The City and the Sand

Chapter 5

The City and the Sand

Lehi the Poet

The powerful speech by which alone Lehi kept his rebellious sons in line is
a gift demanded of every real sheikh in the desert, and indeed, against
the proud and touchy Bedouins that is the only weapon the sheikh possesses,
for as we have seen he may not use force. The true leader, says an ancient Arab
poetess, “was not one to keep silent when the contest of words began.”
When the men assemble in the chief’s tent to take counsel together, the leader
“address[es] the whole assembly with a succession of wise counsels intermingled
with opportune proverbs,” exactly in the manner of Lehi with his endless
parables. People of any other country hearing them speak, says our informant,
“would simply suppose them filled with a supernatural gift.”1
“Poetical exclamations . . . rose all around me,” Burton
recalls, “showing how deeply tinged with imagination becomes the language
of the Arab under the influence of strong passion or religious enthusiasm.”2
Let us visit the tent of Lehi: “I returned to the tent of my father,”
says Nephi, “and . . . I beheld my brethren, and they were disputing
one with another concerning the things which my father had spoken unto them
. . . and . . . after I had received strength I spake unto
my brethren” (1 Nephi 15:1—2, 6). “And . . . after
I, Nephi, had made an end of speaking to my brethren . . . they did
humble themselves before the Lord” (1 Nephi 16:1—5). Great is the
power of speech among the desert people, and if Lehi’s language sounds strangely
exclamatory and high-flown to us, it is because it is of the ancient pattern,
“by the Spirit of the Lord which was in our father” (1 Nephi 15:12).

Moreover, Lehi was a poet, and there is no more remarkable passage in the
Book of Mormon than the eloquent little verses which he on one memorable occasion
addressed to his wayward sons.

It was just after the first camp had been pitched, with due care for the performance
of the proper thanksgiving rites at the “altar of stones” (1 Nephi
2:7), that Lehi, being then free to survey the scene more at his leisure (for
among the desert people it is the women who make and break camp, though the
sheikh must officiate in the sacrifice), proceeded, as was his right,
to name the river after his first-born and the valley after his second son (1
Nephi 2:6—8, 14). The men examined the terrain more closely, as Arabs
always do after pitching camp in a place where they expect to spend some time,
and discovered that the river “emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea,”
at a point “near the mouth thereof” (1 Nephi 2:8—9), which suggests
the Gulf of Aqaba at a point not far above the Straits of Tiran. When Lehi beheld
the view, perhaps from the sides of Mt. Musafa or Mt. Mendisha,3
he turned to his two elder sons and recited his remarkable verses. Nephi seems
to have been standing by, for he takes most careful note of the circumstance:

And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain
of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like
unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!

And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley,
firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!
(1 Nephi 2:9—10).

No subject has been more intensively studied over a greater number of years
than that of primitive Semitic poetry, and nowhere could one find a more perfect
illustration of the points that are now agreed upon as to the nature and form
of the original article than in this brief account of Nephi’s.

First there is the occasion: It was the sight of the river flowing into the
gulf which inspired Lehi to address his sons. In a famous study, Goldziher pointed
out that the earliest desert poems ever mentioned are “those Quellenlieder
(songs composed to fresh water) which, according to the record of St. Nilus,
the ancient Arabs used to intone after having refreshed and washed themselves
in some fountain of running water discovered in the course of a long journeying.”4
Nilus’ own account is a vivid picture of what Lehi’s party went through:

The next day . . . after making their
way as is usual in the desert by devious routes, wandering over the difficult
terrain, forced to turn aside now this way, now that, circumventing mountains,
stumbling over rough, broken ground through all but impenetrable passes, they
beheld in the far distance a spot of green in the desert; and striving to
reach the vegetation by which the oasis might provide a camp or even sustain
a settlement for some of them [we are reading nomadikon for the senseless
monadikon], as they conjecture, they turned their eyes towards it
as a storm-tossed pilot views the harbor. Upon reaching it, they found that
the spot did not disappoint their expectations, and that their wishful fantasies
had not led them to false hopes. For the water was abundant, clean to the
sight, and sweet to the taste, so that it was a question whether the eye or
the mouth was the more rejoiced. Moreover, there was adequate forage for the
animals; so they unloaded the camels and let them out to graze freely. For
themselves, they could not let the water alone, drinking, splashing, and bathing
as if they could not revel in it enough. So they recited songs in its praise
[the river’s], and composed hymns to the spring.5

