Why Did Nephi Have to Kill Laban?

Painting of Nephi and Laban before Nephi killed Laban

Every time I start reading the Book of Mormon, I reach 1 Nephi 4 with the story of Nephi and Laban and I struggle with the same question, “Why did Nephi have to kill Laban?”

Nephi returns a third time to Laban’s house trusting the Lord to open a way to fulfill His mission. He finds Laban in a drunken stupor and is commanded to cut off his head with his own sword. He then finds Laban’s servant, retrieves the records and carries them to his brothers outside the city. When Zoram tries to flee back to his servitude, Nephi offers him freedom and a place with his father.

Laban was already drunk and unconscious. Why did Nephi have to kill him to accomplish his mission?

Rereading this story recently, I finally realized that perhaps Nephi included this event in such detail to answer even more important questions, eternal questions. How are we freed from Satan’s power? What is our relationship to Jesus Christ? How do we gain eternal life?

It is much more than an historical account; it is also an allegory—a symbolic story featuring the following characters:

  • Nephi, representing Jesus Christ
  • Laban, representing Satan
  • Zoram, representing each of us

So why did Nephi have to kill Laban? I still don’t have a complete answer to that question, but that is not the essential question. With a shift of focus I have discovered a few answers to a question that really matters: What does this story teach me about the Savior?

Destroying the Enemy

Just as I don’t completely understand why Nephi killed Laban, I can never fully comprehend how the Savior fulfilled His Atonement or how he overcame Satan.  but what is important is that I know He did.

Jesus did not and will not run away from Satan or simply sneak around him. He will destroy him.

Laban has power to bruise Nephi’s heel (steal his riches and try to kill him), but Nephi ultimately crushes his head (or cuts off his head).

Satan had power to bruise Christ’s heel by stirring up wicked men to crucify him, but through that same act the Atonement crushes Satan’s head by conquering both sin and death, the only real weapons he ever had.

Nephi’s story reminds us of Christ’s absolute power and absolute victory.

Freeing the Servant

Nephi does not just take the plates and leave, he invites Zoram to come with him outside the wicked city, outside the boundaries of his servitude. Then Nephi makes a covenant with Zoram which offers him both freedom and a family—Nephi’s own family.

Although Zoram was one of the most trusted servants of the enemy, Nephi fully accepts him and offers him everything he has.

Likewise, Jesus Christ asks us to leave our own wicked Jerusalem behind. And if we are willing to do so, He extends covenants that will make us forever free.

No matter how trapped we are in the enemy’s enslavement, Jesus cuts our bonds from Satan’s power and offers us an eternal place in His family.

Traveling to the Promised Land

Zoram  is not merely left as a free man outside the walls of Jerusalem, nor is he sent to find his own way to the promised land. Nephi travels every step with him, offering protection, direction and the vehicle necessary to safely cross the stormy sea.

Jesus did not just show us the path to eternal life, He journeys with us. He is our guide and our refuge as we cross our wilderness and our stormy seas to the promised land. He is the way, the vehicle to carry us safely home, and He travels every step of the way with us.

Sharing the Inheritance

When Nephi offered Zoram a place with his father, he was also offering to share his inheritance. Zoram did not come as a servant; he came as a brother. He came as an equal.

When Jesus frees us from our servitude, He does so with the promise to share all that He has and is. He offers Himself as our brother, and His whole desire is to transform us to be like Him.

Obeying Perfectly and Opening the Way

More than death, this story is about the need to perfectly obey and open the way to eternal life, no matter the cost.

The Spirit commanded Nephi to kill Laban, something he did not want to do and did not know if he had the courage to do. He shrunk, he tried to find another way, but ultimately he knew he must obey.

Prophets in the Book of Mormon repeatedly wrote of the necessity of the scriptures in remembering the covenants and thus walking the path of eternal life. By obtaining the plates, Nephi allowed his people the opportunity to gain eternal life.

To an infinitely greater degree, Jesus’ Atonement allows us to make those covenants and institutes the path to exaltation. He too shrank and begged for another way to accomplish His mission, but ultimately He knew there was no other way. And so He conquered, no matter the cost. And oh, what an awful cost.

