The title of this post is a little funny to me. It's not too hard to find the message or meaning in any of Nephi's writings, since he tells us in the first chapter what his intended message for all of his writings is (then re-affirms and clarifies this in Chapter 6):
I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance. -1 Nephi 1:20
I desire the room [upon these plates] that I may write of the things of God. For the fulness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved. -1 Nephi 6:3-4
So I guess I'll follow suit here and clarify my intention, which is to consider:
how the scene poignantly shows that the God of the Old Testament makes and eternally keeps covenants;
how this relatively heinous scene qualifies as a "thing of God";
how Nephi killing Laban points to merciful deliverance in the broadest and most eternal sense.
Whoa. That's a lot. I'm grateful I've come to this place where I see these potentialities in this part of the record. Because at one point, this part of the Book of Mormon caused great conflict for me and I honestly wasn't sure I could reconcile my thoughts about it with other elements of my testimony. Here's actually part of a journal entry outlining my questions: "So I have and continue to wrestle with Nephi’s killing of Laban. I do understand it on one hand, but I have a hard time even imagining this is something Jesus would condone or do. Is this a good/better/best thing? Or a paradox? Anyway, I’m still wrestling with it. But I prayed to understand this better as I read this time and I did get some insights, or at least a glimpse of light. I was shown some of the profound symbolic meaning and that got me considering other potential parallels." I had wrestled for years not only that Nephi killed Laban, but that he cut off his head, that he took what I would assume would then be bloody clothes and wore those, and the many implications of all of it. That journal entry documented the beginning of the thoughts I'll now share. I'll start with symbolism in a bullet-point type fashion, then expound on those thoughts.
Some Potential Symbolism in 1 Nephi 4
7-Laban had fallen to the earth - he (and his people in Jerusalem) had descended/degraded/
lowered to carnal/temporal things (worldliness).
7-He was drunken with wine - his mind, body, and spirit were overpowered/stupified and taken over by something outside of himself (he allowed himself to be acted upon beyond just that moment). The things of the world had taken control of him (and his people).
9-I beheld his sword - Sword is a symbol of the word of God. “It penetrates, cutting through culture, habits, biases, preconceptions, and doubts to speak to the innermost part of us” [from an Ensign article]. It can “prick the heart”. It divides (separates truth from error and helps the divine nature put off the natural man). It is an instrument to accomplish God’s purposes. These plates/word of God were “Laban’s” but truly also Lehi’s and his posterity’s (including Nephi). Nephi recognized the details and fine workmanship (God’s hand and the prophets’ work) -- there might be more symbolism here with the handle, gold, and blade, but that’s for another day.
9-I drew it forth from the sheath - a sheath separates the blade from the body as a defense. Nephi, as led by the spirit was symbolically unleashing the power of the word of God and Laban was no longer to be defended from the justice of the word.
18-I took Laban by the hair - Hair symbolizes physical strength of the Lord, which Laban had already surrendered by unrighteous living (in this moment, drunkenness and being acted upon/worldliness). Laban was being taken because he had walked away from the strength of the Lord. He was left to his own strength = nothing.
18-I smote off his head with his own sword - It was his own sword/the word of God in his possession that condemned him to death. His disobedience to the word resulted in spiritual and in this case physical death. He was also the head of the people so it was also cutting off the leader of the people and condemning them to destruction because of the sword/justice of the word of God. He/they brought about their own destruction.
19-I took the garments of Laban and put them upon mine own body; yea, even every whit; and I did gird on his armor about my loins. - Here Nephi is symbolically covering himself with the law of Moses, the commandments… godliness, light, knowledge, protection. He is claiming what is rightfully his family’s anyway. He is also symbolically becoming the leader of his people in this moment, taking upon himself the role that Laban has willfully relinquished. Also, the opportunity to be this leader was given to Laman, but by not acting in faith the way Nephi did, he essentially rejected that position.
-The sword and armor are tools to ‘protect, deliver, and give power,’ as Sariah acknowledge was done in 5:8.
How Nephi killing Laban poignantly shows that the God of the Old Testament makes and eternally keeps covenants
It is critical to recognize that when Nephi lets us know that his writings are an effort to "persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved," he's referring to the God of the Old Testament, the God who makes and KEEPS covenants - Jehovah, who is the Christ.
When he was having to convince his brothers that they absolutely were not returning to their father without the plates, even after they had seen an angel so it's going to take quite some convincing, he refers them to this God of the Old Testament, this covenant-making and keeping mighty God who delivered Moses and his people, their ancestors:
Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea... the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers, and to destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians. -1 Nephi 4:2-3
Those are VERY important verses when it comes to understanding Nephi's killing of Laban. Others have written about how when Nephi said, "I will go and do," this was oath and covenant language. He was saying, the Lord has commanded this thing so I'll do my part and depend on His promise to deliver me. My point is, when he's then speaking these verses to his brothers, he is in the act of bringing to pass this covenant. It is my opinion that when he spoke the words, "The Lord is able to deliver us... and to destroy Laban," he was not only reminding them of Moses and the Egyptians, he was sealing Laban's fate.
He was speaking with the power and authority of God, and even so, it was done.
In that moment, that was the promise, that Laban would be destroyed. I think even when he was speaking those words, it's possible he was already "constrained" by the spirit, and God was speaking through him. He was a speaking instrument and then became a physical instrument in God's hands to bring about His designs and purposes. And just like has been done comparing Nephi with Goliath (see the chart under 'further reading' on this KnoWhy), I believe the same could be done with Nephi in this situation AND with Lehi and his family AND with all of us because of having these records in comparison with Moses and the Egyptians. The allusions and parallels are vast.