Ibn Qutayba, in a famous work on Arabic poetry, quoted a great desert poet,
Abu Sakhr, as saying that nothing on earth brings verses so readily to mind
as the sight of running water and wild places.6
This applies not only to springs, of course, but to all running water. Thomas
recounts how his Arabs upon reaching the Umm al-Hait hailed it with a song in
praise of the “continuous and flowing rain,” whose bounty filled the
bed of the wady, “flowing along between sand and stream course.”7
Just so Lehi holds up as the most admirable of examples “this river, continually
running”; for to the people of the desert there is no more miraculous and
lovely thing on earth than continually running water. In the most stirring episode
of Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand, and Stars, the Arab chiefs who view
the wonders of Paris with stolid indifference burst into cries of devout rapture
at the sight of a torrent in the Alps.8
When the BanÄ« Hilāl stopped at their first oasis, the beauty of it and the green
vegetation reminded them again of the homeland they had left, “and they
wept greatly remembering it.”9 It
was precisely because Laman and Lemuel were loud in lamenting the loss of their
pleasant “land of Jerusalem . . . and their precious things”
(1 Nephi 2:11), that their father was moved to address them on this particular

If the earliest desert poems were songs inspired by the fair sight of running
water, no one today knows the form they took. That can only be conjectured
from the earliest known form of Semitic verse. This is the sajc,
a short exhortation or injunction spoken with such solemnity and fervor as to
fall into a sort of chant. Examples would be magical incantations, curses, and
the formal pronouncements of teachers, priests, and judges. From the earliest
times the sajc was the form in which inspiration and revelation announced themselves.10
Though the speaker of the sajc did not aim consciously at metrical form, his
words were necessarily more than mere prose, and were received by their hearers
as poetry. The sajc had the effect, we are told, of overawing the hearer completely,
and was considered absolutely binding on the person to whom it was addressed,
its aim being to compel action.11

Lehi’s words to his sons take just this form of short, solemn, rhythmical
appeal. The fact that the speech to Laman exactly matches that to his brother
shows that we have here such a formal utterance as the sajc. The proudest
boast of the desert poet is, “I utter a verse and after it its brother,”
for the consummation of the poetic art was to have two verses perfectly parallel
in form and content. Few ever achieved this, and Ibn Qutayba observes that
the usual verse is followed not by a “brother” but at best by a
“cousin.”12 Yet Lehi seems to have carried it off. Of the moral
fervor and didactic intent of his recitation there can be no doubt; the fact
that Nephi recounts the episode in a record in which there is, as he says,
only room for great essentials, shows what a deep impression it made upon

In addressing his sons in what looks like a little song, Lehi is doing just
what Isaiah does (1 Nephi 5:1—7) when he speaks to Israel in a shirat
, “a friendly chant,” a popular song about a vine which,
once the hearer’s attention has been won, turns into a very serious moral tirade.13
On another occasion, as we have noted, he employs the popular figure of the
olive tree. The stock opening line of the old desert poems is, “O my two
beloved ones! (or friends),” an introduction which, says Ibn Qutayba, should
be avoided, “since only the ancients knew how to use it properly, uniting
a gentle and natural manner with the grandiose and magnificent.” 14
Lehi’s poem is an example of what is meant: he addresses his two sons separately
but each with the peculiar and typical Arabic vocative “O that thou . . .
!” (Yā laytaka), and describes the river and valley in terms
of unsurpassed brevity and simplicity and in the vague and sweeping manner of
the real desert poets, of whom Burton says, “there is a dreaminess of idea
and a haze thrown over the object, infinitely attractive, but indescribable.”15
Lehi’s language is of this simple, noble, but hazy kind.

According to Richter, the best possible example of the primitive Arabic qasīda
(the name given to the oldest actual poetry of the desert) is furnished by those
old poems in which one’s beloved is compared to a land “in which abundant
streams flow down . . . with rushing and swirling, so that the water
overflows every evening continually.”16
Here the “continually flowing” water is compared to the person addressed,
as in Lehi’s “song” to Laman. The original qasÄ«da, the
same authority avers, was built around the beseeching (werbenden, hence
the name qaṣÄ«da) motif, not necessarily erotic in origin,
as was once thought, but dealing rather with praise of virtue in general (Tugendlob).17
Ibn Qutayba even claims that the introductory love theme was merely a device
to gain attention of male listeners and was not at all the real stuff of the
poem.18 The standard pattern is a simple
one: (a) the poet’s attention is arrested by some impressive natural phenomenon,
usually running water; (b) this leads him to recite a few words in its praise,
drawing it to the attention of a beloved companion of the way, and (c) making
it an object lesson for the latter, who is urged to be like it. Burton gives
a good example: at the sight of the Wady al-Akik the nomad poet is moved to

O my friend, this is Akik, then stand by it,
Endeavoring to be distracted by love,
if not really a lover.19

This seems to be some sort of love song, albeit a peculiar one, and some have
claimed that all the old qaṣÄ«das were such.20
But Burton and his Arabs know the real meaning, “the esoteric meaning of
this couplet,” as he calls it, which quite escapes the western reader and
is to be interpreted:

Man! This is a lovely portion of God’s creation:
Then stand by it, and here learn to love
the perfections of thy Supreme Friend.21

Compare this with Lehi’s appeal to Lemuel:

O that thou mightest be like unto this valley,
firm and steadfast,
And immovable in keeping the commandments
of the Lord! (1 Nephi 2:10).

