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Behind the Beheading: A Case for Scriptural Knowledge

In 1 Nephi chapter 4 right at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, we encounter a narrative where a young man is instructed by God to kill an unconscious individual.

I have to admit, on the surface, this is not a very appealing idea to entertain. I would like to share some insights to this account in hopes that it can offer some reasons as to why this happened the way that it did and what Nephi’s motivations may have been.

I’m assuming the reader already has a familiarity with the events that have led up to this point. Nephi and his brothers have made two attempts to secure the brass plates, and they have both failed. Laban falsely accused Laman of being a robber and tried to murder him, while the brothers were robbed of their property and barely escaped with their lives.

Nephi is still determined to obtain the plates and refuses to leave empty-handed. In an attempt to convince his brothers, he uses the example of Moses and the armies of Pharaoh.

“Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea.

Now behold ye know that this is true; and ye also know that an angel hath spoken unto you; wherefore can ye doubt? Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians.” (1 Nephi 4:3-4)

Nephi is not only relating a story from the scriptures from memory but claims a direct parallel to those events with their immediate situation. Nephi uses scripture to govern his actions as he considers himself and his brothers as Moses with Laban as their ‘Pharaoh.’

His brothers are compelled enough by this argument to follow him back to Jerusalem, even though they continue to murmur.

Nephi proceeds alone being led by the spirit, trusting that God will provide a way and not knowing how things will turn out.

He soon encounters Laban who has fallen to the earth just as drunk as a skunk. Nephi sees his sword and immediately disarms Laban. As he takes a moment to admire the craftsmanship of the sword, the Spirit constrains Nephi to kill Laban.

Nephi had never killed a man and like most of us would probably do, shrunk away at the very thought of it.

Here is where I think the shift occurs in Nephi’s consciousness. The Spirit speaks again and says “Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.” To someone like Nephi who knew the scriptures, I think this key phrase communicated something very significant, another story from the Old Testament.

In 1 Samuel 17, the shepherd boy David approaches the massive warrior Goliath and says to him:

“This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand” (1 Samuel 17:46)

I think that Nephi associated the words of the Spirit with this particular verse and what happens next only serves to confirm my suspicions. This was a very personalized message to a person who had the capacity to read between the lines and understand what they needed to do.

The story of David and Goliath continues with David running toward Goliath and smiting him in the head with the stone killing him instantly, his body falling to the earth before him just like Laban lying before Nephi.

Next, David drew Goliath’s sword from its sheath and cut off his head. (vs.51) After that, he takes Goliath’s armor to his own tent.

I think that this story played through Nephi’s mind as the story and his present situation melded together, just as he overlayed the story of Moses and Pharaoh minutes before.

Nephi is thinking through things at this point. He recalls that Laban tried to take his life, defied the commandments of God, and then robbed them of their property. Laban had committed high crimes against the law that would have likely resulted in his execution if convicted.

The Spirit again repeats to Nephi “Slay him, for 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 Nephi 4:12-13)

Nephi recalls that his people must have these records if they are going to be able to keep the commandments and prosper in the land. (vs.14-15) He knew that the Lord had put Laban before him to secure those records. (vs.16-17) So he obeys the voice of the Spirit and in a manner identical to David, Nephi beheads Laban with his own sword. Nephi takes Laban’s armor as well, just like David took Goliath’s.

Based on Nephi’s precise knowledge of the scriptures and penchant to pattern his actions after them, I think that in this moral paradox, Nephi’s prior familiarity and understanding of the David and Goliath account helped him to act similarly and obey the Lord’s commandments with confidence.

The main takeaway I see is the importance of knowing the scriptures and how they can play a part in understanding the direction of the Spirit. God likes to provide multiple witnesses, and in this case, both acted together to provide guidance in a profound moral dilemma. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Nephi’s encounter with Laban mirrored David’s encounter with Goliath.

Furthermore, I believe that these two experiences coalesced into a prophetic description of how he saw the future villain the “great and abominable church” fall.

“…for they shall war among themselves, and the sword of their own hands shall fall upon their own heads, and they shall be drunken with their own blood.” (1 Nephi 22:13)

The drunkenness seems like a parallel to Laban, and the beheading with one’s own sword relates to Goliath and Laban. I think that Nephi’s ability to prophesy in this manner is due to his understanding of the scriptures and his own experiences in applying them to his own life.

Personally, I find Nephi’s story of great worth to anyone seeking to develop more confidence in following the Spirit and in keeping God’s commandments. With a knowledge of scripture, we have the framework for understanding and direction that comes to us from God. We can consider situations similar to our own and discover the principles that will guide us confidently on the path.

Remember that Nephi saw in his vision that the rod of iron that allowed one to make it through those mists of darkness (1 Nephi 8:) represented the word of God. Nephi seems to have taken that to heart by infusing the scriptures into his own life experiences.

The Biblical accounts fortified Nephi, and now both accounts, along with the guidance of the Spirit, can reinforce us today.

  • Anita Wells

    great insight, thanks!

  • Richard J. Nobbe III

    Sorry I have been absent from “The Climb” for a while. Life gets so busy sometimes.

