So in Priesthood today, I offhandedly remarked that I believe that Nephi made a mistake in killing Laban. And boy-oh did that ignite some pushback.[fn1] And I realized that I ought to explain how that belief fits in with my testimony of the Book of Mormon.
As a starting point, I believe that the Book of Mormon is true. What I mean by that is this: I believe that the Book of Mormon was written thousands of years ago by real people. I believe that among those people were priest/prophets who received revelatory guidance from God. I believe that they recorded their dealings with each other and with God in records that (for the most part) were edited and condensed by Mormon and Moroni, who were prophetic military leaders. I further believe that they were translated, through inspiration, by Joseph Smith, early in his prophetic career.
If that summary of the history of the Book of Mormon is true, it seems to me the Book of Mormon’s demands on us are significant and weighty. Familiarity with its narrative is certainly enough for Primary kids, but as we get older, knowing the plot starts to become insufficient. Instead, I take seriously Richard Bushman’s charge that we need to take the Book of Mormon seriously, to engage it as serious divine literature,[fn2] a charge that I fear we neglect far too often.
Why do we, as Mormons, often neglect close engagement with the Book of Mormon? I suspect there are a couple causes. One is, we’re not necessarily educated in the close reading of scripture. I’m certainly not; I am, however, educated in the close reading of literature (from my undergrad) and of statutes, regulations, and administrative guidance (from my profession). So I try to import those skills to my scripture-reading.
Also, I think, the Book of Mormon is too familiar. Its language comes from the early 19th century; although Joseph translated into the sacred register of pseudo-Jacobean, its underlying language is one we know. And its stories don’t shock us and surprise us, in the same way Jesus’ parables no longer shock and surprise, because we know how they end, and we know how we can co-opt the discomfort into an ultimately satisfying denouement, the moral that we can teach from the text.
But it doesn’t have to be such. The Book of Mormon, I’ve found, rewards close reading. It is in dialogue with the Exodus, with Isaiah, with Jeremiah, and, intertemporally, with itself. Its authors and editors quote, paraphrase, and riff off of others’ recorded prophecies.[fn3] Moreover, the Book of Mormon is not univocal: throughout the Book of Mormon, there seems to be a running debate about whether the prophesied Messiah is the son of God or God Himself. That the Book of Mormon relates almost 1,000 years of history allows us to see the development of religious ideas in a vastly compressed space.
So back to Nephi and Laban: if the Book of Mormon is true, and Nephi was a prophet, why do I think he made a mistake? A couple reasons:
- I start with my moral intuition: as a general rule, killing is wrong.
- I also start from the idea that the scriptures never present perfect prophets: prophets, in the scriptures, are perfectly capable of making mistakes.
- It’s also worth noting that, when this happened, Nephi was clearly not a prophet. His being a spiritual leader only happened later, after Lehi’s death.
- Laban’s death is a pivotal moment in Lehite history. With Laban dead, they can’t go back—they’re leaving forever.
- As Grant Hardy points out, when Nephi gets back, there’s a gap in the text: Lehi—the patriarch/family prophet—never tells Nephi (who is clearly working to establish himself as spiritually better than his brothers) that what he did was right, or was directed by God. Instead, we see a burnt offering, used to purge sin, upon the brothers’ homecoming.[fn4]
- Nephi seems to have serious regrets about it. I can’t help but read the sin in Nephi’s psalm as being the killing of Laban.
- It’s also worth noting that Nephi wrote this ~40 years after it happened. At this point, his people have divided. The Lamanites consider him (and will continue to consider him) a thief and a usurper. He’s writing, at least in part, to justify his separation and assumption of leadership.
And yet Nephi become the spiritual leader and founder of the Nephites years later. Nephi, in my reading, committed sin, with attendant regret and second thoughts, and yet was able to provide a spiritual foundation for a people (or, kind of, two, if you count modern Mormons). Taking the text seriously, though, demands deep and uncomfortable moral engagement with the text. It’s not enough to say that Nephi did what he was commanded, and everything ended in roses.
I believe the Book of Mormon is true. I believe that it can and should make us uncomfortable. And I believe that that discomfort, and its attendant reflection, will help us get nearer to God than merely reading unreflectively.
For what it’s worth, I also believe that closely reading and engaging with the text makes the Book of Mormon far more interesting.[fn5]
[fn1] It caught me by surprise, frankly: I didn’t think that was remotely the most controversial thing I said today. But apparently, you don’t mess with Nephi’s relating of his experiences 40 years earlier.
[fn2] See, e.g., Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary 47-48 (2007) (“The issue is not, Why did it not [function as a Bible], but what does it ask us to do?”).
[fn3] For a far fuller treatment of this inter-textual dialogue, the footnotes to Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition are essential, as is Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide.
[fn4] See Hardy’s Reader’s Guide at 20.
[fn5] (even though David Foster Wallace has convinced me that boredom, too, has its benefits)