Saturday, January 23, 2016

Laban the White and the Wizardry of Allusion

Laban first comes to us in a grammatical nexus that shows possession. Lehi tells Nephi "Thou and thy brothers should go unto the house of Laban, and seek the records." Laban "has" the records; he "keeps" the records. Nephi's breathless account speaks many times of the house of Laban, as well as the servants of Laban, including Zoram, the servant of Laban, of the hands of Laban (those rapacious hands), the garments of Laban, the treasury of Laban, and even the voice of Laban. Indeed throughout the Book of Mormon, we meet the sword of Laban. Nephi, wearing the garments of Laban, and his armor and "his sword," goes to the treasury of Laban, and craftily speaking in the voice of Laban commands the servant of Laban to bring the records. 

As a personal name in the Hebrew Bible, Laban appears only in the patriarchal narratives (as the nephew of Abraham). He is the kind of relative that helps you one minute and tricks you the next. Rebekah is a beauty: "And Rebekah had a brother, and his name was Laban." There's always a catch.  

Besides the little sister, Genesis gives us Rachel, the daughter of Laban, the sheep of Laban, Laban's flocks, the flock of Laban, Laban's cattle, and Laban's sons. We also behold "the countenance of Laban," an inconstant countenance--like "th'inconstant moon." 

Nephi's Laban, who is a famous kinsman, also commands his tens of thousands and his fifty, that last battalion being, says Hugh Nibley, Jerusalem's "permanent garrison." While there is room for comparison between Genesis and 1 Nephi, Laban, the military strongman, is his own man set in his own time. What Nephi gives us in Laban is "an eloquent commentary of the ripeness of Jerusalem for destruction" (Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 96-98). 

Though Nephi's vividly narrated encounter with his own kinsman need not be read in light of distant Jacob's encounter with his crafty father-in-law, the Laban of Nephi shares something of his namesake's character. Nephi doesn't drop literary allusions to the patriarchal schemer; he doesn't really need to: the name alone evokes the man. The Encyclopaedia Judaica sums things up nicely--or not so nicely: "Laban cheated Jacob." "Laban emerges as a greedy and crafty man" (EJ 12:406-407). He chases people down in pursuit of his stolen property--or is it their property? So, too, Laban cheated Nephi. Book of Mormon Laban emerges as a greedy man, who, like Rebekah's welcoming brother, exhibits something of that easy, lulling hospitality mingled with craft. As his name is, so is he (1 Samuel 25:25).

Hugh Nibley speaks of "the pompous Laban": "He was a large man, short-tempered, crafty, and deceitful, and to the bargain cruel, greedy, unscrupulous, weak, and given to drink" (Lehi in the Desert, 97). Crafty? Laban invited Lehi's sons into his house on two occasions; they sat and talked in cousinly comfort before he sprung the trap. Here is craft, disguised by a pleasant, urbane manner--he duped the cousins twice--and unmasked in a sudden, overt violence: Laban blazes with anger, lusts after property, issues accusation and sentence; then, sends others to do the chasing. In his wrath, no matter how cleverly wrought, he remains as much Nabal as Laban--a fool and a lazy drunkard, seated and shouting orders. 

Laban ("white," or even "exceedingly white"), say the rabbis, signifies "shining in wickedness" (EJ 12:407). Shining in wickedness, perhaps an angel of light, Nephi's Laban may be, but he is decidedly not a bride-switcher: that takes a truer duplicity. Crafty Laban ultimately meets his match in Jacob the trickster. Practical Nephi is no trickster: he finds Laban dead drunk in the streets and lops his head off with his own sword. 

Nephi's justification for his violence points a careful reader to the story of David and Nabal, that Nabal who brashly denies David and his band of wilderness brothers their polite request for hospitality. Hospitality makes for a delicate thing, a point of honor, in all three stories, and Rashi famously takes Laban as anagram of Nabal (fool). Whether Nephi ever thought of these things is beside the point; Scripture invites intertextual reading at every turn of the page, and the wise student keeps his eyes open for both comparison and difference. (The article to read is Alan Goff, "How Should We Then Read? Reading the Book of Mormon after the Fall," FARMS Review, 21/1 (2009): 137-78.) 

