Editor’s Note: For readers who are sensitive to graphic description, be aware that the second half of this article discusses the nature of Laban’s killing in some detail.

Cover image via Book of Mormon Videos.

How many times have you been asked or perhaps just wondered about Nephi’s killing of Laban?  One investigator, after reading this section remarked, “It sounds like Nephi was just rationalizing in order to justify murder!”  By western standards, it does sound like that, but under the Mosaic law, things look very different.  Another asked how Nephi could have put on Laban’s clothes, “even every whit,” when there would have been so much blood from decapitating him?  Trying to form a mental image with Laban’s head down hill just didn’t suffice considering the arterial spurting.  Resolving these two issues would not only add to the internal credibility of the record but would also resolve another later problem issue to be mentioned at the end of this article.

According to the Law of Moses, there were two differing types of killing: inexcusable, requiring judicial action, and excusable, as a type of non-judicial justice.

12 ¶ He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.

13 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.

14 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

Verses 12 and 14 outline the capital nature of premeditated murder.  But verse 13 includes killing under divine direction as excusable, with a sanctuary-place designated by God. Deuteronomy 19:1-13 adds accidental killing as sanctuary-eligible as well.  It also includes a justifiable killing by the hand of “the avenger of the blood” of a previous killing or wrong committed that, “thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.” Deuteronomy 19:13

So, these conditions make it not only justifiable to kill, in restrictive circumstances, but even a duty when divinely directed as was Nephi.

  1. There is no premeditation – a condition evident for Nephi in verse 4:6 “I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.”
  2. The individual has committed crimes against him. The Spirit stated this legal condition that transformed Nephi into the arm of divine justice in verse 11, which then reminds Nephi of the other legal conditions, “the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property. This separation of instructions by the Spirit and Nephi’s own memory of the law, give credence to this being a dialogue not a rationalized monologue.
  3. The individual was a wicked person who deserved divine justice also listed in verse 11.  Laban had attempted to have them all killed and stole their proffered purchase price.
  4. The Lord has delivered the individual into Nephi’s hands.  The Spirit restates this essential condition in verse 12 and then includes a vital principle stated by others of the time in verse 13, “the Spirit said unto me 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.” Nephi then reluctantly obeys the voice of the Spirit and “took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.  And after I had smitten off his head with his own sword, 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. And after I had done this, I went forth unto the treasury of Laban. And as I went forth towards the treasury of Laban, behold, I saw the servant of Laban who had the keys of the treasury. And I commanded him in the voice of Laban, that he should go with me into the treasury. And he supposed me to be his master, Laban, for he beheld the garments and also the sword girded about my loins. 4:18-21

This creates our second problem, how could Nephi put-on blood-soaked garments and pretend to be Laban?  Some have suggested that it was dark enough that the dark blood stains wouldn’t be visible. But then once in the treasury with lights, Zoram, Laban’s servant, sees Nephi and “beheld the garments” and so supposes that Nephi was Laban?  How is this consistent with the physiology? Some argue that Joseph Smith wouldn’t have known the physiology and that this is evidence that the story is fictional.  They also add a similar contextual problem that when added to this one becomes a deal breaker. 

In Ether chapter 15 Coriantumr and Shiz fight their final battle, during which Coriantumr victoriously smites of the head of Shiz (v30). But then, “after he had smitten off the head of Shiz, that Shiz raised up on his hands and fell; and after that he had struggled for breath, he died.”  Physiologically it is impossible for a decapitated human to “raise up” or “struggle for breath.”  It might be seen in decapitated chickens but not humans.  One doctor supposed that the decapitation could have been more like a scalping, removing only the upper third of the brain to explain the aftermath.  But there is a footnote that lends a much better explanation and resolves our Laban-blood problem also.  Note 31a Judges 5:26-27.  These verses take us to the story of Deborah. She served as a judge in Israel and helped Barak lead them against the Canaanites, led by Sisera.  Judges chapter 5 is the song praising Deborah and Barak in the victory where she surreptitiously entered Sisera’s tent at night and “smote off his head” by pounding a nail through his temples.

“She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.” Judges 5:26

It is obvious that she couldn’t have decapitated him with a nail!  The expression “smote off his head” is from a Hebrew word, “machaq” meaning to crush.  So Sisera as well as Laban and Shiz were killed with a fatal blow to the head, not decapitation.  This not only fits the contexts; there didn’t have to be any blood spurting from Laban, and Shiz could have easily gasped for breath as he “rose up” before succumbing to the fatal blow.  

A minister of another faith, after months of examining anti-Mormon claims and material, exclaimed in frustration, “Every time I read something that proves the Book of Mormon false, we find Hebrew, or customs, or traditions that turn it around and demonstrate the veracity of the book and the fidelity of Joseph Smith as its translator.”  This has happened so many times, every time, that it is easy to recommend investing the time and effort into the spiritual effort to know by divine means that it is all true!