Source:Echoes:Ch11:9:Better that one should perish

"Better That One Man Should Perish"

"Better That One Man Should Perish"

For many years I have studied Nephi's slaying of Laban from a legal point of view based on the law as it existed around 600 BC. In directing Nephi to slay Laban, the Spirit gave the sober justification that "it is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief" (1 Nephi 4:13). Five hundred years later, Alma would invoke this same justification in reluctantly subjecting Korihor to divine punishment (see Alma 30:47).

This principle, of course, runs sharply contrary to American jurisprudence. But because a similar sentiment was expressed by Caiaphas in John 11:50, I once asked a prominent biblical scholar at Duke University, while I was there receiving my legal education, if he knew where this idea had originated. That scholar, who should have known if anyone did, was at a loss to give an answer. Thus, twenty years later, as I was updating my Biblical Law Bibliography, I was immediately drawn to a recent article by David Aus entitled "The Death of One for All in John 11:45–54 in Light of Judaic Traditions."31 Aus demonstrates that this principle prevailed in certain cases under biblical law, and more than coincidentally, around 600 BC.32

A pivotal precedent was found by the ancients in 2 Samuel 20, which recounts how King David had sought the life of Sheba, a rebel guilty of treason. When Sheba took refuge in the city of Abel, Joab, the leader of David's army, demanded that Sheba be released to him or he would destroy the city. The people of Abel beheaded Sheba instead, and Joab retreated. This episode became an important legal precedent justifying the killing of one person in order to preserve an entire group.

Most strikingly, another Old Testament case, one preserved more fully only in oral Jewish traditions, involved Jehoiakim, the king of Judah.33 He rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar at the very time of Lehi and Nephi. In response, Nebuchadnezzar went to Antioch and demanded that the great Jewish council surrender Jehoiakim or the nation would be destroyed. Jehoiakim protested, "Can ye sacrifice one life for another?" Unmoved, the council replied, "Thus did your ancestors do to Sheba the son of Bichri." Based on this legal ruling, Jehoiakim was released to Nebuchadnezzar, who took him to Babylon (see 2 Chronicles 36:6), where presumably he was executed. Because Zedekiah became king less than four months later (see vv. 9–10), at the time the Book of Mormon account begins (see 1 Nephi 1:4), Nephi was probably keenly aware of how the "one for many" principle was used to justify Jehoiakim's death. Clearly, the cases of Laban and Korihor fit within this tradition, although even the best of scholars have not been aware of this obscure principle of Jewish law until recently.[1]


  1. John W. Welch, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 11, references silently removed—consult original for citations.