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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Is killing what the sixth commandment prohibits? Or does it prohibit murder?
This question generates great interest, probably because of its ethical implications. Answering the question is not as difficult as dealing with the ethical significance. Allow me to discuss the meaning of the terminology used in the commandment and make some general remarks concerning its significance.
1. Premeditated Killing: The Hebrew verb translated “killing/murder” in Exodus 20:13 (ratsach) designates the premeditated and intentional taking of a human life. In the Old Testament the verb is used in cases in which a person intentionally strikes another with an instrument of iron, stone, or wood, causing the death of the individual (Num. 35:16-18). There is always an evil motivation, like enmity (verse 21) or ego gratification (1 Kings 21:2, 3, 19). It is usually performed by the morally corrupt or by those in power (Jer. 7:9; Hosea 6:9). Whenever it takes place it is a case of culpable homicide, murder. Jesus explicitly reaffirmed the commandment and traced murder back to human anger and lack of love (Matt. 5:21, 22). The prohibition is based on the doctrine of creation and redemption: Human life is to be respected because God brought it into existence and Christ redeemed it through His blood.
2. Unintentional Killing: The Hebrew verb ratsach can also designate the unintentional, accidental killing of another human being. The fundamental difference between killing and murder is located in the motivation and the absence of premeditation. In this case we are dealing with the accidental death of a person, the best example being found in Numbers 35:22, 23: “But if without hostility someone suddenly shoves another or throws something at him unintentionally or, without seeing him, drops a stone on him that could kill him, and he dies” (NIV), that person had the right to find safety in one of the cities of refuge.
The purpose of the law of unintentional killing was to bring the practice of blood revenge under social legal control. Apparently accidental killing was not considered legally excusable. The life of the killer was in jeopardy as long as he lived, unless during his lifetime the high priest died (verse 25). It implies that the death of the high priest was counted as the death of the slayer, allowing him to leave the city of refuge as a free citizen.
3. Justifiable Exceptions(?): The use of the verb ratsach (to kill, murder) in the sixth commandment appears to be restricted to illegal killing. It is never used to refer to the death penalty or to killing in war. With respect to the death penalty we often find the Hebrew verb môt, “to put to death” (e.g., Lev. 20:10; Num. 35:31). In the context of war the verb harag, “to kill, slay” (e.g., 2 Sam. 10:18), is commonly used. Therefore the commandment itself should not be used exclusively to determine whether war and capital punishment are right or wrong. In those areas there will be different opinions.
However, we should keep in mind that the fact that defensive warfare was practiced among the Israelites does not mean that such killings were necessarily justifiable. David was involved in war and that disqualified him in the Lord’s eyes from building the Temple (1 Chron. 22:8). This suggests that there is something intrinsically wrong with killing in war. Personal self-defense has traditionally been upheld by the Christian church, but self-defense should not be equated with the taking of life. Self-defense requires the use of the minimal force to neutralize the intruder or assailant. Of course, that action could result in the death of the individual, but that is not the intention.
Capital punishment is perceived in the Old Testament theocratic system as justifiable, even required, in the case of murder (Num. 35:30). Whether that law should be normative in modern society is something that theologians, ethicists, and sociologists have to debate (cf. Rom. 13:1-5).
Perhaps I should point out that murder is not limited to the act of taking a human life. Through our words and attitudes we can destroy lives and bring almost to an end the aspirations of children, young people, and those around us. Love reserves life and its quality in all its expressions and ramifications. We should always seek to preserve life.