Nephi and the Brass Plates as a Type of Christ
Nathan Usevitch was a junior studying mechanical engineering when this paper was presented.
The Book of Mormon, as “the most correct of any book on earth,” can be expected to be full of symbols and insights that lead us closer to the Savior. Such lessons can be learned by examining more deeply one of the first major stories in the Book of Mormon: the account of Nephi and his brethren returning to Jerusalem for the brass plates. This lesson, with its account of Nephi slaying Laban, is one that often requires the reader to wrestle to understand the deeper principles at work. This wrestle, however, is something that the author, Nephi, doubtlessly intended the reader to have.
Speaking of this account, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “At the very least [Nephi] might have buried the account somewhere in the Isaiah chapters, thus guaranteeing that it would have gone undiscovered up to this very day. But there it is, squarely in the beginning of the book—page 8—where even the most casual reader will see it and must deal with it. It is not intended that either Nephi or we be spared the struggle of this account.” Nephi, who is the author and central character of this account, could have easily and simply told this story avoiding some of the most unpleasant details. However, he records his own internal struggle and his eventual killing of Laban in painstaking detail. There are clearly key lessons that Nephi learned through this experience that he wanted to teach us. This paper will briefly examine what this account teaches about obedience, as well as what it teaches about the life, mission, and Atonement of Jesus Christ.
After understanding the importance of this story, we must ask ourselves, “What are the lessons that God and Nephi intended for us to learn?” Perhaps the most important lesson Nephi was trying to teach us, his latter-day audience, is the absolute importance of obedience. After all, obedience is the first law of heaven. Joseph Smith taught: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill,—at another time he said thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” Nephi was obviously showing this principle of obedience in action.
This story bears some resemblance to the story of Abraham, where another faithful man was commanded to take a life. While the situations differ in the innocence of the individuals to be killed and the eventual result, the key lesson in both is that obedience to God’s guidance in a specific situation is far more important than personal desires or even what is generally accepted as right. It is interesting to note that neither Nephi nor Abraham fully understood why he was commanded to take a life. In Nephi’s case, the righteousness of his future posterity for a thousand years and thousands of other people who have since been blessed by the Book of Mormon hung in the balance. Had he not obtained the brass plates, his posterity could not have kept the law of Moses, and the Book of Mormon may never have come into existence (see 1 Nephi 4:15; Omni 1:17). These two men were forced to decide to be obedient without full knowledge of why they needed to do so.
In Abraham 3:25, it is recorded that God sent us forth saying, “we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” Obedience is a central purpose of our life. The story of Nephi slaying Laban underscores this essential lesson. However, this specific type of obedience is greater than simply changing one’s actions. The type of obedience displayed by Nephi and Abraham requires a total submission of the will of an individual to the will of the Father. Speaking of this story, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “I believe that story was placed in the very opening verses of a 531-page book and then told in painfully specific detail in order to focus every reader of that record on the absolutely fundamental gospel issue of obedience and submission to the communicated will of the Lord.”
This total submission to the will of the Lord is a type of the ultimate obedience that Jesus Christ showed towards the Father when he said, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). In this case, the entire plan of salvation hung in the balance, yet Jesus submitted his will to the Father’s. This is the type of obedience that each of us must strive to have, and the type that Nephi was trying to illustrate. Even when the reasons why we should obey are unapparent, we must do as Nephi, Abraham, and the Savior did and submit our will to the Father’s. Seeing Nephi’s obedience as a type of Christ’s obedience opens the door to a deeper understanding of this account.
Type of Christ and His Sacrifice
In the book of Moses, Christ states that “all things bear record of me” (Moses 6:63), and nowhere is this more true than in the stories of the scriptures (see Alma 30:44). The scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, have the purpose of testifying of the divine mission of Christ. Throughout the Bible, oftentimes these parallels of Christ’s life are obvious—for example, Joseph being sold for the price of a slave by his brothers, Jonah spending three days inside of a whale, and Abraham sacrificing his son (see Jonah 1:17; Genesis 37:23–28, 22:1–19). If the Book of Mormon is to be accepted as the word of God, one would expect to find rich parallels to the life and mission of Christ in the Book of Mormon. The story of Nephi obtaining the brass plates is such a story. It is a familiar narrative, but beyond the simple message of the story it teaches valuable lessons about who Christ is, what his mission was, and the importance of his Atonement.
Understanding this story from a symbolic perspective is not meant to distract from its historical value. These events recorded are historical, but the purpose of the Book of Mormon was not simply to convey history. Elder Packer explained that “the Book of Mormon is not biographical . . . nor, in a strict sense, is it a history. While it chronicles a people for 1,021 years and has a record of an earlier people, it is in fact not a history of those people. It is the saga of a message, a testament.” As Nephi himself states a few chapters further into the Book of Mormon, the fullness of his intent was “to persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved” (1 Nephi 6:4). With this understanding, we should see that each story in the Book of Mormon, while true, is not meant to be only a story. It is meant to teach principles, and most importantly, to testify of Jesus Christ and his mission. That is the divine mission of all scripture and all the prophets.
