Reading Nephi – 4:3-19 (part I)

068-068-the-liahona-fullOnce again, reading these difficult passages, I see something prodigious in Nephi, something my soul longs after. At the same time, however, my soul recoils, and chapter four is the realization of the danger inherent in Nephi’s faithful outlook. I want to think that Nephi’s mistake was youthful inexperience—faith and zeal untempered by the wisdom and moral constraint of realizing that every human one confronts is a child of Heavenly Parents and a brother or sister [see comment 1].

Contextualizing our lives within the scriptures seems so right. This is how I want to read them—this is how I want to live. This is what I hope I’m doing as I read and write my thoughts, weaving myself into a temporally extended web, binding myself within the covenants that I have made, which are the covenants of God with his people in former and latter times, which binds me to the mothers and fathers who’ve gone before. With Nephi, I want to not only declare but experience (as he experienced) that profound Passover motto:

The Lord is able to deliver us,

Even as our ancestors;

And to destroy [insert obstacle]

Even as he destroyed the Egyptians.

But now, here, I can’t even chant this refrain in the way that Nephi does. I cannot make my obstacle a human to be destroyed as God destroyed the Egyptians. The Passover story is a horrific story. It’s not just one man that perishes to save a nation; rather, it is a nation of innocent children (and adults?) who perish to save an ungrateful people. Pharaoh stood as God’s manifestation on the earth, and consequently was able to give the order and have it carried out: murder all the Hebrew male babies. In a perverse twist, God stands as the heavenly manifestation of Pharaoh’s wickedness and murders all of the firstborn of Egypt.

It is better that one man should perish than that an entire nation should dwindle in unbelief. I can’t see how to accept this awful Old Testament ideology in a “literal” sense—a sense wherein I’m willing to see life sacrificed—and avoid cruelty and the loss of innocent life; I can’t maintain this pronouncement and at the same time hold to the pronouncement of Moses’s other book: that divine work and glory is the work of exalting all of God’s children. That is, I can’t see how to avoid making faith into the easily malleable fundamentalism whose trademark is the dehumanization of the “other.” If it is better that one man should die to save a nation, than why not: “It is better that thousands of innocent infidels should perish [e.g., in the World Trade Center], than that the whole world should dwindle in unbelief?”

Which, by the way, seems to be precisely what the story of Noah and the story of the Exodus confirm. Ah, but maybe here’s the critical distinction we can draw between the deliverances of Noah and Moses on the one hand, and the deliverance of Nephi on the other—the distinction between faith and fundamentalism. In the one, it is God who destroys—miraculously drowning the hosts—and in this story it is Nephi. This isn’t a fully satisfactory distinction—can we worship a God who acts just as Pharaoh and still avoid dehumanization? there’s the rub—but it seems a beginning. I have no choice, I must confront mortality and live in a world wherein everything eventually crumbles into extinction; and if I’m to have faith, then I must in some sense believe that God connects to the systemic, background variable of destruction, the ubiquitous perishing of everything. But nothing in this means that I must bloody my own hands or venerate the bloody hands of others. And it is certainly more consistent with both scripture and reason to claim that bloody hands are an abomination.

I can’t help but say to Nephi concerning his rationalization and the murderous tragedy with which he begins his reign as teacher and ruler: “Out, out, damn spot!”


30 comments for “Reading Nephi – 4:3-19 (part I)

  1. James Olsen
    October 25, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    I can already hear the groans and protests: it was a different culture; happens in scripture all the time; he didn’t want to do it; God commanded him directly; etc., etc. So I’ll be clear here in the footnote and folks can quibble if they want in the comments. It’s not that I’m unaware of the various defenses we give Nephi; and given the symbolic value of the Sword of Laban throughout the BofM, it’s pretty clear that the Nephites themselves esteemed rather than decried the murder. These two posts plus a footnote’s not likely to convince anyone not already on the edge or in the choir. So I’ll simply be frank: I don’t find any of the defenses defensible. This is another place in the text where we see a great deal more is going on, in spite of Nephi’s careful crafting. But even if we take it at face value, the murder seems unnecessary and reprehensible. One has to do a great deal of heavy intellectual and moral lifting to make it otherwise, and I don’t think such heavy lifting gets support from the text. But bracketing all of that — regardless of what divinely guided suspensions of the ethical might have existed for Nephi, we today make a serious moral mistake in valorizing the murder; we degrade ourselves in doing so.

