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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Nephi Makes a Critical Decision (1 Nephi 4)

Listen now!Chapter 4 continues the story of the conflict between Laman and Lemuel and Nephi and Sam in their attempts to obtain the brass plates. Let's pause for a moment and analyze why they were so motivated to get these records.

In ancient times, there were, of course, no printing presses. So, every important record or history that was kept was valuable insomuch that it took enormous effort to copy and distribute it. Therefore, it wasn't uncommon for there to be one and only one copy of a particular account or history. For preservation, these accounts were carved on stone monuments, written on sheepskin or papyrus, or, in this case, were engraved on metal plates.

The brass plates were one of a kind. They contained a history of the lineage of Lehi's family (Laban was a kinsman). Lehi had been commanded to leave Jerusalem forever and to start anew in a promised land that the Lord had prepared for them. He was likely concerned from the start that the teachings of prior prophets and their genealogy as recorded on the plates of brass would not be with them to help remind them and their posterity of their origins, language, and religious practices. Lehi knew that Laban would not give them up willingly and, for that reason, probably did not see it as an option to ask for them when leaving Jerusalem...especially given the haste in which they had to leave. But now, after they had journeyed in the wilderness for a good space of time, the Lord was commanding Lehi to send his sons to return to get the records. It had to be done.

Continuing on, Nephi reminds his brothers that the Lord "is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?" He also recalls the captivity of the Jews in Egypt and how God inspired Moses to lead His people out using a series of miracles. Then he repeats the fact that they have all seen and heard an angel telling them to be obedient to this commandment and that they would be kept safe.

Still murmuring, the two older brothers followed Nephi and Sam back to Jerusalem. They hid outside the city walls and then crept into the city. Nephi says he was "led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do."

At this point, Nephi goes ahead alone and he describes what would be his final encounter with Laban. Laban was powerful, having command of a militia within the city and entrusted with the care of important records. Yet, there before him was this ruler of fifty men, drunken and "fallen to the earth". Perhaps he had been celebrating his defrauding of the sons of Lehi of all of their earthly possessions while still withholding the plates of brass from them.

However, Nephi was not seeking revenge. He merely wanted to obey the Lord's commandment to get the sacred records. Remember also that he had no prior plan, but was being led by the Spirit. As he was contemplating the fallen figure before him, he noticed Laban's sword and that it was of a workmanship that was "exceedingly fine" (there is some evidence to suggest that Nephi had a working knowledge of metallurgy, having possibly been an apprentice in that trade. See "Ancient Smelting" and "Iron Making" in Metals of the Book of Mormon).

As he pulled the sword from its sheath, he received a commandment from the Spirit that he would never have expected. The commmandment was to kill Laban. Nephi records that "I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him." Until now, Nephi had been unflinchingly obedient to every commandment of the Lord. But this one obviously troubled him because he was not disposed to this kind of violence, nor did he expect such a command to come from the Lord.

Yet, the Spirit of the Lord commanded again that he slay Laban, saying, "Behold, the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands." Nephi began to understand more of the context of this commandment as a result of this added detail. Laban had sought to kill him and his brothers and he was steadfast in refusing to obey the commandment of the Lord to give them the plates. He had also taken away their property without giving them anything for it.

The Spirit then said to Nephi that "the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than a nation [like the one that would come of Lehi's posterity in their new promised land] should dwindle and perish in unbelief. "

At this point, Nephi begins to fully understand the reach of this commandment because he remembered the words the Lord had spoken to him in the wilderness: "Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise." How could this promise be fulfilled unless a written record of the commandments, and their religion, be transmitted through their descendants. They had already tried everything possible short of killing Laban to obtain these records and were nearly killed themselves in the process.

Nephi, having been taught the reason why the Lord was insistent on Laban perishing, was ready to obey the voice of the Spirit so as to preserve the knowledge of the Lord for his future descendants. It was better that this wicked man be slain than for millions of yet unborn people to fall into error and forget the Lord.

He raised the sword and did as he was commanded. Then, he put on Laban's clothes, knowing that he would likely run into some opposition at getting the records and would need to be disguised somehow.

Upon approaching the treasury, he saw the servant of Laban, Zoram, who was a guard. The disguise was apparently enough to convince Zoram that Nephi was Laban and he began to speak with him as if that were so. Nephi asked for the records and Zoram produced them. Nephi wanted to ensure that Zoram would not alert other guards should he become suspicious, so he had Zoram follow him to the gates of the city.

But, when Zoram saw Nephi's brethren outside the city, he began to run away. Nephi caught him and promised him that if he would make an oath or a promise (something not easily broken in those days) that he would come with them, be faithful to the Lord, and not return to Jerusalem, Zoram would be a free man and would inherit a promised land. Zoram agreed and they returned to Lehi.