Note the remarkable parallel. In each case the poet, wandering in the desert
with his friends, is moved by the sight of a pleasant valley, a large wady
with water in it; he calls the attention of his beloved companion to the view,
and appeals to him to learn a lesson from the valley and “stand by it,”
firm and unshakable in the love of the ways of the Lord. Let us briefly list
the exacting conditions fulfilled by Nephi’s account of his father’s qaṣÄ«das
and demanded of the true and authentic poet of the earliest period:

(1) They are Brunnen– or Quellenlieder, as the Germans call
them, that is, songs inspired by the sight of water gushing from a spring or
running down a valley.

(2) They are addressed to one or (usually) two traveling companions.

(3) They praise the beauty and the excellence of the scene, calling it to
the attention of the hearer as an object lesson.

(4) The hearer is urged to be like the thing he beholds.22

(5) The poems are recited extempore on the spot and with great feeling.

(6) They are very short, each couplet being a complete poem in itself.23

(7) One verse must be followed by its “brother,” making a perfectly
matched pair.

Here we have beyond any doubt all the elements of a situation of which no
westerner in 1830 had the remotest conception. Lehi stands before us as something
of a poet, as well as a great prophet and leader, and that is as it should
be. “The poetic art of David,” says Professor Montgomery, “has
its complement in the early Arabic poets . . . some of whom themselves
were kings.”24

It has often been said that there is no real poetry in the Book of Mormon—no
real English poetry, that is. Of course not; there is no Italian or Russian
poetry, either, for Lehi did not compose in those languages. Whenever Semitic
poetry is translated into a modern language, if any attempt at all is made to
retain the original meanings, the result is pretty awful. The Psalms are beautiful
in English, for example, because the translators were very largely ignorant
of the fine points of what they were reading, and so wrote a free and uninhibited
English.25 But accuracy is the first
and last aim of our Book of Mormon text, and if there were any good poetry in
the book it would give just cause for suspicion, for Burton, even while praising
the matchless genius of the desert poets, is careful to point out that they
are utterly “destitute of the poetic taste, as we define it.”26
To Lehi’s “literary” critics we need only reply that Nephi is not
supposed to be writing good English poetry, and that they might with equal justice
maintain that there is no good literature in Mutanabbi or the Kitāb-al-AghānÄ«
because, forsooth, none of the innumerable poems contained in them has ever
been done into great or even good English verse—they cannot be and still
contain any of their original form or content. Yet those who know these books
best insist that they represent the high point not only in Arabic but also in
all lyric poetry.

As if to prove that no westerner could possibly have dreamed up Nephi’s account,
we are challenged by the remarkable expression, “like unto this valley,
firm and steadfast, and immovable” (1 Nephi 2:10). Who west of Suez would
ever think of such an image? At the very least the proofreader should have caught
such a howler, which should certainly have been corrected in subsequent editions.
For we, of course, know all about everlasting hills and immovable mountains,
the moving of which is the best-known illustration of the infinite power of
faith, but who ever heard of a steadfast valley? The Arabs, to be sure. For
them the valley, and not the mountain, is the symbol of permanence. It is not
the mountain of refuge to which they flee, but the valley of refuge. The great
depressions that run for hundreds of miles across the Arabian peninsula pass
for the most part through plains devoid of mountains. It is in these ancient
riverbeds alone that water, vegetation, and animal life are to be found when
all else is desolation. They alone offer men and animals escape from their enemies
and deliverance from death by hunger and thirst. The qualities of firmness and
steadfastness, of reliable protection, refreshment, and sure refuge when all
else fails, which other nations attribute naturally to mountains, the Arabs
attribute to valleys.27 So the ancient
Zohair describes a party like Lehi’s:

And when they went down to the water, blue and still in its depression, they
laid down their walking-sticks like one who has reached a permanent resting-place.

Adventure in Jerusalem

Nephi and his brothers made two trips back to Jerusalem. The second was only
to “the land of Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 7:2) to pick up Ishmael. The
fact that this was a simple and uncomplicated mission at a time when things
would have been very hot for the brethren in the city itself (where they had
been chased by Laban’s police on their former expedition and would be instantly
recognized) implies that Ishmael, like Lehi, lived well out in the country
(1 Nephi 7:2—5). But the first mission was an exciting and dangerous assignment
in the city itself. Though it was no mere raid, as we have seen, the men taking
their tents with them and going up quite openly, they were expecting trouble
and drew lots to see who should go in to Laban. The record tells of hiding
without the walls, daring exploits in the dark streets, mad pursuits, dangerous
masquerading, desperate deeds, and bitter quarrels—a typical Oriental
romance, one might say, but typical because such things actually do, and always
did, happen in Eastern cities.

