Head and Shoulders above Plagiarism: Nephi vs. Laban, David vs. Goliath

Val Larsen’s essay, “Killing Laban: The Birth of Sovereignty in the Nephite Constitutional Order” is available in HTML or PDF formats in the latest issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Val offers several insights into the difficult scene that we encounter at the beginning of the Book of Mormon in 1 Nephi 4. Obviously, if the Lord wanted Laban to be dead, He didn’t need Nephi’s help – so there must have been other objectives here. I had long assumed that the event was needed to prepare peace-loving Nephi for the realities of war in battles that he would have to lead in the New World, and to help his recalcitrant brothers realize that returning to Jerusalem was no longer an option, now that they were probably wanted for murder. But I had missed some important subtleties in the text that make Nephi’s inclusion of this story at the beginning of his account so logical and important. The event serves at multiple levels to establish Nephi’s authority as the rightful leader and king over an independent branch of Israel, giving legitimacy to the founding of the Nephite nation.

A few critics had noted that the act of slaying Laban with his own sword reminded them of David’s slaying of Goliath. Another simple-minded case of plagiarism, apparently. But I think they missed an opportunity to find many rich points of “plagiarism” in this story that most LDS readers have missed as well, until now. But it’s not plagiarism – it’s a carefully crafted story that deliberately draws on the story of David and Goliath to establish a sense of Davidic authority in the leader of the new Nephite nation. As with many of the apparent acts of “plagiarism” in the Book of Mormon, we find clever parallels that deliberately draw upon events in the Old Testament in ways that point to ancient Hebraic influence rather than random unskilled copying by a modern farmboy.

Here is an excerpt from the part of Val Larsen’s article dealing with the Davidic aspects of Nephi’s encounter with Laban. It follows a section in which the Mosaic parallels in the story are explored. (Footnotes omitted.)

After Moses, the greatest exemplar of sovereign power in ancient Israel was David. In recounting the death of Laban, Nephi links himself to this second great sovereign and further marks his emergence as the king in his new branch of Israel. In what follows, I will expand on Ben McGuire’s analysis of parallels between David and Nephi in the Goliath and Laban stories. In most cases, not only are events similar but the similar events occur in the same sequence in the two narratives.

Each story begins with a statement of the problem. In David’s case, the mighty man Goliath has taken possession of the field of battle and defied the army of Israel to send forth a champion to take it from him. In Nephi’s case, a mighty man, Laban, has in his possession the brass plates, and the Lord has commanded Lehi to obtain them from him (1 Samuel 17:4–11; 1 Nephi 3:2–4). The two young heroes are now introduced along with their three faithless older brothers. (This is a little unfair to Sam, but the narrative doesn’t differentiate between him and the murmuring Laman and Lemuel at this point.) In each case, the father of the hero comes to him and bids him to go up to the scene of the confrontation. In each case, the older brothers are given a chance to solve the problem before the hero gets his turn (1 Samuel 17:12–20; 1 Nephi 3:4–10).

When the hero gets to the place where the mighty man is, he sees one or more older brothers go up against the mighty man and then flee from him (1 Samuel 17:20–24; 1 Nephi 3:11–14). The scattered host of Israel is terrified of the mighty man in each story and does not want to confront him again, but the hero urges them on, noting in each case that they serve “the living God” or “the Lord [that] liveth” (1 Samuel 17:25–27; 1 Nephi 3:14–16). The oldest brother of each hero now becomes angry at him and verbally (and in Nephi’s case, physically) abuses him (1 Samuel 17:28; 1 Nephi 3:28).

In each case a powerful figure, Saul or an angel, separates the hero from his domineering older brothers and sends him forth to meet the mighty man. But before he goes, the hero must address skeptics who doubt that he can overcome his powerful antagonist. To convince the skeptics that Israel will triumph over the mighty man, both heroes mention two miracles in which malevolent forces were defeated by God’s agent. They suggest the mighty man will suffer the same fate as the forces previously defeated by God. David tells how he miraculously killed a lion and then a bear while guarding his flocks. He adds, “this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as [the lion or bear]” (1 Samuel 17:33–36). Nephi briefly recounts Moses’ parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army. Next, he recalls the miraculous appearance of the angel who had moments before terminated Laman and Lemuel’s abuse of their righteous brothers. He then adds, “the Lord is able to . . . destroy Laban, even as the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 4:2–3).

Each hero next goes up against the fully armored mighty man essentially or completely unarmed but in the strength of the Lord, saying, “I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel” or “I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Samuel 17:45; 1 Nephi 4:6). Each hero confronts the mighty man and cites Exodus 21:13 two times as justification for killing him: David says, “This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand. . . . The battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands.” The Spirit causes Nephi to think, “Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. . . . Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands” (1 Samuel 17:46–47; 1 Nephi 4:1–12). Finally, the hero decapitates the mighty man—who has, miraculously, been rendered unconscious–using the villain’s own sword (1 Samuel 17:51; 1 Nephi 4:18).

