1 Nephi 3:3 — LeGrand Baker — Who Was Laban

1 Nephi 3:3

3 For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass.

Hugh Nibley observed that Laban was probably the commanding general of the Jewish army under King Zedekiah. He explained that the military organization of ancient Israel was divided into companies of fifty, with each officer in the chain of command having his own personal command of fifty. The military commander at the garrison at Jerusalem was also commander-in-chief of the entire Jewish army. Nibley concludes, “All of [this] applies with equal force to Laban, the military governor of Jerusalem, ‘a mighty man’ who ‘can command fifty,’(1 Nephi 3:31) in his garrison and ‘his tens of thousands’(1 Nephi 4:1) in the field.”{1} Consequently, Nephi’s description of Laban’s military power was absolutely correct.

When the Book of Mormon begins, Laban had probably had his military command for less than a year. That conclusion is easily reached: Nephi began his record in the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, just after Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem and taken king Jehoiachin and his court to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar left Zedekiah, the uncle of the rightful king, on the throne. Zedekiah was only a puppet king, but he was a younger son of Josiah, so his being on the throne looked legitimate enough. It is extremely unlikely that Nebuchadnezzar would have taken Jehoiachin to Babylon and left the commander-in-chief of the Jewish army at Jerusalem, and still in charge of the military there. Rather, he would have selected another prominent citizen of Jerusalem who had legitimate family connections, and made him his puppet commander of the Jewish armies. Laban fits that description. He had a house in Jerusalem and many servants.

Notwithstanding Laban’s position and power, he gave Laman an audience in the privacy of his own home. Given Laban’s status, his granting such an audience to a boy, who was about the age of a present-day senior in high school, would have been extremely unlikely unless that boy were a close family member. Later, Laban did it again (1 Nephi 4:23-24), only this time all four of the brothers were permitted to see him.

There are several reasons for believing that Laban was the actual head of the house of the Manasseh. The most compelling is that he owned the family regalia, history, and genealogy. Genealogies were the evidence of status and rank.{2} For example, Abraham rested his claim to authority, at least in part, on his having possession of the sacred family records.

But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands; therefore a knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept even unto this day, and I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me (Abraham 1:31).

It is of more than passing interest to us that the record that Mormon compiled (the Book of Mormon) from the great library in his procession, is almost entirely a history and genealogy of the royal Nephite family (they were kings, chief judges, prophets, apostles, and presidents of the church), and that Mormon’s concern was the same as Abraham’s (Mormon 6:6).

The tribe of Manasseh was one of the ten lost tribes taken north by Assyria about 120 years before Laban was made commander of the garrison in Jerusalem. So another form of the question is: How could it be that the prince of the house of Manasseh was living in Jerusalem, rather than away to the north where the other leaders of his tribe were taken by the Assyrians? The answer may be more simple than it appears.

After the death of king Solomon, Jeroboam led the ten tribes in their separation from the kingdom of Judah and Solomon’s heirs. To establish that separation more firmly, and to dissuade his people from returning to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship Jehovah, Jeroboam created a new state religion. His plan was not entirely successful and there were people who remained faithful to the God of their fathers. Notably, some were members of the tribe of Manasseh. There was a time, mentioned in the Old Testament, when some people from Manasseh traveled to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple there.

In 721 B.C., Sargon II, king of Assyria, attacked and defeated the ten tribes of Israel. He captured Samaria, Israel’s capital, and deported the people. Not long before that Assyrian invasion, King Hezekiah and his friend Isaiah invited all the people among the ten tribes, who were there still worshipers of Jehovah, to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover at the Temple.

1 And Hezekiah sent to all Israel and Judah, and wrote letters also to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the Passover unto the Lord God of Israel… .
5 So they established a decree to make proclamation throughout all Israel, from Beer-sheba even to Dan, that they should come to keep the passover unto the Lord God of Israel at Jerusalem: for they had not done it of a long time in such sort as it was written (2 Chronicles 30:1-5).

Josephus tells what happened next.

However, many there were of the tribe of Manasseh, and of Zebulon, and of Issachar, who were obedient to what the prophets exhorted them to do, and returned to the worship of God. Now all these came running to Jerusalem, to Hezekiah, that they might worship God.{3}

This event is probably more important to Book of Mormon history than has been documented. It may have been in response to Hezekiah’s warning, but it was certainly before the Assyrians conquered and deported the people of the tribe of Manasseh, that someone of that tribe who had access to some of the most valuable official tribal treasures (including the brass plates and ceremonial sword), took those treasures from the family vaults (perhaps in somewhat the same way that Nephi and Mosiah would do later) and fled with the family regalia to Jerusalem for protection. Because he had such access, it is probable that he was a tribal prince, and it is almost certain that he was an ancestor of Laban and Lehi.