  2. Rob Osborn
    October 25, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    Where is your testimony? You have no faith in Nephi.

  3. Cameron N.
    October 25, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    I’m curious how you perceive this verse in context of the Atonement, James:

  4. Cameron N.
    October 26, 2015 at 12:08 am

    Sorry, phone slipped and submitted comment too early. How do you perceive the Atonement relative to the verse: “it is better that one man should perish, than that an entire nation should dwindle in unbelief?”

    It seems to me that the absolutist stance on death conflicts with the Atonement, the most unjust event in the history of the world. I think most believers are more afraid of eventual punishment for belief in that verse than really believe Nephi’s action was immoral.

  5. sjames
    October 26, 2015 at 2:20 am

    12 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands;

    13 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.

    Is there some cruel irony here, for this is indeed what happens to the Nephite nation despite the acquisition of the brass plates?

  6. James Olsen
    October 26, 2015 at 5:19 am

    Rob: I’ve been candid about my admiration for and faith in Nephi all along. That doesn’t make this passage any less difficult to wrestle with.

    Cameron: the structural and the personal disanalogies between this passage and the atonement are quite stark. And while I don’t think Laban makes a very good Jesus, it might be worthwhile to compare the whole system of the Sanhedrin, Roman govt, and capital punishment which (perhaps inevitably) brought about Jesus’s death to the ideology Nephi employs retroactively to justify Laban’s death. That is, perhaps Nephi’s culture and personal disposition made it almost inevitable that he would kill Laban in those circumstances.

    That said, it is interesting how common murder is in religious founding narratives. Mormonism gets this three times over.

    sjames: Yes, I think that this hugely conspicuous; several things come to mind, but I hesitate to interpret the meaning.

  7. Robert C.
    October 26, 2015 at 9:17 am

    James, in your comment(/footnote) #1, you say the murder was both “unnecessary and reprehensible.” I understand the reprehensible, but why do you say unnecessary? It seems to me that the 2 failed previous attempts, coupled with Laban’s unjustified taking of their money, means that basically all other reasonable alternatives had been exhausted. So, the murder seemed, as a practical matter, the only means for fulfilling the commandment to get the plates.

    Because so much hinges on this idea of necessity in your argument, could you clarify? Are you saying that obtaining the brass plates wasn’t really necessary (at least not enough to justify the murder), or are you saying that there were still other alternatives that should’ve been pursued? Or am I missing something?

    Thanks, by the way, for all these thoughts and posts — they’ve been a real pleasure to read, even though I haven’t been commenting.

  8. James Olsen
    October 26, 2015 at 10:36 am

    Robert, thank you for pushing me on this. Part of me wants to simply regret and delete the word — it probably assumes too much. And since I don’t think my argument hangs on it, it’d be easier to jettison it. But to answer the question, I mean it in terms of the literary narrative. Nephi seems to have jumped to the opposite extreme: Laman & Lemuel are convinced they can’t get the plates because Laban will kill them. Nephi turns it around and decides there’s no way to get the plates other than by killing Laban. But the story and Nephi’s reasoning don’t make this a foregone (i.e., necessary) conclusion. Hence my comment that it’s unnecessary.

    It’s a good question as to whether obtaining the plates of brass was necessary — I’m inclined to simply take it on Lehi’s word that it was. And Mormon certainly seems convinced of this fact when he editorializes the encounter with the Mulekites. And goodness, Lehi and Sariah ultimately accept the blood treasure rather than taking Nephi back to Jerusalem to stand trial (though of course Nephi entirely leaves out of the narrative what their reaction to the murder was).

    As to whether other alternatives could’ve been explored, I’m saying, “Yes” — I posit a few above, though obviously once again it’s unclear just how much leeway we have to posit possibilities given the limited details of the text. Again, Nephi seems to be as extremist as Laman and Lemuel, just in the other direction. What if he had’ve simply left Laban passed out and kept wondering and ran into Zoram — just as he does, but now without blood stained Laban clothing/armor? Isn’t it just as plausible that God helps him convince the stranger Zoram (who later is convinced anyway) as it is that God inspires Nephi to murder?

    In general, I think we’re always too ready to consider our own solutions as necessary, and quite willing to excuse the problems that subsequently arise by appeals to inspiration.