The story and its symbolism of Christ begin in the wilderness. Father Lehi in the desert is a symbol of God the Father. He sends his sons Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi to return to Jerusalem in an attempt to restore themselves and the record of their ancestors to their father in the wilderness. Nephi, with his willingness to “go and do” (1 Nephi 3:7) represents Jesus Christ, who with a similar attitude said, “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27). As previously discussed, his total obedience to the Father is a type of Christ and his unconditional obedience. Just as God the Father has sent Jesus Christ to earth in order to return those living, those who had lived, and those who would live to him, Nephi was sent to return his brethren safely, bring a record of their ancestors, and provide the opportunity for future generations to increase in righteousness. It is interesting to see that while Laman and Lemuel debated, they did in the end make a conscious decision to come to Jerusalem. Their decision mirrors the one that we all made in the premortal existence. While some may have accepted God’s plan more reluctantly than others, in the end all of us decided to come to earth. No one on this trek or in this life was forced to make this journey.
In their first attempt to secure the plates and return to their Father, Laman goes to Laban and asks for the plates, but Laban refuses. With this understanding of the story, we may clearly understand that salvation (or the safe return to our Father) cannot be received if we only ask for it. Jesus in his earthly ministry taught: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Salvation requires more from us than that.
Next, the entire group of brothers decide that they will go unto Laban and request “that he would give unto us the records . . . for which we would give unto him our gold, and our silver, and all our precious things” (1 Nephi 3:24). When they are refused, we see that salvation, or returning to our Father, cannot be bought with any earthly riches. In 3 Nephi, Jesus teaches, “Ye have sold yourselves for naught, and ye shall be redeemed without money” (3 Nephi 20:38). Or as put by Isaiah, “come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). There is a price for salvation, but it is not ours to pay, nor are we able to pay it. The price could only be paid by the Savior himself.
Some may be tempted to view these first two attempts as wasted and say that if Nephi and his brothers would have approached the problem with more faith, they may have received the plates on the first try. This is not the case. These first two attempts were necessary in the quest for salvation. Since this story is a symbol of our lives, in this case we may find ourselves in the shoes of Nephi’s brothers. In order to gain salvation, we must ask for it, and we must be willing to give all that we have temporally. However, this alone is not enough. Salvation cannot be gained without these things, but these things do not earn it. In the end, salvation can only come through the sacrifice, blood, and victory of Jesus Christ, “for we know it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).
Nephi’s Final Attempt
It is when we arrive at the third attempt to retrieve the plates that we see the richest symbolism. Nephi is shown to represent Christ in even deeper ways. The brothers of Nephi are angered and beat him, just as Christ was beaten by his brethren—the very people that he sought to save. In the end, Nephi returns to Jerusalem alone. This final solitary journey of Nephi mirrors the abandonment the Savior faced on all sides as he approached the final moments of his mortal life. Matthew records that “all the disciples forsook him, and fled” (Matthew 26:56), and on the cross, even the presence of the Father withdraws, leaving Jesus completely alone. Jesus later said of his Atonement that he had “trodden the wine-press alone, and have brought judgment upon all people; and none were with me” (D&C 133:50). Nephi, while still “led by the Spirit” (1 Nephi 4:6), is abandoned by his brothers and reenters the city completely alone. Upon returning to Jerusalem, Nephi finds Laban drunken with wine. Laban is perhaps one of the most interesting symbols in this story. Laban, despite being wicked, was a significant figure in the apostate Jerusalem Church and possessed the plates. As such, Laban represents the natural nature of Christ, the part of Christ’s mortal nature that he had to overcome. While Christ was perfect, it does not mean that he was without the temptations and weaknesses that we face. Hebrews states that “he was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He was a mortal man and suffered hunger, thirst, and other temptations. The difference is that he yielded to none of them. Christ, with his dual nature of godhood and manhood, had to battle with and overcome the natural man in order to become perfect and perform the Atonement. This battle between the temporal and spiritual nature of Christ is shown by the wrestle Nephi had in deciding what to do regarding Laban.
Nephi faces an intense internal battle, which is what Christ himself felt in those most important moments of his life. Nephi is constrained by the Spirit to kill Laban, but debates whether it is really the right thing to do. Finally, the Spirit says to Nephi, “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13). This verse is parallel to something Caiaphas (the high priest helping ensure Jesus’ death) says in the New Testament. He states, “Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation” (John 11:49–51). These verses teach the powerful truth of the Atonement. Laban had to die to allow the Nephites to live in righteousness. In a broader sense, it was also necessary for one man, Jesus Christ, to die so that the entire world would not “perish in unbelief.” Such was the importance of the Atonement: The natural man had to be overcome; salvation could not be requested, bought, or earned; the price could only be paid by one: Jesus Christ. Salvation only comes on conditions of the blood spilt by Jesus Christ on our behalf.
There was no other way for Nephi to obtain the plates, and there is no other way for us to obtain salvation. To truly overcome the natural man, Christ had to submit his will completely to the Father. Christ in that most pivotal moment exclaimed, “Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). Nephi states in his own personal moment of decision, “I did obey the voice of the Spirit” (1 Nephi 4:18) and follows God’s command to kill Laban. The submission of Christ to God’s will through overcoming the natural man is something expounded upon by Abinadi. He explains, “thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people . . . even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father” (Mosiah 15:5, 7). This teaching of Abinadi is fulfilled in Christ’s life and mirrored in Nephi’s account of this story.