According to Professor Goff: "If we are going to see in the Nephi/Laban story an allusion, we must grant that the record is textually sophisticated and view the connection as intentional rather than incidental. Allusion presupposes intention, as 'an inadvertent allusion is a kind of solecism.' I assert that the connections between the Laban story in the Book of Mormon and the Laban/Nabal stories in the Bible are intentional and that the ideal reader of the book will recognize the allusions."

I like what Brother Goff is saying because I enjoy reading Robert Alter, James Sanders, and Michael Fishbane, though I'm just as sure Nephi had no such aim in mind: he's telling us what happened to him one night in Jerusalem. And I have no idea whether "an inadvertent allusion" can or cannot be; neither am I sure how any allusion may register "a kind of solecism." Nephi knew God had delivered Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, and, true, he came to see his deliverance as being like that of the fathers; he speaks to his brothers about Moses in the wilderness so often that the reader wonders whether Nephi saw his own desert encampments as proximate the very places where "Israel's tents [did] shine so bright." Such identification with tenting Israel goes beyond allusion, as Noel Reynolds and others have noted. Even so, the idea that Nephi intentionally and artistically worked a filimentary allusiveness into his narrative runs contrary to his forthright nature and style. Ask Laban.

I spent a lot of time in Robert Alter's books--once upon a time. I recommend them, but the magic wears off readily. It's life itself, especially the life of old Jerusalem, that runs deep and gives us books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. And the written record of the race, especially Scripture, comes a running brook. Culture does its own work: it weaves its own patterns, some of startling complexity. A divine purpose stands over all. The Book of Mormon came first to a people drenched in Bible story, as Nephi himself noted (1 Nephi 12-13). And to these plain Puritan folk, Joseph Smith's neighbors, Nephi offers a plain narrative; the manifold gems studding his work solely, though tellingly, reflect the rich cultural heritage of one who walked in a land of prophets and kings. 

Hugh Nibley saw in Laban the Levantine governor, Zakar-Baal, arrogantly receiving "as he sat in his house." We might catch glimpses of Laban elsewhere, but we find him "in his house" only in a particular cultural milieu. Nephi's Laban, in thumbnail sketch, passes the high test of what Nibley calls the "peculiar" and the "specific" (see Since Cumorah, Chapter 9 n. 80). For diligent readers, everything goes into the mix; even so, guiding principles such as the peculiar and the specific ought to control what we ultimately say about the Book of Mormon.

Nephi does note likenesses, quotations, and allusions everywhere in the prophetic word: Isaiah, Zenos, Neum. Nephi was learned, "somewhat," he says--it could get worse, he's telling us--in all "the learning of the Jews." 1 Nephi 22 thus affords a rich prototype of what may be found in rabbinic commentary. 

Alan Goff offers students of the Book of Mormon the keys to the "treasury of Laban." Once the records are in our own hands, and one in our hands with the blessed Bible, we turn the pages as led or as we will. 

Of one thing we may be sure, the sons of Lehi must have been asleep at the switch to parade so much of gold, silver, and precious things before the eyes of Laban. It was their second appeal to their uncle's better angel; they already knew of his touchiness and imperious anger--he had "thrust" Laman from his house--yet they somehow never suspected his rapaciousness or his alcoholism. 

We must turn to cultural folkways to explain the surprising attempt to dazzle Laban with the family wealth. Such naivete only reveals the brothers' own touchiness in honor, a touchiness born of "goodly parents": they were trying to prove a point of honor. Laban likely owed Lehi a gift or two for past favors, and Laman, who had first politely requested the records from Laban, was not, as accused, "a robber"; the brothers, though amazed at Laban's lack of cultivation in the games of reciprocity, were willing to pay an exorbitant price to show good faith. But the old ties of kinship meant nothing to Laban: killing and taking was his way.

So why Laban--that unexpected name? For that, we need not repair to the patriarchs nor to the moon, but simply to the moment of birth. Surprised at such an "exceeding white" and large baby, the parents hit on Laban. The Chinese favor the baibai pangpang, the baby born to prosperity and beauty: white white fat fat. But Laban's whiteness, though not leprous, was rather an oddity. "Milky," "chalky," the parents must have muttered. The voice, too, had its unique quality, a timbre of command: the voice of Laban. The whole episode comes to a head--Laban's head--in the dream of a Jerusalem night. The surprising whiteness of the countenance of Laban is now no concern to Nephi: the garments of Laban, the sword of Laban--that shining sword of fine steel, with brilliant golden hilt--the voice of Laban, these suffice to work the trick.