Let’s keep going with the story of Sheba. Once the armies led by Joab and Abishai reach Abel-beth-maachah, they surrounded it with a huge bank and started beating against the walls. A woman from the city yells out to Joab and asks to speak with him. She asks him why he’s coming against a peace-loving people and is willing to destroy mothers and children.
Joab shrinks at the accusation, says he doesn’t want to destroy the whole city, but that they only want Sheba, who “lifted up his hand against the king”, so they should just deliver Sheba to him and he’ll take his armies and go.
The woman is fine with that and tells Joab they’ll throw Sheba’s head over the wall. And that they do. Joab takes his trophy back to the king.
We still have no evidence that Sheba actually did anything wrong. After all, it’s pretty clear Joab is a liar from both the first and second half of Sheba’s story. Ancient peoples used the story of Sheba as a legal case study. In fact, it even eventually makes it into the Talmud written a few hundreds after Christ as part of a court argument.
Most of the rabbinic commentary say that the woman was justified in her actions because it saved the entire city, citing all sorts of utilitarian philosophies and using supposed crimes by Sheba as proof. Only a handful of rabbis have ever stood up and declared Sheba’s death an unjustified murder due to a rejection of utility logic.
The reason why this story was highly debated in ancient times was precisely because of the usefulness of the story in clarifying applications of the Law of Moses.
He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.
And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.
But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die. (Exodus 21:12–14)
I say “was” debated because we really don’t talk about it much at all these days specifically, and that’s because we’ve already incorporated it thoroughly into our legal lexicon. Everyone knows there’s a difference between homicide and manslaughter. Sentencing ends up being very different in either case, even the trials would proceed differently. So, what does this have to do with Nephi? Four hundred years after Sheba’s case would come Nephi’s, and he needed that utilitarian precedent.
The First Book of Nephi was written decades after the events it includes. Nephi is now king, and still dealing with those pesky Lamanites. They believe that Nephi is not the rightful king, that he had kept the brass plates from the Lamanites unjustly, was using the sword of Laban wickedly, and perhaps they even accused him of murder in the case of Laban V. Nephi and demanded he be subject to the law. After all, Laman and Lemuel had heard with their own ears that Nephi thought Laban would be destroyed (1 Nephi 4:3), thereby setting up proof of premeditation.
So, Nephi has to make sure that his testimony includes a couple of key features if he’s going to cover all of his bases. First, the murder can’t be premeditated or out of guile. Second, it has to be God’s will, and God has to deliver him into his hands. Third, he has to show that Laban had broken the law himself and was subject to the death penalty, because you can’t just kill a defenseless drunk man for no reason. Fourth, he has to show that Laban would have hurt a large group of people had he not died due to precedence set up from the story of Sheba. And fifth, he has to show that he satisfied the law by leaving and having a place appointed for him to go.
The fifth point is easy enough, it’s mentioned all over the place that the Lord has prepared a promised land for them. So, they are fleeing from Jerusalem and have a place prepared for them to flee to. This whole narrative is even being written in that very place of refuge to which they fled. What about the rest?
There are a few arguments he can’t win and are freely admitted. He tells his brothers that Laban would be destroyed, they are going back to Jerusalem at night, and he told his brothers to hide outside of the walls. None of these things make him look very innocent. So, he follows those facts up with the telling of his own story:
I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.
Nevertheless I went forth, and as I came near unto the house of Laban I beheld a man, and he had fallen to the earth before me, for he was drunken with wine.
And when I came to him I found that it was Laban.
And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.
And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.
And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property.
And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands;
Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.
And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.
Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law.
And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass.
And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause—that I might obtain the records according to his commandments.
Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword. (1 Nephi 4:6–18)
If Nephi needed a solid defense, surely this would have done the trick. He maintained his kingship and his life. Although, no one escapes that experience unscathed. As attested in 2 Nephi 4, Nephi is besought with his own sins and mourns. We don’t know exactly which sins he is talking about, but I imagine he might have some lasting feelings about what he did back in Jerusalem. At least I want to believe that when he says he didn’t want to kill anyone that he means it, and it wasn’t just part of his defense. And of course, we have no idea the intentions, conscious or subconscious, for the wording he used to write his memoir.
As we look back at this story with our modern sensibilities, we shutter to think that God would ever command anyone to kill someone else. We conjure up all sorts of excuses or appeal to the record itself as a proof-text to show that God must be utilitarian at heart. From my own experiences with the unconditional love of God, and a thorough rereading of the Old Testament, the world Nephi was born into, I am convinced that “God says” doesn’t always mean “God says.” And that my God is not utilitarian. After all, if the ends justify the means, and God is capable of all means, then why aren’t we at the end yet? Sometimes we can’t see our own culture and biases, and we mistakenly attribute to God what could never be God.
I believe Nephi to be a good man at his core, steeped in cultural traditions and unfortunate circumstances. I can both see that the Lord did not command Nephi to kill Laban and offer grace to Nephi. On the cross, Jesus forgave, for we do not always know what we are doing. We don’t fully understand the world we are born into and we don’t get to choose the way we are taught from our youth.
We do, however, get to choose how open we will be to God’s loving presence and instruction. Line upon line, he brings us to an awareness of our divinity. I won’t fault Nephi for being just like the rest of us, even if the line he was starting with because of the circumstances of his birth is different than the line I started with. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where we start, but that we progress.
O then, if I have seen so great things, if the Lord in his condescension unto the children of men hath visited men in so much mercy, why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?
And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?
Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.
Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.
Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation. (2 Nephi 4:26–30)