If "a typological interpretation of Laban's slaying" is a bit wordy, forgive me. If that sounds dull, it's not!
How can we make sense of Nephi killing Laban in the Book of Mormon?
This may seem like a tall order, but take comfort in the fact that we can't do any worse than Elder Renlund did in the past General Conference when he said:
"Some might point out that Nephi violated a commandment when he slew Laban. However, this exception does not negate the rule — the rule that personal revelation will be in harmony with God’s commandments. No simple explanation of this episode is completely satisfactory, but let me highlight some aspects:
(1) The episode did not begin with Nephi asking if he could slay Laban.
[That's good I guess. So premediated murder is bad. Check.]
(2) It was not something he wanted to do.
[That's good I guess. So we should not want to kill people. Check.]
(3) Killing Laban was not for Nephi’s personal benefit but to provide scriptures to a future nation and a covenant people.
[That's good I guess. So we should only kill people for a higher, altruistic purpose. Check.]
(4) And Nephi was sure that it was revelation — in fact, in this case, it was a commandment from God."
Is it significant that the story of Nephi killing Laban is placed at the beginning of the Book of Mormon?
A reader can't get very far without encountering this befuddling episode. In some cases it poses a deterrent for them because it screams against our notions of right-and-wrong.
I mean, we shouldn't be killing people over a book, right?
Huh. Let's break it down: usually people approach the material from two different angles:
(1) Providing an apologetic for Nephi killing Laban based on Jewish law and custom, making Nephi's actions lawful and legally-justified (this includes writings by Jack Welch at BYU/FARMS); or
(2) Using the story as an example of following the Spirit vs. Letter of the law (as every missionary does at some point, *wink wink*).
I am not going to try to resolve the issues here by resorting to (1) or (2). I will leave that in the hands of those who have greater wisdom than me.
Instead, the purpose of this post is to share with you what the Spirit taught me last week when I asked the Lord for greater understanding about it.
The Small Plates
Why did Nephi place this story at the beginning of the small plates?
It is almost like this story was his "thesis statement" to introduce the remainder of his writings, which seem to primarily focus on latter-day eschatology using Isaiah to describe what he had been forbidden to write himself.
And because Nephi talked of, preached, rejoiced in and prophesied of Christ, I suspect we should look for some Christological meaning in this account as well.
And Nephi gave me, Jacob, a commandment that I should write upon these [small] plates a few things which I considered to be most precious.
I mean, as soon as Nephi is done giving us the Cliff Notes on his father Lehi in Chapter 1 and begins to discuss his own ministry, we spend two chapters right-out-of-the-gate on this story.
It shows Nephi must have considered it "most precious."
In fact, Nephi tells us that:
I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred.
(1 Nephi 19:6)
So . . . what are we missing about this account of Laban? What makes it "sacred?"
After Elder Renlund's talk, I went back to the drawing board, pondering what I should personally be gleaning from this story.
After all, we weren't there on the moonless night walking the streets of Jerusalem as Nephi "was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do" (1 Nephi 4:6).
Our necks weren't on the line.
And yet, this story is central to Nephi's record and so we must treat it seriously. I don't think Nephi would have included it on the plates if he didn't think it would be of great worth to us in the latter-days.
We have to ask ourselves, then, what possible relevance does Nephi killing Laban have for you and me?
What is a Typology?
A "typology" is set of symbols that have a particular interpretation.
One of the most famous typologies we have is the Book of Revelation by the apostle John, who used dragons and beasts and moons to illustrate truths symbolically (by the way, BYU Studies has published a free, modern translation of the Book of Revelation by Richard Draper and Michael Rhodes, which I thought was good). One typology all Latter-day Saints are familiar with is Lehi's Dream.
Using the elements contained in Lehi's vision, Nephi imbued a tree, a river, an iron rod, a great and spacious building, and so on, with special spiritual meanings.
If I may be so bold, I want to suggest that the story of Nephi slaying Laban was written in the same spirit, in the grand tradition of Isaiah (who Nephi admired as a star pupil), using events from his life to symbolize something much greater, and is a prelude to what follows in his record.
