As I was watching a documentary about the journey of Lehi’s family across the desert wilderness, as recorded in First Nephi of the Book of Mormon, a thought came to me (not directly from that documentary by LDS scholars): the concept that Lehi may have had the legal right to the plates of brass that were possessed by Laban around 600 B.C.
We know that both Laban and Lehi were descendants of that Joseph who was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, known from Genesis; we also know that an important part of the record on the plates of brass was a genealogy of descendants of Joseph. Why assume that Laban had the legal right to the plates? We know from First Nephi that Laban was guilty of theft and attempted murder, so why assume he had honestly and legally obtained that record?
The Book of Mormon gives us few details, but careful consideration does suggest the possibility that Lehi’s family actually had the right to possess those records. Consider the following.
Lehi said, “go unto the house of Laban, and seek the records, and bring them down hither into the wilderness.” Notice he said nothing about buying the plates. It suggests he had the legal right to them, even though Laban had physical possession.
Notice also, from the first few chapters of First Nephi, how little faith Lehi’s oldest son, Laman, had in God. Yet what did Laman do when the lot fell on him to go to the house of Laban? He simply went to Laban and requested the plates of brass. Doesn’t that sound too far fetched, if Laban had legal ownership of that set of records? Surely Laman would not have asked for a gift like that, if Laban was the legal owner, but Laman would have taken some kind of payment to offer in exchange.
Soon after Laman’s request was refused, all four of the sons of Lehi tried a different approach:
And it came to pass that we went in unto Laban, and desired him that he would give unto us the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, for which we would give unto him our gold, and our silver, and all our precious things. [I Nephi 3:24]
Notice the absence of any word like buy and purchase. That kind of word is surely basic to many, if not all, languages. I suggest it is absent in the above passage because the gold and silver were offered as an inducement, not a purchase, for Lehi’s family already had the legal right to the plates of brass.
The foundational physical contest, early in the Book of Mormon, was not so much Nephi-versus-Laban but Lehi-versus-Laban, regarding who would obtain physical possession of those plates.
The word “buy” in Second Nephi
Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price. [2 Nephi 9:50, which quotes Isaiah 55:1]
We find the word buy in Second Nephi, why not in First Nephi? Most of the chapters of First Nephi deal with traveling through the wilderness, not with common human activities in communities like Jerusalem. It mentions hunting animals and bringing back game to feed the families who were camped in the wilderness, where buying and selling are uncommon. I suspect the reason the word buy is absent from the account of the four brothers with gold and silver is quite simple: It was an inducement to respect the rights of the legal owner rather than a purchase of the plates of brass.
I have noticed, on occasion, someone may become disturbed by reading about the bloody ending of Laban’s life; Nephi himself was disturbed by what he was commanded to do. . . . People in Jerusalem, at about 600 B.C., acted under the law of Moses, or they should have. Under that law, a citizen could indeed be justified in taking another person’s life, under certain specified conditions.
Nephi probably meant something like this: “I am now writing in the way that my father communicates, which includes the cultural perspectives and beliefs of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.”