Laban… as a Christ Figure?

“I Did Obey the Voice of the Spirit,” by Walter Rane

This Holy Week I’ve been monitoring my employer’s livestreamed Roman Catholic masses and services, meaning that I (for the first time) attended a Holy Thursday mass and a Good Friday service. So it happened that, during the reading of the Gospel of John in the Good Friday service, I noticed something peculiar.

In response to Jesus’s raising of Lazarus from the dead,

the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:47-50, NRSV)

In the KJV, for reference, that last line is rendered thus:

“It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.”

I was roughly familiar with Caiaphas’s role in the Passion narrative, but I had never clued into this particular pseudo-utilitarian line of reasoning — reasoning that was, in John’s telling, effective enough to convince the Council to pursue Jesus’s execution.

This time, my mind immediately jumped to the other notable instance in scripture where this logic appears. Nephi, having returned to Jerusalem for an improvised third attempt at acquiring the brass plates from Laban, finds Laban passed out, drunk, in the street. The rationale that convinces him to draw Laban’s sword and kill him is eerily familiar:

And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me [Nephi] again: “Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” (1 Nephi 4:12-13)

Granted, there are differences: Caiaphas fears that the Roman Empire will bear down, destroying the temple and perhaps dispersing Israel more disastrously than did the Babylonians; the voice Nephi hears emphasizes the deleterious consequences of a lack of religious knowledge on a people’s faith. Nevertheless, the calculus is expressed in some of the same terms and has the same effect: convincing the hearer that to kill just one person is the moral choice.

Now, there’s a lot of context here that I can’t disentangle in a blog post, even if I had the requisite background knowledge to sufficiently explain and analyze it: for example, the attitudes of the Gospel of John and of Nephi toward Hebrew religion and leadership (not to mention the hundreds of years between the two), or the Book of Mormon’s sustained engagement with and seeming commentary on the New Testament (also seen in some Book of Mormon conversion experiences and in Moroni’s writings about gifts of the Spirit and the New Jerusalem).

But I do think that this parallel should give us pause when we analyze Nephi and his choice to kill Laban — and can give us insight into events in Christ’s life. I wish I had the time and energy to spin this out more fully, but for the moment here are several questions that I think we should consider. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • When Nephite speaks of “the Spirit,” what if that is something distinct from “the Spirit of God/the Spirit of the Lord/the Holy Spirit”? How could we read 1 and 2 Nephi differently if we render the word “spirit” in lowercase? Might “the spirit” refer, instead of to the Holy Ghost, to things that we would call “internal monologue” or the “mind’s eye” nowadays, or something for which we don’t quite have a word (remembering that both the Hebrew and the Greek words translated as “spirit” literally means “breath”), and might sometimes but not necessarily be from God?
  • It appears that the paradigmatic founding acts of Nephite civilization are the exodus from Jerusalem and the slaying of Laban. After all, Nephi performs another exodus in the land of promise (after his brothers seek to kill him) and literally duplicates the sword of Laban so that his people can defend against their erstwhile brethren — and that Nephi wields the sword of Laban itself, which is then passed down to King Benjamin and his son, Mosiah, king and founder of the reign of judges. Seen in the light of Caiaphas’s argument, what might this persistent fixation on Laban and his sword suggest about Nephite culture, morality, attitudes toward violence, and potential shortcomings?
  • In what ways does drawing a parallel between Caiaphas and Nephi help us understand Nephi and Caiaphas as people?
  • How can the surprising parallel between Laban and Jesus help us understand how Jesus was seen in his time?
  • Several chapters later (1 Nephi 11-14), Nephi receives a vision in which he “looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; … And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.” (1 Nephi 11:32-33) If Nephi witnessed Caiaphas’s reasoning for judging Jesus, with his experience with Laban fresh in his mind, what might he have thought and felt?
  • John presents Caiaphas’s reasoning as an ironic prophecy: it is true that the people would be saved by Jesus’s death, but not from the wrath of the Roman Empire: from sin and death themselves. Are there ways in which the same reasoning might be ironic (or almost prophetic) in Nephi’s case?
  • In the midst of his vision of the future, mentioned above, Nephi reports Jesus’s life in Judea and Galilee and his visit to Nephi’s descendants. However, his record of this vision omits something incredibly significant: Jesus’s resurrection. As we ourselves sit between Jesus’s execution and resurrection, what can we make of this omission?

17 comments for “Laban… as a Christ Figure?