    At the end of the day, however, I’m convinced we’re getting far less of an account of what actually happened here than we are a much later, deliberate, scripturally-merged and politically motivated narrative. I think it’s one of those situations where the author is genuinely convinced of this having been God’s will, and so he works to reveal it as consistent with other scriptural narratives — since doing so is far more “honest” for Nephi than is holding to contemporary standards of honesty as detail-accuracy.

    Of course, Nephi’s narrative hasn’t always struck me thus — this is certainly the strongest reaction I’ve had to it. I would love to hear more from others on their own reactions.

  9. Clark Goble
    October 26, 2015 at 11:22 am

    I don’t have time to say much yet. I’d just say I think you may be reading into the event a perception of ethics that is alien to the text. That’s fine of course. We have to be in dialog with the text. It’s just that I suspect many of us might disagree with the ethical view you are judging Nephi with.

  10. Robert C.
    October 26, 2015 at 11:59 am

    Thanks for the response, James. I really like the issues you’re struggling with, and I’m anxious to hear more of your thoughts as you (and others) continue wrestling with them.

    FWIW, my current way of grappling with the text is roughly as follows. First, I think it is very important to make sense of the difference between our own (culturally based) ethical views and Nephi’s, and that’s basically why I appreciate the issues you’re talking about (and the papers mentioned in the other thread that grapple with similar issues in various ways — I think Eugene England’s essay is also cited in those papers, and I credit him for first making me think about these issues in roughly the vein I think you are suggesting).

    Second, I’m nevertheless inclined to bracket these specific ethical questions/qualms and to move on to thinking about what I think is the larger issue that I think the text is dealing with — namely, a question about exceptions to various laws (if you happen to know Agamben’s State of Exception, I’m partly thinking in this vein, and in terms of issues of codification in ethics more generally) and the so-called dirty hands problem. It’s not that I think the first set of issues isn’t important, it’s just that I think that the most charitable reading of the text can disagree with Nephi’s particular ethical decision in this case and yet still learn something profound about these more general issues (I think you have already suggested this way of reading Nephi, but you don’t focus on it and I’m esp. interested now in this issue that I’m referring to as the “larger” issue).

    Regarding the dirty-hands problem, I was quite struck and largely convinced by Jeff Stout’s discussion of this in his book Democracy and Tradition. And I think his general framework suggests a nice way of grappling with the Nephi-killing-Laban narrative. But before I provide an actually substantive comment about this perspective and reading, I’d like to first review Stout’s argument — I simply don’t have time to do so right now, but I hope to make some comments about this when I do have time (probably on the lds-herm list; there’s an article I have that outlines the key issues that I can dig out, summarize, and forward to the list).

  11. Clark Goble
    October 26, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    One thing often left out is how modern ethics often presupposes a relatively impartial arbiter which is enabled by western rule of law and democracy. Within the text as presented there is no such arbiter. If Nephi has his life sought, to whom does he appeal? That should dramatically change the moral calculus.

    I’ve not read Stout in this but I think ethics is very much tied to the place one finds oneself. Now I’m deeply skeptical of most formal ethics for a wide slew of reasons. I do think we need to pay attention to consequences but also the moral demands our encounters provide to us (whether from the spirit or our subconscious). Yet I worry about how the story of Laban is dealt with by all sides.

    However the fact it seems to be a problem is perhaps its strength. It requires us to engage it in a way in which we can’t simply apply our default moral thinking. (Well to a degree — I think for many even in the west the question is more “of course you’d kill him. Look what he’s done and is trying to do to you.”)

  12. Rob Osborn
    October 26, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    James, you need to get over this issue. Nephi doesnt murder Laban. This is not an unlawful killing. If thats what you think then God is the biggest murderer of all. Do you suppose God is a mass murderer?

  13. Mark B.
    October 26, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    If Nephi’s statement is indeed correct (better that one man die, etc., etc.), why couldn’t God have taken Laban himself? He could have had a heart attack, or he could have vomited and choked to death on his own vomit. Laban would have been moved out of the way, and Nephi would have ended up with the plates. And, presumably, the moral difficulties you raise would be solved.

    But, if we begin by positing that events occurred as Nephi described them–that is, that the angel in fact commanded Nephi to kill Laban–then I wonder if there isn’t another reason that it had to happen as Nephi describes it.

    I think the “answers” were waiting outside the city walls that night, and they were named Laman and Lemuel.

