1 Nephi Chapter 4
1 Nephi 4:13 It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.
1 And it came to pass that I spake unto my brethren, saying: Let us go up again unto Jerusalem, and let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?
verse 1 Hugh Nibley has suggested that Laban was likely a high-ranking military commander in Jerusalem. The phrase "Laban and his fifty" might well have referred to a fifty-man permanent garrison in Jerusalem which Laban commanded. He also might well have commanded "tens of thousands" when he was in the field of battle (Lehi in the Desert, 97-98).
2 Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea.
verse 2 Nephi is trying to encourage his older brothers. Notice what analogy he uses-that of Moses's miraculous leading of the Israelites through the Red Sea on dry ground. In Hebrew history and culture, the story of the Israelite's exodus from Egypt and of Moses's parting the Red Sea stood at the very center. All of the Old Testament prophets utilized this story as the most important sign that God had truly called the Israelites to be his elect people. Nephi's use of this story to try to convince his brothers is thus perfectly appropriate. Lehi's family was reared in a culture where the mighty acts of God in the exodus were commemorated not only in frequent retellings of the story but in ritual form at Passover.
Also, these verses confirm the literal veracity of the Red Sea story, since they serve as an independent scriptural witness. Most sectarian scholars today would doubt the miraculous literalness and historicity of the story. The story of the Egyptian exodus is mentioned thirteen additional times in the Book of Mormon (e.g., 1 Nephi 17:23-27, Mosiah 7:19, Alma 36:28, and Helaman 8:11). It served as an important motif in Nephi's time, and we might well have expected him to use it in his writings. We should even be surprised if he did not use it! In very Hebraic fashion, the Nephites knew that one of their primary responsibilities before God was to "remember," to never forget his glorious and mighty acts on their behalf. It is natural that they should think of their deliverance from doomed Jerusalem as a second exodus, although it is sadly ironic that Jerusalem, the promised land the Israelites had struggled so hard to obtain, had become at the time of Lehi analogous to the land of Egypt at the time of the Exodus.
As the story of Lehi's exodus from Jerusalem develops, we may notice that there are several parallels with the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. These include:
1. The Lord guided both groups in the wilderness (1 Nephi 16:10; 1 Nephi 16:17:13). In both cases, he utilized visionary prophets under whose leadership people left lands that were under divine condemnation and journeyed to lands of "promise."
2. Both groups were miraculously provided food or manna (1 Nephi 16:23; 1 Nephi 16:31).
3. Both were led to a promised land.
4. Both groups carried with them sacred scripture-the Israelites had Moses's Pentateuch, and Lehi's family will acquire the plates of brass.
5. Laman and Lemuel were fickle in observing the counsel of their inspired leaders just as were the recalcitrant Israelites. In both accounts, rebellious members of the group "murmured" because of their hunger, lamented being taken from their previous home to perish in the wilderness, declared that they would rather have died than to have embarked on their present journey, and expressed a desire to return, instead, to the oppressive or dangerous lands from which God had delivered them.
6. Both Lehi (and Nephi) and Moses were instructed on a mountain (1 Nephi 16:30; 1 Nephi 17:7; 1 Nephi 17:18:3).
7. Moses built a tabernacle with divine instruction and Nephi built a ship and a temple, also with divine help (1 Nephi 17:8; 1 Nephi 18:2; 2 Nephi 5:16).
8. In both, a metallic object (the Liahona for the Lehites, the brazen serpent for the Israelites) played a major role, and we are told that to "look" upon it in a proper attitude was to "live."
9. In both accounts, the group's rebellious members drew divine wrath down upon themselves and their fellows when they engaged in wild and inappropriate partying, forgetting the Lord who had delivered them (see Terrence L. Szink, "Nephi and the Exodus," in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. Sorenson and Thorne, 38-51).
Brother Szink concluded: Such a large body of parallels cannot be accounted for by coincidence. This particular verse (see also 1 Nephi 17:23-44) suggests that Nephi purposefully wrote his account in a way that would reflect the Exodus. His intention was to prove that God loved and cared for the Nephites just as he did the children of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt."
3 Now behold ye know that this is true; and ye also know that an angel hath spoken unto you; wherefore can ye doubt? Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians.
verse 3 Nephi refers, of course, to the angel's rebuke of Laman and Lemuel in the previous chapter (1 Nephi 3:29-31).
