Overcoming the Sticky Passages
Another cause for concern for many of our church members regarding the Book of Mormon pertains to the fact that there are some passages or themes that are difficult to reconcile. The two that seem to be the most commonly cited (in my experience) are the death of Laban, and the curse of the Lamanites.
Regarding the first example, the account of Laban’s death states that Nephi was commanded by God to slay Laban. This, quite understandably, does not sit well with many people. It does not sit well with me. We are not accustomed to God commanding people to slay other people.
In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t think of another example of God giving such a commandment, with regard to one specific, named individual. In the Old Testament, God commanded warfare to take place, but how often did God ask for the death of a specific person?
Actually, one example does come to mind: Isaac. God commanded Abraham to slay Isaac. Of course, God did not actually desire Isaac’s death at Abraham’s hands, and intervened to prevent it.
It is possible that God’s motives in asking Nephi to slay Laban were similar to his motives in asking Abraham to slay Isaac? Of course, unlike Isaac, Laban was not spared. So, on the surface, it would seem that God did indeed desire, and commanded, Laban’s death, and if that is the case, it would take someone who is a much deeper thinker than I am to explain why that was somehow ok.
But, there is another angle to consider. What do we really know from this story? We know that God sent Nephi to obtain the Plates of Brass from Laban. We know that Nephi encountered Laban, drunk, stumbling in the streets. We know Laban collapsed and we know that God then told Nephi that Laban was delivered into his hands. And we know that God then commanded Nephi to slay Laban.
We also know that Nephi resisted. We know that God explained to Nephi why He commanded Nephi to slay Laban, and we know that Nephi then decapitated Laban.
From all of this, it seems quite clear that God commanded Nephi to kill Laban, and that Nephi went through with it. And since God did not intervene, we know that Laban was not spared, as his head was cut off.
So, Nephi killed a fellow human being at the commandment of God.
Or did he?
One thing I came to realize, many years ago, about scripture, or at least, ancient scripture, is that it is … just the highlights. The Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon are each a collection of highlights. We are not told every single thing that befell a particular person, group or society. This often has caused me to ask “what have we not been told?” Or, “what don’t we know?”
With regard to the story of Laban, here is what we don’t actually know. Was Laban, at the time of his beheading, still alive? We must not overlook the fact that the account states that Laban collapsed. The account was written by Nephi, according to Nephi’s own understanding of what transpired. Nephi presumed that Laban had passed out.
It is my own belief that Laban in fact died. Do we know how much wine he had consumed? Do we know how strong his heart was? Do we know what ailments he may have had? God may simply have steered Nephi to Laban right when Laban died of some other cause.
Perhaps Laban had a brain aneurism. We just don’t know – but, people all over the world do have unexpected episodes that often result in sudden death, all the more likely in the ancient world. God knows when it is our time. It is therefore entirely plausible that God steered Nephi to Laban at just the right moment.
God then, for His purposes, asked Nephi to slay Laban, just as he asked Abraham to slay Isaac.
We often presume that our scriptural heroes always pass the tests. But, just as we have come to realize that Joseph Smith Jr. was only human, we also must recognize the same to be true for Nephi. In short, it’s entirely possible that Nephi failed the test.
We might wonder why God would test someone in such a way. What is to be gained? What value or merit is there to do such a thing? I have no answers to such questions – I’ll leave that as a challenge for others to consider, but the immediate absence of such answers, when the questions pertain to the purposes of God, does not warrant a rejection of the account.
The story itself does not offer clues about why this test took place. This is because it was written by Nephi himself – the test subject. Nephi was unaware that he failed the test quite simply because he was oblivious to the fact that he had been tested. Nephi never knew (if my theory is correct), that Laban was already dead. God, most likely to spare Nephi guilt and turmoil, appears to have remained mute on the subject after the deed was done.
The question then becomes, why was this story included? If we take the position that the authors of scripture are inspired to write what they wrote, for what purpose then does this story serve, to we who are the modern audience, removed by 26 centuries from the time and culture of the setting? Nephi thought that he knew the lesson (and for him, maybe he did), but it seems very possible that a very different lesson existed, which was not really needful for Nephi to be made aware of, but which warranted the story being preserved for the benefit of future generations.
We of course can only speculate on what that lesson is, but I suspect it has, in part, the function of serving as an example of the need to look beyond the written word; to do what Nephi himself said to do – ponder the scriptures.
The second stumbling block that many people have with the Book of Mormon’s actual content is the curse of the Lamanites. Many people seem to view this curse as an expression of racism. This is actually not at all the case.
When we read scripture, its important to not have “knee jerk” reactions. We need to ensure, just as we are told to do when reading the Bible, that we place, whatever we read, into the proper context.
Speaking of the Bible, one of the individuals mentioned in it from time to time is the adversary of God. There are even verses here and there that record his words. Knowing this, do we regard the Bible as being about the adversary? If we read just those verses, we might.
This illustrates the need to explore and (again) as Nephi counselled ponder the scriptures.
What do we actually know about the curse of the Lamanites? Well, we know that the reason for the curse was because they rebelled against God. It seems that God wanted to keep these rebellious individuals from influencing those who had not rebelled. Therefore, he wanted to encourage the Nephites to avoid the Lamanites. And so, to help make that more feasible, he “cursed” the Lamanites, by putting a mark on them, so that the Nephites would easily recognize the Lamanites.
That mark took the form of a different complexion. As readers of the Book of Mormon today, some of us seem to have the knee jerk reaction of “that is racist!”. But, it is important to understand several things.
First, the Lamanites were not transformed into some other race or ethnicity. The Book of Mormon does not say that God transformed them into aboriginal Australians. Or Africans. It does not link the curse to any ethnicity whatsoever. In short, they remained Israelites.
Second, we don’t actually know what the different complexion looked like. We have no reason to believe that they were given the appearance of any other racial group.
Third, the purpose of the curse was a punishment for rebelliousness. The Lamanites were not rebellious because of the curse. They were cursed because of their rebelliousness. There is no basis to think that the curse is somehow a comment on other races.
Fourth, the Book of Mormon does not condone viewing the Lamanites, or anyone, with contempt. In fact, it counsels people not to do so.
It is also worth noting that the mark was meaningless to God (beyond being a mark). I’m sure he used this mark of an alternate complexion because of how blatantly obvious it would be to the Nephites. But this is the only basis for that mark that we know of. Aside from the merit of being able to instantly know, by virtue of complexion, who was cursed and who was not, there does not seem to be any reason for the mark to take the form that it did.
In fact, we read later on about a group of Nephites who eventually decided to rebel. They too were cursed, and they too were marked (in fulfillment of an earlier prophecy). These individuals set themselves apart by putting a dab of paint on their foreheads. So, they marked themselves. But the scriptures inform us that God viewed this self-marking as fulfillment of his warning that anyone who rebelled would be marked. So, God accepted the self-inflicted mark as a manifestation of the Lamanite curse. This then demonstrates that the actual nature of the curse’s manifestation to God was irrelevant (save of course in how it would serve his purposes). God does not view people of any particular complexion with disfavour.
Doubtless, there are other passages in the Book of Mormon that trouble people. But the point of this exploration on the death of Laban and the Curse of the Lamanites is to help encourage people to recognize that these problematic scriptures need not be the roadblocks that we may otherwise feel that they are.
Likewise, we need to be mindful of the fact that the Bible has many (in my opinion, far more) examples of passages that are highly troublesome, and often far more difficult (if not impossible), to reconcile with the living model of Jesus Christ.