    After Laban was killed, there was no running off back to Jerusalem. Surely, other servants of Laban would have known of the previous attempts by the four brothers to obtain the brass plates from Laban. The circumstantial evidence (presumably there were no witnesses to the killing) all pointed at the four brothers–they had motive, previous attempts to obtain the one missing item of Laban’s property, and now they have run. Sounds like a short trial and a quick trip outside the city walls for the execution of the sentence.

    So now they couldn’t return to Jerusalem–at least not openly. There was one trip back–for Ishmael and his family–but the potential murder charge hanging over their heads made it impossible for them to stay in Jerusalem.

  14. James Olsen
    October 26, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Rob: I remember tracting into a woman one day who was absolutely adamant about what I believe and taught—all of which was complete nonsense. When she finally ran out of breath I assured her that I was the world’s authority on what I believed, that my beliefs differed significantly from what she’d articulated, that I’d no interest in compelling her to discuss this with me, but that if she wanted to then I was happy to try and share it with her. She was certainly not interested. My putting it to her so pointedly, however, did us both a favor—helping us both to be absolutely clear that while we were respectively interested in our own conversation, we were NOT interested in the others’ conversation. She was able to go about her day no longer preoccupied with helping me see that I believed and was doing all kinds of things that I didn’t in fact believe and wasn’t in fact doing; and I was able to go on finding folks who were interested in the conversations my companion and I had to offer.

    Here are some basic assumptions I’ve been explicit about all along:
    1. I don’t think I Nephi is a contemporary-style history or memoir (i.e., the goal isn’t historical accuracy and comprehensive detail)
    2. Nephi wrote the text several decades after the fact
    3. The text is amenable to typical literary analysis, and such analysis offers a rich and fruitful way to read the text
    4. I’m using what I know of both literary analysis and ancient studies, but doing so heuristically (as opposed, e.g., to trying to discover actual ancient artifacts in the text)
    5. At the end of the day, this is a journal—a reflective response I wrote over the course of several months as I slowly read short passages as carefully as I could and detailed some of my thoughts
    6. I accept Nephi as an ancient prophet and have spent my life mining his words as sacred scripture. This has been immensely rewarding. But my reading constantly evolves. I don’t believe he (or anyone) was infallible; and I fairly often argue with him (and fortunately, he with me).

    Hopefully my putting it out there this clearly can help you to know whether you’d like to stick around and participate in the conversation.

    If you decide to stick around, I recommend arguing with me. I don’t mean simply disagreeing with me, I mean actually offering an argument—preferably one grounded in the text and the various reasons/readings I’ve given. I’m not actually trying to give well-polished arguments here (see #5), but I do offer various reasons for my reading. If you want to disagree with me in a constructive manner, you need to take these things up rather than simply repeating your line about how my reading sucks. To illustrate:

    Me: Here’s what Nephi says and the reasons he offers (e.g., for killing Laban). I notice gaps 1, 2, and 3 in the text, and find his justification unsatisfying for these reasons (X, Y, and Z). Instead, here’s my interpretation—call it James’s Reading (JR). It’s based on this reasoning (A, B, C, etc.)

    You: JR sucks. How can you hold that view?

    Me: See above; in particular, see 1, 2, and 3; A, B, and C; and X, Y, and Z.

    You: Yeah, but JR sucks. It disagrees with Nephi.

    Me: Yes, but I already told you that I found Nephi unsatisfying (1, 2, and 3; and X, Y, and Z). Would you care to explain what you think is wrong with X, Y, and Z, or what’s unsatisfying with A, B, and C? Do you have another way of accounting for gaps 1, 2, and 3?

    You: Haven’t you ever read Nephi? I have. He’s a prophet. And I really think that JR sucks.

    It’s clear that we’re having not just two different conversations but two different kinds of conversation. Since this is my post in a space I help curate, I had the privilege of setting out the terms of the conversation. If you’d like to keep playing, I encourage you to take up my reasons and address them.

  15. James Olsen
    October 26, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    Mark B.: That’s a fascinating possibility — and if I remember right, that’s about how it happens in Orson Scott Card’s fictional rendition (though memory’s foggy there). Raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about God though.

  16. James Olsen
    October 26, 2015 at 5:29 pm

    All: I didn’t do a good job of making some important distinctions in my recent posts (and maybe not in the series overall). There are different levels of analysis; such as:
    1. Would Nephi be justified in his cultural context for the murder?
    2. How culpable is Nephi from an objective stand point?
    3. What kind of ethical analysis does our own culture offer?
    4. How ought we today to think about and take up this story?