  1. Basil
    April 11, 2020 at 3:35 pm

    Food for thought….Thanks for raising these…

  2. rickpowers
    April 11, 2020 at 11:39 pm

    I have always been disconcerted by the length that many LDS’s go – in word and song – to proclaim Nephi’s beheading of a helpless person not just expedient (i.e. for learning sake, which indirectly LeGrande Richards contradicted in A Marvelous Work and A Wonder by claiming that all of the scriptures in the world could disappear and it wouldn’t affect the Church at all because it has the priesthood and continuing revelation) but as something brave and heroic. But even more disconcerting to me has always been the question of “is this really the best solution that the spirit could come up with to obtain the plates; to have this young, impressionable prophet commit 2nd degree murder, theft, deception and kidnapping?” Just like Paul Simon’s song “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, even I can come up with a bunch of ways this could have been carried out much more easily, including the Lord doing the dirty work Himself by giving Laban a heart attack. And I’m just a dumb, old guy – but one who has heard every possible defense of this imaginable and am still as distraught about it as I was when I first pondered it at 15 years old.

  3. April 12, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    Now I’m imagining a scenario where the reason why Caiaphas said it is because it’s a reference that all of the Pharisee’s knew, because someone witnessed Nephi saying it out-loud as Laban was murdered, and when it was reported the next day, they liked the phrase and ended up teaching it for the next 600 years.
    Still, this post is something to ponder about the implications of when God is guiding actions vs. man guiding them.

  4. Dave K
    April 12, 2020 at 4:13 pm

    It has taken me longer than rickpowers, but as a 40-something very active member I have also come to the conclusion that Nephi’s story about the spirit’s instruction simply does not add up. I’m not concerned about theft; Laban stole their property first. And I can quibble over whether Nephi is actively lying or has told the lie so many times that is has become truth to him (he is writing the account years after the incident). But the claim that the spirit told him to kill Laban is false. The spirit could have just as easily told Nephi “I’ve put Laban to sleep and he’ll stay that way for two weeks – enough time for you and your family to escape”. That would have left Laban alive to complete his time of probation (something the BOM holds in high importance) and still accomplished the same purpose for Lehi’s family to have a scriptural account.

    Of course, the real difficulty in coming to this conclusion is that it unsettles the faith I had in scriptures and prophets. I do not like the wrestle required to find a new understand of why the scriptures are foundational and key to God’s work, and yet their authors are often not accurate or even truthful. In reality, though, the scriptures are chalk full of such challenges. I just had them put on a shelf. In later verses Nephi extorts racism. The OT justifications for genocide. The NT gospels frequently differ on facts.

    While a difficult journey, I’ve found that as my testimony of Nephi and other prophets as exemplars has weakened, my testimony of God and his Son has strengthened. There really are none good among us. We are all lost. And if they can work through Nephi, just maybe they can work through me too. That’s perhaps the hardest realization I’ve come to. Faced with the same situation, I may have just as easily killed Laban and lied to my family to cover it on the justification that the ends justified the means.

  5. rickpowers
    April 12, 2020 at 5:21 pm

    “But the claim that the spirit told him to kill Laban is false”.

    Dave: I’m probably missing the point you are making here because 1 NE 4:12 :”the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him” is the idea carried over from verse 10 with the Spirit saying “that I should kill Laban”. Nephi is pretty much saying that this wasn’t his idea.

    But back to Michael’s original – and I do mean “original” premise – even though I realized that the “it’s better that one man should perish” came from the NT, I had never connected the two events. Possibly this is because there are so many paraphrases from the NT and OT in the BoM that I really haven’t taken the time to connect the dots between sources. Some of this can be explained, I suppose, by the brass plates serving as a background source for BoM prophets. Some can be explained by the possible fact that the Spirit inspired prophets with the exact same language in both the old and new worlds, which JS then translated into the BoM via KJV language. Maybe some are just coincidence(?). I don’t know, I just work here.

    But, anyway Michael, this is a wonderful new way to ponder the interconnection between scriptures that I had never thought of before and I will definitely look anew at the many shared phrases. TY.

  6. Ben
    April 13, 2020 at 1:05 am

    I also saw that intertextuality between Caiaphus’s’s words and the spirit’s instructions to Nephi, which seemed to make some connection between Laban and Jesus. Then reading Don Bradley’s Lost pages recently, he made a better argument for the connection between Caiaphus’ words and the Laban’s death. It’s been a few months since I read it, so I won’t do his argument justice, but here’s the gist. Caiaphus’s words have Passover sacrifice overtones to them as Passover was nearing. Bradley makes a strong argument that Nephi’s return to Jerusalem is during the Passover feast, and that the Spirit’s instructions aren’t to ironically parallel Christ’s death but a reference to the Passover sacrifice. There are lots of supporting details that I’m not going to dig up right now, but the general parallel makes a lot more sense than to Christ, which is the only connection I could fathom when I first spotted the intertextuality myself.