It has ever been an established and conventional bit of gallantry for some
Bedouin bravo with a price on his head to risk his life by walking right through
a city under the noses of the police in broad daylight—a very theatrical
gesture but one which my Arab friends assure me has been done a thousand times.
It was while reading the BanÄ« Hilāl epic that the writer was first impressed
by the close resemblance of the behavior of Lehi’s sons on that quick trip
to Jerusalem to that of the young braves of the BanÄ« Hilāl when they would
visit a city under like circumstances. The tales of the wanderings of the
‘Amer tribe tell the same story—camping without the walls, drawing lots
to see who would take a chance, sneaking into the city and making a getaway
through the midnight streets29—it is all in the Book of Mormon and
all quite authentic.

Thoroughly typical also is the hiding out of the young men in caves near the
city while they waited for Laban’s henchmen to cool off and debated with Oriental
heat and passion their next move (1 Nephi 3:27—28). Since the Palestine
Exploration Fund Quarterly
started to appear many years ago, its readers
have been treated to a constant flow of official reports on newly-discovered
caves in and near Jerusalem. The country is peppered with them; for the area
southwest of the city, “it is difficult to give an account of the principal
excavations of this type (of caves) without appearing to use the language of
exaggeration. . . . To attempt a descriptive catalogue of these caves
would be altogether futile. The mere labor of searching the hills for examples
. . . would be almost endless.”30
Farther out, the Beit Jibrin area “contains an innumerable number of artificial
caves,”31 and the deserts of Tih
and Moab swarm with them.32 Many of
these caves, being artificial, are younger than Lehi’s time, but many are also
older and have been used at all times as hiding places.33
But who in America knew of these hiding places a hundred years ago?

The purpose of the first return trip to Jerusalem was the procuring of certain
records which were written on bronze plates (the Book of Mormon like the Bible
always uses “brass” for what we call bronze—a word that has
become current only since its translation). Lehi had a dream in which he was
commanded to get these records which, as he already knew, were kept at the house
of one Laban. Nephi does not know exactly the reason for this and assumes, incorrectly
as it turned out, that the object was to “preserve unto our children the
language of our fathers” (1 Nephi 3:19).34
It is interesting that the BanÄ« Hilāl in setting out for their great
trek felt it necessary to keep a record of their fathers and to add
to it as they went, “so that the memory of it might remain for future generations.”35
The keeping of such a daftar, as it was called, was also known to other
wandering tribes.

But what were the records doing at Laban’s house, and who was Laban anyway?

Dealings with Laban

For ages the cities of Palestine and Syria had been more or less under the
rule of military governors, of native blood but, in theory at least, answerable
to Egypt. “These commandants (called rabis in the Amarna letters)
were subordinate to the city-princes (chazan), who commonly address
them as ‘Brother’ or ‘Father.’ “36
They were by and large a sordid lot of careerists whose authority depended on
constant deception and intrigue, though they regarded their offices as hereditary
and sometimes styled themselves kings. In the Amarna letters we find these men
raiding each other’s caravans, accusing each other of unpaid debts and broken
promises, mutually denouncing each other as traitors to Egypt, and generally
displaying the usual time-honored traits of the high official in the East seeking
before all things to increase his private fortune. The Lachish letters show
that such men were still the lords of creation in Lehi’s day—the commanders
of the towns around Jerusalem were still acting in closest cooperation with
Egypt in military matters, depending on the prestige of Egypt to bolster their
corrupt power, and still behaving as groveling and unscrupulous timeservers.37

One of the main functions of any governor in the East has always been to
hear petitions, and the established practice has ever been to rob the petitioners
(or anyone else) wherever possible. The Eloquent Peasant story of fifteen
centuries before Lehi and the innumerable Tales of the Qadis of fifteen centuries
after him are all part of the same picture, and Laban fits into that picture
as if it were drawn to set off his portrait.

And 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.

And . . . Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence;
and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto
him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee.

But Laman fled out of his presence, and told the things which Laban had done,
unto us (1 Nephi 3:11—14).

Later the brothers returned to Laban laden with their family treasure, foolishly
hoping to buy the plates from him. They might have known what would happen:

And it came to pass that when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly
great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his
servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property.

And it came to pass that we did flee before the servants of Laban, and we
were obliged to leave behind our property, and it fell into the hands of Laban
(1 Nephi 3:25—26).