    Most of the time when I discuss this with other Mormons, I get lots of focus on 1, which is then used to let Nephi off the hook with regard to 2 and 3, together with the unspoken assumption that having done this, 4 is no longer relevant.

    Since my series is a scriptural journal, I’m mostly interested in 4 (although I find all of them interesting).

  17. Ben S.
    October 26, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    Another reference to throw out. I haven’t been able to track this down, just a summary. But the wording in Nephi is suggestive. Basically, article suggests that there was Israelite tradition/precedent for the death of one on behalf of a group.

    Roger David Aus, “The Death of One for All in John 11:45–54 in Light of Judaic Traditions,” in his Barabbas and Esther and Other Studies in the Judaic Illumination of Earliest Christianity (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992).

  18. Rob Osborn
    October 26, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    James, okay, I will address and counter. It appears to me that you over analyze Nephi rather than just read the text for what it really states. You imply that Nephi is trying to justify his murder and somehow you wrestle with this to the point that you jab at Nephi and lose faith in him because of this. I see it completely different.

    I see Nephi as a very loyal and profound prophet who is not only very faithful but also one who recognizes his weaknesses and is wise beyond his years because of this. I also see Nephi as being very courageous due in large part to his faith. besides this, Nephi is a hard working and loyal son. From later in the record we learn that Nephi becomes the father of their civilization, not because Nephi makes them, but because of who Nephi is and has become as a profound teacher, prophet, leader and spiritual advisor.

    Historically this narrative is at a time when Jerusalem is in disaray and plots and subplots have already been happening and people are warring and dividing. It comes at a time when corruption and “real” murder is taking place. Nephi is going into Jerusalem at night to do one thing- get the plates. However, the Lord has already caused a series of events to unfold for Nephi not only to get the plates, but to destroy Laban and his works of darkness also. For Nephi, its a huge step of faith to kill Laban and proceed forward in getting the plates. Most certainly Nephi writes this account later recounting his thoughts after much reflection. There is no doubt that Nephi is of high moral character and wouldnt justify killing Laban without strict command from the Lord to do such.

    To say that Nephi is justifying “murder” with his killing of Laban cheapens and fictionalizes Nephi. Its jyst one small step from there to completely dismiss Nephi as a prophet of God and lose ones testimony.

  19. Cameron N.
    October 26, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    “Cameron: the structural and the personal disanalogies between this passage and the atonement are quite stark.”

    I appreciate you sharing your journal and candid thoughts, James. Once on my mission I met a man resentful towards America who was familiar with this verse, pointed it out to me and went on an anti-war speech. I don’t blame him, but I guess part of the reason I find my question related to the Atonement more interesting and fruitful than yours is because I see a perception developing in contemporary society that death is the ultimate tragedy (unless self-imposed). Highly understandable, but contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I look forward to your next entry.

  20. Clark Goble
    October 26, 2015 at 10:22 pm

    A few more thoughts now that I have time to ponder a bit.

    First, what aspect of the Exodus story is Nephi referring to? It seems to me it’s most likely the Egyptians pursuing the Israelites as they attempt to flee Egypt. Not the more problematic plagues. I think there’s a lot of question ethically in the Old Testament but the very nature of its composition makes it difficult for me to take that seriously. We just have such distant and most likely highly corrupted texts. We just can’t be sure of what actually happened such to take up the ethical challenge towards God.

    Yet if the part Nephi is thinking of is the Egyptians coming to destroy the Israelites and the waters crashing down upon the army, what is problematic about that? Honest question here. I think most people upon encountering that portion have no problem with what God does. The killing of the firstborn and other innocents I’ll grant you are at least as disturbing as some of the thing in Joshua of genocide. But God taking down enemies trying to kill me seems among the more innocuous things in scripture honestly. (Although it is interesting paring Exodus with the passages in the Book of Mormon where lamanite converts are being brutally murdered while God does nothing)

    The parts about “better than one man should perish” immediately seem to suggest a conflict between wherever your meta-ethical intuitions lie and a more consequentialist perspective. While I’m no utilitarian I suspect I’m much more sympathetic to consequences than I sense you are. When encountering Nephi’s phrase one immediately thinks of some freshman dorm thought experiment where you encounter a drunk unconscious Hitler in the brownshirt days knowing what he plans for the future.