    All that being said, I don’t agree with Nephi’s actions or the spirit’s instructions in the story. I think it was morally wrong.

  7. Ben
    April 13, 2020 at 1:12 am

    Re:rick, there are lots of intertextual references between the BOM text and the new and Old Testament, particularly to the gospel of John. BYU professor Nick Frederic is doing a lot of good work on that front. To sum it up, many of these mini-quotations, if you will, appear to be generally purposeful connections.

  8. Wondering
    April 13, 2020 at 8:16 am

    I have often wondered why people feel so constrained to think Nephi infallible. We use the would “spirit” in so many different ways. Michael’s post notes some of them. It seems many of us, reportedly including Joseph Smith, have sometimes mistaken what “spirit” was the source of an idea or revelation. Then there are the problems of memory malleability and of conviction growing in a feeling of certainty with multiple repetitions. We can convince ourselves of many things that are not quite accurate; we do so rather readily when it is a matter of self-justification. And when we write with a purpose to persuade we have another motivation to present a story that may not include all contrary evidence or possibilities. Some embellish to the point of fabrication and have “not always been accurate” in their speeches and writings. (Paul H. Dunn, “An open letter to members of the Church”, Church News, October 26, 1991.) I know people who regularly revise history in their heads and come to believe versions of what happened that are false as can be shown from other witnesses and participants’ documents contemporary with the events. (I’m thinking of one whose most fundamental believe seems to be that he could never have done anything wrong.) I wonder how often I and others tell ourselves stories of our actions and motivations and events we participated in that are not really accurate. Why should we presume that Nephi never did?

  9. Whitfield
    April 13, 2020 at 11:06 am

    You’re just now noticing that the Book of Mormon has common phrasing with the KJV? It is replete with it. This is well documented here: http://www.mormonthink.com/mormonstudiesbible.htm

    As for Don Bradley’s explanation that this similarity is a result of Passover, sorry Don, it clearly fits a pattern of plagiarism from the KJV to inform the text of the BOM. Joseph Smith clearly plagiarized heavily from the KJV to construct the text of the BOM of Mormon. Intertextuality is nothing more than an obfuscation term used to deny an inconvenient and incontrovertible reality that the Book of Mormon text contains hundreds of verbatim passages from the KJV, including texts that the Nephites couldn’t have possibly known about.

  10. Charles
    April 13, 2020 at 1:52 pm

    To me, the whole reasoning betrays a lack of understanding on how the Spirit of God communicates.
    It is more then probable that Caiaphas comment could well have come from the Spirit of God, signifying the admission that it was imperative that one man should die for the sins of the nation. Caiaphas was, after all, very well versed in the old testament. He may well have an understanding that a sacrifice that transcended their current situation was needed. Else, why the author would make the point of mentioning that particular point? Apparently, he was also using a truth from the scriptures to try and justify to himself his own agreement to the killing of an inocent man.
    Laban was also a sacrifice, and it was a point of teaching to Nephi that another man would be also sacrificed later for all mankind. There’s no doubt that when Nephi had the vision of the Lamb being sacrificed for the sins of mankind, immediately came to his mind what the Spirit told him when facing the decision of taking a man’s life. Very similar to Abraham’s experience, I point out. How could God tell Abraham to kill another human being, and his own son, none less?
    Caiaphas used the truth of the Messiah’s sacrifice to justify his wicked political aims whereas Nephi, an obedient young man, was given the same truth to help understand the role of Jesus’ sacrifice.
    In doing what he did, Caiaphas, even under a wicked political expedient, confirmed that Christ needed to be sacrificed, which the writer, moved by the Spirit of God, pointed out that God used even a wicked priest to witness of the truth of Christ’s great gift to mankind. This is how the Spirit of God communicates. It is something that the human heart and intellect can’t even fathom

  11. Travis
    April 13, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    Laban-as-Christ-figure misrepresents the motif.

    It is better interpreted in the context of Laban being a corrupt priest (as priests of Jerusalem would be custodians of religious records). From this, Nephi is more of a Phineas-figure (son of Eliazar-the-high-priest), who slays the corruption in the tent (temple motif).