But despite the cost, He did not shrink, He did not sneak around, and He did not run away. He overcame perfectly and offers us an equal share in His perfection.

laban pinterest

 

Lisa believes in seeking after everything in life that is virtuous, lovely or of good report. She loves volunteering, participating in community groups, traveling, reading, trying new foods, and being outside. She is a former high school math teacher, but worked in the history, religion and political science departments while earning her degree and later took to writing and editing. She also studied in Hawaii, Paris and Jerusalem before she met her husband in a skiing class. They now live in Minnesota with their three awesome kids. Lisa believes that true joy comes from loving life and living loved—by Christ, yourself and others.
  • Jeremy P

    Very cool to see your article here, Lisa! I really like your analysis and think it is spot on.

    I also believe this story is in the BOM for all of us to give us insight into Nephi. It shows us that Nephi had to have complete trust in the Lord. He had to discern whether this was indeed the Holy Ghost speaking to him, or some other spirit, or even just his own thoughts. Just as Abraham (in his great trial) needed to learn something about Abraham, Nephi, in this instance needed to learn something about Nephi.

    It shows us that even at a young age he was so “experienced” in regards to listening to the Spirit that he was able to discern correctly, and be obedient even though it was something undoubtedly difficult for him to go through with, and that he initially “shrunk” from. It says in vs 6 that he was “LED by the Spirit not knowing beforehand what he should do”, but nevertheless he KNEW he was being led by the Spirit. Then in vs 18 it states: “Therefore I did OBEY the voice of the Spirit”.

    It is to show all of us that read this story in our day, that we too must get to a point that we are so experienced in being “led” by the spirit that we will know when we are being directed by him. And just as importantly that we are willing to be obedient at all costs.

    “I made this my rule, when the Lord commands, DO IT!” – Joseph Smith

  • leilani natale

    I have still not understood this part of the Book of Mormon. I have pray d about it and still did not get an answer to my understanding. Yet I questioned why cut his head off first the removal his coat and garments, would they not get blood all over them and also Nephi?
    Though I trust the Lord for the answers, I have been given answers that maybe I might have to wait and ask the Lord in a different demention of my life.

  • I think it’s clear that Laban’s theft of property and attempted murder made Nephi’s self-defense legal under the laws of the day.

    However, the question is why Nephi had to kill Laban. First, the Lord delivered Laban into his hands for that very purpose — without violating Laban’s agency. Second, Nephi needed to obtain the plates of brass without interference from a revived Laban — for which he needed all of Laban’s accouterments (clothes, keys, sword — the only fine steel sword in the BoM, so unique it was worth putting in the same stone box as the plates)! Third, Laban’s death legally freed Zoram from bondage and allowed his entire posterity to receive the gospel and inheritance. Fourth, it established the worth of the scriptures in Nephi’s mind. Nephi would be required to battle his brother’s armies again in the future. Fifth, it’s likely that Lehi was in Laban’s family. Laban was the heir who had the right to the plates of brass. It’s possible that Laban’s death left Lehi as the heir. Remember that Laban was at least will to sit with Laman to discuss the plates — probably not something he would have done with just anyone. This is possibly a Jacob/Esau birthright issue; Laban, through treachery, forfeited his birthright just as Laman forfeited his. Sixth, the Lord commanded Nephi because Laban would eventually cause a generation to perish in disbelief — and this was Nephi’s only way to save that generation.

  • Mike

    Thank you for your thoughts. I too have seen this story symbolically only one step closer than your comparison between Nephi as the Lord and Laban as a type of Satan.
    In 1 Nephi 2: 16-19 we learn of Nephi’s spiritual rebirth. Then the story of obtaining God’s word (the brass plates) is told. Each of us has a similar task symbolically to Nephi, we being led by the spirit not knowing before hand what we should do, must slay our Laban who is a type of our natural man lusting after the things of this world. Only then can we benefit from posessing and obtaining God’s word. Thanks again for your insigjts!

  • Corby J. Petersen

    i think that the preoccupation with the legality or morality of Nephi slaying Laban distracts us from other questions. One, why does the Lord want us to know this? If Laban needed to die the Lord could have taken care of it. For some reason the Lord wanted Nephi to do it and he wanted all of us to question why. If God commanded it through the Spirit, there must be a reason.

