And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Mark 10:18
Shortly after my mission I was teaching a Sunday School lesson on 1 Ne 17. Our Stake President had asked us all to memorize the Doctrine and Covenants 121:33-46, and being a dedicated return missionary I had done so (and frankly have often been glad I did, although I’ve forgotten most other scripture mastery scriptures I memorized and not been too bothered by it). It was on my mind, so when I read Nephi’s story this time I saw something a little different. I’ll illustrate.
Nephi decided he needed to build a boat and take his clan away from the little, secluded paradise they had found after many years of fearful wandering in the desert. His older brothers were thrilled neither with the prospect of building a ship nor with Nephi’s presumption of leadership. They resisted. But Nephi, having been moved upon by the Spirit, reproved his brothers with sharpness. It appears he was righteously angry with them for several days. Terrifyingly so. He even got to zap them a little while he told them to be more helpful and better behaved. Afterward, as they asked his forgiveness, it’s possible Nephi showed forth an increase of love. He did say, worship God, not me. He did say, we’re brothers, we ought to get along. He did work with them on the ship. I gave Nephi the benefit of the doubt, as he was (and still is) one of my heroes and all. But Nephi doesn’t really tell us if he increased his love or if he just felt a bit awkward, or indignant, or something, and tried to go on as if nothing had happened. It certainly doesn’t tell us if he apologized for being so righteously furious for so many days. We just can’t tell if Nephi quite followed God’s counsel to Joseph Smith:
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy. . . .
Or Jesus’s counsel:
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him. . . .
But whatever criticisms we may have of Nephi, he was pretty amazing. He had a beautiful vision of Christ’s birth. He wrote inspiring psalms and stories. He managed to lead his family across a desert and an ocean, and founded successful colonies with them–integrating themselves with the native populations and even becoming their rulers. Quite the guy. Even as a young man he managed some unusual feats–going all James Bond to steal the sacred treasures from the villain Laban. If it were a James Bond story, we wouldn’t have so much problem with it. We might vicariously get a thrill from the womanizing, trickery, and murder that Bond regularly engages in, but few of us view Bond as a moral guide. That’s why Nephi is disturbing. He says he’s following God and God told him to kill a defenseless man.
Now if you flatly reject the idea that God would ever tell anyone to kill anyone else, okay. I’m sympathetic to your view but haven’t been able to adopt it completely, myself. For others with some degree of Mormon belief, yet some realization that we all make mistakes in interpreting God’s will–even when it seems really clear–I invite you to revisit Nephi’s story with me yet again. Here goes. . .
Blessed art thou Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done; and because thou hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold, they seek to take away thy life. 1 Nephi 2:1
And from Joseph Smith’s revelations:
Now, I speak unto you concerning your families–if men will smite you, or your families, once, and ye bear it patiently and revile not against them, neither seek revenge, ye shall be rewarded; D&C 98:23
What did Nephi’s family do? Ran away. No revenge for your family. Good job Nephi. Then the boys go back, and Laman goes to ask Laban for the Brass Plates.
Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee 1 Nephi 3:13
if your enemy shall smite you the second time, and you revile not against your enemy, and bear it patiently, your reward shall be an hundred-fold D&C 98:25
Laban threatened a second time, and Nephi still refrained from playing avenging angel. Still good. Then Nephi and his brothers took their riches to buy the plates.
when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us 1 Nephi 3:25
So Nephi and his brothers ran. Nephi still wanted to get the plates, so with the angel’s promise of success, Nephi headed back, not knowing what would happen, but here’s God’s word on what to do with three threats on your life:
And again, if he shall smite you the third time, and ye bear it patiently, your reward shall be doubled unto you four-fold; And these three testimonies shall stand against your enemy if he repent not, and shall not be blotted out. And now, verily I say unto you, if that enemy shall escape my vengeance, that he be not brought into judgment before me, then ye shall see to it that ye warn him in my name, that he come no more upon you, neither upon your family, even your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation. And then, if he shall come upon you or your children, or your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation, I have delivered thine enemy into thine hands; D&C 98:26-29
So maybe Nephi forewent the extra blessings from choosing not to kill his enemy when he had the chance, but good job Nephi. Three threats and Laban was delivered into your hands. Totally righteous and blessed of God. . . except that we just glossed over one little detail. When did Nephi warn Laban? I suppose it might be an oversight. Nephi might have warned Laban sometime. We don’t have the whole account of their exchanges. Laban shouldn’t really need warning. It’s not right to threaten people’s lives and rob them of their possessions. He should have known it before his first threat. But we can’t tell. Nephi almost followed God’s will for how we should treat our enemies. Maybe Nephi was God’s judgment, and it was really Lehi’s story, and Lehi was the one who gave the warning and bore threats patiently. I would not envy Nephi in that case, with the scriptures telling us how God uses the wicked to destroy the wicked. However you look at it, Nephi once again came close. He was almost a good man.