Other parallels exist, but not in the same sequence in the narrative. In each case, the mighty man has threatened the hero and attempted to kill him (1 Samuel 17:44, 48; 1 Nephi 3:13, 25–27). Each mighty man has a servant who accompanies or at least thinks he is accompanying his master (1 Samuel 17:41; 1 Nephi 4:20–23). In each case, the hero takes the armor of the mighty man as his own (1 Samuel 17:54; 1 Nephi 4:19). And finally, the sword of each villain is made of iron or an iron compound, is unique, and becomes a symbol of royal power that is used to lead the nation in battle (1 Samuel 21:9; 1 Nephi 4:9).

Holbrook has noted that although David had previously been anointed king by Samuel, the slaying of Goliath was the tangible sign to the people that he should be king. It captured the popular imagination, and the women sang, “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:6–7). So though he did not formally assume the throne for some years, David became king in the people’s hearts when he chopped off Goliath’s head.

I am suggesting that the same was true of Nephi. Deeply acquainted as they would have been with the story of David and Goliath, Nephi’s people surely saw the parallel between young David and young Nephi. (Nephi has carefully composed his narrative in such a way that they would see it because of multiple structural and sequential similarities, notwithstanding the very different contexts and mix of characters that clearly differentiate the two stories.) Having recognized the allusion, Nephi’s people would have understood that, in constraining Nephi to slay Laban as he did, the Lord marked Nephi as a legitimate successor to David in their new branch of Israel. Once again, Nephi is cast as a sovereign who acts not out of personal malice but to defend his people. And his successors, like those of David, would be legitimate rulers of God’s chosen people.

So much of the Book of Mormon has depth and purpose to it that doesn’t get noticed on the first reading, or even after many readings, until someone explores the possible significance of Semitic elements, ancient parallels, Mesoamerican politics, etc., and then elucidates what we may have been missing for years. Chiasmus, of course, is a classic example of this. And this latest little finding, the apparently deliberate intent of Nephi to establish the political authority and legitimacy of the Nephi nation, gives added insight into a troubling story that just makes no sense at all if it were composed by a conman trying to dupe others into thinking he had a new, inspiring Christian book of scripture. Of all the stories you could make up, that’s about the last that I would want to put at the beginning of a fraudulent book of scripture. I’d much rather put in some feel-good fluff or exotic visions of heaven or maybe a few folk magic spells/prayers for business success. But to have Nephi slay Laban? Ugh. Makes no sense at all – unless it was written by ancient Nephi, a man steeped in the ways of the Jews and the Hebrew scriptures, deeply concerned with establishing the legitimacy of his new nation by drawing upon the parallels to his reign and those of David and Moses.

OK, Nephi, I’m finally willing to give you a break on 1 Nephi 4.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

14 thoughts on “Head and Shoulders above Plagiarism: Nephi vs. Laban, David vs. Goliath

  1. I agree that it would be bizarre for a con-man to put this story at the beginning of a fraudulent book, but I don’t think the political angle works either. These were the small plates–the ones that were supposed to cover the ministry, not the politics. If it had been the large plates that led off with the slaying of Laban (and perhaps they did also), it would make sense. But it is not.

  2. LL:

    According to what Nephi wrote, at least the way I read it, all historical events that are in the small plates of Nephi are also in the large plates. My take is that Nephi’s small-versus-large was not an either-or proposition in terms of content or historical facts. His large plates had the details, and his small plates had the overview/summary, plus some more spiritual stuff thrown in.

    I also came up with some reasons or justifications of why the Lord used Nephi to kill Laban, and they seem to match with what Val Larsen and Jeff Lindsay speculate. a) preparing Nephi for bloodshed, and b) making it impossible for Laman and Lemuel to ditch the family later and go back to Jerusalem on their own.

    I think the event was very important, and worthy of being included in both the large and small plates. On a spiritual level, one lesson is that whatever God tells you to do is right. Just make sure it’s God who’s talking to you.

    It will be very interesting when all things are revealed, to get a copy of the large plates of Nephi and all the various “large plates” that were handed down to Mormon as source material.

  3. Woops. That was me in the last comment to LL. Hit the wrong button.


    You can also look at it this way. God did Laban a favor by killing him while he was passed out drunk. Laban was literally anesthetized with alcohol, and he was essentially asleep. Moreover, decapitation, when done smoothly (not the hacking/sawing method of terrorists), is a very quick and near painless method of execution. That was the whole point of Mr. Guillotine’s invention.