Compare this with the now classic story of Wenamon’s interview with the rapacious
Zakar Baal, governor of Byblos, almost exactly five hundred years before.
The Egyptian entered the great man’s house and “found him sitting in
his upper chamber, leaning his back against a window,” even as Laman
accosted Laban “as he sat in his house” (1 Nephi 3:11). When his
visitor desired of the merchant prince and prince of merchants that he part
with some cedar logs, the latter flew into a temper and accused him of being
a thief (“Behold thou art a robber!” says Laban in 1 Nephi 3:13),
demanding that he produce his credentials. Zakar Baal then “had the journal
of his fathers brought in, and he had them read it before [him],” from
which it is plain that the important records of the city were actually stored
at his house and kept on tablets. From this ancient “journal of his fathers,”
the prince proved to Wenamon that his ancestors had never taken orders from
Egypt, and though the envoy softened his host somewhat by reminding him that
Ammon, the lord of the universe, rules over all kings, the hard-dealing official
“thrust him out” and later even sent his servants after him—not,
however, to slay him, but with the more generous afterthought of bringing
him something in the way of refreshment as he sat sorrowing. With cynical
politeness the prince offered to show Wenamon the graves of some other Egyptian
envoys whose missions had not been too successful, and when the business deal
was finally completed, Zakar Baal, on a legal technicality, turned his guest
over to the mercies of a pirate fleet lurking outside the harbor.38 And all
the time he smiled and bowed, for after all Wenamon was an Egyptian official,
whereas Lehi’s sons lost their bargaining power when they lost their fortune.
The Laban story is an eloquent commentary of the ripeness of Jerusalem for

A few deft and telling touches resurrect the pompous Laban with photographic
perfection. We learn in passing that he commanded a garrison of fifty, that
he met in full ceremonial armor with “the elders of the Jews” (1 Nephi
4:22) for secret consultations by night, that he had control of a treasury,
that he was of the old aristocracy, being a distant relative to Lehi himself,
that he probably held his job because of his ancestors, since he hardly received
it by merit, that his house was the storing place of very old records, that
he was a large man, short-tempered, crafty, and dangerous, and to the bargain
cruel, greedy, unscrupulous, weak, and given to drink. All of which makes him
a Rabu to the life, the very model of an Oriental pasha. He is cut
from the same cloth as Jaush, his contemporary and probably his successor as
“military governor of this whole region, in control of the defenses along
the western frontier of Judah, and an intermediary with the authorities of Jerusalem,”
or as Hoshaiah, “apparently the leader of the military company situated
at some outpost near the main road from Jerusalem to the coast,” whose
character was one of “fawning servility.”39

As to the garrison of fifty, it seems pitifully small for a great city. It
would have been just as easy for the author of 1 Nephi to have said “fifty
thousand,” and made it really impressive. Yet even the older brothers,
though they wish to emphasize Laban’s great power, mention only fifty (1 Nephi
3:31), and it is Nephi in answering them who says that the Lord is “mightier
than Laban and his fifty,” and adds, “or even than his tens of thousands”
(1 Nephi 4:1). As a high military commander Laban would have his tens of thousands
in the field, but such an array is of no concern to Laman and Lemuel: it is
the “fifty” they must look out for, the regular, permanent garrison
of Jerusalem. The number fifty suits perfectly with the Amarna picture where
the military forces are always so surprisingly small and a garrison of thirty
to eighty men is thought adequate even for big cities. It is strikingly vindicated
in a letter of Nebuchadnezzar, Lehi’s contemporary, wherein the great king
orders: “As to the fifties who were under your orders, those gone to
the rear, or fugitives return them to the ranks.” Commenting on this,
Offord says, “In these days it is interesting to note the indication
here, that in the Babylonian army a platoon contained fifty men;”40
also, we might add, that it was called a “fifty,”—hence, “Laban
and his fifty” (1 Nephi 4:1). Of course, companies of fifty are mentioned
in the Bible, along with tens and hundreds, etc., but not as garrisons of
great cities and not as the standard military unit of this time. Laban, like
Hoshaiah of Lachish, had a single company of soldiers under him as the permanent
garrison, and like Jaush (his possible successor) worked in close cooperation
with the authorities in Jerusalem.

Returning by night in a third attempt to get the records, Nephi stumbled upon
the prostrate form of Laban, lying dead drunk in the deserted street (1 Nephi
4:7). The commander had been (so his servant later told Nephi) in conference
with “the elders of the Jews . . . out by night among them”
(1 Nephi 4:22), and was wearing his full dress armor. What a world of inference
in this! We sense the gravity of the situation in Jerusalem which “the
elders” are still trying to conceal; we hear the suppressed excitement
of Zoram’s urgent talk as he and Nephi hasten through the streets to the city
gates (1 Nephi 4:27), and from Zoram’s willingness to change sides and leave
the city we can be sure that he, as Laban’s secretary,41
knew how badly things were going. From the Lachish letters it is clear that
informed parties in Jerusalem were quite aware of the critical state of things
at Jerusalem, even while the sarim, “the elders,” were working
with all their might to suppress every sign of criticism and disaffection. How
could they take counsel to provide for the defense of the city and their own
interests without exciting alarm or giving rise to general rumors and misgivings?
By holding their meetings in secret, of course, such midnight sessions of civil
and military leaders as Laban had just been attending.