    It seems that criticisms of Nephi’s justification rest upon there being real live open just possibilities and that God doesn’t know the future (or at least have a reasonable idea about high probable events for those who don’t like real foreknowledge).

    If we’re dealing with the text rather than merely doubts about Nephi’s accounts I’m just not at all clear there is any ground to criticize Nephi here. The strongest criticisms are less about Nephi than they are the epistemological problem of knowing when you are justified. Thinking of say how the Laffertys saw themselves and thinking through the parallels to Nephi in epistemological terms. Yet if we take the text on its own terms no epistemological issues arise. Maybe if we’re reading with a hermeneutics of suspicion we should introduce such concerns. Yet it seems to me you leapt right over the epistemology issues and went right to the “Nephi had better choices” angle. Which just seems a problematic move.

  21. Clark Goble
    October 26, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    Mark (13) That’s a real profound insight I’d never considered. I suspect you’re right that is quite important.

  22. Clark Goble
    October 26, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    An other thing to consider that I posted in one of the other reading posts. Laban may well be an appointment by a foreign oppressor. (Nebuchadnezzar II) Does this change our reading at all given the conflicts at hand? Consider again carefully. In this case he’s an invader, holding back the scriptures and attempting to kill you. He’s associated with the person who had ransacked the temple (is that where he got the scriptures?). When we hear about his troops and Laman’s fear of them, perhaps we should place that in the context of the very recent siege of Jerusalem.

    The only other plausible reading is that he’s tied up with Zedekiah. But note the portrayal of Zedekiah. He’s associating with false prophets and engaging in actions that will lead to the destruction of the country (presumably killing tens of thousands). It’s Zedekiah Lehi is preaching against. In this case not only is Laban still an appointment of Babylon but instead of working with Babylon he’s working with the Egyptian faction of high officials.

    This reading makes Nephi’s comments about God’s destruction of the Egyptians all the more pertinent. It’s not just an analogy. They really are battling the Egyptians for prevent the destruction by Babylon! It may even be that Laban’s troops have Egyptian ties. (See Jeremiah 37:7-8 for some evidence of this)

    In this case it’s not just the immediate actions of Laban towards Nephi and his brothers that ought concern us. It’s also the larger political context of war. (And given that there just was a war we can’t say this was a hypothetical war – it’s a real “shooting” war with people really dying around them) Laban’s actions towards Lehi should also be kept in the context of the actions towards Jeremiah. (Jeremiah is arrested at the gate by Zedekiah and the pro Egyptian faction seeks to kill him in a fashion very similar to Nephi)

    BTW – for those wanting a brief history of events this paper on Zedekiah is great.

    I know Nibley wrote a bit on this via the Lachish letters. I can honestly say it’s been over 25 years since I last read it and I remember nothing about his arguments.

    Anyway, just something to include in our analysis. I’m not sure this resolves the dirty hands problem Robert raised. But it does perhaps raise the specter that it is precisely these sorts of high political action that need addressed. This simply is not a context of the day to day ethical concerns we have. This is more akin to being in Afghanistan and finding a Taliban commander drunk IMO.

  23. James Olsen
    October 27, 2015 at 4:57 am

    Cameron and Clark, Charles Taylor’s A Catholic Modernity? is an excellent book that tackles this question of death directly in a brilliant way. Sorry, no time to get to the other stuff now…

  24. Morgan
    October 27, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    Rob, what an accusation to make! I think you might actually be closer to that “one small step” from losing your testimony than James. It seems James has already awoken to the fact that the characters in the BoM are real and prophets are fallible and will be able to cope with reconciling difficulties in the future. Whereas I worry that when you have that moment of enlightenment someday (which you may not, with your attitude,) it might be such a shocker to you, that you might just lose grip on the church as a whole. Nephi, being a real man, and not a fictional character as you say, would have REAL emotions regarding killing a man. Can you honestly tell me if you felt you were commanded by God to kill a man, you wouldn’t want to justify to others why you had to do it? You don’t think your contemporaries might question the validity of a simplistic “God told me to”? Don’t you think people saw this as *real* murder in Nephi’s day? I imagine that was the story that was told in Jerusalem. “Laban was murdered last night.” So because we sit several thousand years later reading an account for the umpteenth time and are a bit numb to what emotions this might cause to virgin ears, does not mean James is standing on the cliff of apostasy. Also, I would like you to show me one place where our prophets have counseled us to “just read the text.” They don’t. I submit that “analyze” is much closer to — to use the current buzz-word — “ponderize.” What James is doing here is just that – trying to see Nephi as REAL and source what his emotions and intentions would have been, as well as all those in the stories he presents. You might be best served to read James’ initial entries on this series so you can understand what he’s doing here, rather than just criticize what you clearly don’t understand.

