Right in the beginning of the Book of Mormon, we have the story of how Nephi obtained the brass plates from Laban. Because Nephi was commanded of the Spirit to slay Laban, this story has been troublesome for many.
Nephi, however, goes into great lengths to explain how he and his brothers had tried to reason with Laban and offered to buy them from him. He also explained how Laban stole their property and tried to have them killed. Later, when Nephi had found Laban drunk on the ground, he had to be commanded three times by an angel to do the deed. With great reluctance, he complied.
There must have been a reason that Nephi included this story when writing his record. He could have easily said they obtained the brass plates without going into any detail and thus sparing any controversy of how he obtained the plates. By looking further into the account, we may ascertain his reasons for including this incident.
First of all, who was Laban? There is not much in the Book of Mormon that describes who he was, but there are some significant clues. We know that when Lehi commanded his sons to return to Jerusalem to obtain the brass plates, Laman and Lemuel were fearful, saying, “it is a hard thing which I have required of them” [1 Nephi 3:5] and “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, and he can slay fifty…” [1 Nephi 4:31]
Later Nephi said that the Lord was mighter than “Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands.” [1 Nephi 4:1]
A Ruler in Authority
In light of their response, Laban must have been some sort of ruler or one in authority in Jerusalem. It seems that Laban had a guard of fifty at his immediate command and possibly he was the “commander in chief” over all the army. He wore, as part of his regalia, an expensive and rare sword of steel with a gold hilt. He also had a treasury with an overseer.
Additionally, he may have been an ecclesiastical leader because he was in possession of the brass plates, not just a copy written on a scroll. If the Book of Mormon is any pattern of the tradition of the Jews, it was only the church leaders who possessed the spiritual record that was written upon plates or the “hard copy.”
On the evening of his demise, he had been with the elders of the Jews, the “brethren of the church.” [1 Nephi 4:22, 26] In essence, it seems that Laban was a “king and a priest” over his people.
Laban was a relative of Lehi, for they shared the same genealogy. [1 Nephi 3:3, 5:14]. We also know that Lehi’s family was familiar enough with Laban that Nephi could imitate Laban’s voice and mannerisms. [1 Nephi 4:20, 23] It also seems from the account that they had no trouble in obtaining appointments to meet with Laban, which probably would have been difficult for the average citizen. It is even possible that Laban could have been Lehi’s older brother, or he could have been an older cousin to Nephi.
Laban, by the Jewish standards, could have been the birthright son. We know that the rights of leadership, both temporal and spiritual, rests upon the firstborn son. The birthright can be nullified or transferred to another in line to receive it, if the firstborn dishonors his birthright through wickedness.
Laban was a wicked man. [1 Nephi 4:13] This story can be viewed as the loss of Laban’s birthright because of his wickedness, and given to Nephi, possibly the next heir, by virtue of his righteousness, since neither Laman nor Lemuel was worthy to receive it.
Previous to the command to go back to Jerusalem to obtain the brass plates, the Lord had told Nephi that, as long as he kept the commandments, he would be a “ruler and a teacher” [king and a priest] over his older brethren. [1 Nephi 2:22] After losing their property to Laban, Laman and Lemuel were pretty upset with Nephi and began beating him up. An angel intervened and informed them that the Lord had chosen Nephi to be a ruler over them because of their iniquities. [1 Nephi 3:29]
Putting on the Authority of Laban
Nephi doesn’t simply writes that he kills Laban and obtains the plates, but details how he puts on the garments of Laban, “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.” [1 Nephi 4:19]
In essence, Nephi has put on the authority of Laban, and becomes the rightful “king and priest” as he obtains the brass plates. Nephi exercised his role as a “king” as he ruled over his people in the Promised Land and “wielded the sword of Laban in their defense” [Jacob 1:10] and as a “priest” as he taught his people from the brass plates.