With great reluctance, but urged persistently by “the voice of the Spirit”
(1 Nephi 4:18), Nephi took Laban’s own sword and cut off his head with it. This
episode is viewed with horror and incredulity by people who recently approved
and applauded the far less merciful slaughter of far more innocent men on the
islands of the Pacific. Samual ibn Adiyt, the most famous Jewish poet of Arabia
in ancient times, won undying fame in the East by allowing his son to be cruelly
put to death before his eyes rather than give up some costly armor which had
been entrusted to his care by a friend.42
The story, true or not, is a reminder that eastern and western standards are
not the same, and that the callousness of Americans in many matters of personal
relationships would shock Arabs far more than anything they do shocks us. The
Book of Mormon is no more than the Bible confined to mild and pleasant episodes;
it is for the most part a sad and grievous tale of human folly. No one seems
more disturbed by the demise of Laban, however, than Nephi himself, who takes
great pains to explain his position (1 Nephi 4:10—18). First he was “constrained
by the Spirit” to kill Laban, but he said in his heart that he had never
shed human blood and became sick at the thought: “I shrunk and would that
I might not slay him” (1 Nephi 4:10). The Spirit spoke again, and to its
promptings Nephi adds his own reasons: “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” (1 Nephi 4:11). But
this was still not enough; the Spirit spoke again, explaining the Lord’s reasons
and assuring Nephi that he would be in the right; to which Nephi appends yet
more arguments of his own, remembering the promise that his people would prosper
only by keeping the commandments of the Lord, “and I also thought
that they could not keep the commandments . . . save they should have
the law” (1 Nephi 4:15), which the dangerous and criminal Laban alone kept
them from having. “And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban
into my hands for this cause. . . . Therefore I did obey
the voice of the Spirit” (1 Nephi 4:17—18).

At long last Nephi finally did the deed, of which he is careful to clear
himself, putting the responsibility for the whole thing on the Lord. If the
Book of Mormon were a work of fiction, nothing would be easier than to have
Laban already dead when Nephi found him or simply to omit an episode which
obviously distressed the writer quite as much as it does the reader, though
the slaying of Laban is no more reprehensible than was the beheading of the
unconscious Goliath.

From time to time the claim is put forth, that the story of Laban’s death
is absurd, if not impossible. It is said that Nephi could not have killed
Laban and made his escape. Those who are familiar with night patroling in
wartime, however, will see in Nephi’s tale a convincing and realistic account.
In the first place, the higher critics are apparently not aware that the lighting
of city streets, except for festivals, is a blessing unknown to ages other
than our own. Hundreds of passages might be cited from ancient writers, classical
and Oriental, to show that in times gone by the streets of even the biggest
towns were perfectly dark at night, and very dangerous. To move about late
at night without lamp bearers and armed guards was to risk almost certain
assault. In the famous trial of Alcibiades for the mutilation of the Hermes,
we have the testimony of one witness who, all alone, beheld by moonlight the
midnight depredations of a drunken band in the heart of downtown Athens, from
which it is clear that the streets of the greatest city in the western world
were unlighted, deserted, and dangerous at night. In times of social unrest
the streets at night were virtually given over to the underworld, as they
were in some European cities during the blackouts of the late war. The extreme
narrowness of ancient streets made their blackout doubly effective. From the
Greek and Roman comedy and from the poets we learn how heavily barred and
closely guarded the doors of private houses had to be at night, and archaeology
has shown us eastern cities in which apparently not a single house window
opened onto the public street, as few do even today at ground level. East
and West, the inmates simply shut themselves in at night as if in a besieged
fortress. Even in Shakespeare’s day we see the comical terror of the night
watch passing through the streets at hours when all honest people are behind
doors. In a word, the streets of any ancient city after sundown were a perfect
setting for the committing of deeds of violence without fear of detection.