    So one way to look at it was that God saved Laban from the starvation, disease, and terror that the Babylonians later inflicted upon Jerusalem, and especially the tortuous methods of execution reserved for the Jewish leaders.

    So look at it from Laban’s point of view, say 7 or 8 years after his death. Suppose he got to witness what happened in Jerusalem, looking on from wherever he was in the spirit world. Given the apocalyptic horror of the Babylonian conquest, he may very well have come to realize that Nephi did him a favor by sparing him from that.

  4. Even though I don’t believe the the BoM to be inspired anymore, I do have to confess that many accusation railed against it simply reek of desperation. Seriously, Jeff, what critics are these that actually come up with this stuff?

  5. Jeff G –

    Let’s see: once the Book of Mormon was inspired, but now it isn’t. What happened to it? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist – English can be so much fun…)

  6. Great post. Again, a criticism of the book of Mormon becomes a great support. Isn’t it true that to smit off ones head a la shia and Laban means to deal a death blow to the head and not decatitation. Isn’t there a bible example of a woman smiting off a head with a nail.

  7. Of the Maya and other Central America cultures:

    A human sacrifice was offered at the time of a new king’s installation in office. To be a king, one must have taken a captive in a war and that person is then used as the victim in his accession ceremony. This ritual is the most important of a king’s life as it is the point at which he inherits the position as head of the lineage and leader of the city. The religious explanation that upheld the institution of kingship asserted that Maya rulers were necessary for continuance of the Universe.

  8. How do you reconcile the differing attitudes regarding the violence in the Old Testament compared to the New Testament? Compare Ex 21:23 and Leviticus 24:20 to Matt 5:38,39.

    The contrast between Exodus 21:23; Leviticus 24:20 and the passage in Matthew 5:38-39 is easily understood if we understand that two very different issues are being addressed. The Old Testament law was given to a nation of people. It represented not only their spiritual law, but also their civil law. For a government to operate it must be able to punish evildoers. Without punishment to act as a deterrent, there would be chaos. Even under the New Testament governments are charged with being a terror to evil works (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:13-14). The statements of Jesus are not meant to do away with the government’s right and duty to punish evildoers to maintain civil order.

    But Jesus wanted it to be plain that his new kingdom was not a civil government.

    Further, we need to remember Moses and when he came to the defence of a slave then later became the first leader of Israel. G-d will punish evil when and with whom he desires.

  9. There is no commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” That is one of the ways the King James version of the bible is translated incorrectly. The commandment more accurately reads, “Thou shalt not murder.”

    In the course of this story, Nephi did not kill Laban, he murdered him. The reason, according to this story, that God wanted Nephi to kill Laban, is no mystery — it being clearly stated that it is better for one to die than for a nation to dwindle in ignorance (I’m sure you can find the exact quote).

    In this story Nephi cut off the head of a defenseless drunken man. It could be argued that Laban had tried to have Nephi killed so it was self-defense. This is not the case as there was no immediate threat. Even in war the killing described in this story would be considered murder. This is not “an eye for an eye”, the ruling spiritual law of justice in that culture.

    There is no example in any Hebrew or Christian scripture of God ordering murder.

    Nephi could have bound Laban and stashed him. Being large in stature, he could have kidnapped him and turned him over to Laman and Lemuel — which would have made Nephi their hero. In either case he would have been better off taking his clothes than after cutting off his head — in fact, that act as this story describes it was entirely senseless.

    Even if Laban had to die, Nephi had numerous less bloody ways to do it, all of which make more sense. In about a half-dozen beats of Laban’s heart roughly five quarts of hot steaming and distinctly smelling blood — atomized, not streaming — would have sprayed all over the place, likely soaking everything for a good two to three meters around his corpse. Nephi would have been covered, Laban’s clothes would have been soaked and reeking. Nephi would have left a trail of blood which would have been easy to follow.

    The only reasonable explanation is that it did not happen at all. As a professional writer, I consider it impossible for any man to have fabricated the book. Stories such as this indicate that it did not come from God.

    It is that simple. That is why the first three chapters of the Book of Mormon are the most read of any book. Most Christian readers get to this story and they see it for what it is. It is an attempt to manipulate the reader into accepting one little piece of unsound doctrine, and to believe in an inconsistent God.

    This is same sort of inconistent God who would tell followers in the time he walked the Earth to respect the authority of those who plotted to kill him — thereby validating their authority despite their individual corruption — yet repeal the authority of the heirs of his followers for their corruption, making the whole world — for which he suffered, bled and died in a most ignominious manner — suffer along with their evil leasders. Jesus does not have a double standard.

    For that matter, this idea of a God who would order outright murder seems more in line with radical Islam than with the teachings of Christ. That also makes it ironic, since the basic claim of Israel is that Jesus didn’t get it right — his earthly work did not last — so God had to call a new prophet to finish the work. Does that sound familiar?