It is interesting that Nephi already has the impression that Laban will have to be destroyed (killed) before the plates can be obtained.
4 Now when I had spoken these words, they were yet wroth, and did still continue to murmur; nevertheless they did follow me up until we came without the walls of Jerusalem.
verse 4 "they were yet wroth" Wroth means, of course, angry or incensed.
"without the walls of Jerusalem" Just outside Jerusalem's walls
5 And it was by night; and I caused that they should hide themselves without the walls. And after they had hid themselves, I, Nephi, crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban.
verses 6-18 These verses describe the slaying of Laban by Nephi. While this episode has generated considerable controversy, it is clear that Nephi was simply responding to the command of God communicated through the Spirit. Those who in their own lives are obedient to gospel principles and enjoy real communication with the Spirit have no trouble in accepting this fact.
The prophet Joseph Smith gave helpful counsel: "We cannot keep all the commandments of God without first knowing them; and we cannot expect to know all or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received. That which is wrong under one circumstance may be, and often is, right under another. God said, 'Thou shalt not kill.' At another time he said, 'Thou shall utterly destroy.' This is the principle upon 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 until long after the events transpire" (HC, 5:135).
Today we must not live polygamy. One hundred years ago, however, if a man was called to live the law of polygamy and he did not, he was not keeping all the commandments and honoring his priesthood. At one time in the world's history among the Lord's chosen people, a male child had to be circumcised. Today it is not required. At one time the Lord's people were not allowed to walk more than two thousand cubits on the Sabbath day. Today we sometimes have to walk farther than that just to get to the parking lot!
Some have become involved in lengthy logical arguments in order to defend Nephi for his slaying of Laban. For example the argument has been proffered that "the ends justify the means." Is this sound doctrine? Do favorable ends always justify the means used to attain them? In another place in the Book of Mormon, we are taught that it is better for a man to sacrifice his own life rather than to take the life of even his enemy (Alma 26:32). While in the case of Nephi and Laban the Lord knew that the ends justified the means, a favorable end does not always justify indiscriminate means. Nephi needs no defending by us or by anyone else. He simply did what God commanded him to do.
In commanding Nephi to kill Laban, the Lord was acting according to his own law-the law of retaliation. By this law the Lord destroys nations of the wicked (1 Nephi 17:37-38). Many examples are found in the scriptures: the Canaanites were driven and defeated by the Israelites under Joshua; the northern kingdom of Israel was captured by the Assyrians; and the southern kingdom of Judah will soon be destroyed by Babylon. Laban was wicked. He had offended the Lord three times (see verse 11). The spiritual welfare of a new nation about to be conceived was at stake. The Lord commanded that he be destroyed.
6 And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.
7 Nevertheless I went forth, and as I came near unto the house of Laban I beheld a man, and he had fallen to the earth before me, for he was drunken with wine.
8 And when I came to him I found that it was Laban.
9 And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.
verse 9 Did steel exist in Palestine in 600 BC? It did indeed! See the commentary for 1 Nephi 16:18.
It is interesting to compare Nephi's description of Laban's sword with a description of swords from the same period found in one of the Dead Sea scrolls: "The swords shall be of purified iron, refined in a crucible and whitened like a mirror, work of a skillful craftsman; and it will have shapes of an ear of wheat, of pure gold, encrusted in it on both sides. And it will have two straight channels right to the tip, two on each side. The length of the sword: one cubit and a half [two to two and one half feet]. And its width four fingers. . . . The hilt of the sword will be of select horn, craft work, with a pattern in many colors: gold, silver and precious stones." We are not told the length of Laban's sword. William J. Adams, in his discussion of an unusually long sword of the period found near Jericho suggested that Nephi would have had an easier time decapitating Laban with his sword if it were longer than the usual short swords known from the ancient Near East (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, volume 6, number 1, 73- 75).
10 And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.
verse 10 Nephi was constrained by the Spirit. This means that he was powerfully urged; compelled. To "shed the blood of man," of course, is to take his life.
"I shrunk and would that I might not slay him" Nephi obviously hesitated to kill Laban. It is interesting to note that we have evidence that Moses was similarly hesitant when constrained to kill the Egyptian overseer who had abused the Hebrew slave (see the discussion for verse 13).
11 And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property.
12 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands;
verse 12 "the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him" It would seem that the Spirit is impatient with Nephi's reluctance, and he demands outright, "Slay him."
