Specifically, the Ten Commandments,1 also known as the Decalogue, were given by God to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, after Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery from Egypt, about 1440 B.C. It was part of the covenant between them and Jehovah. Obeying this list of commandments was a heavy burden for the tribes of Israel but God wanted to demonstrate what was required to have a true relationship with him.
This study is about only one of these commandments, the sixth, which is most usually stated as “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13, KJV). This commandment is sometimes brought up publically in a variety of ways, but more recently it is when someone wants to make a political statement. Many times, it seems that this scripture is quoted more by atheists than by Christians, as it is used by people that encourage gun control, those that are against the death penalty, or by anti-war demonstrators, or animal rights groups, and many others with varying agendas. I notice, however, these same folks shy away from God’s commandment when voicing opinions to legalize abortion and euthanasia, so their use of it is strictly for a particular political purpose. And, in some cases, the clergy is just as contemptuous in using this scripture for the same reasons.
It is easy to grab a snippet of scripture and twist it to support your thoughts or theories or purposes, but what does this scripture really say, if it is put into proper context; what was God’s thoughts when he gave it?
The Hebrew word translated as ‘kill’ is râtsach, which means especially to murder2 and, in fact, most modern Bible versions translate it as ‘murder’ instead of ‘kill’ — “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13, NRSV, EVS, NKJV, NIV, NET). Jehovah wanted to establish that human life was sacred, so “to help preserve society, and because people are made in God’s image, the Israelites were commanded not to take another person’s life by murder.”3
Keep in mind that these commandments are directed entirely toward humankind and have nothing to do with the rest of the animal kingdom. God specifically gave permission to kill animals, saying: “The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Genesis 9:2-3).
There is a basic difference between ‘kill’ and ‘murder.’ This Mosaic legislation specifically mentioning murder, distinguished it as different from death by accident or justifiable homicide. The difference between actual murder and manslaughter is shown in Exodus 21:12-13: “Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. [But] if it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee.”4 Another difference is that of death by misadventure. Numbers 35:22-25 says: “if someone pushes another suddenly without enmity, or hurls any object without lying in wait, or, while handling any stone that could cause death, unintentionally drops it on another and death ensues, though they were not enemies, and no harm was intended . . . the congregation shall rescue the slayer from the avenger of blood.” And then there is death as justifiable homicide, as written at Exodus 22:2: “If a thief is found breaking in, and is beaten to death, no bloodguilt is incurred.”5
A biblical scholar suggests further, in his analysis, saying the commandment forbids suicide, parricide, and homicide “yet killing of men in lawful war, or in defense of a man’s self, when his own life is in danger, or the execution of malefactors by hands or order of the civil magistrate, and killing a man unawares, without any design, are not reckoned breaches of this law.”6
Eminent late nineteenth century British religious leader, Matthew Henry, stated this about the sixth commandment. “It does not forbid killing in lawful war, or in our own necessary defense, nor the magistrate’s putting offenders to death, for those things tend to the preserving of life.”7
When taken in proper context, the sixth commandment should not be taken to mean the protection of all life for any and all reasons. There are plenty of examples of lives being lost by accident, by justified warfare, and other sad, but understandable, means in the Bible. So, the sixth commandment should be narrowly applied only to premeditated murder of another human. When viewed in this way, the law commands benefit for the protection of innocent life, but not for benefitting that of the criminal.
Copyright © 2018, Dr. Ray Hermann
References & Notes
1. God’s Ten Commandments are listed in Exodus, chapter 20. Some Christian sects list the commandments in a different order or combine some together, therefore the numbers do not all match. Some scholars disagree upon the year the list was received by Moses.
2. Strong, James, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, (Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1980), Hebrew word #7523.
3. John D. Hannah, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Vol. 1, p. 140.
4. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5. Ellicott, C.J., A Bible Commentary for English Readers, (London: Cassell and Company, 1906), Ex. 20:13.
6. Gill, John, John Gill’s Commentary: An Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1852), Exodus.
7. Henry, Matthew, An Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, (London: James Nisbet, 1880), Exodus 20:13.