Because we're accustomed to reading the Book of Mormon as an historical, literal text (and nothing wrong with that) we sometimes miss the literary mechanisms they used to convey a subtler meaning.
But this was Nephi! While he did not teach his children after the manner of the Jews and chose to speak in plainness, I daresay a bit of his heritage poked through his writings.
(That's why it would be fun to sit down with a Rabbi and read Laban's story and ask the Rabbi what he "gets" from it. I'm sure he'd have insights that have escaped us.)
Laban, Laban, Laban
This story shows that the Lord withdraws His word from its so-called custodians when they do not honor it.
Think of John the Baptist who "wrested" the kingdom away from the Jews. He didn't overthrow them using military might but using the word of God (D&C 84:28).
And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries.
Here we see this process occur in real-time as Nephi removes the Brass Plates from the treasury.
To begin, let's highlight several of the attributes of Laban that Nephi painstakingly drew for us.
I want to emphasize that Laban is one of the most fleshed-out characters we get from Nephi's writings (I mean, Zoram is hardly a fly on the wallpaper in comparison; and Nephi doesn't even name his sisters!).
1. Lustful. "When Laban saw our property . . . he did lust after it (1 Nephi 3:25).
2. Powerful. "He thrust us out" (1 Nephi 3:25).
3. Commands other men. "Sent his servants to slay us" (1 Nephi 3:25).
4. Mighty. "Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty!" (1 Nephi 3:31).
5. Murderous. "Sent his servants to slay us" (1 Nephi 3:25).
6. Greedy. "Sent his servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property."
7. Asleep. "He had fallen to the earth" (1 Nephi 4:7).
8. Drunk. "He was drunken with wine" (1 Nephi 4:7).
9. Rich. "I drew his sword . . . and the hilt thereof was of pure gold" (1 Nephi 4:9).
10. Martial. "I did gird on his armor about my loinsl" (1 Nephi 4:19).
11. Thief. "He also had taken away our property" (1 Nephi 4:11).
12. Wicked. "The Lord slayeth the wicked" (1 Nephi 4:13).
13. Keeper of the Treasury. "I went forth unto the treasury of Laban" (1 Nephi 4:20).
14. A leader of the people. "He spake unto me concerning the elders of the Jews, he knowing that his master, Laban, had been out by night among them" (1 Nephi 4:22).
15. Steward of the Recorded Word of God (Brass Plates) (1 Nephi 4:24).
I think by now we're getting the drift. But if it wasn't clear, Nephi appears to be hitting us over the head with a hammer, spelling out for us the ways in which Laban is a type of the Great and Abominable Church, which he will fully flesh-out in Chapters 13 and 14.
Go back and compare the list to what we know about the Great and Abominable Church.
It checks every box.
Notice that Nephi does not battle Laban, who had "fallen to the earth." Just like the Great and Spacious Building, which will fall and "great shall be the fall thereof."
It doesn't fall because we bombed its foundation (it has none) or because we've launched missiles at it. The arm of flesh does not topple Babylon.
It falls because the Lord.
He is the living God, and an everlasting king: at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his indignation.
I think this shows that the Lord truly does fight our battles (D&C 98:37)! We don't "win" by being the strongest or most-skilled or well-armed, as if we were going to wrestle Bablyon to the carpet for three counts.
Our job is NOT to defeat Babylon (that's up to the Lord); our job is to call them out of Babylon, to flee it, before the buildings crumble and crush them.
We're weak and vulnerable, just like Nephi.
Imagine Nephi's adrenaline as he crept through the streets of Jerusalem, primed and ready for the worst . . .
. . . and then he stumbled upon his foe who was unconscious and unable to put up a fight.
There was no glory in it for Nephi, no sword play for him to prove his mettle.
Because the glory always was, and always will be, the Lord's.
Nephi, Nephi, Nephi
The characteristics Laban shares with the Great and Abominable Church include:
- Slays the saints
- Greedy and wealthy
- Lustful and desires harlots
- Steward of the Recorded Word of God (from which it removes many plain and precious parts)
- Binds the people into captivity and treats them like slaves
- Causes people to be put to sleep and to err, drunk on their own iniquity and abominations, following after the "whore of all the earth"
- Wages war against the saints of God
So what is Nephi telling us is the answer? What is he inviting us to do "between the lines" to defeat Babylon the Great?