    Here are my thoughts. Nephi was being tested to know that the Lord could command anything of him. He needed the point, at some must perish in order for a nation to be led to truth and correct belief. Scripture was a part of that and a sword and armor was another point. This will not be the last time Nephi is challenged to defend his people and lead them to correct belief. Throughout the Book of Mormon There is the contest and conflict of the believers and the non believers and the non believers seek dominion and killing to achieve that. Many righteous men we challenged with the same duty, just as Captain Moroni declared on his Title of Liberty. I think the Lord was testing Nephi and teaching him, what was to become necessary. Ultimately we all have the same spiritual battles. We need to defend the faith and lead the believers to freedom and correct belief.

  • Dee

    (Nephi I 4:13) Laban threatens: “Behold thou art a robber and I will slay thee”…. Laban was the first to threaten Nephi “he” would kill him if he pursued the Brass Plates (the Old Testament). The Lord tells Nephi that his seed should prosper in the land if they would keep the commandments. (Nephi I 4:14-17). How could they do this unless they had the commandments.

    It is better that one man should perish, than that a whole nation should dwindle in unbelief.
    Without the records here to for, Judiasm posterity would not have these records of where these tribes came from.

    The Lord knew this was the one chance Nephi had to finally obtain the precious records. Laban would have had his spies follow Nephi and Zoram back to Lehi’s tent and the whole family. They would over power and steal back these records “the Old Testament (Brass Plates)” and put them in ‘the treasury’ and Nephi would lose the one opportunity of getting them. It was sooo important so that a whole nation would know from whence they come – The history of the House of David. We are talking about Lamanites; Hispanics, Latinos, American Indians. Remember, from the Lord’s prospective, he sees the beginning to the end.

  • Christine

    I am so grateful that you shared. I am new to the study of the book of Mormon,Truly helps me to better understand Thank you thank you . If there are other new insights from your studies , that are share I would truly love to read and study Love learning about the book of Mormon .
    Thank you again
    A friend
    Christine

  • Linda

    I agree with your ideas totally. Thanks for sharing them because this is a question I’ve had.

  • Keith

    The LORD gave Laban two chances to repent of his evil. I personally see no issue with Nephi killing him. He was a wicked thug that stole Lehi’s gold and silver, refused to let someone take sacred records and then tried to murder Lehi’s sons. The Spirit of the LORD told Nephi to do it.

  • Nephi did not commit the equivalent of a first-degree murder under the laws of his day
    Nephi’s action against Laban (found in 1 Nephi 4:5–18) certainly seems like a gruesome and extreme scenario. However, this is an example of the problem of cultural differences — modern readers raised in Western culture often fail to connect with Nephi’s time and place.
    Hugh Nibley recalled:
    When in 1946 this writer composed a little treatise called Lehi in the Desert from limited materials then available in Utah, he had never knowingly set eyes on a real Arab. Within the last five years Aneze tribesmen and citizens of Mecca, including even guides to the Holy Places, have been his students, in Provo, of all places, while Utah has suddenly been enriched with a magnificent Arabic library, thanks to the inspired efforts of Professor Aziz Atiya of the University of Utah. As if it were not enough for the mountain to come to Mohammed, those sons of the desert who came to Provo found themselves taking a required class in the Book of Mormon from [me]. Naturally [I] was more than curious to see how these young men would react to the Book of Mormon treatment of desert themes, and invited and even required them to report frankly on their impressions. To date, with only one exception, no fault has been found with Nephi on technical grounds. The one exception deserves the attention of all would-be critics of the Book of Mormon.

