The Book of Mormon’s description of Laban seems to accurately portray what could be expected of public officials in Jerusalem in Lehi’s time.
Hugh Nibley explains:
Laban is described very fully, though casually, by Nephi, and is seen to be the very type and model of a well-known class of public official in the Ancient East. Everything about him is authentic….
Laban of Jerusalem epitomizes the seamy side of the world of 600 B.C. as well as Lehi or Jeremiah or Solon do the other side. With a few deft and telling touches Nephi resurrects the pompous Laban with photographic perfection—as only one who actually knew the man could have done. We learn in passing that Laban commanded a garrison of fifty, that he met in full ceremonial armor with “the elders of the Jews” for secret consultations by night, that he had control of the treasury, that he was of the old aristocracy, being a distant relative of Lehi himself, that his house was a depository of very old family records, that he was a large man, short-tempered, crafty, and dangerous, and to the bargain cruel, greedy, unscrupulous, weak, vainglorious, and given to drink. All of which makes him a Rabu to the life, the very model of an Oriental Pasha. He is cut from the same cloth as Jaush, his contemporary and probably his successor as “military governor of this whole region, in control of the defenses along the western frontier in Judah, and an intermediary with the authorities of Jerusalem,” or as Hoshiah, “apparently the leader of the military company located at some outpost on or near the main road from Jerusalem to the coast,” who shows his character in the Lachish Letters to be one of “fawning servility.”…
Laban’s office of headman is a typical Oriental institution: originally it was held by the local representative or delegate of a king, who sent out his trusted friends and relatives to act for him in distant parts of the realm. The responsibilities of such agents were as vague as their powers, and both were as unlimited as the individual chose to make them. The system of ancient empires was continued under the Caliphate, who copied the Persian system in which “the governor, or Sahib, as he was then called, had not only charge of the fiscal administration but also had jurisdiction in civil and penal matters . . . the sovereign power never gave up in full its supreme rights over every part of the body politic; and this right devolved upon his representative,” so that in theory the rabi could do anything he wanted to. In the appointment of such a trusted official, character counts for everything—in the end his own honor and integrity are the only checks upon him; but in spite of all precautions in their selection, and as might be expected, “the uprightness of the Cadis depended only too often upon the state of society in which they lived.” And the moral fiber of Laban’s society was none too good….
On the other hand, it must be admitted in all fairness that Laban was a successful man by the standards of his decadent society. He was not an unqualified villain by any means—and that as much as anything makes Nephi’s account of him supremely plausible. Laban had risen to the top in a highly competitive system in which the scion of many an old aristocratic family like his own must have aimed at the office which he held and many an intriguing upstart strained every effort to push him from the ladder that all were trying to climb. He was active and patriotic, attending committee meetings at all hours of the night; he was shrewd and quick, promptly recognizing his right and seizing his opportunity to confiscate the property with which Nephi and his brethren attempted to bribe him—a public official. The young men wanted some family records from him; they wanted them very badly but would not tell what they wanted them for. They were willing to pay almost anything to get them. There was obviously something shady about the deal from Laban’s point of view. Very well, he could keep his mouth shut, but would it be sound business practice to let the plates go for nothing? With his other qualifications Laban was a big impressive figure of a man—not a man to be intimidated, outsmarted, worn down, or trifled with—he was every inch an executive. Yet he plainly knew how to unbend and get drunk with the boys at night– Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 10,
How would Joseph Smith with his limited education be able to describe an Ancient East official so realistically like this?