Joseph M. Spencer discusses the various theological and ethical issues surrounding Nephi's slaying of Laban in 1 Nephi 4.

Joseph M. Spencer

Joseph Spencer, 1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute , 2020), 66–80

Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship
Joseph M. Spencer
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More theologically interesting, therefore, are readings of the Laban episode that recognize how the religious exceeds the ethical (in something like the way the ethical exceeds the legal). Such readings tend to speak of “an Abrahamic test.” Radical obedience or faith demands a sacrifice not only of objects or possessions one holds dear but also and especially of certain attitudes or worldviews. Real faith—faith in its richest form—therefore demonstrates itself in situations where obedience looks like suspension of the ethical attitudes one shares with everyone else. Abraham’s offering of Isaac might be such a thing. Abraham’s action looks to outsiders like either vicious murder or tragic sacrifice, but what Abraham does on Moriah is obedience, beyond the immorality of murder and the morality of sacrifice. And this makes Abraham’s actions incomprehensible. Nephi’s actions might be approached similarly. God demands of Nephi something shocking to our ethical sensibilities-sensibilities Nephi shares (see 1 Ne. 4:10)—because it might help him and us to smash the rational and ethical idols we’re tempted to place before the God of faith and obedience.

Such a reading recognizes the right place of ethics in any theologically satisfying account of faith. That is, it recognizes that religion claims priority for God over human intellectual constructions, even those we feel deeply. It certainly feels perverse to demand that God prove his ethical bona fides to us, even and especially if we trust that our own sense of right and wrong is a gift from God. But despite its theological appeal in a certain regard, even this approach to Laban’s killing is ultimately unsatisfying. Obviously, it would be distasteful to secular individuals who worry about religion overstepping the limits of reason. But it’s unsatisfying also and especially to believers because it fails to take seriously the actual text of 1 Nephi. It imposes a theological frame on the text without asking how Nephi tells the story of his encounter with Laban. What’s needed prior to a genuinely convincing theological account of Laban’s death is a solid reading of the story in which it appears.

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It’s precisely “the Spirit,” however, that Nephi has to confront in Jerusalem. Nephi finds Laban in the dark city, but he’s drunk and incapacitated. The Spirit proves livelier and perhaps more dangerous.

With Laban’s sword already in his hand, Nephi is “constrained by the Spirit” to “kill Laban” (1 Ne. 4:10). In light of all that’s come before this point in the story, Nephi’s word choice here is striking. He speaks of the Spirit’s constraint, not of the Spirit’s commandment. Are we meant to notice the change in terminology Are we to understand that Nephi is confronted with something different at this point, something he’s free to resist or right to question? Or does Nephi hope to distract us from the fact that his “hesitancy is in direct contrast to his earlier bold proclamation” of zeal? It’s a symptomatic moment, rich with meaning and ambiguity. It’s apparent, though, that Nephi’s faith is unsure. The angel has confirmed his chosenness but then Nephi shrinks and resist the Spirit into whose care he’s supposedly put himself. All this means that when the Spirit goes on to explain things, Nephi’s reflections aren’t exercises in abstract reasoning. He’s at a spiritual cross-roads, in the midst of an existential crisis.

This is most important to remember at the climax of the Spirit’s communication. When Nephi hears the Spirit say, “It is better that one man should perish that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Ne. 4:13), the words have a very specific effect on him. Nephi never defends the idea of an abstract moral calculus. He says instead that the Spirit’s statement reminded him of something he’d forgotten—something we as readers have watched him forget. “And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words,” he says, “I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise” (verse 14; italics added). What Nephi had forgotten and has to remember is the first promise of God made to him, a promise concerned with his whole family and not just himself ad his own grandiose future. When he hears the Spirit speak of “a nation,” Nephi apparently sees for the first time his own (potentially) selfish motivations for keeping commandments. He’s prioritized his own promises over those of everyone else. God apparently prioritizes the promises to all.

It's this realization in the story that convinces Nephi to “obey the voice of the Spirit” (4:18). It isn’t enough that the Lord delivers Laban into his hands. It isn’t enough that Laban has flouted God’s commandments. It’s when Nephi sees God’s covenantal promises to whole peoples that he sees how his own strivings for covenantal righteousness are tainted with a competitive spirit. This gets him over his own sense of self-righteousness, bringing him to a climactic obedience. We might say also that he realizes he’s misunderstood the meaning of the word commandments in God’s promises to him and Lehi’s children more generally. It doesn’t refer to whatever God happens to instruct one to do, as Nephi’s actions would suggest he assumed at first. It refers rather to “the commandments of the Lord according of the law of Moses,” words needed for the benefit of a whole people (verse 15). The brass plates contain the law that will guide Lehi’s children in the promised land.

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