    It was in the first class ever held in “Book of Mormon for Near Eastern Students,” and the semester had barely begun when of course we ran smack into the story of how Nephi found Laban dead drunk in a dark alley and cut off his head — a grisly tale that upsets Nephi himself in telling it. As we rehearsed the somber episode, I could detect visible signs of annoyance among the Arab students — whispered remarks, head-shakings, and frowns of dissent. Finally, toward the end of the hour, a smart young man from Jordan could hold out no longer. “Mr. Nibley,” he said, plainly speaking for the others, “there is one thing wrong here. It doesn’t sound right. Why did this Nephi wait so long to cut off Laban’s head?” Since I had been expecting the routine protests of shock and disgust with which Western critics react to the Laban story, I was stunned by this surprise attack — stunned with a new insight into the Book of Mormon as a message from another age and another culture. [2]
    John Welch has also argued that Nephi’s action should be understood as protected manslaughter rather than criminal homicide. [3] The biblical law of murder, under which Nephi and Laban operated, demanded a higher level of premeditation and hostility than Nephi exhibited or modern law requires. Other factors within the Book of Mormon as well as in Moses’ killing of the Egyptian in Exodus 2 support his conclusion that Nephi did not commit the equivalent of a first-degree murder under the laws of his day

  • Patrick Norman

    Joseph Fielding Smith commented on this in one of his books. He noted that some people have accused Nephi of being a murderer. Joseph Fielding Smith refuted this by pointing out that Nephi did not try to hide his alleged “crime”. Nephi speaks about it plainly in the book of Mormon. God commanded him to do it. He didn’t want to do it. Laban had committed some serious crimes against him and in the end, Nephi obeyed God’s command. Murder is the taking of an innocent life and few murderers own up to it voluntarily. Typically they do everything they can do to hide it or cover up the crime somehow.

  • Nephi stated that Laban would be destroyed in 1 Nephi 4:3 as Egypt. He did not perceive that he would be the Red Sea.

  • Darrell Ackerman

    Nephi knew that the Lord was most likely going to destroy Laban. He likened Laban unto Egypt in 1 Nephi 4:3 where he proclaimed in sorts that their journey to the promised land was like the Exodus of the children of Israel. He did not perceive that he would be the Red Sea.

  • A Happy Hubby

    I am with the comment from Skeptic. I am glad this makes sense for some, but for me I am still left with why Laban have to be killed? Laban’s 2nd in command would be just as likely to pursue them after finding Laban decapitated.

  • Great article and wonderful insights!

    Law of false witness(es) in the Law of Moses was a capital offense. Laban falsely accused them of being “robbers” – Also robbers [Laban stole their property] are punished by death according to the Law of Moses. Deuteronomy 19:16-19

  • Mary

    I do agree with a lot of what was written in the article and comments. I think there was not one reason, but many. I always thought it was because it was imperative that no one knew where they had gone. Laban, at this point knew their story and would have gone after them regardless if they took the plates or not.

  • Skeptic

    Nephi wasn’t commanded to cut off Laban’s head. He was commanded to slay him. Nephi made the personal decision to cut off his head. This article still doesn’t answer the question why he needed to kill him. He could have easily taken the clothes and left him destitute. Picked up the plates and departed. What would Laban do at that point? sent troops to kill him? How would they even know where he went? What would stop Laban from getting reassigned by his higher ups. Laban wasn’t a king or the head of Jerusalem. The instant it was revealed Laban was outwitted because of his drunken stupor and he would have been reassigned or killed by his superiors. Sorry, the whole thing just doesn’t add up

  • Gini

    Many years ago I heard this 2nd hand story (another Mormon legend?). If my memory serves me correctly, a professor at BYU was teaching this story of Nephi to his class which included 2-3 non-member middle eastern students. He noticed they were discussing something between themselves and asked if they had any questions. Their response: What took him so long? In other words, why did he question what he needed to do? I look at the middle east now and see that this ancient custom of beheading is still around. It may not hold same meaning or feeling to those of that region as it does to us who are looking from the outside in.

  • micah Reynolds

    I think that the answer may be as simple as giving Nephi the greater claim to inheritance of the scriptures. His brothers tried and failed and he went alone and did something very difficult to acquire them.

  • micah Reynolds

    Having to actually kill Labon to get the scriptures gave Nephi a greater claim to the scriptures. His brothers had both failed so when he went and got them himself it gave him an even stronger claim then his fathers will for him to inherit them. That is the thought that I have had. Though I did enjoy your analogy.

