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.
1 Nephi 4:13
There’s lots that could be said about this chapter and Nephi’s killing of Laban. As Elder Holland has pointed out, the fact that this is so near the beginning of the Book of Mormon (as opposed to sandwiched somewhere between 2 Nephi’s Isaiah quotations) suggests that we’re meant to confront this issue early on. It should definitely shape how we read 1 Nephi 3:7 which Elder Holland suggests we sometimes recite all too “casually”.
But I find my mind caught on 1 Nephi 4:13, part of the Spirit’s explanation to Nephi. Because these words are very reminiscent of words found elsewhere:
And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,
Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.
While this is by no means an exact quotation, it’s close both in wording (“one man”, “perish”, “nation”) and similar in concept. Which may be a wee bit troubling when we know it’s Caiaphas saying this, about Jesus.
Some people might make a historical issue about this, but as we shall see in 1 Nephi 10 Lehi’s going to openly and explicitly quote someone hundreds of years in the future, God and the Spirit not being bound by such petty things as time. The who and about whom might be more troubling to us. Certainly Caiaphas’ example shows we should be extremely careful about such reasoning. But I do not think this close parallel is portraying Laban as Christ (considering the Book of Mormon’s high Christology – including its aim to convince not just that “Jesus is the Christ” but also that he is “the Eternal God”), or Nephi as Caiaphas.
However, when it comes to Caiaphas, what John says next is very interesting:
And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;
And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the bchildren of God that were scattered abroad.
John doesn’t treat Caiaphas words as invalid or merely his own words – John actually treats it as an actual and true prophecy. But while Caiaphas, by virtue of his office, could be the receptacle for such a prophecy, he also could not understand or intend their true meaning (presumably in part due to his wickedness, in contrast to the likes of John and Nephi), and so he conspired against the Christ. The words were true – it is Caiaphas’ intent and actions that are a different matter: “for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matthew 18:7).
And I was led by the spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.
I feel this line in verse 6 really deserves more attention. It sometimes seems that in our Church service that we feel very attached to goals and targets and plans, techniques borrowed from our other endeavours. We set numerical goals for things we have very little influence over, targets despite the counsel to avoid such things in works like Preach My Gospel and the earlier Missionary Guide, and complicated plans that may or may not actually get us where we want to go. Now there’s nothing wrong with plans per se: i think one can look at things like the creation and the plan of salvation, and see that God is very fond of them, and certainly when we have a task we should do what is in our power to try and carry them out. But I think we like to feel that we’re in control. We can rely too much on our own plans, believe too much is solely within our own power, and forget how much we don’t know, that God does (and I feel he likes to surprise us), and how much we rely on him. Nephi and his brothers came up with several plans to retrieve the plates, and they all failed. Now I don’t think they would have eventually succeeded had they not made that effort, but the fact also remains that their plans (which actually seem fairly reasonable, and aren’t over-complicated) did not succeed, and eventual success came down to this: Nephi having to rely on the inspiration of the spirit, having no idea of what was going to come next.
I think of many of the other great acts of service within the gospel, such as the missionary endeavours of the sons of Mosiah, and it’s likewise instructive: they didn’t have any overly elaborate plan, other than to preach the gospel, and they did not have any great numerical goals (“we supposed our joy would be full if perhaps we could be the means of saving some”, Alma 26:30). What they had was complete dedication, a willingness to serve without reservation and endure whatever trials they were called to suffer, and the companionship of the spirit to guide them. Likewise, while it’d probably be unwise to abandon any concept of plans, I feel many of us would benefit by realising that there will be times when we, too, will need to follow the guidance of the spirit, and do it without reservation, even though we don’t know where it’s going.
Of course, Nephi’s killing of Laban is the most noticeable feature of this chapter, as I noted when reading it and writing the original post. To elaborate on some of what I alluded to above, I’d come to feel that we have a tendency to quote 1 Nephi 3:7 a bit too easily, not paying attention to 1 Nephi 4 that follows it. I was gratified to learn that I wasn’t alone in these feelings, and that Elder Holland, as I linked to above, has spoken similarly that we quote that verse too casually. He speak’s of Christ’s introduction of himself to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 11, and particularly his statement in 3 Nephi 11:11 that:
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.
Christ thus emphasises his obedience to the Father, but such obedience is not easy or without price: it is “that bitter cup”, and he speaks of having “suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning”. Christ obeyed the Father completely, but we should not forget that such obedience was painful:
…which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might drink the bitter cup, and shrink
We are not called upon to atone for the sins of the world. But Christ does call us and states “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). The path of obedience is one of self-denial, of obedience despite pain and difficulty. Nephi’s statement in 1 Nephi 3:7 is true, but it does not mean that it is as easy as some of those who quote it (and perhaps as Nephi himself felt when first saying it) feel. And Nephi really learns that in 1 Nephi 4:
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.
And when I came to him I found that it was Laban.
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.
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.
(1 Nephi 4:7-10)
It’s interesting at first that Nephi seems to have little idea of what he’s about to be asked to do, so that his attention is first concentrated on admiring the craftsmanship of Laban’s blade. It is then that he first receives the instruction to kill Laban, one that Nephi is very reluctant to follow. Notice how similar the wording is here to Christ’s own feelings about the bitter cup: they “would that I might not” and both “shrink”/”shrunk”. And Nephi has been asked to do what many would see as a shocking thing: to kill, and not only to kill, but to kill a drunken, helpless human being in cold blood. Some have sought to claim that this was an act of self-defence under the Law of Moses, appealing to passages like Exodus 22:2-3, but that passage specifically addresses the matter of those slain while found breaking into people’s own homes at night. Laban may have previously threatened Nephi and his brothers’ lives, and he certainly stole their property, but he’s not presently breaking into Nephi’s own and is at this point unconscious. What Nephi is being asked to do is shocking, and we’re meant to find it shocking, because Nephi finds it shocking too. Nephi, normally so gung-ho about obedience, must in fact be heavily persuaded by the Spirit to carry it out.
We all find some things harder than others. We’re all going to find some commandments more difficult than others, and which ones they are will vary from person to person. But there is one constant, which is that God will test us. As Joseph Smith stated: “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God. . . . God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God”. There may come points at our life where we will be asked by God to act in ways that go against our pre-conceived political, social and religious views, and which we, like Nephi here, find personally challenging. Indeed God seems to have a habit of it. What those areas are will likely be different: some might find killing drunk people a bit too easy for God’s comfort, so they won’t get asked to do that. Instead they will be asked to do something that they find personally challenging, that forces us to make the stark choice between our will, and God’s will.
I have to confess to a measure of speculation about how Nephi managed to remove Laban’s head without getting too much blood on Laban’s clothes that he subsequently wore. Perhaps if the body was on a slope, and the head positioned downward… I’m aware I’ve given this far more thought than most people (and so probably do not have too many drunken corpses in my own future).