The 10 Commandments Series : # 6 You Shall Not Murder
God never actually said, “Thou shalt not kill.” Yes, you read that right, but before you click out or call me a heretic, let me explain. The English and Hebrew languages both contain two words used to describe “causing the death of something or someone.” In English those words are “kill” and “murder.” In Hebrew they are “harag” and “ratzach,” respectively. Everywhere we see the command in the copies of the original manuscripts of Scripture that have been used to translate the Bible into English, the word “ratzach” (“murder”) is used instead of “harag” (“kill”). If you were surprised by the first sentence in this article, it’s probably because, like me, you’ve been around the church long enough to remember a time when the primary translation of God’s Word used for preaching, teaching, and reading was the King James Version. We heard it taught, read, and memorized as “Thou shalt not kill,” because that’s how it reads in the KJV. The same can be said when the ten commandments are shared with the Israelites in Deuteronomy 5:17. In fact, in every instance the King James translators saw the Hebrew word “ratzach”, they translated to “kill.” This includes Jesus’ teaching on murder in Matthew 5.
While I believe the KJV to be a sound translation, I do believe our modern translations provide more clarity. A more accurate understanding is, “You shall not murder.” Our own justice system in the United States used these biblical distinctions to establish the laws and penalties related to murder. In addition to highlighting the distinction in the different words and definitions in context, the Bible itself communicates the distinction between killing and murdering. God’s command not to murder (Exodus 20:13) came after the command for capital punishment (Genesis 9:6), where God commanded Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” So, if the command He gave to Moses in Exodus was “do not kill,” it would be in violation of his own implementation of capital punishment given to Noah beforehand. More evidence of the distinction is described in both testaments by listing specific penalties for premeditated murder versus manslaughter. In the Old Testament, God not only commanded His people to bring about justice in the form of the death penalty, elsewhere he caused or commanded killing:
- Worldwide flood (Genesis 6-8)
- Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19)
- Egyptian firstborn sons during the first Passover (Numbers 11-12)
- The Canaannites under Moses and Joshua (Numbers 21; Deuteronomy 20; Joshua 6)
- The Amalekites by Saul (1 Samuel 15)
If the command were simply “do not kill,” God would have Himself, or upon His command, violated it. Because of His holiness and goodness, we know God can do nothing evil or wrong.
Highlighting this distinction between lawfully killing and unlawfully murdering also gives the Christian theological grounding for participating in just war, using deadly force to defend one’s own life, becoming a law enforcement officer, and gives the Christian justification for harvesting plants and animals for food. I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful I get to eat a medium rare steak (if you order yours above medium, you should probably order a burger instead), enjoy fried chicken, etc., which all requires that the plants and animals be killed. Some may argue that this approach is just semantics, but I disagree. To make the distinction regarding the context of the original language is vital. When we dig deeper into these matters, the roots of our theology are deepened as well. To know what we believe isn’t sufficient. We must know why we believe what we believe for two major reasons: 1) We will be more likely to stand firm in the face of a culture that is growing more and more antagonistic toward a sound biblical worldview, and 2) when we know what we believe and why we believe it, we can effectively communicate Truth with believers and nonbelievers alike.
It’s clear God’s command forbids the unlawful taking of human life, but it’s important to answer the “why?” Why did God make this commandment specifically about human life? Why did He implement the death penalty for anyone convicted of murder? Why does he not have similar punishments for other forms of killing? I believe the answer can be summed up in three points:
- His character. God is perfectly just; therefore He defines justice. He defines it by requiring the civil authorities to carry out the execution of murderers. (Genesis 9; Romans 13; Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 89:14)
- In God’s design, mankind is distinguished in value above all plants and animals. Humans are the crowned jewel of creation, not because of any self-earned merit, but because we’re made in the image and likeness of God Himself.
- When enforced, the death penalty also acts as a deterrent to those considering carrying out such crimes.
God is the creator of life, therefore He determines its value. These conclusions naturally lead to further questions like, “What should the trial process look like?” “How and who should carry out the death penalty?” “What are the factors that determine which category a crime of murder should fall into?” These are great questions that will be answered in future articles here at Knowing Jesus Ministries.
Phil Cudd currently serves as the "Director of For the City Ministries" at The Journey Church in Lebanon, Tn, where he also hosts a podcast sponsored by the church called "Reconstructing Theology." Prior to coming on staff at the church, he spent 16 years in Christian school education, serving in multiple roles including Director of Athletics, director of a student leadership program, classroom teacher, and basketball coach. Phil is happily married to Gloria, wife of 18 years, and daddy to daughters Lily and Bella.
- Old Testament, The 10 Commandments