Dear 100 Hour Board,
What entitled Lehi's family to the brass plates? Putting myself in Laban's shoes I dont know that I would just give up something that seemed so valuable (even though Im most likely not a righteous man) because someone came and asked me for them. Do we know anything additional that might shed light on this?
First off, kudos for the question. I am a big believer of trying to dig into the real, human emotions of characters in the scriptures rather than just thinking of them as characters in a story. It's helped me learn a lot, and Laban is a particular person that I don't believe I've ever thought to try and analyze before.
Now, as for your question: from a temporal standpoint, did Lehi have any claim on the brass plates? I'm tempted to say no, and I can't find anything scholarly that says otherwise. I think if we're looking at the plates as just physical property (as Laban probably did), Lehi had absolutely no entitlement to the brass plates. In that light, Laban's refusal to give up the plates seems completely natural, and even fair.
However, I think there's a bit more going on than that.
First, let's look at how the brothers tried to get the plates from Laban. On the first attempt (1 Nephi 3:11-14), Laman went in to try and bargain with Laban by himself. How did it go? Well, Laban ended up calling Laman a robber and threatening to kill him, which caused Laman to get the heck out of there. Why did things go south so quickly? We can't say for certain, but when I take into account the fact that Laman didn't want to go on this trip in the first place (1 Nephi 3:5), and that he seems pretty darn scared of Laban (1 Nephi 3:31), it seems fairly likely that Laman might not have been very straightforward with his request. I'm imagining Laman beating around the bush or trying to trick Laban into giving him the plates, or, heck, even trying to steal them. Whatever the case, I don't think Laman was very straightforward or honest in his request, which would make Laban understandably mad.
"Well great, Frère," you say, "you just made Laban even more relatable. It definitely doesn't seem reasonable for him to give up the plates now." To which I say: don't get your knickers in a twist. We're not done yet.
After his encounter with Laban, Laman runs back to his brothers and complains a bunch, which makes everyone sad. Nephi insists they continue, though, and so they go back to their old house and gather up all of their riches to barter for the plates. They return to Laban, and make an offer that I imagine was a lot more straightforward than their first: you give us the plates, we'll give you all of this gold and stuff. However, the outcome is the same: Laban orders his guards to kill the brothers and seizes all of the wealth they left behind.
Was the offer not generous enough? I doubt it. Nephi says that their property was "exceedingly great," but this is also a guy who makes a point of calling himself "large in stature," so I don't think we can go on his word alone. More telling to me is the fact that Laban is said to have "lust[ed] after" the brothers' treasure. If what they were offering wasn't worth much, I doubt Laban would have gone to the trouble to relieve them of it. However, he seems very eager to get his hands on all of that property, which, to me, implies that it was substantial.
Now, even if the offer was generous, what if the brass plates were the only record of their kind? Wouldn't that make them invaluable? It certainly would, but that's not the case here. In 1 Nephi 5, Lehi examines the plates and discovers that they contain the scriptures from what we know as Genesis all the way to Isaiah, with a few contemporary prophecies as well. Obviously some other copy of those words existed, because otherwise we wouldn't have them in the Bible today. The plates also contained a genealogical record, which seems more likely to be unique to the plates, but then we also consider that Laban doesn't seem to be related to Lehi and his family, and yet Lehi's ancestors are recorded in the record. I'm no expert in any of this stuff, but to me, that does make it seem like there were multiple copies of this genealogy.
To sum all of these assumptions up, it seems to me that on their second attempt, the brothers made a generous, straightforward offer to Laban for the plates, plates that, while valuable, were not completely indispensable.
But perhaps we're just beating around the bush here, because according to Nephi, it doesn't appear that Laban considered the offer at all: he saw the treasure, wanted it, and so sent his guards after the brothers, forcing them to drop their property and head for the hills. It seems to me that he wasn't really thinking about the plates at all; he just wanted the money. That, to me, justifies Nephi's taking of the plates (though I can't and therefore won't comment on whether that justified Laban's death).
Getting back to the original question, though, it seems nothing has changed: even if the brothers were justified in taking the plates back, that's not the same as saying they were entitled to them. As I mentioned before, from a temporal standpoint, viewing the plates as just property, I don't think there's really any case for Lehi.
But, the plates were not just property. They were more than a stack of bound metal sheets: they contained the words of God, and therefore were sacred. I would argue that ultimate jurisdiction of the ownership of the plates lies with God, and He is free to re-assign ownership as He sees fit. We don't know how Laban got the plates; he could have inherited them from family, been given them by some religious or political figure, or even just purchased them of his own accord. In any case, he had a chance to act as the plates' steward, taking care of them and using them as God wanted them to be used. Based on what we know of his character, I'd argue that Laban was probably not keeping a very good stewardship of the plates. We know from the Doctrine and Covenants that people who abuse the righteous authority given to them soon lose it and are left to fend for themselves, and God will give their authority or stewardship to someone else. This happened several times in the Old Testament with the kings of the kingdom of Israel, and we also read of it happening later (or earlier, depending on how you look at it) in the Book of Mormon with the Jaredites (Ether 13:20-21).
So, while Lehi wasn't entitled to the plates physically, he was entitled to them spiritually by God. God gave Laban multiple opportunities to choose the right and give up the plates, but in the end, his stubbornness brought about his downfall.
And I think that's about all I have to say about that. If you'd like to discuss it further, feel free to send in a follow-up question or shoot me an email.