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 occasion.
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 him.
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 dodi, “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 qasÄ«da (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 exclaim,
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. 28
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 destruction.
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 improbable.
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 á¸¥ayat Allah, “by the life of God,” or “as the Lord liveth,” the Arabic equivalent of the ancient Hebrew á¸¥ai Elohim.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), 18.
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« Hilāl (Damascus: Hashim), 54.
10. Goldziher, Abhandlu ngen zur arabischen Philologie 1:67—71.
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 1:74.
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 TÃh 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 Altertums, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Cotta, 1928), vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 137.
37. J. W. Jack, “The Lachish Letters—Their Date and Import,” PEFQ (1938), 168.
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 Wenamun (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.