13 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.
verse 13 Compare this verse with Alma's warning to Korihor given 500 years later: "Behold, it is better that thy soul should be lost than that thou shouldst be the means of bringing many souls down to destruction" (Alma 30:47).
The principle of sacrificing one for the good of all, of course, runs sharply contrary to American jurisprudence. But there is a suggestion in the scriptures that this principle is found in Hebrew tradition. In John 11:50 Caiaphas says, "It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not." In a recent article, David Aus demonstrated that this principle prevailed in certain cases under biblical law around 600 BC ("The Death of One for All in John 11:45-54 in Light of Judaic Traditions" in Barabbas and Esther and Other Studies in the Judaic Illumination of Earliest Christianity [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992], 29-63). A pivotal precedent was found by the ancients in 2 Samuel 20. It recounts how King David had sought the life of Sheba, a rebel guilty of treason. When Sheba took refuge in the city of Abel, Joab, the leader of David's army, demanded that Sheba be released to him or he would destroy the city. The people of Abel beheaded Sheba instead, and Joab retreated. This episode became an important legal precedent justifying the killing of one person in order to preserve an entire group. Even more striking is another Old Testament case, one preserved more fully only in oral Jewish traditions, involved Jehoiakim, the king of Judah. He rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar at the very time of Lehi and Nephi. In response, Nebuchadnezzar went to Antioch and demanded that the great Jewish council surrender Jehoiakim or the nation would be destroyed. Jehoiakim protested, "Can ye sacrifice one life for another?" Unmoved, the council replied, "Thus did your ancestors do to Sheba the son of Bichri." Based on this legal ruling, Jehoiakim was released to Nebuchadnezzar, who took him to Babylon (see 2 Chronicles 36:6) where presumably he was executed. Zedekiah became king less than four months later. At the time the Book of Mormon account begins (see 1 Nephi 1:4), Nephi was probably keenly aware of how the "one for many" principle was used to justify Jehoiakim's death. Clearly, the cases of Laban and Korihor fit within this tradition.
John W. Welch has compared Nephi's killing of Laban with Moses's slaying of the Egyptian who had stricken a Hebrew slave (see John W. Welch, "Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 : 119-41; John W. Welch and Heidi Harkness Parker, "Better Than One Man Perish," FARMS Update, Insights [June 1998]: 2; reprinted in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, ed. Welch and Thorne, 17-19; and in Fred Essig and Dan Fuller's, "Nephi's Slaying of Laban: A Legal Perspective" [Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1981).
As noted above, there is evidence that Moses, like Nephi, was hesitant to kill the Egyptian overseer when constrained to do so by the Spirit until he had a divine revelation on the matter. According to 'Abot de Rabbi Nathan 20, thought to have been written in the second century AD but not available in English until the twentieth century, Moses summoned a court of ministering angels and asked them if he should kill the Egyptian, to which the angels responded, "Kill him." The same story is told in Midrash Rabbah Exodus 1:29, which adds that, before calling on the angels for counsel, Moses perceived that no righteous persons would descend from the Egyptian man (also mentioned in Zohar Exodus 12b). A similar story is found in an early Jewish text, Tosephta-Targum (V. 1) 2 on 1 Samuel 17:43, which says that just before he slew Goliath, David "lifted up his eyes to heaven and saw angels deliberating on Goliath the Philistine."
14 And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.
verse 14 This is the first mention in the Book of Mormon text of a promise or covenant of the Lord which will be repeated many times. It is part of the so-called "promise-curse" of the Book of Mormon: "Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land. . . . And again it is said that: Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord" (Alma 9:13). This covenant is fundamental to the relationship between God and the Book of Mormon peoples and will be discussed further in this commentary (see the commentary for 2 Nephi 1:20 and the introductory commentary for Alma 43).
15 Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law.
verse 15 We will read often in the Book of Mormon text that the righteous peoples in the book believed in and observed the "law"-the law of Moses. They could not have kept the law "save they should have the law" with them as recorded in the scriptural record.
There is a conspicuous paucity of information about the law of Moses and the people's living of it in the Book of Mormon. It has been suggested that the editor Mormon himself is responsible for this, since he was a Christian and was little interested in the ancient ways after they were fulfilled by Christ's atonement and ministry.
16 And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass.
17 And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause-that I might obtain the records according to his commandments.
18 Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.
