Category Archives: First Nephi

Lehi-versus-Laban rather than Nephi-versus-Laban

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.

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Life and Law Early in the Book of Mormon

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.

Examining a Verse in First Nephi

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.”

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Walls of Jerusalem

While translating the Book of Mormon plates into English, Joseph Smith noticed the record mentioned the walls of Jerusalem. He asked his wife if Jerusalem had walls and Emma replied that they did. Perhaps the prophet had read these words in First Nephi 4:4:

. . . nevertheless they did follow me up until we came without the walls of Jerusalem.

The modern English usage of “without” usually relates to words like “absence” or “omission” or “avoidance.” But in earlier generations of English speakers, it was often used as the opposite of “within,” meaning “outside of.” This is the meaning of “without” in an LDS sacrament hymn:

 There is a green hill far away, Without a city wall.

This is also the meaning in First Nephi, for Jerusalem did indeed have walls.

Life and Law Early in The Book of Mormon

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. One new reader of the Book of Mormon said that it was not the most pleasant part of the book for her, meaning the middle of the fourth chapter of First Nephi. I daresay it was not intended to give anyone pleasure, in the usual read-for-enjoyment sense, but we need to learn what we can about the law that God gave to the ancient people of Israel and the consequences of rebelling against that law.

God’s Commandment to Nephi Compared With Modern Law

Why did the Lord command Nephi to kill Laban? Remember that we in countries like the United States live in a different kind of society, with police and justice systems that often work to curb crime and protect the innocent, regardless of exceptions. Jerusalem at the time that Lehi left the city to protect his life—that society differed greatly from how we are now organized. 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.

Look for Clues

Let’s approach this from a detective’s point of view; I think I know that approach better than I know details of ancient Israelite law. We could avoid speculation, if the Book of Mormon had given us many detailed reasons for the course that Nephi was commanded to take; but the fourth chapter of First Nephi gives us some reasoning that God gave to Nephi (at least in part) and it gives us clues.

We first need to remember the basic law about taking human life: Thou shalt not kill. That refers to murder, in the simplest sense as follows: the willful killing of another human when the one taking that life was not defending himself and the victim was not under a sentence of death. A soldier taking the life of an enemy soldier in battle is usually irrelevant, as is an executioner’s putting to death a person who has been sentenced for that punishment. Unpleasant we find all of the above, yet our feelings, appropriate as they may be for us to feel, are irrelevant to the justice and injustice of lawful and unlawful taking of human life, respectively.

We next need to see the ancient perspective. The law of Moses provided a way for a victim to respond when another person robbed and attempted to murder the innocent one. If that robber later turned up under conditions when the robbed one could take revenge, immediate death was the punishment for the one who had robbed and attempted murder. This appears to be precisely the case in which we find Nephi, as he stands over the drunken body of Laban on that night in Jerusalem many centuries ago.

Look at this clue: In the Book of Mormon, we read that the Holy Spirit said to Nephi, “Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.” That sounds to me like some reference to some law. Indeed, when we read of Nephi’s reluctance to kill Laban, we read nothing about that young man’s thoughts about any injustice or any breaking of any law regarding God’s commandment that Laban be killed. (Nephi was just repulsed by a messy job that resembled, on the surface, the vile murders that were surely taking place in Jerusalem at the time.) That’s another clue. No breaking of any commandment was involved.

I enjoyed reading the post written by Steven Reed two years ago (see “The Justified Slaying of Laban” link below), and I recommend it. Consider this:

Many people are familiar with the 10 Commandments, especially “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) or “murder” as it is more properly rendered. But most people, I think, are not quite up to speed on the entire law that the God gave the Israelites. Even though God commanded men not to kill, we must realize that He also commanded that certain acts were, in fact, worthy of execution.

I fully agree with Brother Reed on this matter. Indeed, Nephi was legally justified in taking the life of Laban. But what about legalities prior to that? Consider what happened when the four brothers attempted to buy the plates of brass. I suggest a different perspective on one point: When did Laban steal property from Nephi, Sam, Laman, and Lemuel, and what was stolen?

What Exactly was Stolen, Really?

Nephi and his brothers carried gold, silver, and other valuables into the house of Laban. Why? To exchange them for the plates of brass that contained the scriptures that God commanded they obtain. It appears to me that Laban’s taking possession of the gold and silver and other treasures was according to the general purpose of the brothers. In other words, that was not in itself a crime. But when Laban demanded that his servants kill those brothers, a serious crime was committed. In fact Laban’s crime of stealing the plates of brass and attempting to kill innocent men—that was a crime worthy of death.

Yes, I meant what I wrote. Laban stole the plates of brass, for those scriptures became the property of those brothers when Laban took possession of the gold, silver, and other valuables. Laban’s crimes at that point did not include stealing gold or silver: It was withholding those plates of brass from its rightful new owners and attempting to kill them without legal justification. That perspective explains the actions of Nephi after the death of Laban.

I realize that Nephi’s own words might suggest that gold and silver were stolen: “he also had taken away our property” (First Nephi 4:11). But even if Nephi himself believed that the riches they had taken to Laban were what were stolen, careful consideration of those details reveal otherwise, although it may appear to be a trivial technicality.