    Laban’s drunkenness parallels the once-a-year judgement—the king-priest day-of-atonement ritual (Noah), where wine is consumed as holy sacrament (Abraham, Melchizedek, Jesus).

    So reconstruct Nephi as the son of Lehi (true high priest of Jerusalem), slaying the false-king-priest Laban, somewhere in the vicinity of the temple. This motif carries through in so many examples of competition over priesthood throughout the scriptures.

  12. Ben
    April 14, 2020 at 1:14 am

    Whitfield, Don would readily recognize that the BOM is replete with KJV phrases and plagiarism. That’s not in question. His point is that the way the Book of Mormon uses that phrase draws attention to the Passover parallel. From what I’ve seen I don’t believe Don Bradley believes the BOM is a literal history, but I could be mistaken. Nick Frederic, the BYU professor who writes on BOM intertextuality with the NT, also takes the BOM use of KJV as a working assumption essentially, and shows examples of where it uses it to make a point. This isn’t all the time, but sometimes it’s pretty undeniable. He published a paper in 2018 that shows how the Ammon narrative uses the narrative in John chapter 10 to weave its story.
    My guess is that Nick Frederic doesn’t believe the BOM is literal history either, but that’s just a guess from reading his papers and what they infer about the BOM text, structure, etc.

  13. C
    April 14, 2020 at 7:59 am

    I hate to deepen the thread-jack, but Whitfield’s assumption that the BOM’s use of the NT is relevant to historicity ignores what the BOM says on the subject. The text of the BOM is full of reasons to expect NT influence: Nephi watches Jesus’ ministry and the 12 apostles’ ministry in vision. And when Jesus visits, he quotes the NT (and missing OT). And the text says that Jesus continued teaching them (and what else could that be, but more missing NT/OT teachings?). Presumably later 4th-Nephi prophets imported more NT teachings. Mormon and Moroni would have grown up full of NT teachings, and would have weaved it into their narrative as they rewrote and summarized Lehite history. And then there are the translation issues: whoever translated the BOM clearly borrowed from the NT and may also have weaved it through the text, independent of the influences that are already stated in the text. That’s all already baked into the text, aside from considerations of “history.”

    As to Nephi/Laban, I’ve always had trouble with that passage, and the parallels with Caiaphas. Usually I chalk it up to different times/culture, but I have the same trouble with Abraham/Isaac. It’s interesting that they continue to call it the sword “of Laban” even hundreds of years later, and that the introduction of that weapon (and Nephi’s use of it) has an influence on the militarization of Nephite society. .

  14. Whitfield
    April 14, 2020 at 11:29 am

    Ben, I realize Don Bradley is a bit of an outsider. He used to be an ex-Mormon atheist and has now come back to some sort of belief. I’m not sure what his Passover argument is, but I’m just reacting to your synthesis of it. To reiterate, to explain the similarity between the passages in 1 Nephi and the Book of John in the Gospels as Nephi just happening to be uttering a commonly-heard phrase associated with Passover is absurd when a much more well-evidenced and parsimonious explanation of Joseph Smith plagiarizing the NT to construct the BOM (the evidence for which is overwhelming when you juxtapose all of the common words and phrases between the KJV and the BOM as is done on the webpage in the link provided) is available. On Nick Frederick, he actually may have been the one who compiled the data on the link (I’m not entirely sure though). At any rate, he is sort of like Brian Hales in the sense that he has compiled data that appears to cede ground more to critics and skeptics, but then comes up with rather convoluted and imparsimonious explanations in light of the data. The intertextuality argument actually seems to undermine the historicity argument, for intertextuality is a concept used in literary criticism to explain an author’s ideas as coming from earlier texts with which authors would clearly have been acquainted and using to construct a later text. When looking at other examples of intertextuality (i.e. James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Greek epic Odyssey) it doesn’t really quite fit the case of the Book of Mormon. Intertextuality and plagiarism are different, and the BOM clearly plagiarizes the KJV. Too often, I hear apologists using the concept of intertextuality as a sort of euphemism for plagiarism, when they should be saying plagiarism. On whether Nick Frederick believes in the BOM as literal history, rest assured that he would not have his job at BYU if the administration detected any skepticism from him of the BOM’s historicity and they would fire him immediately if he openly expressed skepticism. He and Bradley seem to be part of a new trend in apologetics where the aim isn’t to argue that historicity is plausible and try to find historical evidence for that as apologists did in the past, but to argue that historicity is objectively unverifiable and can neither be proved nor disproved, but only believed on faith (much like belief in God, the atonement, and many other religious concepts).

