1 Nephi 4:20
20 And after I had done this, I went forth unto the treasury of Laban. And as I went forth towards the treasury of Laban, behold, I saw the servant of Laban who had the keys of the treasury. And I commanded him in the voice of Laban, that he should go with me into the treasury.
It was night, but it was light enough that Nephi could recognize Laban, kill him, remove Laban’s clothes and put them on himself, and then find Laban’s house. If Laban were as wealthy as he appears to have been, his house would have been built within or around a courtyard. In such a household, if the master is out and about, the servants do not sleep. Nephi went into the courtyard— that, by the way, presupposes that Nephi was able to get by the night-watch at Laban’s gate. It is an axiom that any servant, but more especially a slave, must learn to recognize his master at a distance, by his stature and his walk, as much as by his face. A possible scenario is that Laban’s servants had seen him drunk before, so not only did Nephi have to look and sound like Laban, he had to swagger like him as well. Nephi says he was exceedingly young, but large in stature, so if there were a close family resemblance, that might not have been too difficult.
Once in, Nephi tells us, “I went forth unto the treasury of Laban “(1 Nephi 4:20). That is significant. Nephi did not go to the residence but to the “treasury,” indicating he had a personal knowledge of where the plates were kept. Nephi was so familiar with Laban’s personal servants that he knew which one had the key to the treasury (1 Nephi 4:20). He knew who Zoram was and recognized him when he saw him. That may be more telling than it sounds. Nephi could not ask anyone how to find the treasury, or who the servant was who had the key. Once he located him, he could not say to Zoram, “I’m looking for the plates with the genealogies on it, do you know which one I mean?” He seemed perfectly confident and said something to Zoram that convinced the servant that he was Laban, that he knew precisely what he wanted, and that he knew where the plates were and what he intended to do with them.
That would have been exceedingly difficult if Nephi were a stranger to the house and to its day-to-day operations. So one is left to conclude that either Nephi did not know any of those things and everything he said and did was directed by the Holy Ghost. Or else, that Nephi had a personal knowledge of the household servants and the contents of the treasury—but he still relied heavily on help from the Spirit for instruction and assistance. The Lord usually expects us to use the information we already have, so it seems that the latter is by far the more likely.
That presents another question: How did Nephi know? No mere boy would ever be permitted to bumble about in a family’s treasury enough to become acquainted with its contents unless that boy and his father had some right to be there too.
So that brings one to the conclusion that Nephi must have been in the treasury before—not the time that he and his brothers were in the house and tried to get the plates—but that he had been there often enough that he was familiar with the layout of the house, with which servants were responsible for which duties, and that he knew something of Laban’s relationship with his servants. But more to the point, Nephi knew what he was looking for in Laban’s family vaults. If he really knew those things, then he must have had prior legitimate access to the household and the family’s affairs. That leads to this conclusion:
Laban and Lehi must have been very closely related— probably brothers. There are several reasons for believing that. We have mentioned most of them already. Lehi was privy to one of Laban’s greatest family secrets. He knew about the plates and their contents even though they had been kept safe—probably hidden—by the family through the reigns of several apostate kings. Only intimate family members could know the secrets of the family records in Laban’s vault. And even though those records contained the legitimizing official family genealogy, Lehi believed he had a reasonable claim to owning them.
When Nephi was in the house the last time, he looked enough like Laban that when he slurred his tongue as though he were drunk, he also sounded like Laban. Nephi was also knowledgeable enough about Laban’s affairs that he could talk intelligently to Zoram about Laban’s private—perhaps secret—religious doings.
After Nephi had found Zoram and had obtained the plates, he and the servant walked out together. The servant asked questions to which he expected Laban to know the answers (1 Nephi 4:26-27), and Nephi met the test—either by direct revelation or because he knew enough about Laban’s business that he also knew what the correct answers should be. The truth is probably because of both.
It would be interesting to know what Zoram was thinking as they walked. Was he just making conversation like he usually did with his master, or was he trying to calm his own fears? Since Zoram was in charge of the plates, it is probable that he was also the one who was responsible for the current history that was added to them. We are told that history included the prophecies of Jeremiah, and Jeremiah was out of political favor just then. Was Zoram afraid that when they got to the “brethren of the church,” they would examine the records and be upset with him because of that content? Or, had Nephi requested that Zoram follow him because he knew Zoram well enough to know his religious and political principles, and had decided that he wanted Zoram to be a part of Lehi’s party? The rest of the story suggests the latter may be true.
As they approached the hiding place, Nephi’s brothers thought it was Laban and they began to run. When Nephi shouted after them he also identify himself to Zoram. Now it was Zoram’s turn to run. But Nephi caught him and swore an oath to him that if he would come with them, they would make him one of them—free as they were free. The implication is that Zoram was a slave—a well educated and highly trusted slave—but a slave, nonetheless.
Zoram accepted the oath at face value. This may have been simply because of the power of the oath—because of the seriousness of the words of the oath—or it may have been that he knew Nephi and his family, and had already learned to trust them. The facts that he made no attempt to escape and return, and that he and Nephi became life-long friends, suggests that the latter may be true.
All those things come together to give strong circumstantial evidence that Laban was the head—or at least a leader—of the tribe of Manasseh, that Lehi was Laban’s brother or close relative, and that when Nephi dressed himself in Laban’s garments, he also assumed the role of prince of Manasseh, having the prerogatives of king and priest, just as the Lord had promised him that he would.