The Book of Mormon begins immediately with the story of Lehi and his family. Lehi is commanded to prophesy to the people of Jerusalem of the pending destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Much like Jeremiah, Lehi stated in 1 Nephi 1:13 “Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations.” This language is impressively similar to Jeremiah 13:27 which states:
I have seen thine adulteries, and thy neighings, the lewdness of thy whoredom, and thine abominations on the hills in the fields. Woe unto thee, O Jerusalem! wilt thou not be made clean? when shall it once be?
Discovering that Jerusalem was a lost cause, Lehi gathers his family together and plans an escape out of Jerusalem. In chapter 2 it states that Lehi left Jerusalem and traveled near the Red Sea. It states in verse 6, “that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water.” This verse is a bit ambiguous as it could either mean that after he arrived at the Red Sea he traveled another 3 days before pitching his tent, or that it took three days to travel from Jerusalem to the Red Sea. What is potentially troubling about the latter is that the distance from Jerusalem to the Red Sea is just under 200 miles. Assuming a caravan of people this would take at least 2 weeks to complete this journey.
However, since the feasibility of traveling from Jerusalem to the nearest point of the Red Sea in only 3 days is nearly impossible, we will assume that Lehi’s party traveled 3 days after arriving at the borders of the Red Sea. Thus Lehi’s party probably traveled between 30 and 50 miles after arriving at the borders of the Red Sea. After completing this likely arduous journey, Lehi realizes that the family has forgotten the sacred texts of the prophets as recorded on Brass Plates. He sends his sons to retrieve them from a man named Laban, who was a “mighty man”, and who could “command fifty”.
Nephi boldly declares in verse 7 of Chapter 3 that he “will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for [he knew] that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way…” (Emphasis added.) So, much like Jacob in Genesis who must convince his father-in-law Laban to give him Rachel to wife, Nephi must convince this Laban to give him the Brass Plates.
After two initial attempts to retrieve the plates, Nephi returns alone, being “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do.” Nephi indicates that he traveled toward the house of Laban and upon arriving discovers a drunken man. The man was passed out and effectively helpless. Nephi is “constrained” by the spirit to murder Laban, in order to retrieve the plates. Nephi negotiates with the spirit until he comes to the conclusion that it’s “better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.”
Nephi recognizes the need to retrieve the brass plates in order to “keep the law of Moses”. At this point he “took Laban by the hair of the head, and [he] smote off his head with his own sword.”
This chapter in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4) leaves me with more questions than answers. Why would the Lord command a man to murder another in order to keep the law of Moses? Included in the Law of Moses are the 10 commandments, which includes “Thou shalt not kill“. The Hebrew word in Exodus 20:13 implies a violent unauthorized killing. Perhaps because Nephi was constrained by the Spirit, this violent killing became authorized. However, if the Lord gave a commandment–thou shalt not kill–why couldn’t He prepare a way to keep this commandment in conjunction with the commandment to retrieve the Brass Plates?
After Nephi kills Laban, he puts on his “garments” including his armor which he did “gird…about [his] loins.” How did he manage this effort with the amount of blood that likely spewed forth from Laban? The neck includes the carotid arteries which would have emitted a copious amount of blood and would have likely soiled all of Laban’s clothing. This situation becomes extremely impractical, compared with the alternative of simply taking his clothing and sword while he was passed out drunk. So why did the Lord command Nephi to murder Laban, if it was seemingly the least practical approach to handling the situation?
Finally, this story of slaying a helpless wicked man with his own weapon sounds very similar to the Apocryphal story in Judith 13. Is it possible that Joseph was familiar with this story?