A Most Compassionate Murder

Imagine that you are have just sat down at your desk to begin writing a novel. You have a clear idea of all of the characters you will introduce but are especially proud of your protagonist. In the first few chapters you establish him as an all-around “good guy”. Real salt of the earth kind of fellow. Someone who always tries to do the right thing no matter how unpopular or even dangerous it may be.

Somewhere around chapter 4 you realize that you have written yourself into a corner. The hero needs to retrieve an important document from a corrupt CEO of a giant corporation… but how will he do this without compromising his morals?

Would you have your hero set up a meeting with the CEO where he would appeal to the CEO’s decency? No, that would demolish all of your hard work in establishing just how terrible of a person your antagonist is.
Would you have your hero sneak in under the cover of night and steal the item? It could work, but it doesn’t really fit the hero’s M.O. since it wouldn’t really show much integrity.

After dozens of rewrites, you are still unable to find a resolution that would solidify the reader’s perception that the hero is still good and the CEO is still bad. Out of despiration you decide to call up a friend and ask him for help. To your great disappointment, this is the idea he comes up with:

“Ok, I got it. You have your hero come across the CEO who is so wasted that he’s just passed out in the street, right? Then your hero guy strips the CEO of his clothes and then hacks the dude’s head with his own sword!…oh and the CEO has a sword. Then the hero just leaves the naked corpse in the street where anyone could could just stumble across it (including the CEO’s family or friends).”

You quickly identify two problems. First, you need new friends… That was messed up.

Second, given how much you doted on the moral fortitude of your hero in the prior chapters, writing this scenario into your novel would surely cause some internal conflict within your readers (and may even land you on an FBI watch list).
I’m sure many of you have already guessed where I’m going with this analogy but for the rest of you, this is almost EXACTLY what our “hero” Nephi does to a wicked man named Laban within the first few chapters of the Book of Mormon.

It doesn’t take a literary genius to know that if you’re trying to make people believe that your hero is good, then you can’t have him decapitating people who are completely defenseless. Even if it was essential to the plot that the CEO had to die, you could have had the hero kill him in self defense or at least in a more humane way.

Huh… a more humane way of murder. What would that even look like?
Well, for Nephi, and millions of others in that part of the world, beheading actually IS the most “humane” method of execution. Some sources even state that if the executioner doesn’t remove the person’s head in one clean cut then the executioner is liable to be fined or even imprissoned himself!

So when Nephi makes the jump from “Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him” to “[taking] Laban by the hair and [smiting] off his head with his own sword” was simply a good man doing a “bad thing” in the best way he knew how. 

For me, this is just one more tiny detail found in the Book of Mormon which reinforces my belief that Joseph Smith did in fact translate a set of ancient records and not write the book out of his own mind as some church critics would claim.

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