  • Merrill Calrk

    Jack Welch, who runs FARMS at BYU wrote “Legal Persepctives on the Slaying of Laban,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1992), pp. 119-41. The article shows Nephi’s justification under Old Testament law to kill Laban.

  • Daniel Sorensen

    Thank you for your perspective it will work perfect for our lesson this week. I do need to make one comment though on language used and beg you to please remove.

    Here were you said “Laban has power to bruise Nephi’s heel (steal his riches and try to kill him), but Nephi ultimately crushes his head (or cuts off his head).” The quotation here should be from Moses 4:21. I know the language from Moses isn’t as strong: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed; and he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel”. But I know the wording you used isn’t ever used in any lds.org talk, lesson, or by any apostle. Please reserve this wording for the temple. Thank you for the consideration.

    • Ben

      The JST for Gen 3 says crush for bruise and the student manual for the OT says it like this: “The promise concerning the bruising of the heel and head means that while Satan (as the serpent) will bruise the heel of the Savior by leading men to crucify Him and seemingly destroy Him, in actuality that very act of Atonement will give Christ the power to overcome the power that Satan has over men and undo the effects of the Fall. Thus, the seed of the woman (Christ) shall crush the head of the serpent (Satan and his kingdom) with the very heel that was bruised (the atoning sacrifice).”
      https://www.lds.org/manual/old-testament-student-manual-genesis-2-samuel/genesis-3-the-fall?lang=eng

  • I agree with most of what has been said in this article and in the comments. let me add another perspective by considering the principle of agency. Our agency gives us a stewardship for our bodies and other material things which is everyone’s right. The corollary to this is that we don’t have a right to assault anyone or steal. While we are stewards, the actual owner is God; He owns our bodies and everything else connected with this earth. God has the right to decide who comes to the earth and when, and who leaves the earth and when. The Spirit has testified to me that the Book of Mormon is true, so I know that Nephi was telling the truth when he said the Spirit told him to kill Laban. As long as the boss is asking you to do something that he has a right to do, there is nothing wrong with carrying out that task even though you wouldn’t have that right on your own (despite what Jewish law might say).

    • December

      I completely agree with your comment. This explanation is usually what it comes down to for me, it’s God’s right to choose when as well as HOW a person enters and leaves this world. He could have had Laban have a heart attack, alcohol poisoning, an aneurysm, any kind of medical emergency, but He didn’t. He gave a command to Nephi to do it, so the “why” may be, in part, explained in the article’s premise, to teach us about Christ’s role in our lives. As the scriptures and prophets teach us about Christ in so many different ways.

  • Elena

    Wow! I never really thought of that, but I’m sure that if we really try we can find out why.

  • Dave

    Under Jewish law at that time, Nephi couldn’t be charged for the murder for several reasons. 1st, There had to be a witness. Without a witness, charges could not have been filed. 2nd, to bring charges, intent would have to be provable. Nephi brought no weapon with which to prove intent. 3rd, under strict Jewish law, Nephi had a right, & it can be argued even a duty, to kill Laban. As we know, Laban stole Lehi’s valuables, then sent his servants to hunt down & kill the brothers so they would not be able to accuse him of theft.
    For a more in depth analysis see: Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban by John W. Welch Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992), 119-41

  • William George Dunbar

    The answer is simple

    1 Nephi 3:7
    1 Nephi 4:13, 18

  • Antonht

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It really gave me a new perspective of the story. I actually were wondering also about this last Sunday.

  • james

    Really really enjoyed your interpretation of this story. Thank you for sharing it!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your interesting thoughts.

    I think this is both a simple and a complex case study.

    It’s simple because as another person has quoted Joseph Smith, whatever God tells you to do, that’s the right think to do.

    It’s complex because how do you know what God wants you to do. We have the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” I think it’s significant that Nephi put a lot of energy into deciding what to do. He repeatedly reasoned with the spirit, rather than just immediately doing something that was against the general commandment.