19 And after I had smitten off his head with his own sword, I took the garments of Laban and put them upon mine own body; yea, even every whit; and I did gird on his armor about my loins.
verse 19 As to the question of Nephi's justification in killing Laban, I frankly have grown a bit weary of all of the complex legalistic explanations and paradigms that have been proffered to try to justify Nephi's act. For me, the essence of the explanation is that the Lord can, and does, terminate a mortal life if and when he chooses in order to accomplish his purposes. Nephi was simply his agent. There are plenty of instances-already mentioned above-of the Lord's "allowing" (even decreeing) the punishment and death of people because of their apostasy-the Israelites and the Canaanites, the Assyrians and the northern ten tribes, the Babylonians and the Jews, etc.
One author (Ben McGuire, "Nephi & Goliath" in Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, volume 18, number 1, 2009, 16-31) has seen a parallel between the accounts of Nephi's killing Laban and of David's slaying of Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Brother McGuire defends the idea that Nephi himself was aware of this parallel as he wrote his account. Brother McGuire has proposed that recognition of this parallel helps us today to better appreciate the necessity and the high and noble purpose behind Nephi's taking the life of Laban. Both accounts make the elimination of the antagonist a necessary and a noble action. David's killing of Goliath saved Israel, and Nephi's beheading of Laban rescued the future descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples from spiritual ignorance and inevitable spiritual deterioration.
20 And after I had done this, I went forth unto the treasury of Laban. And as I went forth towards the treasury of Laban, behold, I saw the servant of Laban who had the keys of the treasury. And I commanded him in the voice of Laban, that he should go with me into the treasury.
verse 20 It seems likely that Nephi may have had some divine assistance which enabled him to speak with the "voice of Laban."
21 And he supposed me to be his master, Laban, for he beheld the garments and also the sword girded about my loins.
22 And he spake unto me concerning the elders of the Jews, he knowing that his master, Laban, had been out by night among them.
verse 22 The "elders of the Jews" (see also verse 27) likely refers to those entrusted with governmental affairs among the Jews rather than to a priesthood office (cf. Matthew 15:2; Acts 4:5; Acts 25:15).
23 And I spake unto him as if it had been Laban.
24 And I also spake unto him that I should carry the engravings, which were upon the plates of brass, to my elder brethren, who were without the walls.
verses 24 Notice in this verse how young Nephi almost blows his cover when he slips and says he is going to carry the plates of brass "to my elder brethren, who were without the walls." He must have held his breath when he realized his mistake. Fortunately, as we learn in verse 26, Zoram thought he was speaking of "the brethren of the church."
25 And I also bade him that he should follow me.
26 And he, supposing that I spake of the brethren of the church, and that I was truly that Laban whom I had slain, wherefore he did follow me.
27 And he spake unto me many times concerning the elders of the Jews, as I went forth unto my brethren, who were without the walls.
verses 26-27 "the elders of the Jews" See the commentary for verse 22.
"the brethren of the church" Who are these "brethren of the church"? Was there a church in 600 BC? There has usually been a church, in some form, whenever the priesthood has been on the earth. The organizations have varied according to the circumstances, but there has always been a "kingdom of God" on the earth in every dispensation. And it has always been called a church. There was a church in Isaiah's day, and in David's day. And in each time period, the church has had a government.
In 600 BC Laban belonged to the church. What was Lehi's status in the church? He had left the church. Isaiah left the church in his day, and Amos and Hosea and many of the prophets left the church in their day. The churches had apostatized, but the church structure continued. It continued right on until even the time of Christ. Therefore at the time of Lehi there was a church organization.
28 And it came to pass that when Laman saw me he was exceedingly frightened, and also Lemuel and Sam. And they fled from before my presence; for they supposed it was Laban, and that he had slain me and had sought to take away their lives also.
29 And it came to pass that I called after them, and they did hear me; wherefore they did cease to flee from my presence.
30 And it came to pass that when the servant of Laban beheld my brethren he began to tremble, and was about to flee from before me and return to the city of Jerusalem.
31 And now I, Nephi, being a man large in stature, and also having received much strength of the Lord, therefore I did seize upon the servant of Laban, and held him, that he should not flee.
verse 31 "I, Nephi, being a man large in stature" It would seem that Nephi's experience with Laban was a defining moment that marked the transition between his childhood and manhood. In 1 Nephi 2:16, we read that Nephi was "exceedingly young," but now he defines himself as "being a man large in stature."
