So is this my contemporary sensibilities, my modern moral compass set in a fantastically different, less physically grueling and brutal world that recoils from Nephi’s terrifying justification? Undoubtedly—although that in itself certainly makes it no less right. But the text itself and Nephi’s manner of disclosing and addressing this event offers evidence that something was rotten in Nephi’s Denmark.
First, it is conspicuous that Nephi deals with it at all, and even more conspicuous that he deals with it at length. His brothers weren’t there. The event is decades old. Relating the narrative as he does won’t contribute to Nephi’s implicit goal of justifying his theocratic reign—quite the opposite, the whole narrative is defensive in nature. Why go into at all? The story about his faith and perseverance being the variable that made the difference in gaining the sacred record is the critical point. Murdering Laban is a distraction. Why not skip over it altogether? His brothers weren’t there. No one was there. Laban’s passed out drunk. Why not simply describe his stealing Laban’s clothes and leave it at that? (I also wonder why he didn’t just leave Laban naked or perhaps tie him up. Did the situation not allow it?)
I think Nephi dwells on the murder at length because it was a significant issue well down the road (as murders often are). This is one of the reasons for writing 1 Nephi in the first place. The murder is such a conspicuous event, that I suspect it was central to the anti-Nephi campaign that I can’t help but see wound completely through the story. At some point it became known, and whether then or years later in the Americas, it became an issue. Perhaps the youthful and indiscreet Nephi bragged about it: “When Laman went for the plates, Laban nearly killed him. But when I went for the plates, God delivered Laban into my hands and I smote him!” Perhaps the blood and gore were conspicuous once the sun rose (I’ll confess—I always wonder morbidly about the clothes; decapitating someone is messy business; how could he then dress in Laban’s clothing? and what did he then do with the body? the messiness calls out for explanation). Perhaps he was haunted and later confessed. Perhaps the news of it was everywhere when they went back for Ishmael’s family, making it impossible for Nephi to hide the fact. Maybe Nephi was simply candid in telling his brothers and parents what happened, and this candor was later used against him.
I also wonder at Nephi’s own dialogic narrative. Again, if we take the record at face value, then this is a decades later recreation of whatever went through Nephi’s head at the time of the event. There are certain cherished, life changing conversations I’ve had, and relaying them now I think I get main points right, but certainly not the specifics. What tends to happen is that the narrative changes and gets codified in order to emphasize whatever it is that’s important to me. This is natural—and unavoidable. So it’s important to remember that we’re not getting an actual transcript of Nephi’s dialogue with the Spirit.
Additionally, even assuming a radically different and more violent culture, this was an event that would’ve filled Nephi’s blood with enough cortisol to cast doubt on not only an accurate recreation of his conversation with the Spirit, but probably the full details of the event itself—even if he’d written it the next day. This is a narrative that Nephi’s worked at and polished. He explicitly draws upon Deuteronomy for his justification—which he likely would not have even known prior to getting and studying the plates (and there’s no telling how much time passed before he had access to the record he stole). This passage emphasizes Nephi’s own “shrinking” from the act before offering a simplistic and barbaric set of excuses for the murder—blaming God in the same way certain folks love to blame the devil. At any rate, my cynicism isn’t necessary to my point: Nephi gives us a much later and carefully crafted narrative that emphasizes why his act was ok. This is fact that all of us have to wrestle with, whatever we think of the event itself. Nephi’s emphasis in the story only makes sense in response to the obvious point that his act was certainly not.
I almost hate to mention it, but at this point I can’t help but reread Nephi’s earlier faithful, scriptural contextualizing (e.g., vs. 1-3). Rather than an inspiring model it now shows up as intentional rationalizing, priming, and manipulation.
Nephi, you were indeed like your hero Moses: an outright murderer, called by God to stand as a prophet. But I far prefer Moses’s unvarnished, unjustified narrative to your careful politicking.