Here’s another scripture about following God’s will:
“Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness” (D&C 132:36)
Let’s be generous and allow the same to apply to Nephi. Does anyone really worry about Nephi’s standing before God? Notwithstanding his weakness, Nephi seems plenty good to me.
I’m actually amazed that Nephi’s story so nearly matches the standards Joseph revealed. I wouldn’t expect it in a story that wasn’t written explicitly to illustrate the standard. And had the standard been written to match the story, it could have been more carefully done. Abraham’s stories certainly don’t meet the standards without all kinds of assumptions. And many people do question Nephi’s standing before God. They dismiss some of Nephi’s actions and inspiration as evil, or even inspired by the Devil, and have done so previously on this blog. So I offer an alternative, gentler, and more human view of Nephi’s goodness.
What about the golden rule? Was nephi doing to others what he would want done unto him by decapitating a defenseless drunk? I don’t think so. The killing of Laban seems so unnecessary and so opposed to the basic tenets of Christianity.
Tanner – you neglect the third party involved in this incident. God requested of Nephi that he slay Laban.
The Golden Rule implies all requests should be granted. I leave the proof of that statement to the reader; it’s not hard to do. It starts with the following question: “When I ask someone to do something, do I want them to do it?”
Someone else pointed out that we judge ourselves and name our own penalties. As Balaam judged and pronounced penalties, so was he judged of God and the penalty administered to him. As David judged and named the penalty, so also was he judged and it done to him.
Thus God deals with his wayward covenant children in justice. As Laban judged and sought to execute a penalty against Lehi’s sons, so was he judged of God and the penalty executed against him.
“Thus God executeth vengeance upon those that destroy his people.”
Thus the wisdom of “judge not, lest ye be judged; for with the same measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you withal.”
There were, of course, additional considerations. Had Laban been left alive, he may well have pursued Lehi’s company into the wilderness and destroyed them. Had the plates not been acquired, Lehi’s posterity may well have dwindled and perished in unbelief.
And, speaking of unbelief, there are those who deny God made the request of Nephi to slay Laban. God never requests one person to slay another! Except, of course, if God gave the law of Moses, then he has, in fact, requested of some to slay others. And when the Lord himself offered to wipe out all the expatriated Israelites and make of Moses’s seed a nation unto God, well, that says something about the character of the Lord, doesn’t it? And when the Lord, in 3 Nephi 9, personally claims direct responsibility for having slain every last man, woman, and child in several Nephite cities, well, that says even more about his character, doesn’t it?
And let us not forget the destruction of the Jews ca. 70 AD by the hands of the Romans, which Jesus said would be a direct consequence of the Jews not recognizing the day of their visitation by God. So even should one recoil in horror at the wrath of God visited upon the Nephites by Jesus, and say such things are just not so, Joe Smith was a polygamous liar who cribbed the Book of Mormon from Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews while looking at a rock in a hat, one would then be confronted with the same kind of vengeance being wreaked upon the Jews after they rejected Jesus as a historical and biblical matter.
Those who recoil from the justice and vengeance of God… well, what do they know of God? What, indeed, do they know of love? Or wisdom? What intelligence do they really have, or is it cunning? And what do such have to contribute to any conversation on these topics? Might it boil down to “Believe it not”?
This type of discussion that tends to “God’s just, and doing what He says is good and right” vs. “killing and stealing are always wrong without exception” are why I love the injunctions in D&C 121 and 98. Both sections recognize complexities of context, understanding, human error and will, and the need for justice and mercy, but both set the tipping point between justice and mercy far on the side of mercy, humility, and love. They recognize that in this human world of help and harm, life and death, good and evil, those who choose harm should not have free rein to tread on the humble or weak. To claim that Nephi wasn’t weak compared to his brothers, or that Lehi’s family wasn’t weak compared to Laban, is to completely ignore the story. How should an underdog behave toward a bully when the bully seeks to kill him? D&C 98 gives us strong motivations to choose humility and love over vengeance–or justice–even in such a threatened position. I find it admirable when a person achieves the high standards set in the D&C. If Nephi met them, I’m impressed. If he didn’t, I hope he repented. He came so close.
Nephi has always come across to me as a bit self righteous.. I admire him for plenty of things.. His blacksmithing experience (he only asked where the ore was, and then proceeded to make tools of his own previous experience) has fascinated and impressed me, along with his ability to make other things with his hands (bows, boats, teaching his people metalwork). He also had great faith and leadership… But he just seems rather arrogant sometimes. So yeah, I think he was trying to be a good guy, but has flaws just like everybody else.
Interesting food for thought to see the correlation with the treatise in the Doctrine and Covenants.
I really like Nephi, but it has been an interesting experience changing from my view of him as a heroic figure to a striving human figure. More sweet than bitter, but not altogether pleasant.