32 And it came to pass that I spake with him, that if he would hearken unto my words, as the Lord liveth, and as I live, even so that if he would hearken unto our words, we would spare his life.
33 And I spake unto him, even with an oath, that he need not fear; that he should be a free man like unto us if he would go down in the wilderness with us.
verses 32-33 "as the Lord liveth and as I live" Again, Nephi is taking an oath! The taking of an oath was regarded so seriously that Nephi knew that Zoram would take comfort from Nephi's swearing that he would not harm him. The oath was an important part of the cult life of the Hebrew community. Perjury and the violation of an oath were serious matters, which could not go unpunished. Oaths were validated by the invocation of the Lord, the God of heaven and earth. Oath taking was often accompanied by symbolic acts. The gesture of the oath was to raise the hand toward heaven. The later Jewish custom of taking hold of the scriptures or phylacteries in a judicial oath furnished the model for the present-day procedure of swearing on the Bible (see also the note on oath taking in the commentary for 1 Nephi 3:15).
Zoram did indeed take courage because he knew that the oath was binding upon Nephi. In Nephi's day, if you performed an oath, you meant what you said! If a person took an oath, especially if he swore before God and pledged his life, everyone knew that his word was binding. Zoram also made an oath (see verse 37). Could Joseph Smith have known the extent to which oaths were used in Old Testament times? If he wrote the book himself, as some critics claim, wasn't he clever to include oath-taking in the Book of Mormon story?
In commenting on the nearly miraculous effect Nephi's oath had on Zoram, Hugh Nibley wrote:
What astonishes the western reader is the miraculous effect of Nephi's oath on Zoram, who upon hearing a few conventional words promptly becomes tractable, while as for the brothers, as soon as Zoram "made an oath unto us that he would tarry with us from that time forth . . . our fears did cease concerning him" (1 Nephi 4:35; 1 Nephi 4:37).
The reactions of both parties make sense when one realizes that the oath is the one thing that is most sacred and inviolable among the desert people and their descendants: "Hardly will an Arab break this oath, even if his life be in jeopardy," for "there is nothing stronger, and nothing more sacred than the oath among the nomads," and even the city Arabs, if it be exacted under special conditions. "The taking of an oath is a holy thing with the Bedouins," says one authority. "Wo to him who swears falsely; his social standing will be damaged and his reputation ruined. No one will receive his testimony, even if it is true, and he must also pay a money fine."
But not every oath will do. To be most binding and solemn an oath should be by the life of something, even if it be but a blade of grass. The only oath more awful than that "by my life" or (less commonly) "by the life of my head" is the wa hayat Allah, "by the life of God" or "as the Lord liveth," the exact Arabic equivalent of the ancient Hebrew hai Elohim. Today it is glibly employed by the city riffraff, but anciently it was an awful thing, as it still is among the desert people. "I confirmed my answer in the Bedouin wise," says Doughty. "By his life . . . he said, . . . 'Well, swear by the life of Ullah' (God)! . . . I answered . . . and thus even the nomads use, in a greater occasion, but they say, by the life of thee, in a little matter." Among both Arabs and Jews, says Rosenblatt, "an oath without God's name is no oath," while "in both Jewish and Mohammedan sources oaths by 'the life of God' are frequent."
So we see that the only way that Nephi could possibly have pacified the struggling Zoram in an instant was to utter the one oath that no man would dream of breaking, the most solemn of all oaths to the Semite: "As the Lord liveth, and as I live" (1 Nephi 4:32) (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, volume 6, part 4, 128-29).
34 And I also spake unto him, saying: Surely the Lord hath commanded us to do this thing; and shall we not be diligent in keeping the commandments of the Lord? Therefore, if thou wilt go down into the wilderness to my father thou shalt have place with us.
35 And it came to pass that Zoram did take courage at the words which I spake. Now Zoram was the name of the servant; and he promised that he would go down into the wilderness unto our father. Yea, and he also made an oath unto us that he would tarry with us from that time forth.
36 Now we were desirous that he should tarry with us for this cause, that the Jews might not know concerning our flight into the wilderness, lest they should pursue us and destroy us.
37 And it came to pass that when Zoram had made an oath unto us, our fears did cease concerning him.
38 And it came to pass that we took the plates of brass and the servant of Laban, and departed into the wilderness, and journeyed unto the tent of our father.