Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 4

1 Nephi 1:1-4

After a previous failure, Nephi has to convince Laman and Lemuel to allow him one more opportunity.  Nephi sets up this attempt not only with the historical recounting of failure, but with the information he provides about Laban’s power and position when he has Laman and Lemuel say of him: “Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?” (1 Ne. 3:31).

As Nephi describes the method used to convince them, it comes in the form of a sermonette. Nephi invokes scripture that he believes will support their position. Nephi paraphrases the story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt. Perhaps this specific reference is pertinent because it shows Moses defying the politically powerful Pharoah, who certainly commanded more than Laban’s fifty. Nothing else about this particular example seems all that relevant, other than the generic promise of deliverance.

However, it is possible that there is another reason that Nephi selected this particular story. While he may certainly be accurately recalling what he said to his brothers some  forty years prior to writing this particular version, it is also possible that we have the story Nephi believed he said—or even perhaps what he should have said. In this case, it is interesting that Nephi selects a story where the Israelite salvation came after the death of Pharaoh. The miracle of Israel passing through the waters on dry land did not repeat itself for Pharaoh and his armies, as they die with the waters return.

It is a remarkably prescient scriptural reference for what will become Nephi’s success with Laban. Pharaoh died. Perhaps one might even suggest that Moses killed him by allowing the waters to return to their natural state. An army could not stop Moses’s mission. Laban’s fifty were no protection for Laban or from the mission to retrieve the record.

1 Nephi 4:  5-6

Nephi lets us know that this is a Spirit-guided mission. Nothing that happens was the result of Nephi’s forethought. It was all directed through supernatural power.

1 Nephi 4: 7-8

7 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.

8 And when I came to him I found that it was Laban.

The first miracle is that Nephi comes upon Laban who is drunken, alone, and in the dark. Although Jerusalem was not nearly as large as a modern city, it was still large enough that such a chance meeting with the very person Nephi sought had to be evidence of the supernatural guidance. It was a chance meeting that did not happen by chance. That Laban was drunk might have been a reasonably common occurrence. That he was so completely drunk, alone, at night, and right where Nephi found him was simply confirmation that the Spirit was creating this particular situation as the means of accomplishing the goal of retrieving the plates, a mission God had required.

1 Nephi 4: 9

Nephi draws Laban’s sword and notes its quality. While this may indicate Nephi’s familiarity with metalworking and therefore his appreciation for the workmanship in Laban’s sword, the result is that Nephi finds himself standing over Laban with a sword in his hand. Perhaps Nephi remembers and writes this passage as an indication that there was no plan to kill Laban. Drawing the sword was not offensively-minded, but rather done appreciatively.


1 Nephi 4:10-13

The number 3 occurs both in scripture and mythology. There is a long association between sets of  3 and something important. In this case, the Spirit tells Nephi 3 times to kill Laban. Nephi certainly includes this triple instruction because the fact that it occurs 3 times serves to confirm that it comes from the Spirit and not his own imagination. Nephi had let us know that he had no forethought for the mission. The Spirit leads him to this situation and presents Nephi with the way it is to be concluded.

Nephi is to kill Laban. The Spirit commanded, and Nephi declined. His first reason is that he has never killed and does not want to. The Spirit commanded again. Now Nephi adds a legal reason why he might kill laban. Laban had threatened to kill Nephi and therefore Nephi was in some justified position for killing Laban. Yet Nephi refused. The third time the Spirit commands, and this time backs up the command with a reference to scripture. While there is no verse cited, none was required. Nephi would have known the stories well enough to understand that sometimes people who threaten God’s plans die. After all, he had cited one of those occasions to his brothers. It must have been one of the stories which came to mind at this point.

The way Nephi constructs this story, our modern concerns over whether or not he should have killed Laban are completely irrelevant. Nephi lets us know that this has nothing to do with his plans (even though Laban has threatened him, which is explicitly refused as a reason in the second request). Nephi slays Laban only because the Spirit told him to. The triple requirement is intended to be the confirmation for those who understand such things that it was the Spirit who killed, though Nephi as the earthly medium.

1 Nephi 4:14

Nephi must acquiesce now that the Spirit has asked three times and therefore confirmed that the Lord required Laban’s death and it was not any defect in Nephi’s character. As Nephi provides his understanding after the third request, he explicitly turns to scripture to justify what will happen. Nephi must keep the Lord’s commandments, and the triple command has verified that this comes from the Lord. Nephi also uses the presence of the scriptures in his future people as one of the reasons the Lord requires this action. Nephi understand it only inside the framework of scripture, both past by examples, present by the Spirit’s triple insistence, and the future value of the scriptures to his people (and this before he really understood much about who that people would be—although that was abundantly clear when Nephi wrote this).

1 Nephi 4:19

Ben McGuire, “Nephi and Goliath: A Case Study of Literary Allusion in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 18, no. 12 (2009):16-31, suggests that there are elements of this story that Nephi intentionally parallels to the story of David and Goliath. Most important is removing Laban’s head. There were any number of ways to kill Laban, including slitting his throat which would have been similar. The more direct literary allusion may have been to strengthen Nephi as a future king by linking him to David who was also a youth who slew an enemy and later became a king.

1 Nephi 4: 20

Confirmation of the supernatural assistance in carrying out this mission is Nephi’s ability to appear to be Laban, even to one who would have known Laban well. Certainly the clothes and sword lent to the visual similarity, but Nephi does not credit the visual deception. Nephi “commanded him in the voice of Laban” (1 Ne. 4:20). That miraculous transformation of voice was not a visual illusion created by dressing up, but a spiritual disguise that Nephi could not have accomplished on his own.