    C, click the link I provided (don’t shoot the messenger before you read, it simply juxtaposes KJV passages with BOM passages) and take some time to read through just how much of the Book of Mormon is very likely directly lifted from the KJV. Simply by juxtaposing the sheer number of similarities between the KJV and the BOM. Nearly every chapter in the BOM has a text that is similar with the KJV, mostly the NT. It isn’t just post-Jesus’s visitation that the NT is quoted. The NT is clearly plagiarized in all books before Jesus’s appearance to the Nephites. As to this having no relation to historicity, it very much critically undermines many arguments that apologists have used in the past and that have been circulating in common Mormon discourse for years to claim that Joseph Smith couldn’t have possibly known about something (the notorious couldn’t-have-known-about-isms) and that that therefore forces us to accept it as historical. It has long been maintained that Joseph Smith couldn’t have possibly known about olive trees and couldn’t have possibly written Jacob 5, and yet we find 14 parts of Jacob 5 lifted from the KJV. Jacob 5 doesn’t contain any information about olive trees that Joseph Smith couldn’t have known about from the KJV. It has been asserted that Joseph Smith couldn’t have possibly known that Jershon (l-r-sh meaning inherit in Hebrew) meant land of inheritance. And yet, the OT mentions lands of inheritance (or the words “land” and “inheritance” by each other) dozens of times. Furthermore the phrase “land of inheritance” is repeated very often throughout the Book of Mormon and Jershon is merely said to be one of the lands of inheritance, not to actually mean land of inheritance. This is not a significant couldn’t-have-known-about-ism in the least.

  15. Ben
    April 14, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    Whitfield, I think you’ve misconstrued what I’m saying. Don’s argument is that the similarity between the two texts is the BOM essentially quoting the NT. He simply gives that quotation context, which is the Passover connection. He does not try to explain the quotation away as a commonly used Passover phrase. Instead, as I said, he takes the dependence of the BOM on the NT as a given fact. He establishes the Passover setting through other evidence.

    On intertextuality, I agree that it generally undermines arguments for BOM historicity. I personally don’t believe the book to be historical in any way. However, I do see the book’s use of NT phraseology to be more than plagiarism. Instead, I see some of it as purposeful. I think Nick Frederick does a good job of showing examples of how the phrases are at times used to make a point.

  16. April 15, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    I’d be interested to see what ethical frameworks were dominant among the Jewish people in Nephi’s vs. Caiphas’s days. Caiphas and Nephi both invoke a utilitarian / consequentialist perspective. Nephi is also clearly using a divine command theory framework to couch his narrative. There are likely some insights to gain along such a path of study.

    Regarding the question about founding events in The Book of Mormon: throughout his record, Nephi is asserting his authority by drawing parallels between himself and the Old Testament prophets and Kings. Nephi casts himself as Moses as the Exodus is explicitly invoked multiple times. “Let us be strong, like unto Moses.” He literally stands at the edge of the ocean expressing full confidence that if it were the will of God, he could act like Moses and command the entire sea to part. In the account of Laban’s death, I see Nephi invoking King David as a young man embodying covenant Israel decapitates the the superior warrior and champion of the wicked. Given the likelihood that the Nephites encountered other peoples in the promised land, I suspect the Exodus paradigm was carried out even further as they wrestled in war and conflict with the local tribes. Connections to Moses yield to Joshua as the work of conquest and regional dominance begins. Mormon and the record keepers seem to downplay this in the narrative. But it’s possible that Mosiah I’s subjugation of the Mulekites and Benjamin’s ability to “establish peace in the land” by driving the Lamanites out are allusions to the significance of the warrior caste in Nephite government.

    As for Nephi’s focus on the crucifixion rather than the resurrection, I had never noticed that Nephi’s jumps from the Savior’s crucifixion in Palestine to his resurrected appearance among the Book of Mormon peoples in the Land Bountiful. There is no mention of the garden tomb. I’m guessing Nephi’s has to do with Nephi’s focus on casting the Savior’s mission, crucifixion and resurrection in a way that *likens* the entire sequence to the Book of Mormon people and their posterity. Nephi does mention Christ rising on the 3rd day in 2 Nephi 25.

  17. Whitfield
    April 16, 2020 at 3:01 pm

    Thanks for clarifying, Ben. I’ll have to give Don Bradley and Nick Frederick closer reads. Still, I know that Nick Frederick does have to be very careful about what he says and writes as a BYU professor. From what I have read of his, he does treat the BOM as if it is historical and as if what Joseph Smith said about it is generally true.

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