I Have a Question


Questions of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

Why did the Lord command Nephi to slay Laban, when to do so was contrary to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”?

Rodney Turner, professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University.

Nephi was a man of astonishing faith, profound humility, and consistent righteousness. While still a youth, he had such faith that he conversed with the “Holy Spirit” and was shown what his father had seen in a dream. He also beheld Mary bearing the infant Son of God in her arms and saw Christ’s baptism, ministry, and crucifixion (see 1 Ne. 11).

Because of his great faith, Nephi was convinced that the brass plates could be obtained from Laban, no matter how difficult the task might be. He told his father, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Ne. 3:7).

Nephi was soon to learn that God’s ways are not always easy. After two failures to obtain the plates, Nephi and his brothers once more faced the walls of Jerusalem. Laman, Lemuel, and Sam hid themselves while Nephi crept into the darkened city alone. Because of his faith and willingness to obey the Lord’s commandments, Nephi was sensitive to the whisperings of the Spirit. He was therefore “led by the Spirit,” as he says, “not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Ne. 4:6).

By following the Spirit, Nephi discovered Laban lying drunk in the street. “I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban,” Nephi wrote (1 Ne. 4:10). Appalled, he at first resisted the command, saying, “Never at any time have I shed the blood of man” (ibid). But the Spirit spoke again, saying, “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” (1 Ne. 4:12–13).

Some people might claim that by saying the Spirit commanded him to kill Laban, Nephi was rationalizing to justify what was, in fact, murder. They might argue that God would never have commanded Nephi to take a life.

However, Nephi was a righteous man; he was well acquainted with the promptings of the Holy Ghost and knew the difference between his own thoughts and divine revelation. Nephi did not have to include the account of his slaying of Laban in his record. He was not caught in the act, and he might have left his account of obtaining the plates vague. He could even have lied, saying that Laban was already dead when he found him, or providing some other plausible explanation. But Nephi was a truthful man; despite the fact that it was a difficult subject, he wrote it as it happened.

The incident may well have been a trial of faith for Nephi. The Lord could have helped him procure the record in some other way. Instead, the Lord allowed Nephi to struggle with a dilemma: obtain and safeguard the plates as he had been commanded, or let Laban live.

But if Laban had lived, the consequences would have been disastrous. The mission to obtain the plates would have failed, and without the plates, Lehi’s posterity would have perished in unbelief (see 1 Ne. 4:13). The history of Lehi’s descendants would have been far different, and there might have been no Book of Mormon as we know it. Had Nephi not procured the plates, the “keystone of our religion” would be missing.

But there is a larger issue: the moral nature of God. What are its bounds? Who can say what the Almighty can and cannot do? The Prophet Joseph Smith observed, “It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 320). Yet the Lord “willeth to take even them whom he will take, and preserveth in life them whom he will preserve” (D&C 63:3). Evidently God had judged Laban and found him guilty.

He had, as Nephi noted, defied God’s commandments, stolen Lehi’s property, and sought to kill Nephi and his brothers (see 1 Ne. 3:12). Nephi was only doing what God had commanded. Did God have a right to do this? Of course.

Man’s agency cannot delimit or circumscribe the agency of God. For his own reasons, God can temporarily suspend or revoke that which he has previously commanded. For example, he told the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness” (D&C 132:36).

The God who proved Abraham is the same God who proved Nephi. Like Abraham, Nephi obeyed and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.

The principles of the gospel are unchanging, and God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (D&C 20:12). But our mortal circumstances change, and the application of divine law is sometimes adapted to those changes. That is why a living prophet is indispensable. Man does not have the right to adjust the application of God’s laws. But God has every right to do so; and when he does, he will reveal his decisions to his servants, the prophets (see Amos 3:7).

[illustration] Nephi Kills Laban, by Gary Smith

How do we explain the mention of “satyrs,” commonly regarded as mythical creatures, in 2 Nephi 23:21 and Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14?

Stephen Ricks, professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages and associate dean of General Education and Honors, Brigham Young University.

The word satyr or satyrs occurs twice in the King James Version, both times in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah, speaking of the fate of Babylon, says that “wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there” (Isa. 13:21; 2 Ne. 23:21). In another passage about judgment against the wicked, we read, “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest” (Isa. 34:14).

The rich and subtle development of the English language is reflected in the King James translation of the Bible, where words are sometimes used in senses different from those we normally associate with them today. For example, the word unicorn is found several times in the King James Version. Unicorn is understood in modern English to refer to a mythical beast, but unicorn is used in the King James Version as a translation of the Greek Septuagint word monokeros (“single horn”), probably in the sense of “rhinoceros.” (King James translators frequently used the Septuagint to aid them in their work.)

Similarly, in contemporary English the word satyr usually refers to a mythical creature. In Greek mythology, a satyr was a creature of the hills and woods, half man and half animal, who followed Dionysus and Pan. In Roman art the satyr regularly appeared with goat legs and horns (Anthony S. Mercatante, “Satyrs,” The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, New York: Facts on File, 1988, p. 575). The animal’s association with goat features may have influenced King James translators to select the word in the two Isaiah passages. The Hebrew word translated satyr may, according to most recent dictionaries, mean “hairy” (this word is used in Gen. 27:11 to describe Esau), “he-goat,” “hairy one,” “hairy being,” and “demon” with “he-goat’s form” (Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros, Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1958, p. 926).

The translator’s task is to select the word or phrase that best represents in another language the meaning in the original language. It is likely that the word satyr was selected by the King James translators because they expected that the English-speaking readers of their day would recognize the word’s associations with goats or goatlike creatures.

