Nephi: Prophet, Seer.. Murderer?

Note: Yes, I’m sure this post would have been better a few weeks ago, but sometimes that’s just how it goes.

How many times have you read the story of Nephi killing Laban? 50? 500? 5000? It is unavoidable, as it is included in the first few chapters of The Book of Mormon, and you know how many times we’ve all read 1st Nephi.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the story, I invite you to read the Book of Mormon, then come back and finish this. To the rest of you, read on!)

I am willing to admit that the idea of Nephi decapitating an unconscious, defenseless man has always bugged me – even if the man was a bad dude, which Laban was. Sure, if it had been a fair fight, I’d feel better about it. Yes, I know the Spirit told Nephi to do it, but I also know that using that defense in court wouldn’t fly:

“You Honor, I plead not guilt by the reason of inspiration.”

I have always considered myself somewhat scripturally literate, but I haven’t found any heard any arguments justifying Nephi’s deed other than the “Spirit made me do it” defense.

So, I went looking. It turns out that if you look for more knowledge, you’ll probably find it.

This is also a great example of what is called “Presentism,” where we judge people of different times by today’s standards. (More detail on this idea in this post here.)

First, a few things we know, and a few things I learned:

Laban was a bad dude. When Nephi’s brother Laman went in to request the plates, Laban called him a robber and threatened to kill him. Laman high-tailed it out of there.

And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee.

But Laman fled out of his presence.. (1 Nephi 3:13-14)

You know what that is? Bearing false witness according to Mosaic law – yes, just like in the 10 commandments. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” (Mosiah 13:23)

And what was the punishment for bearing false witness back in the day? Yup – death. (Deuteronomy 19)

That would be Strike One for Laban.

Next up, after the brothers attempted to buy the plates, Laban kicked them out and kept their riches.

And it came to pass that when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property.

And it came to pass that we did flee before the servants of Laban, and we were obliged to leave behind our property, and it fell into the hands of Laban. (1 Nephi 3:25-26)

Ah, here we have two things to talk about, the first is theft, which, also violates the Law of Moses, “Thou shalt not steal.” (Mosiah 13:22) The punishment requires and repayment plus. If repayment is not paid, then…

Strike 1.5 for Laban.

Also, in the previous verses we see Laban sent his servants to kill Nephi and company. That would be attempted murder. Mosaic Law? “Thou shalt not kill.” (Mosiah 13:21)

Let’s give Laban another half-strike for the attempted murder. Strike 2.

And the last one was most interesting to me: After some discussion with his chicken brothers, Nephi went back to try again, alone.

And it was by night; and I caused that they should hide themselves without the walls. And after they had hid themselves, I, Nephi, crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban.

And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.

Nevertheless I went forth, and as I came near unto the house of Laban I beheld a man, and he had fallen to the earth before me, for he was drunken with wine.

And when I came to him I found that it was Laban. (1 Nephi 4:5-8)

The important part of the passage is this: not knowing beforehand the things which I should do. Why? Because under Mosaic Law, this automatically kicks it down from premeditated murder to manslaughter – because there was no premediation, so that’s good for Nephi.

Here’s what the Law of Moses says about that:

He that smitten a man, so that he die, shall be surely be put to death.

And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.

But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die. (Exodus 21:12-14)

Nephi didn’t “lie in wait,” he just found him lying there – Laban was delivered into his hands, making it a whole different issue.

Strike 3 for Laban

How it worked back then, is that Nephi would have been allowed to flee the city (which he did) and if the High Priest put together at least two witnesses to testify against Nephi, they would call him back to the city for a trial. There weren’t two witnesses, so there would be no trial.

Even if there had been a trial, with the other strikes against Laban, it is highly likely that Nephi would be given slap on the wrist and sent on him merry way, back into the wilderness.

(If you really want to learn more, here is a link to a scholarly legal paper about all this stuff)

From digging in deeper, it looks like Nephi was well-justified in taking Laban’s life. (Although I’m still not sure what the rules are about running around in a dead man’s clothes.)