Ah, this is where it gets interesting.
Reframing the Story
I have several connections and comparisons I want to draw, but they are crashing into each other at the intersection because I am not sure who has the right-of-way.
So, in no particular order:
1. The Sword of Laban.
First, what is so special about the Sword of Laban? What does it represent?
Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God . . . and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
(Ephesians 9:13, 17)
I think it's fascinating that Paul mentions all of this wonderful armour that is defensive . . . except this one thing.
Shoes, shields, helmets, and breastplates are great, sure (and I guess we could shield-bash our foe in battle), but we're given only one offensive weapon in our arsenal: a sword. The Word.
Nephi uses this weapon (the word) to overcome his foe, the thing standing between him and Brass Plates (which contain God's word).
Give heed unto my word, which is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, to the dividing asunder of both joints and marrow.
The way Christ "slays" His foes is not to draw blood from their veins, but to turn them from the error from their ways using His "two-edged" sword.
And remember what Nephi did with the sword afterwards? He fashioned other swords after it, just like we carry the same message as delivered by the Son.
2. The Brass Plates.
What does Nephi use the sword of Laban to obtain? The Brass Plates.
So . . . Nephi used the word to obtain . . . the word?
The iron rod, remember, was the word of God. And the rod led to the tree that symbolized the Word of God, Christ.
So . . . this is not new. it is sort of the same.
The Brass Plates contain the covenants of the Lord.
Perhaps John the Revelator can help us here. He explained in Revelation 19:15:
And out of his mouth proceedeth the word of God, and with it he will smite [like a sword smiting Laban, right?] the nations; and he will rule them [okay, how does God rule? Must be with an army and tanks, right?] with the word of his mouth.
(JST Revelation 19:15)
Nephi recovers two things from Laban: (1) the Brass Plates, and (2) Zoram.
Isn't it interesting how the word of God (the sword and Brass Plates) result in Zoram being liberated, who had been a slave?
The sword freed him from captivity just as the Christ's word frees us from the precepts of men and the foolish traditions of our fathers.
But the emancipation did not occur automatically. Zoram had to choose whether to return to Jerusalem or to accompany Nephi to the promised land (more on that in a minute).
4. Laban's Garments.
This part, where Nephi dons the clothing of a dead man, always made me a tad squeamish.
But look carefully at what he says:
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.
(1 Nephi 4:19)
I guess that means Nephi stripped Laban naked and wore his underwear?
In this moment I see Nephi as a shining type of Christ. Christ took upon Himself our bloody rags, clothed Himself in our shame, covered Himself in our sins "even every whit," and took upon Himself flesh (the seeds of a dead mankind) in order to bring us His word.
Nephi used the disguise to carry forth the word of God contained in the Brass Plates.
Christ made Himself of dust so He could deliver to us His word on earth.
A Word About the Headlock
I've always been a bit troubled by Nephi putting Zoram in a head lock to prevent him from escaping. It seemed a little "coercive" to me. As though Zoram made his choice under duress, with a gun to his head.
[Zoram] was about to flee from before me and return to the city of Jerusalem.
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.
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.
(1 Nephi 4:30-32)
Here's a different way to view this scene: Pretend Nephi is a type of Christ. We are like scattered sheep who are skittish and want to run wild. But the Shepherd envelopes us into His embrace and doesn't let us go.
He whispers into our ear an Oath:
If ye would hearken unto my words, as I live, even so I will spare your life.
In that spirit, consider these words as if the Lord were speaking to us in the Premortal World with his arms wrapped around us as "Zoram":
If thou wilt go down into the wilderness of my father thou shalt have a place with us.
And we did take courage at the words the Lord spake and promised we would go down into the wilderness unto our father.
(1 Nephi 4:34-35)
The Lore of the Sword of Laban
I almost forgot. I can't resist a final thought regarding the Sword of Laban. Brigham Young shared the following about the sword, discussing Oliver and Joseph going into a cave when the ground opened up:
"The sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: 'This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.'"