Monday, May 19, 2014

The Story Behind Laban’s Death

A reader wrote in to express a disagreement regarding the story in the Book of Mormon about Nephi killing Laban and getting away with it. Since the answer to his short question could not equally be short, we have taken this entire post to try and do it justice. 
   “I find the slaying of Laban by Nephi an impossible event. Why would a God-fearing man kill another, especially one that was unconscious and helpless, and more importantly, how could a single man kill one of great prominence on the city streets of Jerusalem and escape without notice? Surely someone would have seen him and raised a cry.” Fisher B.
Response: The story of Samual ibn Adiyt, a most famous Jewish poet of Arabia in ancient times, won undying fame in the East by allowing his son to be cruelly put to death before his eyes rather than give up some costly armor that had been entrusted to his care by a friend. No doubt, taken in part from the real life history of Samuel Ibn Naghrillah (HaNagid) of Mérida (993 A.D.), a shop keeper and merchant in Córdoba, later removed to Granada where he rose in the Court to assistant vizier of state to the Berber king Habbus al-Muzaffar, and his son Joseph--all reminds us that eastern and western standards are not the same. It might surprise us to know that the callousness of Americans in many matters of personal relationships would shock Arabs, as many things they do shock us.
    Yet, in the scriptural record, no one seems more disturbed by Labab’s death, than Nephi himself, who takes great pains to explain his position (1 Nephi 4:10-18). First he was "constrained by the Spirit" to kill Laban, but he said in his heart that he had never shed human blood and became sick at the thought: "I shrunk and would that I might not slay him" (1 Nephi 4:10). The Spirit spoke again, and to its promptings Nephi adds his own reasons: "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" (1 Nephi 4:11). But this was still not enough; the Spirit spoke again, explaining the Lord's reasons and assuring Nephi that he would be in the right; to which Nephi offers more arguments of his own, remembering the promise that his people would prosper only by keeping the commandments of the Lord, "and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments . . . save they should have the law" (1 Nephi 4:15), which the dangerous and criminal Laban alone kept them from having. "And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause. . . . Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit" (1 Nephi 4:17-18).
Streets in ancient cities were seldom as one might expect today. They were narrow, often with numerous turns, and dark, even in the daytime. Envision these Old Jerusalem streets late at night, with everyone inside (they didn’t have city lights then, only torches, and little was done at night) without the modern lights seen here
    Your suggestion that the story of Laban's death is absurd, if not impossible, since Nephi could not have killed him and made his escape. Those unfamiliar with night patrols in the military, or with the condition of streets anciently, may not realize that lighting of city streets, except for festivals, is a blessing unknown to ages other than our own.
    Streets of even the biggest towns were perfectly dark at night, and very dangerous. To move about late at night without lamp bearers and armed guards was to risk almost certain assault. In the famous trial of Alcibiades, a general in the Peloponnesian War, for the mutilation of the Hermae (Hermes), a quadrangular memorial stone sculpture set in city streets to mark boundaries, is the testimony of one witness who, all alone, beheld by moonlight the midnight depredations of a drunken band in the heart of downtown Athens—obviously, city streets of the greatest city in the western world were unlighted, deserted, and dangerous at night.
Top: London and New York city streets in 1800s; Bottom: City streets today. Most anything can be done amid darkness in streets of the past and even some of today
    From the Greek and Roman comedy and from the poets we learn how heavily barred and closely guarded the doors of private houses had to be at night, and archaeology has shown us eastern cities in which apparently not a single house window opened onto the public street, as few do even today at ground level. East and West, the people simply shut themselves in at night as if in a besieged fortress. Even in Shakespeare's day we see the comical terror of the night watch passing through the streets at hours when all honest people are behind doors. In a word, the streets of any ancient city after sundown were a perfect setting for the committing of deeds of violence without fear of detection.
    It was very late when Nephi came upon Laban (1 Nephi 4:5, 22); the streets were deserted and dark. Laban was wearing armor, so the only chance of dispatching him quickly, painlessly, and safely was to cut off his head—the conventional treatment of criminals in the East, where beheading has always been by the sword, and where an executioner would be fined for failing to decapitate his victim at one clean stroke.
Nephi drew the sharp, heavy weapon and stood over Laban for a long time, debating his course (1 Nephi 4:9-18). He was an expert hunter and a powerful man: with due care such a one could do a quick and efficient job and avoid getting much blood on himself. But why should he worry about that? There was not one chance in a thousand of meeting any honest citizen, and in the dark no one would notice the blood anyway. What they would notice would be the armor that Nephi put on, and which, like the sword, could easily be wiped clean.
    The donning of the armor was the natural and the sensible thing for Nephi to do—there is no greater safety in an enemy camp than to don the insignia of a high military official (and not hang around too long), and Nephi had no intention of delaying his departure. No one dares challenge leaders too closely (least of all a grim and hot-tempered Laban); their business is at all times secretive and important, and their uniform gives them complete freedom to come and to go unquestioned.
    Nephi tells us that he was "led by the Spirit" (1 Nephi 4:6). He was not taking impossible chances, but being in a tight place he followed the surest formula of those who have successfully carried off ticklish assignments. His audacity and speed were rewarded, and he was clear of the town before anything was discovered. In his whole exploit there is nothing in the least improbable.
How Nephi disguised himself in the clothes of Laban and tricked Laban's servant into admitting him to the treasury is an authentic bit of Oriental romance, and of history as well. When Zoram, the servant, discovered that it was not his master with whom he had been discussing the highly secret doings of the elders as they walked to the outskirts of the city, he was seized with terror—in such a situation there was only one thing Nephi could possibly have done, both to spare Zoram and to avoid giving alarm; something no westerner could have envisioned doing.
Nephi, a powerful man, held the terrified Zoram in a vice-like grip long enough to swear a solemn oath in his ear, "as the Lord liveth, and as I live" (1 Nephi 4:32), that he would not harm him if he would listen. Zoram immediately relaxed, and Nephi swore another oath to him that he would be a free man if he would join the party: "Therefore, if thou wilt go down into the wilderness to my father thou shalt have place with us" (1 Nephi 4:34). What generally astonishes the western reader is the miraculous effect of Nephi's oath on Zoram, who upon hearing a few conventional words promptly becomes tractable, while as for the brothers, as soon as Zoram "made an oath unto us . . . that he would tarry with us from that time forth . . . our fears did cease concerning him" (1 Nephi 4:35, 37).
    The reaction of both parties makes sense when one realizes that the oath is the one thing that is most sacred and inviolable among the desert people: "Hardly will an Arab break this oath, even if his life be in jeopardy," for "there is nothing stronger, and nothing more sacred than the oath among the nomads," and even among the city Arabs, if it be exacted under special conditions. Yet, not every oath will do: to be most binding and solemn an oath should be by the life of something, even if it be but a blade of grass; the only oath more awful than "by my life" or (less commonly) "by the life of my head," is the wa hayat Allah, "by the life of God," or "as the Lord liveth," the Arabic equivalent of the ancient Hebrew hai Elohim.
    The one and only way that Nephi could have pacified the struggling Zoram in an instant was to utter the one oath that no man would dream of breaking, the most solemn of all oaths to the Semite: "as the Lord liveth, and as I live" (1 Nephi 4:32).
    Commanded by the Lord, guided by the Spirit, and using his own intelligence, Nephi carried out the command, knowing the Lord would “provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded,” was not only a possible event, but one quite probable, and was accomplished as Nephi tells it.

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