Does it matter? Not really. The first, and most valid reason is still the the Spirit too him to do it. And remember, Nephi was no neophyte in recognizing the voice of the Spirit – he had all sorts of previous exposure, but there are other reasons that Nephi wasn’t a murderer.

The Book of Mormon is true. And to me, my conviction runs deeper, the more time and effort I put into discovering more about it.

About the author


  1. I once had someone stop listening to our message when he read this part in the Book of Mormon. His claim was that God is love and never does anything to punish others. While his logic is false (and debunked in talks such as “Love and Law”) we were unfortunately unable to convince him otherwise.

  2. I thought about this a lot over the years. There was a good article about this story in the Jan. Ensign.

  3. It is very likely that Nephi simply forgot to mention that he took Laban’s clothes off first and then cut off his head. He would have only needed to remove his outer raiment to put over his own. I figure if the Spirit can direct Nephi to the place where Laban was, he can also put the thought into his mind to take the clothes off before he slew him.

  4. I ‘ve thought about this a lot, too. I am sure God loves Laban as much as He loves Nephi. It also seems to me Laban’s first reaction was all out of proportion. If someone came to you and said, “Give me your only copy of your family history,” you’d laugh. You wouldn’t scream, “Thief!” In my opinion, the Spirit told Laban that someone was coming to get the plates and Laban disobeyed. People get angry when they decide to do something they know they shouldn’t. Then, Laban compounded his sin by bearing false witness, theft, and attempted murder. On top of that, there were laws against drunkenness. Laban may have been trying to drown his guilt.
    Just a thought. Thank you for sharing the appropriate to their time and culture explanation.

  5. Dang!!!! Thanks for doing your homework on this issue!!! jw if you’d provide your sources for us, too. Thanks for all of your blogs. Food for glorious thought!

  6. Another aspect of this account gives us a valuable insight into Heavenly Father’s character and mercy I believe. I don’t think it is accidental that Laban is passed out drunk for the reason of eliminating premeditation on Nephi’s part as you noted. But it shows Heavenly Father’s great mercy as well. In effect, Laban is anesthetized and will not feel anything as he is relieved of his head. Thank you for sharing how Laban’s actions violated the Law of Moses making his demise justified. Another great post!

  7. Love the reference to presentism , great concept to understand . Too many times We put 2020 laws, customs and thinking on the last 6000 plus years . As an old teacher and student of History , when I don’t have full understanding of an event , I remind myself and anyone interested …. I Was Not there and neither was ANYONE else alive today ! Thank you for thoughts on this story of profound faith on the part of Nephi .

  8. Very good read and good analysis. Thanks for your work on this blog. But, are you OK? Or just in a hurry? Very many more than usual typos in the piece which can be distracting.

  9. I like to remember the wording from the angel, “Behold ye shall go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands.” He didn’t say he would deliver the plates, rather LABAN. This trip changed Nephi.

    I also have wondered about blood and the clothes. ?

  10. So, since we are being candid about the Laban question, how did he not bleed all over his clothing, and then How did Zoram not see or smell blood? I am definitely NOT questioning the reality of what happened. I have just often thought about this question when studying this marvelous record if Nephi’s faith and obedience.

    1. My husband and I have always wondered about Laban’s clothing and blood all over everything too. It’s so trivial to the importance of the story but we joke about it anyway.

      1. Yes, trivial, but id’s one of those tiny questions that intrigue me. One of the paintings of this had Laban’s head kind of laying down over a step, and I wondered if that artist had the question, too. It’s one of those insignificant questions that don’t dissuade my faith at all, but would be interesting to know. Certainly, if God can divide the Red Sea so that the children of Israel can cross on dry ground, He can deal with an issue of blood.

  11. Thank you so much for tying this in with Mosaic law, which I have not heard before. Makes it a little easier to understand.

    And, there is a small typo in the second to last paragraph, that I’m sure would like to fix?

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