Some say the the account of Nephi slaying Laban in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4:6-18) was murder, even though it was ordered by God. I disagree.
Calling it “murder” is assigning unfair modern moral paradigms on an ancient society. The moral luxuries and alternatives we have today did not exist in ancient societies and even at times in our recent past. Ancient societal factors must be examined to understand the reasoning behind this desperate action:
First, Laban had stolen considerable property from Nephi’s family (1 Nephi 3:25-26). This is akin to being a “horse thief” in the late 19th century American West where a man’s horse was virtually his only means of survival in the vast and arid lands of the West; therefore, horse thieves were usually hung when caught. Likewise, Nephi and his family lived in an arid climate always on the verge of famine – if the rains did not come, people would literally starve to death. Any extra property or wealth was needed insurance for survival.
Second, Laban had tried to kill Nephi and his three brothers. When Nephi found Laban drunk and unconscious, he was “delivered into his hands.” Nephi did not have the luxury of dragging Laban to court and suing for his stolen property or press criminal charges and have Laban tried by a jury of his peers and convicted on four counts of attempted murder and executed. (There was no such thing as anti-capital punishment in ancient times – they did not have the resources we do today to lock someone up humanely for an extended time or the rest of their life. In fact, capital punishment was never eliminated in all of history by an elected legislative body until the 1830’s in the state of Michigan.) And remember, Laban and his fellow leaders were the law at this corrupt time in Israel’s history. This corruption is why Lehi’s family left.
Third, in the ancient tribal culture of survival at the time (historians will back this up), Nephi was for all intents and purposes in a declared “state of war” with Laban. By earnestly attempting to take Nephi’s life, Laban had in effect forfeited his life in return if Nephi ever gained the advantage. There existed no police force (Laban had his own police force called his “guards”) and no penal system to guarantee Nephi’s safety in the future. In a similar situation, the future king David could have killed Saul when the king was in a compromising position in the cave, but he did not (1 Sam. 24: 3, 7-8). However, no one would ever say it was “murder” if he had. He would have been perfectly justified in doing so, even by today’s standards, since he was in a “state of war” with Saul at the time and Saul had sworn to kill David. So it was with Nephi and Laban.
Skeptics of the Book of Mormon could in fact criticize Joseph Smith for attributing modern values to Nephi. In our eyes, Nephi is commended for his hesitation when prompted by the Spirit to slay Laban. According to the accepted norms of those politically corrupt times and even in modern corrupt times such as in Nazi Germany, Nephi was perfectly in his rights of survival to dispatch Laban when he had the chance. An innocent Jewish inmate in a Nazi concentration camp would never be tried or even accused of murder if he killed a German guard that was perceived as a threat to his survival. I personally, having no trusted law enforcement structure to rely on, would not have needed the Spirit to tell me to slay Laban. Laban’s head would have been lopped off long before the Spirit was able to get to me with instructions. If someone today threatened and had actually attempted to kill me and my family, I would have no reason for the Spirit to convince me to take his life when the opportunity arose. Especially if I had no hope of legal or official recourse.
All that said, it is very commendable of Nephi to have done this unpleasant duty apparently without malice or anger. That is one of the lessons to learn from this story, and may be a main reason Nephi was inspired to include it in his personal history. He was too humble to point it out directly, of course. Regardless of his attitude in doing it, he still did what was right and proper. When Hugh Nibley taught this section of the Book of Mormon to a group of Arabs, they saw the “sin” not in the slaying of Laban but in the hesitation of Nephi in doing it. This does not mean they are necessarily right in all circumstances, the Arabs certainly do not have a monopoly on ethical behavior (just like the rest of us), but I believe they have a good point in this case.