Why should we care about this technicality regarding an ancient transaction that went badly awry for those four brothers? It explains the words and actions of Nephi after he returned to Jerusalem.

Honesty in the Actions of Nephi

As I understand it, the law of Moses provided for the victim of stealing to recover four-fold of the value of that which was stolen. Nephi was entitled to four times the value of the brass plates when he took the clothing and armor from the body of Laban, yet there appears much more.

Nephi took over the authority of Laban as owner of the plates of brass and owner of the clothing and armor that he then wore. Then he met Zoram, who had been the servant of Laban. Why did Nephi act as he did with Zoram? Was that servant of God being dishonest, deceiving that servant? No, it appears that Nephi was in fact acting in honesty, albeit under limited conditions of the moment.

The four-fold compensation to which Nephi was entitled—that surely would have at least equaled the value of the clothing and armor that he then wore, but it could also have included the services of Zoram, at least for one hour. In other words, Nephi had acquired the legal ownership authority of Laban, at least regarding the plates of brass, clothing, armor, and services of Zoram.

How could Nephi communicate his authority to Zoram, under the limited conditions of the moment? How else could he act in truth and integrity except to speak with the voice of Laban? Any hint that he was the son of Lehi would have led Zoram to believe that the young man had no authority and had stolen the clothing and armor of Laban. Strange to tell, but if Nephi had immediately revealed his name and that he had killed Laban, Zoram would have been deceived into thinking that this young man had just committed murder.

In other words, Nephi appeared to have been perfectly honest in acting and speaking as he did. To explain why he was removing the plates from the treasury, Nephi then spoke the plain truth: He was taking them to his brothers, who were outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Remember that truthfulness and untruthfulness are not a matter of uttering true or false statements. The basis of honesty in truthfulness relates to leading a person into greater enlightenment. The only apparent course available to Nephi, on meeting Zoram, was to assert his legal authority, acting in the legal position that Laban had lost. In a sense, that young man who commanded Zoram to open the door to the treasury was legally the new Laban, albeit a much more worthy possessor of the plates of brass than the original Laban.

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Ten Commandments

Ten Commandments given to Moses by God

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The Justified Slaying of Laban

Key to understanding why Nephi was justified in slaying Laban is the understanding of the crimes that Laban himself committed in context of the law at the time.

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Examining a Verse in First Nephi

How far do we need to look into the first chapter of the first book of the Book of Mormon, to be able to learn something about the people who lived in 600 B.C. in Jerusalem? Consider verse two:

Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

That verse did not come from the imagination of an American farm boy in the early nineteenth century. Most farmers in the state of New York, in the 1820’s, were probably aware of the existence of languages other than English, even farmers who had never heard of German-speaking Americans in Pennsylvania. But this verse, the second verse in the Book of Mormon, has deeper meaning regarding the word “language.”

“The learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” refers (not to “record”) to “the language of my father.” The first use of the word “language” in this first does not have the same meaning as the second use. To better understand, let’s rewrite this verse:

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.

Farm boys in western New York state in the early nineteenth century—those boys were unaware that the Egyptian language was important in and around Jerusalem in 600 B.C., at least with Jews of the upper class. (Lehi’s family was well off financially.) Scholars now know about such things, but not farm boys of New York state two centuries ago.

Did Joseph Smith Write the Book of Mormon?

Are the language traits of the translators of the King James Bible to be found in that version of the Bible? Of course. . . .

Lehi’s Jerusalem in 600 B.C.

About the only language we will need to know to get around Jerusalem is Hebrew. . . .  it may help to know a little Egyptian, Aramaic, or Greek, probably in that order. Greek is not yet the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean, as it will become in about three hundred years, after the conquest of Alexander the Great, and as it will be during the days of Jesus. Aramaic, also in contrast to its role in the days of Jesus, is not [yet] spoken widely in this area [in and around Jerusalem] . . .

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Easter Messages in the Book of Mormon

For celebrating Easter, the Book of Mormon offers many verses  of enlightenment and inspiration on the great sacrifice of the Savior Jesus Christ and on his resurrection. Let’s now look at a few of those verses.

I Nephi 11:32-33

And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.

And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.

I Nephi 19:9

And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.

Mosiah 3:7-8

And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pains of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every poor, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.

And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.

And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name . . .

III Nephi 11:8 [in part] and 9-14

. . . and behold, they saw a Man descending out of heaven; and he was clothed in a white robe; and he came down and stood in the midst of them; and the eyes of the whole multitude were turned upon him, and they durst not open their mouths . . . for they thought it was an angel that had appeared unto them.

And it came to pass that he stretched forth his hand and spake unto the people, saying:

Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world.

And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning.

And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words the whole multitude fell to the earth; for they remembered that it had been prophesied among them that Christ should show himself unto them after his ascension into heaven.

And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto them saying:

Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.

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Origin of the Book of Mormon

Joseph Smith never said or implied, to my knowledge, that his own English had no influence on what words were used in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in the early nineteenth century. What version of English would God use, if his words needed to be understood by Americans in and around the state of New York, in the 1830′s? Would not words known to a farm boy like Joseph Smith suffice?

He is Risen

Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.