It was very late when Nephi came upon Laban (1 Nephi 4:5, 22); the streets
were deserted and dark. Let the reader imagine what he would do if he were on
patrol near enemy headquarters during a blackout and stumbled on the unconscious
form of some notoriously bloodthirsty enemy general. By the brutal code of war
the foe has no claim to a formal trial, and it is now or never. Laban was wearing
armor, so the only chance of dispatching him quickly, painlessly, and safely
was to cut off his head—the conventional treatment of criminals in the
East, where beheading has always been by the sword, and where an executioner
would be fined for failing to decapitate his victim at one clean stroke. Nephi
drew the sharp, heavy weapon and stood over Laban for a long time, debating
his course (1 Nephi 4:9—18). He was an expert hunter and a powerful man:
with due care such a one could do a quick and efficient job and avoid getting
much blood on himself. But why should he worry about that? There was not one
chance in a thousand of meeting any honest citizen, and in the dark no one would
notice the blood anyway. What they would notice would be the armor that Nephi
put on, and which, like the sword, could easily be wiped clean. The donning
of the armor was the natural and the shrewd thing for Nephi to do. A number
of instances from the last war could be cited to show that a spy in the enemy
camp is never so safe as when he is wearing the insignia of a high
military official—provided he does not hang around too long, and Nephi
had no intention of doing that. No one dares challenge big brass too closely
(least of all a grim and hot-tempered Laban); their business is at all times
“top secret,” and their uniform gives them complete freedom to come
and to go unquestioned.

Nephi tells us that he was “led by the Spirit” (1 Nephi 4:6). He
was not taking impossible chances, but being in a tight place he followed
the surest formula of those who have successfully carried off ticklish assignments.
His audacity and speed were rewarded, and he was clear of the town before
anything was discovered. In his whole exploit there is nothing in the least

How Nephi disguised himself in the clothes of Laban and tricked Laban’s servant
into admitting him to the treasury is an authentic bit of Oriental romance,
and of history as well. One need but think of Sir Richard Burton’s amazingly
audacious masquerades in the East, carried on in broad daylight and for months
on end with perfect success, to realize that such a thing is entirely possible.
When Zoram, the servant, discovered that it was not his master with whom he
had been discussing the highly secret doings of the elders as they walked
to the outskirts of the city, he was seized with terror, as well he might
be. In such a situation there was only one thing Nephi could possibly have
done, both to spare Zoram and to avoid giving alarm—and no westerner
could have guessed what it was. Nephi, a powerful fellow, held the terrified
Zoram in a vice-like grip long enough to swear a solemn oath in his ear, “as
the Lord liveth, and as I live” (1 Nephi 4:32), that he would not harm
him if he would listen. Zoram immediately relaxed, and Nephi swore another
oath to him that he would be a free man if he would join the party: “Therefore,
if thou wilt go down into the wilderness to my father thou shalt have place
with us” (1 Nephi 4:34).

We have already considered the correctness of the expressions “go down,”
and “have place,” as well as the necessity of having Zoram address
himself to no one but Nephi’s father. What astonishes the western reader is
the miraculous effect of Nephi’s oath on Zoram, who upon hearing a few conventional
words promptly becomes tractable, while as for the brothers, as soon as Zoram
“made an oath unto us . . . that he would tarry with us from
that time forth . . . our fears did cease concerning him” (1
Nephi 4:35, 37).

The reaction of both parties makes sense when one realizes that the oath is
the one thing that is most sacred and inviolable among the desert people: “Hardly
will an Arab break this oath, even if his life be in jeopardy,” 43
for “there is nothing stronger, and nothing more sacred than the oath among
the nomads,” and even among the city Arabs, if it be exacted under special
conditions.44 But not every oath will
do: to be most binding and solemn an oath should be by the life of
something, even if it be but a blade of grass; the only oath more awful than
“by my life” or (less commonly) “by the life of my head,”
is the wa ḥayat Allah, “by the life of God,” or “as
the Lord liveth,” the Arabic equivalent of the ancient Hebrew ḥai
.45 Today it is glibly employed
by the city riffraff, but anciently it was an awful thing, as it still is among
the desert people: “I confirmed my answer in the Beduin wise,” says
Doughty. “By his life . . . he said, . . . ‘Well, swear
by the life of Ullah (God)!’ . . . I answered, . . . and
thus even the nomads use, in a greater occasion, but they say, By the life
of thee
, in a little matter.”46
So we see that the one and only way that Nephi could have pacified the struggling
Zoram in an instant was to utter the one oath that no man would dream of breaking,
the most solemn of all oaths to the Semite: “as the Lord liveth, and as
I live” (1 Nephi 4:32).

1. Philip J. Baldensperger, “The Immovable East,” PEFQ (1925), 81.

2. Richard F. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (London: Tylston
& Edwards, 1893), 1:280.

3. The river would flow between these
two elevations, as indicated on maps of the area. The valley seems to be commodious
enough. We suggest an investigation: from the most ancient times it has been
the custom of travelers in the desert to inscribe their names on rocks at places
where they have camped. “We find now hundreds of these inscriptions.”
Theodor Nöldeke, Die semitischen Sprachen (Leipzig: Tauchnitz,
1899), 37. It is almost certain that Lehi’s people left their marks at the more
important stopping places.