The symbolism of this story continues. Nephi relates, “[I] took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword” (1 Nephi 4:18). It is important to note that Laban was slain by his own sword. The Gospel of John records Jesus saying, “I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:17–18). In the same way, Laban, or the physical existence of Christ, was put to an end by being overcome by his spiritual, divine nature (Nephi) and was not simply overwhelmed by some outside force. Upon killing Laban, Nephi says, “I took the garments of Laban and put them upon mine own body; yea, even every whit; and I did gird on his armor about my loins” (1 Nephi 4:19). Nephi, a symbol of the perfect nature of Christ, is raised in his mortal body, but now perfected. Even the use of the phrase “every whit” can be seen to refer to prophecies of the Resurrection, such as in Alma 11:43, which states that “even there shall not so much as a hair of their heads be lost.” Christ has overcome the natural man and is risen in glory. With Christ now having overcome sin, he proceeds with his mission of bringing about the salvation of others, just as he continues in the same work today.
Nephi, now a symbol of the resurrected and perfected Christ, proceeds to the treasury, where he finds a servant later identified as Zoram. Zoram was not part of the original party. Perhaps he is a symbol of those not originally among God’s chosen people, the Jews. However, the gospel message is for all. Nephi, dressed as Laban, “bade him that he should follow me” (1 Nephi 4:25). This is a parallel of Jesus inviting all to come unto him. When Nephi returns to his brethren, they are frightened and flee, thinking him to be Laban. When he calls out, they recognize his voice and cease to fear. This can be seen in that many of Jesus’ brethren, the Jews, fail to recognize his divine mission. However, as they come to recognize Christ’s voice and teachings, they will accept him as their Savior. This passage also directly parallels the time when Jesus exclaimed to his disciples, “it is I, be not afraid” (Matthew 14:27).
Zoram, now the one who is frightened, is offered an oath by Nephi. Nephi promises that Zoram “should be a free man like unto us if he would go down in the wilderness with us” (1 Nephi 4:33). In this oath, Nephi is offering Zoram his life and also full status as a member of Lehi’s family. This is similar to God’s promise made to all today who may be born outside of the gospel. These individuals and families are promised that if they are to follow Christ, they will be made free and will become a part of the people of God. Mosiah, speaking to his people of being born of Christ, said, “under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free” (Mosiah 5:8; see also John 8:32). Together, Nephi, Sam, Laman, Lemuel, Zoram, and a record of their ancestors are restored to their father in the wilderness. Upon their return to their parents, Nephi records that “when we had returned to the tent of my father, behold, their joy was full” (1 Nephi 5:7). This safe return of Nephi, his brethren, Zoram, and the plates containing the ancestry of Nephi and his family shows that through Jesus Christ all those who live, have lived, and will live that accept Christ through the proper steps can be returned to a joyful Father in Heaven.
What is to be gained from this understanding of the story of Nephi obtaining the brass plates? First and foremost, the lesson is obvious that salvation cannot come by any other means than through the Atonement of Jesus Christ—that the atoning sacrifice of the Savior is essential to each of us for our salvation. We also gain a greater glimpse into a part of the price paid in the Atonement. We gain a greater appreciation for the sacrifice Jesus made by understanding that Nephi’s internal battle before slaying Laban could represent part of the internal battle that Jesus Christ undertook and won. We gain a greater knowledge of the Book of Mormon’s fundamental role of testifying of Christ and his mission. This story is shown to powerfully teach that no man can be saved without the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
This story also illustrates better what path we must follow to overcome the natural man. In order to become more like the Savior, we must follow the law of obedience. We must do more than simply change our actions—we must also follow the example of Nephi and submit our will to God’s, even if we don’t fully understand the reasons why we are given commandments. In turn, the example of Nephi submitting his will is simply a shadow of the ultimate example of Christ submitting his will to the Father.
Other key lessons await us if we find ourselves in the role of Nephi’s brothers. They did all that they could to procure salvation. While their first and second attempts to obtain the plates were unsuccessful, they were a necessary part of the process. Nephi would have had no reason to return and no reason to kill Laban if it had not first been for the attempts and failures of him and his brethren. Equally, it is important that we try and work for our salvation, being willing to give “our gold, our silver and our precious things” in order to obtain salvation. We must also recognize that even after giving all, it is only through the Atonement of Jesus Christ that salvation will ever be obtained, for it is “by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23).
 Joseph Smith statement cited in introduction to the Book of Mormon.
Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Will of the Father in All Things,” BYU Speeches of the Year, 1988–89 (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1989), 79.
Dean C. Jessee, ed., Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 538–39.
Holland, “The Will of the Father in All Things,” 79.
Boyd K. Packer, “The Things of My Soul,” Ensign, May 1986, 59.
See Jeffrey R. Holland, “None Were with Him,” Ensign, May 2009, 86–88.
See Terrence L. Szink, “Oaths,” in American Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1020.