    Jesus gets it right the first time. He builds to last.

    Granted that mid-history Roman Catholic leaders appear to have ordered murder in the name of God: 1)They never claimed it to be ordered from God — they did not believe in that sort of revelation, and 2) Based on the model of Jesus’ teachings about the Pharisees, they would have been individually condemned, but their authority would have remained intact. Again, Jesus does not have a double standard.

    This story filters out people right away who will not consider accepting a God with a double standard. Then, when the book is accepted as a whole, we uy the pig in the poke, tied up in a ribbon — the ribbon being Joseph Smith’s teaching that our intelligence is self-existent and eternal on its own, “co-eternal with God”, and therfore some small part of us is independent of God. God has no just authority to exercis power over something He did not create.

    As long as we believe that any part of us can exist independent of God, we can never completely believe in an omnipotent God. If our inteligences –the essence of our mind and will — exist indepependent of God, than God has no just choice but to grant us free agency. A God who has no choice but to do anything is not omnipotent.

    If on the other hand even that part of ourselves which constitutes our central identity was created by God, than free-agency is a gift, and a million times more precious. God gave us free-agency because he loves us, rather than allowing it because he has to.

    The story of Nephi murdering Laban, so early in the narrative, specifically selects those who will be more likely to accept the latter, by first getting them to accept an inconsistent God. Those who can only consider the former stop reading it right then, unless they keep reading it for the story alone.

  10. @24601

    Just a couple of things:

    There is no example in any Hebrew or Christian scripture of God ordering murder.

    Are you absolutely sure about that? I can think of couple. Like Abraham, and Saul vs the Amalekites.

    And it doesn’t even matter that Abraham didn’t have to actually finish it, because the whole point was whether he would if asked. In fact, Saul was condemned because he didn’t go through with it. The key to this whole matter is summed up by Bookslinger up this page:

    (Bookslinger)On a spiritual level, one lesson is that whatever God tells you to do is right. Just make sure it’s God who’s talking to you.

    That is why the first three chapters of the Book of Mormon are the most read of any book.

    I assume you’ve never been a mormon missionary? Honestly, the times you struggle to convince people to read a verse, let alone three chapters! 😀

    This is same sort of inconistent God who would tell followers in the time he walked the Earth to respect the authority of those who plotted to kill him — thereby validating their authority despite their individual corruption — yet repeal the authority of the heirs of his followers for their corruption

    Again, are you sure you want to employ that logic, which incidentally concludes with authority still resting with the Sanhedrin rather than with Rome?

    As long as we believe that any part of us can exist independent of God, we can never completely believe in an omnipotent God. If our inteligences –the essence of our mind and will — exist indepependent of God, than God has no just choice but to grant us free agency. A God who has no choice but to do anything is not omnipotent.

    How you got here from Nephi and Laban, I’ll never know, but whatever.

    In fact you allude to the key here when you say God would have no just choice in denying agency, but that’s the point. God could easily remove our agency, he is omnipotent after all, but he does not because it’s the right thing to do. Contrast with Lucifer who was perfectly willing to sell us all down the river for his own benefit.

    It’s incoherent to say that God refusing to do something means he is powerless. The real kicker is that it challenges us to have faith that he actually does make the right choices. And I’ll agree with you that in that way, readers of the Book of Mormon are ‘selected’.

  11. Amen, Fraggle. There are absolutes that God respects, like what is just. That’s why He’s so awesome. The fact that God chooses to be just and comply with the principles of justice and mercy does not make Him less worthy of our worship. What tortured logic we were getting from Mr. 24601

    And he clearly hasn’t read the Bible!

  12. Several anti-mormons miss the boat here:

    1) Jewish Oral and some late written tradition indicated that beheading /decapitation was a legal form of capital punishment under Roman law (The Mishna (Sanhedrin 52B)

    2) Tradition also accounts that this type of punishment was quick and painless and oftentimes preferred for murderers

    3) As mentioned previously in this blog, oral tradition also accounts that those who would replace a king or leader would often use the oath “Swear by thy head” (Also seen in the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price)And once completed, the head would be smitten of as a penalty and a symbol of the new chief or leader. See also the other anti-Mormon nugget of Corintimur smiting Shiz and the gasp for breath that followed.

    5) any good elk hunter knows that when cutting off a head, you arrange the body so that the blood flows away from you and your garments. Very easy for Nephi to do with Laban. Blood on the garments is a ridiculous argument as well, seeing as if there was blood, it would be difficult to see under the dark of night and would probably also resemble the red wine that was probably already plastered all over Labans drunk and smelly body.

    Give it up antis and the faithless within the Church.

    Porter, Pleasant Grove Utah

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