The Sixth Commandments Do Not Murder

In Exodus 20:13(KJV) “Thou shalt not kill,” yet God kills people in floods, famines and has Israel go and kill entire people groups.  Why the contradiction?

First of all, there is no contradiction.  “Thou shalt not kill” is from the old King James Bible.  Modern translations (ESV, NASB, NCV, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) have it as Exodus 20:13(HCSB)”You shall not murder.”  The word in the Hebrew for “kill” here in Exodus 20:13 is תִּרְצָח (ratsach). It is translated into the English many different ways, depending on the context:  “slayer, murderer, kill, murder, slain, manslayer, killing, slayer death.

Simply stated, the sixth of the Ten Commandments forbids the unjustified taking of a human life. However, the commandment itself has a couple of interesting elements that bear mentioning. First and foremost, different Bible translations give the appearance of different meanings, and there is potential for misunderstanding the actual meaning of the verse. Second, man was never created for the act of murdering another, and there needs to be an explanation for such a violent and final act towards another human being. Third, because of the translational challenge, we need to understand the difference between “murder” and “killing.” And last but not least, how does God view murder? To God, murder is not just physical in nature but also the condition of one’s heart towards another.

What this could lead to is all kinds of false thinking: you should never defend yourself; you should hold a position of extreme pacifism; if someone breaks into your home, you should let them harm your family rather than take their life. Those kinds of things are the implications of the misunderstanding of one word of the Bible.

God is not a pacifist. The Bible does not present God as a pacifist. Only a very selective reading of some of what the Scriptures say could lead you to that position. The Bible does not tell us, “Thou shalt not kill”; it says that we should not murder. Not murder.

And so this word is very important. It refers to such things as manslaughter, violent and unauthorized killing, personal vengeance and revenge, and yes, just good old fashioned murder.

So, we’ll use a few examples. You tell me whether or not this constitutes murder: accidental death, self-defense, a soldier in a just war, a police officer returning fire. Yes or no, that qualifies as murder. No.

How about infanticide,abortion, suicide, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia, and acts of terrorism? Does that constitute murder, yes or no? Yes.

So there are ways that taking a life is justified. There are ways that taking a life is unjustified, and part of the complexity is we can’t simply say, “You should never kill anyone,” but the truth is, we want to put some restrictions on that so we don’t have mass murder, terrorism, anarchy, unjust war, and the state out of control, slaughtering innocent civilians.

So, we’re going to unpack exactly what God means by this word—that there are occasions when human life is to be taken, but those occasions are rare and they are specified by God himself.

Murder is the unlawful taking of life.  Killing is the lawful taking of life.  God has said, “You shall not murder,” not “You shall not kill.”  After all, God says killing in self-defense is justifiable.  Exodus 22:2(HCSB)If a thief is caught in the act of breaking in, and he is beaten to death, no one is guilty of bloodshed.  If mere killing of any kind was the issue, then why would God saying killing in self-defense is permissible?  He wouldn’t.  This is another reason that modern translations say, “You shall not murder.”

Also, consider that the New Testament quotes Exodus 20:13 in Romans 13:9 (HCSB) as “You shall not murder.”  The word in Greek for murder here is φονεύω, (phoneuo).  Matthew 10:28 (HCSB) Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

The word of kill here is apoktinumi.  Let’s compare.

•Romans 13:9, “murder” is φονεύω (phoneuō), commit murder, kill
Matthew 5:21(HCSB)21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.

•Matthew 10:28, “kill” is ἀποκτίννυμι (apoktinumi), to kill, slay

As you can see, different words are used for “murder” and “kill.”  The Greek is more specific; and since the Greek New Testament quotes the Hebrew Old Testament, we can see that Exodus 20:13 is best translated as “You shall not murder.”

There are two different Hebrew words (ratsakh, mut) and two Greek words (phoneuo, apokteino) for “murder” and “killing.” One means “to put to death,” and the other means “to murder.” The latter one is the one prohibited by the Ten Commandments, not the former. In fact, ratsakh has a broader definition than the English word “murder.” Ratsakh also covers deaths due to carelessness or neglect but is never used when describing killing during wartime. That is why most modern translations render the sixth commandment “You shall not murder” rather than “You shall not kill.” However, a very large issue can arise depending on which translation one studies. The ever-popular and ever poor translation of the King James Version renders the verse as “Thou shalt not kill,” therefore opening the door to misinterpreting the verse altogether. If the intended meaning of “Thou shalt not kill” was just that—no killing—it would render all of the God-endorsed bloodletting done by the nation of Israel a violation of God’s own commandment (Deuteronomy 20). But God does not break His own commandments, so, clearly, the verse does not call for a complete moratorium on the taking of another human life.