    An interesting related article:

    “What Should I Do If I Think I’ve Received Revelation Different from Apostles and Prophets?”
    http://blog.fairmormon.org/2016/01/11/what-should-i-do-if-i-think-ive-received-revelation-different-from-apostles-and-prophets/

  • Hlumela

    I appreciate your take on it. Thank you. I have been using the Book of Mormon student manual – this is what it says
    Nephi Commanded to Kill Laban
    •What justification is there for a righteous man like Nephi to take the life of another person? The Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44) taught that it is the Lord who sets the standard of right and wrong: “God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill;’ at another time He said ‘Thou shalt 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. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon: first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation” (History of the Church, 5:135).
    •Some people have incorrectly felt that the Spirit of the Lord has prompted them to do something contrary to what the Lord has already commanded, such as was the case with Nephi. Today we need not worry that the Lord might prompt us to do something that runs contrary to current commandments. President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) has taught us who the Lord will give such promptings to: “When there is to be anything different from that which the Lord has told us already, He will reveal it to His prophet and no one else” (Stand Ye in Holy Places [1974], 159).

  • Jonathan

    Very interesting parallels, thanks for sharing!

  • Angel

    It’s satire right?

  • Peter II

    Why Did Nephi Have to Kill Laban?
    I was asked this same question by my cousin’s non-member husband a couple of years ago. Because this was a stumbling block for him, I felt compelled to give it a lot of thought.
    The one challenge with Tim’s scenario above (about Laban possibly being close to regaining consciousness) is that God could have easily had Laban slip on a banana peel only to fatally hit his head on the way down (or some other cartoon-like event). He could have had Laban killed by thieves. Or even more easily than that, God could have caused him to have suffered a major aneurism just before Nephi’s arrival on the scene. In fact, that would have been the least disruptive of all events because nobody would have suspected a thing (except for a missing Zoram and the plates).
    My point is that God clearly believed that it was Nephi who had to be the one to Kill Laban. Why??? Apart from the possibility that it was symbolic as proposed by Ms. Teixeira (something I had never before considered), he’s my best thinking on the subject:
    Firstly, I think some of us Mormons extoll naivety and innocence a little too much. One of the necessary outcomes of mortal life is that we must experience opposition in all things. That’s why Joseph Smith was first given over to Satan at the commencement of the First Vision (either that or God was setting the precedence for Mormon-Standard Time : ). Moses too was able to witness both the darkness and the light (sorry for the Star Wars reference). Early church leaders/missionaries also had to confront evil shortly after their arrival in England before they experienced the glory and joy of their success.
    So, how does this apply to Nephi? I’m not sure how sheltered his life had been up until the time he killed Laban; but we know from the record that he was about to experience more than just a change of scenery in the years to come. He about to witness first-hand the wickedness, brutality and Machiavellianism of his older brothers. We later read in the 2nd Book of Nephi (5:34) that sometime after his arrival in the Americas, Nephi personally had to wield the sword against his brothers and their sons in order to protect his family. Can you imagine having to fight against your brothers and your nephews with a sword???
    I realize that my non-existent exposure to the brutalities of that era is far different from that of Nephi, but I still suspect he hadn’t experienced anything close to what lay ahead of him. Could it be that he HAD to go through the horrific and traumatic event of killing Laban so that he might be better prepared emotionally for what would be even more difficult times ahead… a future where he would need to once again raise the sword but this time against his own blood? For me, the answer to that question is “Yes.”

  • Tim

    As this subject will come up in my gospel doctrine class next week, I have given that some thought. We know that Heavenly Father knows all. Perhaps Laban was very near regaining consciousness and would have frustrated God’s plan. It may be so simple as is stated in the scripture: it is better that one man die rather than lose an entire nation. At any rate, without having a clear explanation, it likely isn’t important for us to know. The important key to remember is that any instruction given us through the Holy Ghost is proper and right, even if it isn’t congruent with what our mortal minds think. Obedience to God’s commands is always the best path. All that being said, I believe your shift in focus to that of eternal significance seems the correct way to deal with this question. The reasoning, I believe, will become clear to us at some time in the future.

    • Lisa your article was most objective. The bottom line is that Nephi was commanded to take Laban’s head–eventually doing so without further question. Nephi, representing the Lord, Laban representing Satan and Zoram representing all of us is absolutely right on.

      I’ m a very old Y grad and currently the Gospel Doctrine instructor.

      Dennis