Thou Shalt Not Kill

In Exodus 20:13, we find a simple, seemingly unambiguous command: "Thou shalt not kill" (KJV). Taken at face value, this commandment suggests that all taking of life is forbidden - a reality that seems odd in light of the thousands of deaths through capital punishment, war, and divine retribution that follow the giving of the Ten Commandments in the Bible.

This question has become a difficult one for many people when it comes to the Old Testament. How could the nation of Israel go through with the conquest of the Promised Land and all their other wars if they knew they had been commanded not to kill?

In the NIV, however, this commandment is translated slightly differently: "You shall not murder." Some theologians argue that the semantic difference is significant, leaving room for war and the death penalty in Israel. In modern times, many Christians understand this distinction between "kill" and "murder" to be the definite answer to the question. Premeditated murder is forbidden by the commandment, but killing in war, self-defense, capital punishment, or other such scenarios is permissible.

Others, however, argue that those exceptions only apply when the war or execution is directly commanded by God, leaving war and executions commanded by the secular state in violation of the commandment. God, as the creator, author, owner and source of all life is ultimately in charge of overseeing when life is given and taken away, and so God's instruction to take life ends up ultimately being his own action.

These different theological convictions have significant ethical implications for us today. If God condones war, does that mean that God fights on the side of nations who claim a belief in God? Are there modern day equivalents to the nation of Israel that God has a military investment in? On the other hand, if God does not endorse any particular modern nation, what do we make of claims that God condones of our current wars? Could we be mistaken?

And of course, war is only one issue. Of the countries considered to be industrialized, only four countries continue to perform capital punishment: Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United States. "What's particularly troubling, however," writes Tony Campolo, "is that studies made by sociologists indicate that evangelical Christians are more in favor of the death penalty than are secularists…If we take seriously what Jesus said in the Sermon on the mount, we have to be against capital punishment." He goes on to condemn warfare for the same reason. "There is something ludicrous about saying 'Love your enemies,' and then concluding that it is justifiable to kill your enemies."[1]

One of the crucial issues to discuss is the Hebrew word used in the 6th commandment: ratsakh (רצח). It has been translated in the King James Version as "thou shalt not kill," and in many newer versions as "thou salt not murder." Which is it? While the word definitely refers to murder, it is also used in Numbers 35:11, 27, 30, and Deuteronomy 4:42 to refer to accidental, unintentional killing.[2] If the word that has often been translated as "murder" can also refer to accidental or unintentional killing, what does that do to our understanding of the commandment?

Of course, ethics like this are easier to articulate than to live. Should serial killers die for their crimes? Should we have sat back and let Hitler kill the Jews rather than fighting a war? Should Christians oppose abortion in all forms and all circumstances? These are questions I can't answer for you definitively in one post. One thing is clear, however: being pro-life is more complicated than any single issue.

Related texts or passages to consider: Genesis 9:5-6; Matthew 26:52; Exodus 21:12-14; Leviticus 24:17; Leviticus 20:13; 1 Samuel 15:2-3

Talk Back:

  • This topic can be controversial. Here is one resource that addresses the issue of the Hebrew word ratsakh (רצח) and the way it can be translated into English. What does this article offer that is helpful to your understanding?

  • Read through Numbers 35, especially the section about Cities of Refuge. What kind of situation is being described here? What is provided for someone who accidentally kills?

  • Read 1 John 3:11-24 and compare it with Matthew 5:21-26. What do John and Jesus teach us about the commandment to not kill? How does Jesus see human intentions and emotions involved in this issue?

  • Jesus' ethic about the relationship between murder and anger (or hatred) raises interesting questions: if we hate someone, are we really as bad as a murderer? What do you think? Furthermore, is all sin equal? Why or why not?

  • Read Matthew 5:38-48. What does it say about revenge and retaliation? What does that mean for a Christian when it comes to violence? Compare this passage with Exodus 22:2-3. Does the Bible leave room for self-defense and protection of one's home and family?

  • If you had to join the army, would you be willing to kill? There have been conscientious objectors who believed that God did not permit them to kill. One famous one was Desmond Doss, who served as a non-violent medic and saved the lives of many fellow soldiers during World War Two. Do you think this is what everyone must do? Why or why not? Would you do the same?

  1. Campolo, Tony and Shane Claiborne. Red Letter Revolution. Thomas Nelson, 2012. 87-88. ↩︎

  2. Blue Letter Bible ↩︎


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