The element which might make us resist this part of the record the most is the idea that this isn't a Christlike action. At least, that was the case for me. Jesus would love and forgive, help and save. What is the truth, though? Jehovah, who was the God of Abraham... AND the God of Moses... had covenanted with these very people, both sides involved, that if they kept His commandments, they would prosper, and if they didn't keep His commandments, they would perish. It's not like they were blindsided by this. They had been told, SHOWN, reminded, told again, and shown again! And just as the God of Moses destroyed the Egyptians, the God of Lehi and Nephi destroyed Laban.
Of course, the part that might makes us pause or resist that thought is that Nephi destroyed Laban. Or did he?
Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. -1 Nephi 4:13
However, since Nephi was in a state of humble submission such that he could be constrained by the spirit, he was involved. Yet isn't that another message from Jehovah? If you keep my commandments and PROSPER, you will progress, you will be MINE, and you will become LIKE me. The message is an ASSURANCE that the God of our fathers means what He says and He WILL make good on His promises. Period. And you're right, it's not always pretty. That's why He literally has begged us through MILLENNIA and has gone through such great efforts, through His servants to write and prophecy and tell and remind us,and through personal revelation to anyone who will received Him, just like He did Laban and the Egyptians, to please hearken... listen and do! Because He is bound to keep His word in justice AND in mercy... because of the law AND because of His love for all of His children.
There are many points to ponder about this. Much has been written about it so I'll point you to the readings which have been most interesting to me and worth pondering. I've already referenced the BoM Central KnoWhy and the additional references on that page. I would also recommend this podcast episode and the book written by the guest regarding the myth of redemptive violence. The ideas expounded upon there conflict with the ideas I've just presented. I'm fine with that because I don't claim to be certain in my ideas and I also am open to paradox and additional ideas that provide new insights. I don't know the definitive answers to all things, but I know God will guide us to what we need when we need it.
Despite my many musings over this 'myth of redemptive violence' as well as my own personal discomfort with violence and killing in general, it is still my current belief as spiritually witnessed and affirmed, that it was not God or Nephi but Laban who chose his fate. By not heeding the 'double-edged sword' of truth in his literal possession, he cut off his own head and sealed his own fate.
And thus we see how merciful and just are all the dealings of the Lord, to the fulfilling of all his words unto the children of men; yea, we can behold that his words are verified. -Alma 50:19
The best answer, always
In my formal education, I was taught many things, but one idea stuck with me and I used or at least considered it in almost all of my projects and papers. One of the first professors I encountered in my program taught that all elite leaders know there is one and only one BEST answer to every single question:
This had to do with business administration and the handling of complex business decisions. And as I pursued that course of study and application of the principles I had been taught, I found repeatedly that this answer truly did supersede all other answers. And even if some answer seemed to always fit, if I tried using, "it depends," instead having a knee-jerk reaction and using the seemingly black and white answer, I could, without fail, find many variables to consider for that specific moment.
While pondering this topic of Nephi killing Laban, the memory of "it depends" came clearly into my mind. As I pondered the wisdom of applying that answer to this and other questions, I realized that my desire to paint good/bad or right/wrong on individuals, circumstances, and narratives in the Book of Mormon was the result of prideful thinking. In the eternal scope, no matter how philosophical, versed in scripture, spiritually attuned, or otherwise adept at evaluation in these matters, my opinions are profoundly uninformed and therefore irrelevant in comparison to an infinitely loving, all-knowing God.
From this place of humility and unknowing, this place of releasing the need for certainty, I was led to a greater sense of gratitude toward God for His task of teaching His children through this mortal experience, an increased awareness of His patience and love for me and all others as we fumble in figuring things out, and a trust in His wisdom that surpassed what I had known before. In this new frame of reference, this new comfort with uncertainty and paradox, I found this quote that seemed to fit the "It depends" mold that breaks the mold.
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, 'Thou shalt not kill;' at another time He said, 'Thou shalt utterly destroy.' This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted - by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. -Joseph Smith
To me, this overriding principle is reflected in all of scripture and makes sense out of complicated circumstances in my life and circumstances I see all around me. In my view, this dependence on God's commandment in each moment can and actually must trump all other opinions, rules, laws, paradigms, or seeming good cause, if eternal progression is our goal. Our prophet today has exhorted us to increase our capacity to receive personal revelation and I believe this is the reason. We must not depend on past experiences, the thoughts of those around us based on their opinions, our own assumptions, the world's popular notions, or any thing other than God's wisdom to guide us. We must know His voice! We must trust His perspective. We must hush our natural tendencies and desires to know in advance. We must be able to NOT know beforehand the things we're going to do. We have to get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable.
We can do it! I know for sure we can do it or we wouldn't be here now. So let's do it starting now! Why not now? Let's lean in. Let's spend a little more time in prayer and a lot more time listening during and after prayer. Let's ask Him to teach us what to do if we don't know how to start hearing His voice. It's time to let go of our false ideas and false idols and hold fast to the iron rod. It's time to rend the veil of unbelief and truly believe. It's time to stop dwindling and perishing, choosing instead to grow, increase, and progress! This is the charge, this is the call, and this is the time. Each moment we're alive it's the time to be just a little bit better at this, at being true disciples, children of Christ... following His voice, His path, and His plan that will lead us to His peace, His enduring joy, and His eternal promises.
So what's the message? Go and do what the Lord commands and believe He will guide you in every moment, in every circumstance. And that is possible only in and through Jesus Christ.
What's the meaning? He keeps His promises and He has promised you ALL that He has... EVERYTHING. And that is possible only in and through Jesus Christ.