God comes to Lehi, Nephi’s father, in a dream and tells him to take his family to the wilderness. He doesn’t really give a reason, and Lehi complies: “he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness,” setting up camp near the Red Sea.
Here we learn a little about Nephi’s family. His mother is Sariah, and he has three elder brothers: Laman, Lemuel, and Sam.
They come across a river, which Lehi names after Laman, then says to him, “O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!” To Lemuel he says, ” O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, afirm and bsteadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!” Nephi explains that Lehi says this because of the “stiffneckedness” of Laman and Lameul. Much like the first family, there’s some tension, with two of the brothers murmuring against their father and complain about having to follow father into the wilderness and leave behind their inheritance. Lehi puts the fear of God in them and they shape up.
At this point, God comes to Nephi and tells him something, but we don’t immediately know what. Nephi goes to Sam and tells him what God told him; Sam believes — yet we still don’t know what that was. All the same, Lamuel and Laman hear it and don’t believe, at which point God speaks to Nephi again. He tells him that, because he keeps his commandments, he shall prosper, while his brothers shall be cut off. God promises that Nephi will be made a ruler and a teacher.
Chapter three begins with a new command from God, which Nephi explains to his father:
Behold I have dreamed a dream, in the which the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brethren shall return to Jerusalem. For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass. Wherefore, the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brothers should go unto the house of Laban, and seek the records, and bring them down hither into the wilderness.
Nephi and his brothers return to Jerusalem, then cast lots to see who exactly is going to go into the house to get the records. Laman gets the short straw and goes to get the plates. Laban refuses, and the boys grow despondent.
Then Nephi remembers all the gold they’d left in Jerusalem and they head off to get it. They offer to buy the plates, but Laban, seeing the treasure, decides simply to kill the brothers and take the money. The brothers run off, leaving the treasure behind. They hide in a cave, where the older brothers begin beating Nephi. An angel appears and asks them why they’re beating the one who will rule over them in the future. The angel assures the brothers that God will deliver Laban into their hands. The brothers don’t believe, despite the message having a clearly supernatural source.
The brothers return to Jerusalem at the beginning of chapter four, after Nephi points out that it was an angel that promised them all this — he must have inside knowledge. As they approach Laban’s house, who should appear but Laban himself, drunk and stumbling. He passes out at the feet of Nephi, who takes Laban’s sword and feels the Spirit telling him to slay Laban. But Nephi is a young man; he’s never killed anyone; he’s nervous. God speaks to him, stiffening his resolve:
Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and 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. And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands; Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.
So Nephi pulls Laban up by his hair and decapitates him with Laban’s own sword. He then takes Laban’s armor for his own. He heads to Laban’s house and, predictably, everyone thinks he’s Laban. He gets the plates and much of Laban’s treasure, then convinces Zoram, Laban’s servant, to head back with the now-rich brothers.
It’s striking how similar the actions of Nephi and the others are to the characters of the Old Testament. In a word, barbaric. There are two ways to explain this: the first is that the Book of Mormon is as genuine as the Bible, and thus is a fairly accurate reflection of life in those times. The second is that Smith deliberately chose to pattern his book after the Old Testament — a wise move, considering the claims he makes about it. However, there seems to be a third option, combining the other options: Smith was himself convinced that he was transmitting the word of God, but in fact was deluding himself. This might work if Smith claimed, as Mohammad did, that a supernatural being dictated the words to him. However, Smith claims that he translated plates — in other words, it would be possible to have physical proof of the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon, if only the plates were still here. That backs Smith into a corner: either he’s telling the truth, or he’s deliberately lying. And if he’s lying, then that means a whole religion was created on one man’s lies.
How many times has that happened?