Many recent translations of the passages in Isaiah render satyr as “goat” or “wild goat.” In the New International Version, for example, Isaiah 13:21 [Isa. 13:21] reads: “But desert creatures will lie there, jackals will fill her houses; there the owls will dwell, and there the wild goats will leap about.”

The mention of satyrs in Isaiah 34:14 [Isa. 34:14] presents an image both vivid and apt. Isaiah’s warning against the wicked includes graphic depictions of desolation. The haunting image of wild desert animals and satyrs (in either sense, goatlike creatures or demons) inhabiting man’s smoking, forsaken ruins is consistent with the tone, portent, and symbolism of Isaiah’s message. This imagery heightens the pathos of the Lord’s judgment against the wicked and the irony of the reversal of order. As Victor L. Ludlow notes: “Having banished men from the area, the Lord transforms their cities and dwellings into nests for birds and dens for animals so that instead of these cities standing as monuments of human achievement, they become memorials of foolish ambition” (Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1982, p. 310).

Apparently, the King James translators, as well as the Prophet Joseph Smith, appreciated the literary value and symbolic nature of Isaiah’s prophetic style enough to preserve those qualities, and the word satyr, in translation.

Certainly the Prophet Joseph Smith could have rendered a plainer, more literal translation of satyrs—one that would not lead literalist modern readers to wonder whether goat demons really exist—but the translation apparently was “sufficiently plain to suit my purpose” (D&C 128:18), as Joseph said of another Biblical verse he quoted. A comment by Robert J. Matthews, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and author of A Plainer Translation: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible—A History and Commentary, is instructive:

“It is evident that Joseph Smith was closely allied to the text of the King James Version. … That doesn’t mean that he copied it from the Bible, but that he might have relied upon the language of the King James Version as a vehicle to express the general sense of what was on the gold plates” (Ensign, Mar. 1980, p. 40).

Where can I find accurate information on nutrition that is not faddish or inconsistent with Word of Wisdom guidelines?

Mark J. Rowe, chair of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Brigham Young University.

Reliable scientific literature and credible interpretations of the Word of Wisdom are consistent with each other. Both stress variety, moderation, and balance when it comes to diet. Through the Word of Wisdom, we have “the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days” (D&C 89:2), and through the modern science of nutrition, we have recommendations based on the results of valid scientific studies about sources of nutrition and about the body’s optimum nutrition needs.

Scientific recommendations can be gleaned from a variety of sources. For example, textbooks used in beginning nutrition courses at accredited colleges or universities present balanced summaries of scientific nutrition studies and other related information. Most of these texts include sections on how to find and recognize good sources of nutrition information.

Other sources prepared for those who may have difficulty determining good information from bad include the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Home and Garden Bulletin no. 232) and the Food Guide Pyramid (Home and Garden Bulletin no. 252). These publications are prepared and continually revised by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The recommendations and explanations in these publications are based on careful analysis of vast amounts of nutritional, biological, and medical research by prominent and competent nutrition scientists.

Local extension services, which have the above publications, and registered dietitians also can be helpful. In the United States, the American Dietetic Association has a toll-free consumer nutrition hotline at the National Center for Nutrition and Dietetics (1-800-366-1655).

Using these sources provides a balanced and firm foundation for decisions regarding nutrition. By contrast, sensationalized nutrition information in popular magazines often is not subjected to rigorous professional review.

The Word of Wisdom warns against the “designs … of conspiring men in the last days” (D&C 89:4). We need to be wary of nutrition claims made by those who are selling a product, who have simple answers to complex nutrition questions, who offer a single solution to multiple health concerns, who claim to be picked on by the established medical or nutrition community, or who present anecdotal and emotional testimonials in support of their product rather than valid scientific evidence.

Those who follow unbalanced or profit-motivated recommendations that promote a food component or supplement are usually blown from one nutrition fad to another with no satisfaction, and sometimes with eventual harm. These people repeatedly make the mistake of accepting unproven health claims because they naively trust anecdotal stories or accept the conclusions of poorly conducted studies. Valid studies use appropriate controls and provide evidence that includes data from large numbers of people.

The fulness of the gospel has been likened to a piano keyboard, and Church members have been warned against playing only one key while excluding the keyboard’s other keys (see Elder Boyd K. Packer, Ensign, Dec. 1971, pp. 41–42, or Elder Packer’s book Teach Ye Diligently [rev. ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991, pp. 51–54]). This principle is an excellent guide in making decisions about nutrition. Advice that focuses strictly on one or a few foods, supplements, nutrients, or food components (such as fiber or antioxidants) jeopardizes nutrition. But advice that promotes the concepts of variety, moderation, and balance in food selection is usually appropriate and consistent with valid scientific evidence and the Word of Wisdom.

Consider the concepts of variety, moderation, and balance as they relate to the following phrases found in Doctrine and Covenants, section 89: “all wholesome herbs” (D&C 89:10), “every fruit in the season thereof” (D&C 89:11), “to be used with prudence” (D&C 89:11), “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls … are to be used sparingly” (D&C 89:12), and “all grain” (D&C 89:14).

Misinterpretation and misunderstanding of portions of the Word of Wisdom, as well as recommendations that are not in harmony with good nutrition, are promoted in some books and advertisements and by word of mouth. Valid scientific studies and consensus recommendations can help us make proper judgments about nutrition fads and claims. However, our principal guide when making judgments about interpretations of the Word of Wisdom is found in the scriptures, the words of the living prophets, and the whisperings of the Spirit.

[photo] Photo by Maren Mecham