The particulars of our story are the same as have been retold many times. It reads like the biography of the hero in a version of the cosmic myth. A younger son of the ruling family of Manasseh in the northern kingdom of Israel rebelled against the apostate ways of his father. He accepted Hezekiah’s invitation, absconded with the family’s sacred records and regalia, and ran for his life. He took refuge in Jerusalem, and because of his flight, our young hero was spared the death or captivity that would have come to him had he been home when the Assyrian army came.{4} It is the often repeated story of many scriptural heroes. It is the story of Abraham when he left the land of his birth; of Nephi when he and others left their original settlement in America and ran from his older brothers. It is the story of Mosiah I when he took the sacred things and escaped into the land of Zarahemla before the Lamanites destroyed those who remained in the original land of Nephi. It may be the story of some brave young prince of Manasseh, who responded to the warning of the Spirit and escaped to take refuge in Jerusalem when the Assyrians were about to devastate his homeland. It was also the story of Lehi and his family.

If that scenario is basically correct, it would account for why Laban, of the house of Manasseh, would be in Jerusalem 120 years after his homeland was devastated, and why he would still retain the rank and treasures of the prince of Manasseh.

King Hezekiah was killed in battle, and his twelve-year-old son, Manasseh, became king and reigned for the next 55 years. After that, the apostasy that King Manasseh had initiated continued through all of the last kings of Judah (2 Kings 23 & 24). Second Kings reports that when Nebuchadnezzar first conquered Jerusalem , he took Jehoiachin to Babylon and carried away 10,000 prisoners including all the nobility, and their treasures, and “none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:11-18). That appears to be not quite correct. Second Kings was written after the Babylonian captivity, but Jeremiah’s more contemporary account lists the king, his household, and principal members of his court, plus the craftsmen and smiths among the captives, and writes that the number was not 10,000, but only 3,023 (Jeremiah 52:28). If Jeremiah is correct, then there is no difficulty in accounting for why the new king Zedekiah, members of his court, and other wealthy persons like Lehi, Laban, and Ishmael were left behind.{5}

During the years of persecution and apostasy that followed Hezekiah’s reign, Laban’s family apparently had kept the brass plates concealed and intact. Therefore, the fact that Lehi even knew about them, and that young Nephi knew where they were kept on Laban’s estate, suggests not only that Lehi and his children were closely associated with Laban’s family but that young Nephi also had an intimate knowledge of Laban’s family secrets. We get a feel for the close relationship of those two families when we are told: “Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house. And he desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father” (1 Nephi 3:11-12). This suggests that Lehi had some arguable claim to the plates, and hoped that Laban would just give them to him. Otherwise, he would not have sent his sons to simply ask for them, given the importance of the plates.

Lehi instructed the boys to “go unto the house of Laban, and seek the records, and bring them down hither.” (1 Nephi 3:4) Their father, Lehi, had not sent the boys to purchase the precious plates, but rather he sent them simply to ask for them. Such a request presupposes that Lehi believed that he, rather than Laban, had an arguable case for having the precious family history and genealogy. So the answer to the question, “Who was Laban?” may also answer the question, “Who was Lehi?”
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FOOTNOTES

{1} Hugh Nibley, “Two Shots in the Dark,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 115-17.
See also:
Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, edited by John W. Welch with Darrell L. Matthews and Stephen R. Callister (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 95-110.
Hugh Nibley, “Two Shots in the Dark,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 106.
Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon–Semester 1: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988–1990 (Provo: FARMS), 89, 98, 158.
Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 121.

{2} One example is that one of the acts for which king Hezekiah is lauded by the Old Testament writers, is that he had all the genealogical records checked for accuracy. Later, after the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews returned to Jerusalem, the Levites who could not prove their genealogies were no longer permitted to officiate in the religious ceremonies (2 Chronicles 31:16-21, Ezra 2:61-63, Nehemiah 7:5-8). In later years, up until just before the time of the Savior, the Jews would post their genealogy near their front doors so everyone could see who they were. But when Herod the Great was king, he resented that. He had no right to the throne by birth. He was a half-Jew from Idumea and his mother was a commoner. Herod would not be outshined by his Jewish subjects, so he had all of their genealogical records destroyed.

{3} Josephus, Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, chapter 13:2.

{4} This idea was first suggested by Sidney B. Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), 107-08.

{5} Another example showing that the author or authors were not too careful about historical details is verse 13:

13 And he carried out thence all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold which Solomon king of Israel had made in the temple of the Lord, as the Lord had said. (2 Kings 24:13).

The inaccuracy is that the Babylonians did not take away Solomon’s gold treasures. They had been taken away by the Egyptians only a few years after Solomon died.

25 And it came to pass in the fifth year of king Rehoboam, that Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem:
26 And he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house; he even took away all: and he took away all the shields of gold which Solomon had made. (1 Kings 14:25-26)

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