This story also is a fulfillment of prophecy. We know that Jeremiah was a contemporary prophet of Lehi. [1 Nephi 7:14] In Jeremiah chapter 25, the Lord tells Jeremiah to “take the wine cup” of His fury and “cause all the nations, to whom I send thee, to drink it.” [vs. 15]
Jeremiah recorded, “Then I took the cup at the LORD’S hand, and made all the nations to drink, unto whom the LORD had sent me: To wit, Jerusalem, and the cities of Judah, and the kings thereof and the princes thereof.” [vs.18] Jeremiah prophesied to the unrepentant rulers, “Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Drink ye, and be drunken, and spue [vomit], and fall, and rise no more, because of the sword which I shall send among you.” [vs. 27]
Perhaps Jeremiah directed this prophecy to Laban, since Laban was clearly a leader of the Jews. The prophecy was fulfilled literally in his case. Nephi described his encounter with Laban,
As I came near to the house of Laban I beheld a man, and he was 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 4:7-8]
And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause — that I might obtain the records according to his commandments. Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.” [1 Nephi 4:17 –18]
Jeremiah’s prophecy was literally fulfilled in Laban’s case. Laban was drunk and drunk people vomit. He had fallen and he did not rise again because he was killed with the sword.
After arriving in the Promised Land, and prior to his death, Lehi gathered his posterity around him and said,
And now my son, Laman, and also Lemuel and Sam, and also my sons who are the sons of Ishmael, behold, if ye will hearken unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish. And if ye will hearken unto him I leave unto you a blessing, yea, even my first blessing.
But if ye will not hearken unto him I take away my first blessing, yea, even my blessing, and it shall rest upon him ( 2 Nephi 1:28-29).
Laman and Lemuel did not hearken unto Nephi, so it is obvious that Lehi intended for Nephi to receive the rights and responsibilities of the firstborn. Laman and Lemuel, however, were not willing to relinquish the birthright. Laman and Lemuel were angry with Nephi because, “Our younger brother thinks to rule over us; and we have had much trial because of him; wherefore, now let us slay him, that we may not be afflicted more because of his words. For behold, we will not have him to be our ruler; for it belongs to us, who are the elder brethren, to rule over this people” (2 Nephi 5:3).
It is for this reason, I believe, Nephi included the detailed account with Laban — to show unto the posterity of Laman and Lemuel that he was the birthright son with the responsibility given to him of the Lord to be the ruler and teacher [king and priest] over the people and that right would continue with the Nephites.
The Lamanites had for many generations felt that the Nephites had robbed them of their birthright, including the possession of the brass plates. In Mosiah 10:12 – 17, we read what Laman and Lemuel taught their posterity including:
And, again, they were wroth with him [Nephi] when they had arrived in the promised land, because they said that he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands, and they sought to kill him.
And they were wroth with him [Nephi] because … he took the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, for they said that he robbed them.
And thus they taught their children that they should hate them, and that they should murder them, and that they should rob and plunder them, and do all they could to destroy them; therefore they have an eternal hatred towards the children of Nephi.
Several years later, the King of the Lamanites was angry with his son, Lamoni, for befriending Ammon, who was a Nephite. He said, “Lamoni, thou art going to deliver these Nephites, who are sons of a liar. Behold, he [Nephi] robbed our fathers; and now his children are also come amongst us that they may, by their cunnings and their lyings, deceive us, that they may again rob us… (Alma 20:13).
Likewise, many years later, Ammoron, the king of the Lamanites, said to Moroni, “For behold, your fathers did wrong their brethren, insomuch that they did rob them of their right to the government when it rightly belonged to them” (Alma 54:17).
Nephi’s record was used to teach the Nephites and receptive Lamanites. King Benjamin testified that they used the written record of Nephi for he said unto his sons, “And behold, also the plates of Nephi, which contains the records and sayings of our fathers from the time they left Jerusalem until now, and they are true.” [Mosiah 1:5] It is likely that they were taught the story of how Nephi obtained the brass plates, along with the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ
When the people of King Lamoni were converted unto the Lord, the king gathered the people together and said, “I thank my God, my beloved people, that our great God has in goodness sent these our brethren, the Nephites, unto us to preach to us, and to convince us of the traditions of our wicked fathers.” [Alma 24:7]
At their conversion, they realized that their fathers were not robbed of the birthright and that Nephi and his descendants were rightfully the recipients of the birthright. And, “thousands were brought to the knowledge of the Lord, yea, thousands were brought to believe in the traditions of the Nephites; and they were taught the records and prophecies which were handed down even to the present time” (Alma 23:5).
In conclusion, I believe that Nephi left the detailed account of how he obtained the brass plates not only to show how the Lord directed him, but also to show the descendants of Lehi how he became the “birthright son,” and therefore had the right and responsibility to rule the people and possess the brass plates and that right continued with the Nephites. It also serves as a testimony of the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophesy.