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Iron Rod vs. Liahona: The Case of Nephi

Regarding the comments received on a recent post by Ronan, I am somewhat disturbed. Certainly, in a perfect world, there is never any contradiction between what the commandments command us and what we are inspired to do. But there are cases where the right choice simply did not fall within these parameters.

The most obvious example is the moral quandary of Nephi in 1st Nephi 4. He is a case where a righteous man is receiving an inspired command to do something that appears to directly contradict the commandments he has received prior. What do you do when God tells you to kill someone? It is interesting that Nephi, of all people, tries to argue with God here. He doesn't want to do it. He has to work it out between himself and God (eventually drawing on other commandments that he had received) in order to justify his killing of Laban.

Perhaps it is the fact that Nephi had doubts and overcame them that make him a prophetic hero here. Certainly, he did not blindly go where the Spirit told him to go. But it does seem that people can, on rare occasion, be given commandments by inspiration that contradict their understanding of previous commandments. How to handle that type of situation is a trial I would just as soon not face.

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Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 2:38 PM) 

It's a situation I'd rather not face either. This is a scripture I've struggled with, but am able to fell really comfortable with any answer justifying murder. So it's one of those things that I 'shelve' for answer in the afterlife! 

Posted by Rebecca

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 4:20 PM) 

It is also interesting to note that although Nephi follows through with the command, he does not expect the fact that God told him to do it to exempt him from the temporal legal consequences of his act. That is perhaps one reason why he is careful to relate the story so that it conveys the idea that he committed manslaughter

Posted by john fowles

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 5:15 PM) 

What do you do when God tells you to kill someone? ? You check yourself into a mental institution pronto. I feel a blog coming on... "one man's mental illness is another man's divine revelation". But honestly, we'd say that Nephi was insane if he pulled this today (like the Lafferty's)!

But seriously: we have a nice system of checks and balances in the church. Our leaders are fallible (repeat that-f.a.l.l.i.b.l.e.) and so we need a higher source to guide us should the system ever break down. But then, in balance, our leaders can be trusted and our own intuition (which we might mistake for the Spirit) can't always be.

-Ronan

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 5:25 PM) 

The trick, of course, is to distinguish the one time in a thousand that "take the money" or "go ahead, kill him" is a directive from God, versus the 999 times in a thousand that it is just you and your sinful human will speaking. Perhaps it is 1000 times in a thousand. The whole idea that immoral actions are okay because somebody thinks God is saying it's okay is simply incompatible with the idea of morality. I find it regrettable that this troubling line of thinking is so visible in Mormon thinking. 

Posted by Dave

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 5:29 PM) 

immoral actions are okay because somebody thinks God is saying it's okay. Dave, no-one thinks that, only crazy people like the Laffertys. And we all accept that they're crazy. The Nephi story is famous, but we don't use it to justify killing people. At least no Mormon I've ever met does. Don't pull a Krakauer, Dave!  

Posted by Ronan

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 5:32 PM) 

Thanks for the interesting link, JF. It raised a question though. What if Nephi didn't understand the legal justification (speculation, I admit) until after the act? J. Welch is right to point out the legal ambiguities, but we have no reason to believe that Nephi was conversant with applied Hebrew Law prior to the encounter with Laban. Outside of the fact that application of the Torah as Law is a problematic issue in any case (at least, during the Monarchy), why should we assume that Nephi's knowledge of the Law was the same in his youth as it was when he actually wrote the accounts in the small plates?
Which brings me back to my initial problematic question: what to do when divine inspiration and accepted commandment seem to contradict? 

Posted by John C.

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 5:46 PM) 

Ronan,
The problem is that we don't consider Nephi insane today. Admittedly, this is a case where it was tolerable in the past, but never in the right now. Nonetheless, I have yet to meet faithful church members who question whether or not Nephi did the right thing. Of course he did. God told him to do it, so it was the right thing (note the discussion in D&C 132:31-37, especially verse 35).
Nephi did something that he thought was wrong (thus his need for later justification) because he knew that God was telling him to do it. A difference between him and the Laffertys (aside from being divinely inspired) is that Nephi doubted and apparently Ron and Dan never did (which might explain why we call them crazy). 

Posted by John C.

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 7:52 PM) 

Another difference between Nephi and the Lafferty's is that Nephi had motive (to secure the plates) and the Lafferty's didn't. To me, this suggests that the act was indeed premeditated. Of course, later Nephi feels the need to justify the action later as well. But ultimately, let's not forget that the reason the Lord gave Nephi wasn't "Because I say so;" it was, "It's better that one man perish than that a nation dwindle in unbelief." That sounds more like murder than manslaughter or insanity defense to me.

Also, in Dave's defense, I think his logic is fine. Just because we don't employ that logic to kill people today doesn't mean it's faulty logic. What Dave says is right. I'm reminded of all the people who talk of feeling overly guilty reading "The Miracle of Forgiveness," where it implies death is better than violated chastity, even if you're being raped. You can say, 'well that's just a way of stressing the importance of chastity.' But, to some, it stresses their personal worthlessness if they've broken the law of chastity or been raped. I know this is a tangent, but I think it's the same potentially harmful kind of teaching that exists sometimes in the church. 

Posted by APJ

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 7:52 PM) 

Another difference between Nephi and the Lafferty's is that Nephi had motive (to secure the plates) and the Lafferty's didn't. To me, this suggests that the act was indeed premeditated. Of course, later Nephi feels the need to justify the action later as well. But ultimately, let's not forget that the reason the Lord gave Nephi wasn't "Because I say so;" it was, "It's better that one man perish than that a nation dwindle in unbelief." That sounds more like murder than manslaughter or insanity defense to me.

Also, in Dave's defense, I think his logic is fine. Just because we don't employ that logic to kill people today doesn't mean it's faulty logic. What Dave says is right. I'm reminded of all the people who talk of feeling overly guilty reading "The Miracle of Forgiveness," where it implies death is better than violated chastity, even if you're being raped. You can say, 'well that's just a way of stressing the importance of chastity.' But, to some, it stresses their personal worthlessness if they've broken the law of chastity or been raped. I know this is a tangent, but I think it's the same potentially harmful kind of teaching that exists sometimes in the church. 

Posted by APJ

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 7:52 PM) 

Another difference between Nephi and the Lafferty's is that Nephi had motive (to secure the plates) and the Lafferty's didn't. To me, this suggests that the act was indeed premeditated. Of course, later Nephi feels the need to justify the action later as well. But ultimately, let's not forget that the reason the Lord gave Nephi wasn't "Because I say so;" it was, "It's better that one man perish than that a nation dwindle in unbelief." That sounds more like murder than manslaughter or insanity defense to me.

Also, in Dave's defense, I think his logic is fine. Just because we don't employ that logic to kill people today doesn't mean it's faulty logic. What Dave says is right. I'm reminded of all the people who talk of feeling overly guilty reading "The Miracle of Forgiveness," where it implies death is better than violated chastity, even if you're being raped. You can say, 'well that's just a way of stressing the importance of chastity.' But, to some, it stresses their personal worthlessness if they've broken the law of chastity or been raped. I know this is a tangent, but I think it's the same potentially harmful kind of teaching that exists sometimes in the church. 

Posted by APJ

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 01, 2004 8:25 PM) 

"What do you do when God tells you to kill someone?"

That's a very good question. I certainly wouldn't want to have to face it. But Abraham had to face that very question, and of his own innocent son. But I am no Abraham, and no Nephi. And if I thought God was telling me to do anything like that, I would follow Ronan's advice and check myself into an institution.
And I thought Dave's words were right on the money.

I still think that we have to square our "inspiration" with what has been taught by the Lord and His servants since the beginning of time.
It is possible that the Lord might ask such a hard thing of one of His servants in the future (imagine a post-apocalyptic near-wasteland, at least east of the Mississippi!) but I doubt it would be someone like me He would require it from. And I am glad!
Interesting question. 

Posted by Peggy Snow Cahill

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 02, 2004 11:11 AM) 

Dave, my comment above actually addresses your point. On the precedent of Nephi, even if the Lafertys were inspired by God to do what they did*, then they, like Nephi, still needed to face the temporal legal consequences of their act. In the case of Nephi, his act complied very closely with the requirements for manslaughter and not murder under the law then applicable: he knew not what he would do beforehand and God delivered Laban into his hands. Thus, Nephi--even though commanded by God to kill Laban, and thus not morally culpable--was still legally culpable for manslaughter and as such needed to flee to a city of refuge and remain there until the death of the presiding high priest so as not to taint the land. Instead, he left Israel altogether and thus fulfilled the obligations of justice with regards to his manslaughter. Similarly, the Lafertys, even if they were literally commanded by God to commit murder (a ridiculous thought) might become morally inculpable in the eternal sense but are still subject to the temporal law concerning murder and as such deserved the death penalty to fulfil the demands of our temporal justice.


* What an absurd argument you are making, by the way--don't you think that in the case of Nephi it was pretty clear that he was communing with God, and if he was, then how can it be morally questionable to not have followed the instruction? You can make the counter-argument of Islamic terrorists but that only works if you believe there might be the possibility that God really does approve of their murderous acts. Suddenly, you are advocating the existence of an objective morality that binds Nephi in spite of God's command? Where is that objective morality in our multi-cultural, politically correct, and deconstructivist world?  

Posted by john fowles

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 02, 2004 11:28 AM) 

I guess the problem I've always had with this scripture, is that can God break His own commandments? And if one exception can be made, then can other commandments be broken at His will? This is an idea I really struggle with. I understand that it is better that one man die than a nation dwindle in unbelief, but is God then also accountable for breaking a law (mortal and divinely given)? 

Posted by Rebecca

 

Anonymous Anonymous said ... (December 02, 2004 2:12 PM) 

How did Nephi know it was God and not the voices in his head? Same with Abraham, I mean we all know he was pretty old.. 

Posted by Jake

 

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