    Great insights as always. I would add that it isn’t rare or even unprecedented in the time of Nephi for angels to appear and give strict commandments to prophets from time to time. Joseph Smith speaks of occasions of heavenly manifestations where angels appear with a sword in hand. It is certainly possible that Nephi made this decision with the knowledge and background he had (the text would certainly support this). But considering the severity and magnitude of the situation, who’s to say that a heavenly messenger did not appear both to give strict command and perhaps to give assurance to Nephi that what he was commanded to do was of God. Now I’m sure his mind and will were already aligned with the mind and will of God, but it is also precisely when this happens that we can expect the hand of divine help. Just a thought…

    • oneclimbs

      The point of the post was to illustrate how Nephi resolves difficult situations by turning to examples from the scriptures.

      I am doubtful of the “angel with the drawn sword” story for two reasons. One, LDS apostle Melvin J. Ballard, in 1934 wrote: “The statement … concerning the angel appearing with the drawn sword is not a matter that is in our own church history. While it may be all true, the church has not pronounced it authentic nor has it contradicted it.”

      Two, God works by persuasion and not force (see D&C 121).

      I’m not sure that this was necessary with Nephi. While the angel did give him specific instructions it seems like Nephi was allowed to think it through and then act accordingly, which he did. The text shows that he comes to the conclusion himself and the WAY he slays Laban (no instruction was given on HOW to slay him) mirrors the account of David and Goliath.

      Nephi had already made a choice to be led by the Spirit which he seems to always follow faithfully. Nephi is a very obedient person, not one that would need to be threatened.

      What I appreciate about Nephi though is that he does not immediately kill Laban when initially told to do so. He thinks about it and ponders the implications. The Lord doesn’t punish Nephi for this either, and while he is told again to slay Laban, he is given an explanation as well. I think that this explanation combined with the language that may have cued up the David and Golaith story in Nephi’s mind was enough for him to proceed forth confidently.

      I would question why an angel would need to appear and threaten Nephi when the text clearly shows a gradual understanding unfolding into compliance. I think Nephi deserves the credit for handling the situation with wisdom rather than casting him in the light of a disobedient servant that had to be compelled.

      • Richard J. Nobbe III

        I agree that Nephi deserves a lot of credit here. I appreciate the way you explain and articulate Nephi’s progression in spiritual knowledge. I do strongly believe that he acted on his own, having knowledge of the scriptures, and I love the thought that he was familiar with the story of David and Goliath. I had never thought of that before – how cool! Sometimes I don’t think of Nephi or any of the Book of Mormon prophets as having grown up learning what I would call “The Classic Bible Stories.” But of course this is incorrect thinking on my part; Clearly, they had the plates of brass which contained a history of the Jews up until the time of Jeremiah and the reign of Kind Zedekiah. It’s neat to think that they knew most of the stories I grew up learning, (albeit they probably didn’t watch Veggietales).

        While I strongly agree with you that God works by persuasion and not force, that doesn’t mean He won’t send messengers that give strict commandments. There are tons of instances in the scriptures where angels come and lay down the law with power. Just look at Genesis 22:12, “And (the angel) said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him…” Or in Alma 8:11 when the angel is sent to Alma. He says, “And behold, I am sent to command thee.”

        Now in both of these instances I don’t think the Lord was forcing Abraham or Alma to do God’s will, but as righteous men of God I believe they were given commandments that the angels knew would be obeyed.

        I don’t know if Nephi encountered an angel or not. We certainly don’t get that in the text. But all I’m saying is just perhaps the Lord sends us angels from time to time, on both sides of the veil, to warn or direct us in a certain way – and certainly not by compulsion. And perhaps sometimes heavenly messengers come with certain signs or symbols whereby we may discern truth from error, (D&C 129).

        Whether it happened or not, I don’t think an angel coming with a drawn sword is an act of compulsion. I think it is a symbol that perhaps can suggest to the mind: Warning! among other things.

        • oneclimbs

          The brass plates were kept by Laban and his fathers. Laban seemed to be a military man, he had armor, a sword and commanded soldiers after all. It’s possible that those plates were a unique family heirloom, something rare but constructed in a way that they could survive for a long time as a founding document for a new civilization. Papyrus or leather would wear out in time but brass could last forever if it was well cared for.

          It is probably more likely that they knew of the scripture stories from going to synagog where a copy of the Torah was kept and read from on the Sabbath or from familial oral repetition.

          In the two cases your mentioned, Abraham and Alma, an angel intervened to prevent them from committing certain acts. One from murdering his son, and the other from spiritually murdering (Alma’s words) God’s people.

          In Nephi’s case, it is the Spirit compelling him to carry out an execution. We know that the people of Jerusalem were so corrupt that they were about to be destroyed. Laban is an example of the real corruption that was going on there. He had no problem trying to murder Laman for just asking for the plates. He also falsely accused him of robbery which was punishable by death and that punishment was carried out by the military. Laban then has no problem robbing the brothers of their inheritance after they make a legitimate offer to buy the plates. He then orders his men to murder them. This is also a guy who hung out with the “elders of the church” who were probably also corrupt as well as any judges that Nephi and his brothers might have taken their case to.

          They had enough witnesses to make a case against Laban. But the Lord does not pursue that route. Laban is being judged by the one who gave the law and that’s the Lord. The Lord found him guilty and since he would probably not have been held accountable by the law, he ordered Nephi to carry out the sentence.

          I’ve written about how the slaying of Laban was justified. http://oneclimbs.com/2012/01/08/the-justified-slaying-of-laban/

          Nephi knowing the stories of the scriptures and understanding the law could thereby conclude that executing Laban was correct. His witness, the witness of the law and the witness of the Lord had all convicted him.