  25. Cameron N.
    October 27, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    Clark, you can watch Nibley talk about the Lachish letters on youtube these days, the BoM playlist of his lectures. Pretty awesome. I first found them a few weeks ago.

    Also Mark B., excellent point. I feel like most sticky points in church history have several variables like this that it is just really difficult to even imagine without genuine sustained pondering and likening.

    James, thanks for the reference! Unfortunately I’m a lot better at buying collecting good books than reading them, but I will check it out.

  26. Clark Goble
    October 27, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    Cameron, I was actually in several of those classes that were recorded, funnily enough. (I don’t know if it made it into the video but when he asks if everyone brought their scriptures and I forgot mine and he pretends to shoot me with a machine gun)

  27. Rob Osborn
    October 27, 2015 at 11:43 pm

    Morgan, if perhaps you havent noticed, I have commented since the beginning. Im not playing games to James. Its clearly obvious James doesnt have much respect for Nephi and seeks to weaken and discount him, first calling him a “zealot”, “megalomaniac” and now calling him a “murderer”. Its clear that the picture James is painting to us is that Nephi is a self absorbed power hungry fanatical who jutifys murder in dubious fashion. Im not tricked.

  28. J Town
    October 30, 2015 at 11:14 am

    1. Would Nephi be justified in his cultural context for the murder? Is it murder? Would God’s command be considered a “justification”? I don’t know his cultural context and, culture being what it is, I’m not sure that’s the most valuable question to ask.

    2. How culpable is Nephi from an objective stand point? If God commanded him to do it, and we accept that, he is blameless. When the Lord commands, obey. Seek to understand later. It sounds harsh, but it worked for Nephi and, for that matter, Abraham (though he didn’t have to complete the act, he was prepared to do it.) Perhaps the scriptures are trying to tell us something?

    3. What kind of ethical analysis does our own culture offer? There are a plethora of different cultural analyses that can be examined and that is frankly not interesting to me (though it can be to you, and that’s fine.) I don’t need a hearty helping of man’s philosophy in my scripture.

    4. How ought we today to think about and take up this story? How “ought” we? I don’t think I can recommend any one “correct” way to do it. I think pondering that is a very personal thing and it’s a good method for self-reflection. You may learn something different than I do from this section of scripture. Also, I may learn something different today than I will in a week or a month or a year.

  29. Pacumeni
    October 31, 2015 at 6:25 pm

    Laban had committed capital crimes and merited death under the Law of Moses. If they had enforced the Law of Moses code under which they lived, the civil authorities would have executed Laban if they had learned what he did. They were, of course, corrupt and would not have acted. When first prompted to kill Laban, Nephi recoils. He was horrified at the prospect. He doesn’t relent until the Spirit frames the execution as a sovereign responsibility. It is when he becomes persuaded that the execution is necessary for the well being of his people that Nephi acts. This is the moment when Nephi becomes king (obtains the two main symbols of sovreignty, the sword of Laban and the Brass Plates).

    The narrative frames this execution as being like the actions of soldiers or police who act to protect the people from harm. Many strands in the narrative reinforce this idea. The various strands of the argument are laid out in “Killing Laban: The Birth of Sovereignty in the Nephite Constitutional Order” that was published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

  30. Clark Goble
    November 2, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Pacuumeni I think that’s also an important context. I just don’t know much about the views of pre-exilic courts. (I’ve not had time to reread those old FARMS papers yet) I assume there wasn’t a formal police force but just a kind of militia force. I doubt this is clear. It’s not even clear in the Roman era where there were competing courts.

    If we go by post-exilic Judaism (ignoring the Greek conquest era) it seems there are courts that have to decide upon capital crimes. So even if Laban is guilty that doesn’t necessarily justify a lynch mob. (Or in this case a mob of one)

    There is dispute about post-exilic death penalty. Again, this isn’t something I know a lot about. There’s an interesting book I found googling on the rabbinical era discourse. Execution and Invention: Death Penalty Discourse in Early Rabbinical and Christian Cultures. Of course this is well after the era in question.

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