Home > Uncategorized > The Tragic Book of Mormon: The Sword of Laban

The Tragic Book of Mormon: The Sword of Laban

Another post in the Book of Mormon as Tragedy series. Almost done.

This post centers on a single question: Why did Nephi take the Sword of Laban with him into the Promised Land?

As readers will remember, Nephi acquires the sword at the same time that he gains the Brass Plates–in fact, wielding Laban’s sword is an essential step in later receiving the plates from Zoram. After Nephi finds Laban lying in the streets in a drunken stupor, he’s prompted by God to take Laban’s sword and cut off his head with it. Nephi’s resistance to the commandment is palpable decades later when he writes this moment down. He seems to still be wondering: why should such a brutal act be necessary? Nephi ultimately obeys, takes the sword, and kills Laban.

Laban’s death combines, in an instant, the noblest and most base tendencies of human nature: seeking after truth, and committing brutal violence. Nephi’s act intertwines the Sword of Laban with the Word of God, linking the two at their core. The bond between Sword and Word carries on throughout the Book of Mormon. Alma, before waging war against the Zoramites, wants to see if they cannot convert them first with the word of God, which he believes is more powerful than the sword. The Anti-Nephi-Lehis burry their swords in covenant with the Lord to not fight again–only to be brutally massacred by the swords of their enemies. Royal Skousen, in his analysis of the original Book of Mormon manuscripts, has pointed out that Oliver Cowdrey even mixed the two words up when he transcribed 1 Ne. 12:18. Obviously, this error was due because the words look similar, but that “sword of the justice of the eternal God” could be replaced with “word of the justice of the eternal God” without losing much meaning is telling. 

It is this bond that Sword and Word share that creates the tragic irony of 2 Ne. 5, the only other reference Nephi makes to the Sword of Laban in his record. Describing the split between his people and his brothers, Nephi relates how he armed his people in case of war: “And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us; for I knew their hatred towards me and my children and those who were called my people.” In Jerusalem, the Sword of Laban was only a means to greater knowledge and truth for his people, a necessary evil for acquiring the scriptures. God even justified Laban’s murder this way: “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” And yet it is the sword, not the Brass Plates, that has become the defining symbol of the Nephite and Lamanite civilization. It is the sword, not the scriptures, that has become the template for their lives, the model by which they guide their future. Even God’s justification has become ironic–not only will one man perish, but a nation will perish as well, patterned on the destructive violence of securing the scriptures.

In his discussion of the Euro crisis as Greek Tragedy, Simon Critchley reminds us that part of the pathos of tragedy is in watching how “we humans collude, seemingly unknowingly, with the calamities that befall us.” “Tragedy in Greek drama requires some degree of complicity. It is not simply a matter of malevolent fate, or a dark prophecy that flows from the inscrutable but often questionable will of the gods. Tragedy requires our collusion with that fate. In other words, it requires a measure of freedom.” Though we act freely, our hubris and shortcomings lead our actions to work against us–even to our destruction. Choices of our best intention can end up working against us.

Nephi unsheathed Laban’s sword in order to kill him and obtain the Brass Plates. But in that moment, he also unsheathed generations of violence that would follow, patterned after that murderous weapon. The tragedy is that Nephi could not get the plates without first performing that brutal act, a moment of violence that would resonate for years afterwards. He was colluding in his own people’s destruction, even as he was–he believed–securing their spiritual liberation. Nephi, like Adam, cannot obtain knowledge without transgressing, breaking one law in order to fulfill another. Nephi’s story is just one of many reminders in the scriptures that violence and evil are never far from knowledge and goodness, that our own acts of agency often work against us. Trying to keep the commandments can, ironically, prepare the way for our own downfall. The tragedy of the Sword of Laban is a sober warning us that we can never fully escape the weaknesses of human nature, that the seeds of sin are often sown amidst fields of virtue.

Why did Nephi take the Sword of Laban with him to the Promised Land? Because he couldn’t have done otherwise.

Categories: Uncategorized
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