any or all of them and they were dead.

  12. Klaus says:

    Since The Book of Mormon is partly autobiographical, with Nephi being Joseph Smith, Jr. and Lehi being Joseph Smith, Sr., the possibility exists that in the area in which the Smiths were located there could be some unsolved murders or cases of missing persons which would correlate with the murder of Laban with the additional motive of robbery. Has any such investigation or research been undertaken?

  13. JA says:

    Not only the descendents of Lehi and Sarai, but the entire world was hanging in the balance as Nephi choose to act in faith and give heed to the directive from God to slay Laban. That Nephi’s obedience fell within the law of Moses makes sense but could not have been the weightier comfort to Nephi. The Lord gave Laban opportunities to yield the sacred record he required. Laban rejected the Lord’s offers and stood between the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the Gospel, the rolling forth of the Kingdom of God on earth, and eternal destinies. There is a yet untold story between God and Laban that culminated in that moment as well. Nephi’s weightier comfort had to have come from his trust in God and not leaning to his own understanding. We can have that as well.

  14. Paprika says:

    All we have is the alleged murderer’s account of what happened.

  15. Ssev Dor says:

    This is a scary confirmation that Latter-day Saints and their leaders are prepared to murder, if they believe that their God has told them to do so; for Mormons justify such murder, even after the law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ, using a horrendous interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount to justify a Mormon murdering a defenseless man who, before being found guilty in a court of law, is condemned by a voice in the head of the Mormon, interpreted as the “Holy Ghost,” that the man can be dealt the same justice by the Mormon that the man allegedly dealt to another (murder).

    Mormon leader Jeffrey R. Holland once quoted Joseph Smith as saying, “Whatever God requires is right . . . [and I would add, even if experienced as the “Holy Ghost” in the head of a Mormon].”

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