Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Did Laban Have the Ownership Rights to the Brass Plates? – Part II

Continuing from the previous post, regarding the ownership of the Brass Plates and why Laban had them in his possession. 
    First of all, the Brass Plates contained “the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve; also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah; And also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah” (1 Nephi 5:11-13). The record also revealed to Lehi that both he and Laban were descendants of Joseph who was sold into Egypt (1 Nephi 5:14,16). Nephi states that all things concerning the prophets of old were written on the plates (1 Nephi 19:21), and that they “should go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed, and that they would never perish” (1 Nephi 5:18-19, emphasis added).
    The plates also contained the prophecies of Joseph concerning the descendants of Lehi (2 Nephi 4:1-3). Later, Alma repeats that the brass plates contained the holy scriptures and the genealogy of their forefathers “even from the beginning” (Alma 37:3). In addition, the brass plates also contained the words of four great prophets that are not mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures of today—Zenos, Zenock, Neum and Ezias. We are told that Zenos lived after the days of Abraham and died as a martyr (Helaman 8:19), and that he was the author of the allegory of the tame and wild olive trees that was related by Jacob (Jacob 5), which comprises the longest chapter in the entire Book of Mormon.
    Nephi informs us in that the “record of the Jews” or the Bible contains “many of the prophecies of the holy prophets…save there are not so many” as in the Brass Plates (1 Nephi 13:23). He also stated that “many parts which are plain and most precious” had been removed from the Bible (1 Nephi 13:26). Importantly, Nephi makes the point that “it was wisdom in the Lord that we should carry them with us, as we journeyed in the wilderness towards the land of promise” (1 Nephi 5:22).
    Now when the brothers reached Jerusalem, there was some hesitation on who would approach Laban with the message from their father (1 Nephi 3:11). For some reason, Laman, as the oldest and therefore, as the titular head of the group, did not want to approach Laban himself, so the brothers, perhaps all reluctant to be the one, decided to cast lots to see who would go in and see Laban.
Now the casting of lots is mentioned throughout the scriptures as a method for receiving revelation. Proverbs places great trust in it and reflects two sides to it, that is, on the one hand, there’s a very practical side since those that bind themselves to the lot cannot claim favoritism or impartiality on the part of the caster, i.e., “The lot causeth contentions to cease, and parteth between the mighty” (Proverbs 18:18). The other side involves a higher level by attributing to the Divine that which is actually quite pedestrian. “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). It should also be understood that in the Biblical world of the ancients, casting lots assumed that the randomness inherent in the lots opened the door for God to place His hand in the outcome.
    While the precise ritual and order surrounding the practice has largely been lost to us, let us conclude that two things were likely involved: 1) Laman did not want to be the one chosen, and rather than have his three brothers point to him as the leader and requiring him to go in, he felt he had a better chance of not being the one through the casting of lots; and 2) it seems likely the others went along with the process, each thinking they, too, had only one chance in four of being chosen, as well as some perhaps thinking there might be the hand of the Lord involved in the process—they would have known from the scriptures that the casting of lots was used in the Levitical rotation of temple service was involved (I Chronicles 25), and that Joshua cast lots to determine which tribe to assign to which portion of land (Joshua 18).
    As Nephi concludes: “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; and Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house” (1 Nephi 3:11).
    From the circumstances of the day, it seems likely we could assume that Laban knew who Lehi was, after all, they were related and Lehi was a wealthy man. It could also be concluded that Laban knew who Lehi’s sons likely were. After all, Laban was somewhat of an important figure in Jerusalem, connected with keeping the peace from a military or law enforcement point of view. With Lehi having been preaching in the city and upsetting people with his words regarding the coming of the Messiah, and also the redemption of the world, and about the wickedness and abominations of the Jews (1 Nephi 1:19), and “when the Jews heard these things, they were angry with him” and sought to kill him (1 Nephi 1:20), surely the civil unrest of the city would have come to Laban’s attention.
    At the same time, if Laban had a clear and indisputable right to the plates, he probably would have told Laman “no” when he asked to have them, or when the boys came with Lehi’s wealth, might even have demanded a greater payment, knowing of Lehi’s wealth and property outside the city.
    However, he did neither.
    Instead, he initially threatened to have Laman killed just for asking about the plates, “and thrust him out from his presence, and…said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee” (1 Nephi 3:13).
    Why such vehemence?
    After all, if Laban’s claim to the records was just and legal, why make threats? Was it that he knew he had no right to them and did not want to subject brought up that he had them? As Hugh Nibley claims on this issue: “Laban could have simply said ‘No’ or he could have bargained for a greater payment than the sons of Lehi were offering…Instead, he actively sends his servants to kill the sons of Lehi, while retaining the “gold, silver, and precious things” that the sons had brought.”
    In both instances, Laban’s actions were more like those of a criminal rather than one having legitimate ownership of the records. In the first instance, he threatens murder when Laman brings up the subject, and in the second occurrence, Laban clearly attempts to carry out an act of murder against all four petitioners, which might cause one to wonder if Laban gained possession of the plates through unlawful or at least questionable means.
    It should also be kept in mind, that as the administrator of the city, one of Laban’s main duties was to hear petitions, and based on historical practice it has always been the practice of these men to rob such petitioners wherever possible. Laban appears in Nephi’s writing as the ancient quintessential arrogant and superior governor, willing to both commit murder and to rob people of their possessions under the cloak of authority. Laban obviously considered his own self-importance, meeting as a member of the old aristocracy in full ceremonial armor with “the elders of the Jews” (1 Nephi 4:22) for secret consultations by night, probably holding his position because of his ancestors and not by merit, having his own treasury and with his house the depository of old records—all helping to establish his pretentious character.
    It might also be understood that Laban was given both a chance to do the right thing for the right reason and a chance to do the right thing for a less honorable reason. However, as often happens, his violent reaction instead set up the circumstances by which he lost both his ill-gotten possession and his own life.
    While we do not know that Laban did not have a legitimate claim to the possession of the records, his attitude and actions certainly lend to the likelihood he did not, and that ultimately, the Lord saw that they ended up in the hands of a righteous and rightful heir.


  1. About 10 years ago I tried to figure out how they "cast lots" anciently. But even with the internet, I could not find anybody that really knew for sure. I did find out that the Hebrew word for "lots" is goral, which means a small stone or pebble. But how would one "cast" pebbles for an answer?

    Then one day I was talking with a close friend about it and right when he said something an idea came into my mind. Each choice or person would be assigned to a specific small stone identified by color or some means, and then a final small stone would be the one that picks the answer: the finger of God one could say.

    So, Nephi and his brothers would all find a small stone unique is some way -- something that can be done almost everywhere in the countryside -- and a final stone would be chosen for the chooser stone, and then in a cup or in the hand these stones are cast onto a flat surface and the stone closest to the chooser stone is the winner. Clear as mud?

    I realize this may not be the way they actually did it, but it has become the way I do it.

  2. Good comment. It is probable that different groups cast stones a little differently, but the end result was basically the same. I find today that people play the same card games differently--same game, slightly different rules. I can see that type of situation anciently. The end result is that chance is involved, which, according to ancient custom, allowed God to intervene if he chose to do so.