1 Nephi 4: 24-27

Perhaps the servant (Zoram, who is first named in verse 35 below) is made to carry the plates because that is what Laban would have done. Perhaps it was to cause less suspicion. Perhaps there was some reason why Zoram was to accompany Lehi’s family to the New World.

1 Nephi 4: 28-31

These four verses form a neat literary parallel. There is a crisis when Nephi returns with the plates. His brothers likely expected him to fail since the two previous attempts had failed. When they see two people approaching rather than one, and when the visual illusion that it was Laban might have been sufficient at a distance, the brothers are frightened and Nephi must calm  them.

That creates a new crisis because now Zoram is made aware of the deception and he is afraid for he is no longer with Laban. His crisis must have been tremendous because it involved a complete change in what he had perceived as reality. Force was the only way to initially stop Zoram from fleeing.

1 Nephi 4:32-35

In verse 32 Nephi provides the strongest of assurances to Zoram. Nephi declares “as the Lord liveth, and as I live.” That oath formula was a strong bond. The cultural understanding of what it meant was sufficient that Zoram understood the conditions upon which is life was to be saved, and that by acquiescing, he would “have a place with us” (1 Ne. 4:35).

1 Ne. 4: 36-38

36 Now we were desirous that he should tarry with us for this cause, that the Jews might not know concerning our flight into the wilderness, lest they should pursue us and destroy us.

37 And it came to pass that when Zoram had made an oath unto us, our fears did cease concerning him.

38 And it came to pass that we took the plates of brass and the servant of Laban, and departed into the wilderness, and journeyed unto the tent of our father.

In verse 37, the oath is returned, and there is no further fear of what the relationship between Lehi’s family and Zoram would be. This ends the events of retrieving the brass plates, but it doesn’t end Nephi’s chapter concerning them.  Our chapter 5 is Nephi’s conclusion to the story even when modern sensibilities see an ending with the resolution of the tensions of the mission. Still Nephi sees more to come and transitions to his conclusion by having them return to the “tent of our father” (verse 38).

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About Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner (M.A. State University of New York Albany) is the author of Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon and The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, both published through Greg Kofford Books. He has contributed articles to Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl and Symbol and Meaning Beyond the Closed Community. He has presented papers at the FairMormon conference as well as at Sunstone.

7 thoughts on “Musings on the Making of Mormon’s Book: 1 Nephi 4

  1. I really appreciated Brant Gardner’s treatment of this topic. Even though I believe that Nephi’s behavior was appropriate in regard to Laban, I have struggled when I have had occasion to teach it because the thought of causing someone’s death is difficult to justify, even for righteous reasons. I worry that some will justify a killing based on Nephi’s experience, especially those with mental health issues. I always emphasize how unusual this circumstance was and how much Nephi struggled with the directive, and this is given further emphasis by Brant Gardner.

  2. Do I remember correctly that someone has suggested [maybe Hugh Nibley, although I have not found it in “Lehi in the Desert”] that Nephi’s statement in vs. 1 ” then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?” may indicate that Laban had fifty troops in the city of Jerusalem, but actually was the commander of a much larger army also? This would draw an even stronger parallel to Pharoah.

    • Here is the passage you are remembering:

      As to the garrison of fifty, it seems pitifully small for a great city. It would have been just as easy for the author of 1 Nephi to have said “fifty thousand,” and made it really impressive. Yet even the older brothers, though they wish to emphasize Laban’s great power, mention only fifty (3:31), and it is Nephi in answering them who says that the Lord is “mightier than Laban and his fifty,” and adds, “or even than his tens of thousands” (4:1). As a high military commander Laban would have his tens of thousands in the field, but such an array is of no concern to Laman and Lemuel: it is the “fifty” they must look out for, the regular, permanent garrison of Jerusalem. The number fifty suits perfectly with the Amarna picture where the military forces are always so surprisingly small and a garrison of thirty to eighty men is thought adequate even for big cities. It is strikingly vindicated in a letter of Nebuchadnezzar, Lehi’s contemporary, wherein the great king orders: “As to the fifties who were under your command, those gone to the rear, or fugitives return to their ranks.” Commenting on this, Offord says, “In these days it is interesting to note the indication here, that in the Babylonian army a platoon contained fifty men”; also, we might add, that it was called a “fifty,” hence, “Laban and his fifty.”

      Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), 111-12.

  3. This blog has sent me back to a wonderful set of books I had not read in many years: Hugh Nibley’s “Teachings of the Book of Mormon”–Transcripts of lectures presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University 1988-1990. Here is where I find the reference to Laban commanding tens of thousands:
    [Semester 1, page 98] “We read in the Amarna Letters . . .that the military governor commanded fifty men in the city for patrolling the streets, etc., and ten thousand men in the field. Well, that’s the very same thing you find in the Book of Mormon where the brothers say they don’t dare go back and face Laban: ‘How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?’ (1 Nephi 3:31). Nephi replies ” ‘…why not [the Lord] mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?’ (1 Nephi 4:1). It’s like the normal setup of a division, a brigade, or a platoon today which has so many men. It’s very stable and lasts for centuries.”

  4. Re I Ne 4:20, I’m not convinced that Nephi needed a “supernatural” or “miraculous transformation” in his voice to mimic a drunken Laban on a very dark night. Given Nephi’s large size, I doubt that it would have taken much to convince Zoram that he was Laban, and I am waiting for someone from Hollywood to recognize the potential impact of the story.

    Hey, Brant, the Book of Mormon is a success on Broadway, why not on the silver screen? It could be shot on location within the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as well as at the Jerusalem set which has been constructed in Utah County. All we need is a powerful script: An adaptation of I Nephi.

    • Unfortunately, the last attempt to tell the 1 Nephi story on the silver screen was less than–silver.

      Given the last attempt, I think there is a hard line to walk between the expectations of the devotional reading of the text and a more authentically historical one.

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