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.