In the opening Chapters of the Book of Mormon, a book considered by the members of the LDS church to be an ancient scriptural record, there is an account of the slaying of a man named Laban by his nephew Nephi. This event has been the source of considerable debate, frustration, and misunderstanding among members, both current and former, of the church. Here I will attempt to show that Nephi’s actions, including the killing of Laban, were justified from a libertarian legal and moral standpoint, and that the criticism of Nephi for his actions is unwarranted.
I will not consider here the truth or falsehood of the Book of Mormon, and I will be taking the account at face value. The account is told in the first person by Nephi. It is possible that he is not reliable, or that the entire book is a fabrication. It does not matter here; this event is interesting for its moral and legal implications either as a veracious or fictitious account. I will also not consider the implications of divine intervention in the story. I will consider only the actions of Nephi, on their own, independent of any special moral rules granted by any supernatural power.
The event begins after the family of Nephi leaves Jerusalem. He and his brothers are commanded by their father to return to the city to acquire the family’s genealogical records which are described in the account as being made of plates of brass. The record is in possession of Laban, Nephi’s uncle.
The first attempt, by one of Nephi’s brothers, was a failure. From the account:
“And it came to pass that when we had gone up to the land of Jerusalem, I and my brethren did consult one with another. And we cast lots—who of us should go in unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that the lot fell upon Laman (note: Laman is the brother of Nephi, and is not to be confused with Laban, the man who possesses the genealogical record); and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house. And he desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father. And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee. But Laman fled out of his presence, and told the things which Laban had done, unto us.”
The second attempt at retrieving the genealogical records was equally unsuccessful:
“And it came to pass that we went down to the land of our inheritance, and we did gather together our gold, and our silver, and our precious things. And after we had gathered these things together, we went up again unto the house of Laban. And it came to pass that we went in unto Laban, and desired him that he would give unto us the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, for which we would give unto him our gold, and our silver, and all our precious things. And it came to pass that when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property. And it came to pass that we did flee before the servants of Laban, and we were obliged to leave behind our property, and it fell into the hands of Laban. Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?”
The third and final attempt by Nephi alone is successful, and results in his killing of Laban:
“I, Nephi, crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban. And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do. 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. And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered 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 taken away our property…
Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.”
After the killing, Nephi surreptitiously snuck into Laban’s home, took possession of the genealogical records, and returned with his brothers to their family in the wilderness.
The focus of the criticism is that Laban was unconscious at the time of his killing, and presented no threat of any kind of Nephi. In addition, Nephi could have acquired the genealogical records simply by bypassing the unconscious Laban; the killing was not necessary for Nephi to accomplish his goal.
A more careful reading of the story serves to show that the first criticism is in error, and that the second is simply irrelevant.
Excluding the slaying, the actions of Nephi and his brothers with regard to Laban are wholly legitimate throughout the entire episode; first – they simply ask him for the records, and after that fails, they then offer to purchase them using their “exceedingly great” property. From a libertarian perspective, both are examples of legitimate, peaceful, consensual exchange. No further analysis is necessary. However, Laban’s response to these two attempts is worth noting.
Laman’s first visit to Laban’s house ends when Laban accuses Laman of being a robber and threatening to kill him. This was no empty threat. Laban had a reputation – “he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty.” A reputation like that is difficult to explain unless Laban was a violent and bloodthirsty man who had previously demonstrated his willingness and ability to murder large numbers of people. Truly he must have been a dangerous man.
Indeed, when Nephi and his brothers brought their possessions to Laban in an attempt to purchase the records, Laban sent his servants after them for the purpose of killing them and stealing their possessions. Nephi and his brothers were compelled to flee for their lives, leaving behind their property in the hands of Laban.
By the time Nephi discovered Laban, passed out from drunkenness, Laban had twice threatened to kill Nephi and his brothers, saying at one point, “I will slay thee.” He had sent his servants (possibly 50 of them) after Nephi and his brothers with instructions to murder them.
Furthermore, Laban had used threats of violence to wrongfully take possession of the property belonging to Nephi’s family – gold, silver, and “all our precious things.”
The entire episode from start to finish takes place within a few days. Between a few and a few dozen hours had elapsed between the time Laban had sent his servants to murder Nephi and his family and the time Nephi came across Laban’s unconscious body.
Laban was a man who had murdered many people, and who had demonstrated a willingness, ability, and desire to murder Nephi and his family immediately preceding his killing. In fact, his servants (possibly up to 50 of them!) may have been actively searching for Nephi and his brothers at the very time Nephi came across Laban. In addition to this, Laban had stolen the property of Nephi’s family, justifying Nephi in taking possession of the records previously owned by Laban.
Nephi himself reviews these facts in the moments before taking Laban’s life, recalling, “…he had sought to take away mine own life… and he also had taken away our property…” This logical review of the situation is enough to overcome his emotional reaction to the idea of killing Laban, “I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.”
Nephi wasn’t looking for a reason to kill Laban; to the contrary, he only did so after he reviewed the violations Laban had made against him and his family. He and his brothers attempted to use peaceful, voluntary means in their interactions with Laban. They offered to make voluntary exchanges. Each time, Laban responded with violence and threats, going so far as to send a large gang of assassins after them and very nearly succeeding in murdering them.
Laban was comfortable doing this to his own nephews. He was comfortable stealing their valuable property. He had likely killed dozens of people in the past, and demonstrated no remorse at doing so, and a willingness to continue doing so. He was an active threat to the lives of Nephi’s family, and showed no respect for the rights of others.
Given these factors, the killing of Laban by Nephi was completely justified from a libertarian perspective, even without considering the supernatural nature and origin of the event. It is true that Nephi could have bypassed the drunken Laban, but he had no moral requirement to do so.