One of the most unseemly and disturbing images in the Book of Mormon is when Nephi is commanded to cut the head off of Laban who lies drunken at his feet. So, what did Laban do to get on God’s hit list? Did he deserve it? Was it necessary? And how did some of the other deserving baddies (such as Laman & Lemuel) escape with their heads intact?
For the purpose of this post, I will set aside war-time or mass killings (sorry, but the arm cutting off incident is out) and only consider the individual killings in which God was specifically implicated in the text as an accomplice.
Back to Laban. This Book of Mormon story is often cited as an example of Nephi’s obedience. It is also pretty disgusting. After Nephi hacks off his head with his own sword, he takes the clothes off the headless body and puts them on so he can pretend to be Laban. Yech. Nephi hesitates. He doesn’t ask if Laban deserves to die in his sins, like when Hamlet vacillates about killing his uncle. He hesitates because he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. He doesn’t want to commit a sin.
10 And it came to pass that I was aconstrained 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.
11 And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the aLord hath bdelivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had ctaken away our property.
12 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands;
Does Laban deserve to die? Not to blame the victim, but any decent defense attorney would point out that Laban was not a nice guy. He wouldn’t give them the brass plates even for a very generous price; up to that point, he was merely being difficult. After that, he lusted after their property and stole from them, and then he ordered his servants to kill them. And he was a lush, lying drunken in the streets, so not even a polite, gentlemanly sort of person. The Spirit’s rationale is basically “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” in this case, Laban.
Was the murder justifiable homicide? Would Nephi have been convicted for this murder? I’m no legal expert, but I have watched a lot of Law & Order, so I’m close. Nephi could plead self-defense because Laban had ordered his servants to kill him and his brothers. He could probably plead severe emotional disturbance after the beating he took from his brothers who didn’t want to go back and the difficulty of leaving their home to live in the desert. He might even get that defense upgraded to PTSD (post-tramatic stress disorder). Nephi would also have a solid case to plead insanity (he saw an angel in the cavity of the rock and heard a voice tell him to kill Laban). And he was really just doing what God (or the Spirit) told him to do, so he could have rolled on God (or the Spirit) in a plea bargaining agreement. And no jury is going to convict God (they might convict the Spirit, but just try putting Him in a holding cell), even on Law & Order.
So, Laban was on God’s hit list because he was wicked, and he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and got in the way of God’s plan. So he had to go. But, didn’t a nation dwindle and perish in unbelief anyway? The Lamanites weren’t exactly church-going, law abiding citizens for the next few hundred years. So shouldn’t Laman and Lemuel have been on God’s hit list to prevent their future generations from dwindling and perishing in unbelief due to their poor examples?
I see a few problems with killing off Laman & Lemuel:
- While many of their kids were bad, many were good. In fact, they kind of came out on top at the end. Although not all benefited from the plates of brass, some did.
- The spirit progeny of prematurely dead Laman & Lemuel would presumably still have to be born somewhere, some other time.
- Can you really totally blame the parents? Don’t we believe that men will be punished for our own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression?
- God didn’t order the hit; therefore, it’s not okay to kill. The rule is don’t kill. Except when God says. Then, go for it.
Contrast this with another group of people in the Book of Mormon who were on God’s hit list: the faithful who were being martyred in the auto-da-fe after being converted to Christianity by Alma and Amulek. Amulek wanted to stretch forth his hand to stop the killing
11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in aglory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the bjudgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the cblood of the dinnocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.
Admittedly, there are some differences to these two incidents:
Nephi takes action, whereas Alma is constrained to non-interference. He does not actively kill anyone.
Laban was guilty of attempted murder and died in his sins. The victims in Alma’s story were completely innocent and would theoretically have salvation.
Laban was standing in the way of other people’s salvation (or so we are told). The victims in Alma’s story were killed to provide damnation to their killers. Weren’t they pretty much damned already? Alma wanted to stop the killing, not prevent it from starting.
So, who is safe from God’s hit list in the Book of Mormon? Not the wicked, and not the innocent and righteous. So, perhaps the real lessons here are:
When and how we die isn’t that important to God, just how we live our lives. No one is totally safe from being killed in nasty ways. Think of that as you are drifting off to sleep tonight.
God merely cares that His plan goes forward unchecked, so interfering with His plan could lead to an unfortunate incident involving one’s death. I’m just sayin’.
So, will God cut Laban some slack on judgment day for being killed at his peak of wickedness since the order came down from on high? And would the world have been a better place without Laman and Lemuel making it to the promised land?
And how does this compare with God’s hit list in the OT? (No one is on God’s hit list in NT or D&C–and in the D&C, a few are pretty darn lucky they are not!) The weirdest individual killing in the OT, IMO, is Uzzah being killed for steadying the ark. It would be hard to argue that Uzzah was in the way of God’s plan. So, does that mean that individual killings in the OT (implicating God) are to make an example out of someone or to teach an object lesson (e.g. “don’t steady the ark”)? Or is that just the best we can do with such weird material when confronted with teaching a Gospel Doctrine lesson? Or, perhaps the ark had some sort of technological security system that made it fatal to steady vs. God actually having to intervene in real-time to strike Uzzah down (a la the Smoke Monster on LOST).