4. Ignac Goldziher, Abhandlungen
zur arabischen Philologie
(Leiden, 1896), 1:58.

5. Nilus, Narratio (Narrations)
5, in PG 79:648.

6. Ibn Qutayba, Introduction au
livre de la poesie et des poetes
(Muqaddamatu Kitab-ish-Shicre
wa sh-Shucara)
(Paris: l’Association Guillaume Budé, 1947),

7. Bertram Thomas, Arabia Felix
(New York: Scribner, 1932), 153.

8. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
Wind, Sand and Stars (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1967), 104.

9. Kitālb TaghrÄ«bat BanÄ«
(Damascus: Hashim), 54.

10. Goldziher, Abhandlu ngen zur
arabischen Philologie

11. Ibid., 1:59, 72—75.

12. Ibn Qutayba, Introduction
au livre de la poesie et des poetes
, 25; cf. Goldziher, Abhandlungen
zur arabischen Philologie

13. Pierre Cersoy, “L’apologue
de la vigne,” RB 8 (1899): 40—47.

14. Emmanuel Cosquin, “Le livre de Tobie et ‘L’histoire du sage Ahikar,’
RB 8 (1899): 54—55.

15. “I cannot well explain the effect of Arab poetry on one who has not
visited the Desert.” Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, 2:99.

16. Gustav Richter, “Zur Entstehungsgeschichte der altarabischen Qaside,”
ZDMG 92 (1938): 557—58. The passage cited is from ‘Antara.

17. Ibid., 563—65.

18. Ibn Qutayba, Introduction
au livre de la poesie et des poetes
, 13.

19. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, 1:278.

20. Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte
der arabischen Litteratur
(Leiden: Brill, 1943), 16.

21. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, 1:278, n. 3.

22. Richter, “Zur Entstehungsgeschichte der altarabischen Qaside,” 557—58.

23. Brockelmann, Geschichte der
arabischen Litteratur
, 12.

24. James L. Montgomery, Arabia
and the Bible
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1934), 21.

25. Even the whole interpretation of the 23rd Psalm is now being questioned.

26. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, 2:98.

27. See “The Problem of Food” discussed in the text above.

28. Frank E. Johnson, tr., Al-Mucallaqāt
(Bombay: Education Society’s Steam Press, 1893), 71, line 13.

29. J. Dissard, “Les migrations et les vicissitudes de la Tribu des ‘Amer,”
RB 2 (1905): 411—16.

30. Frederick J. Bliss & R. A.
Stewart Macalister, Excavations in Palestine (London: Palestine Exploration
Fund, 1902), 204.

31. Ibid., 269.

32. Edward H. Palmer, “The Desert
of the Tíh and the Country of Moab,” in Survey of Western Palestine,
Special Papers
(London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1881), 4:19—21.

33. Bliss & Macalister, Excavations
in Palestine
, 266—67; W. F. Birch, “Hiding-Places in Canaan,”
PEFQ (1884), 61—70, also (1880), 235, and (1881), 323—24.

34. As a matter of fact, that language was not preserved even in antiquity,
and when the time came for the record to fulfill its great purpose of bearing
witness to the world, it had to be translated by the gift and power of God.
Of this purpose Nephi at the time knew nothing.

35. Kitāb TaghrÄ«baht
BanÄ« Hilāl
, 14.

36. Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des
, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Cotta, 1928), vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 137.

37. J. W. Jack, “The Lachish Letters—Their Date and Import,” PEFQ (1938),

38. The Wenamon story may be found
in James H. Breasted, A History of Egypt, 2nd ed. (New York: Scribner,
1951), 513—18; James Baikie, The History of the Pharaohs (London:
Black, 1926), 285—87; James H. Breasted, “The Decline and Fall of
the Egyptian Empire,” Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge University
Press, 1931), 2:193—94. More recently, Hans Goedicke, The Report of
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).

39. Jack, “The Lachish Letters—Their Date and Import,” 168.

40. Joseph Offord, “Archaeological Notes on Jewish Antiquities,” PEFQ
(1916), 148.

41. William F. Albright, “The
Seal of Eliakim and the Latest Preexilic History of Judah, With Some Observations
on Ezekiel,” JBL 51 (1932): 79—83, shows that the title “servant”
in Jerusalem at this time meant something like “official representative”
and was an honorable rather than a degrading title.

42. Brockelmann, Geschichte der
arabischen Litteratur
, 34.

43. W. Ewing, “A Journey in the Hauran,” PEFQ (1895), 173.

44. Antonin Jaussen, “Mélanges,”
RB 12 (1903): 259; cf. C. Clermont-Ganneau, “The Arabs of Palestine,”
in Survey Western Palestine, Special Papers (London: Palestine Exploration
Fund, 1881), 4:327.

45. Clermont-Ganneau, “The Arabs of Palestine,” 326—27; Baldensperger,
PEFQ (1910), 261.

46. Charles M. Doughty, Travels
in Arabia Deserta
(New York: Random House, 1936), 2:27.