“Why did the Lord command Nephi to slay Laban?” Ensign, Feb. 1996, 62–63
Rodney Turner, professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University.
Nephi was a man of astonishing faith, profound humility, and consistent righteousness. While still a youth, he had such faith that he conversed with the “Holy Spirit” and was shown what his father had seen in a dream. He also beheld Mary bearing the infant Son of God in her arms and saw Christ’s baptism, ministry, and crucifixion (see 1 Ne. 11).
Because of his great faith, Nephi was convinced that the brass plates could be obtained from Laban, no matter how difficult the task might be. He told his father, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Ne. 3:7).
Nephi was soon to learn that God’s ways are not always easy. After two failures to obtain the plates, Nephi and his brothers once more faced the walls of Jerusalem. Laman, Lemuel, and Sam hid themselves while Nephi crept into the darkened city alone. Because of his faith and willingness to obey the Lord’s commandments, Nephi was sensitive to the whisperings of the Spirit. He was therefore “led by the Spirit,” as he says, “not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Ne. 4:6).
By following the Spirit, Nephi discovered Laban lying drunk in the street. “I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban,” Nephi wrote (1 Ne. 4:10). Appalled, he at first resisted the command, saying, “Never at any time have I shed the blood of man” (ibid). But the Spirit spoke again, saying, “The Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. …
“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 Ne. 4:12–13).
Some people might claim that by saying the Spirit commanded him to kill Laban, Nephi was rationalizing to justify what was, in fact, murder. They might argue that God would never have commanded Nephi to take a life.
However, Nephi was a righteous man; he was well acquainted with the promptings of the Holy Ghost and knew the difference between his own thoughts and divine revelation. Nephi did not have to include the account of his slaying of Laban in his record. He was not caught in the act, and he might have left his account of obtaining the plates vague. He could even have lied, saying that Laban was already dead when he found him, or providing some other plausible explanation. But Nephi was a truthful man; despite the fact that it was a difficult subject, he wrote it as it happened.
The incident may well have been a trial of faith for Nephi. The Lord could have helped him procure the record in some other way. Instead, the Lord allowed Nephi to struggle with a dilemma: obtain and safeguard the plates as he had been commanded, or let Laban live.
But if Laban had lived, the consequences would have been disastrous. The mission to obtain the plates would have failed, and without the plates, Lehi’s posterity would have perished in unbelief (see 1 Ne. 4:13). The history of Lehi’s descendants would have been far different, and there might have been no Book of Mormon as we know it. Had Nephi not procured the plates, the “keystone of our religion” would be missing.
But there is a larger issue: the moral nature of God. What are its bounds? Who can say what the Almighty can and cannot do? The Prophet Joseph Smith observed, “It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 320). Yet the Lord “willeth to take even them whom he will take, and preserveth in life them whom he will preserve” (D&C 63:3). Evidently God had judged Laban and found him guilty.
He had, as Nephi noted, defied God’s commandments, stolen Lehi’s property, and sought to kill Nephi and his brothers (see 1 Ne. 3:12). Nephi was only doing what God had commanded. Did God have a right to do this? Of course.
Man’s agency cannot delimit or circumscribe the agency of God. For his own reasons, God can temporarily suspend or revoke that which he has previously commanded. For example, he told the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness” (D&C 132:36).
The God who proved Abraham is the same God who proved Nephi. Like Abraham, Nephi obeyed and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.
The principles of the gospel are unchanging, and God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (D&C 20:12). But our mortal circumstances change, and the application of divine law is sometimes adapted to those changes. That is why a living prophet is indispensable. Man does not have the right to adjust the application of God’s laws. But God has every right to do so; and when he does, he will reveal his decisions to his servants, the prophets (see Amos 3:7).