Why does man murder? We know that we were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27(ESV)in the image of God he created him;male and female he created them. So God created man in his own image,and we were made to live in harmony with God and with our fellow man. This harmony became impossible once sin entered into the picture (Genesis 3). With sin came the propensity for acting violently against one another. Anger, jealousy, pride and hatred can fuel man’s evil bent towards life-ending aggression. So, to murder a person is not only to do violence against the person, but to do violence against the God who made them. This is where the Bible does not distinguish between those things that are sinful and those things that are criminal when it comes to the Ten Commandments. To murder is not just a civic, social issue, but it’s a God issue. It’s an offense not just against the person, but it’s an offense against God who made them in his image and likeness. So, when you murder a person, you’re also declaring war on God because you’re attacking the person who bears the image that he bestowed on them.

Well, when it comes to this issue of murder, this is actually a demonic issue—it’s not just a social issue. Jesus says in John 8:44 of a certain group that want to kill, murder him, “You’re like your father. Your father is the devil and he’s been a murderer since the beginning.” Murder is a demonic issue. God makes life, and Satan takes life. Satan loves it when people are put to death wrongly, prematurely, and unjustly. Jesus says, “In the beginning, the Father made us, and in the beginning, Satan was a murderer.”

It harkens all the way back to the first two brothers. What are their names? Cain and Abel. Abel was a godly man. His brother, Cain, murdered him. Murder begins with the first two brothers. Murder has a long history in the world, and Jesus says, “This is demonic; this is what Satan does.” He is trying to get people to kill one another, and he’s been that way since the beginning.The first recorded act of murder was when Cain

killed his brother Abel Genesis 4:8(ESV)Cain spoke to Abel his brother.And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. From that moment on, taking the life of another has been commonplace and, in some circles of society, acceptable. However, to God every life is important, and since God knew that man was sinful and evil and had become “lawless,” He enacted guidelines that would seek to modify man’s behavior 1 John 3:4(ESV) Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 

So, is there a difference between murder and killing? First, it is important to note that not all killing is wrong. For instance, the apostle Paul talks about the right of the state to take the lives of evildoers

Romans 13:1-5(HCSB)Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. 2 So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. 4 For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. 5 Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience.

This relates to what is commonly referred to as capital punishment. Most countries have consequences for murder. In some cases this requires the life of the perpetrator and a suitable means of putting one to death is chosen and administered. Another instance of acceptable “killing” is that which is done during times of war and at the command of superiors. There were quite a few instances in Scripture where God endorsed and allowed the taking of other lives (1 Samuel 11; Judges 6–7). And finally, although far from acceptable, manslaughter is yet another form of killing someone. This unintentional act apparently happened so often in biblical times that cities of refuge were designated for the manslayer to seek refuge in

Exodus 21:12-13 (HCSB) “Whoever strikes a person so that he dies must be put to death. 13 But if he didn’t intend any harm, and yet God caused it to happen by his hand, I will appoint a place for you where he may flee.

Yes, God does delegate to the state, based upon Romans 13 and the example of the Old Testament, the right for capital punishment. This is to discourage vice and to promote virtue. This is to say that there is such a significant consequence for certain law-breaking that it should help maintain some civic, social order.

Imagine today if we got rid of all the police officers, all the courts, and all the jails. That would not lead to human flourishing and life. That would lead to anarchy and death. And so that threat of punishment helps to keep some unrepentant sinners restricted in their conduct.

In addition, this also helps to mitigate against person vengeance. If you can’t call the police, and if you can’t get your proverbial day in court, and if there’s not a prison system or capital punishment, what you’re going to do is to try and take justice into your own hands—vengeance, retribution.

The result is a very dangerous culture in which angry people take lives. And if there’s a process for which justice can be pursued, that helps to mitigate that kind of personal vengeance.

So yes, God does sanction capital punishment. He does. And don’t let the universalistic, pacifistic, false Bible teachers tell you, “Jesus was totally nice. All he ever did was turn the cheek.” The Jesus of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament, and I’ll tell you, it’s one bloody book. The animal rights activists don’t like the sacrifice of animals foreshadowing Jesus. Those who are pacifists do not like the fact that God’s people are given commands. Those commands do include permission to have capital crimes tried and punished with, yes, even capital punishment.

Not only that, God himself in the Old Testament kills a lot of people. He floods the world in the days of Noah. He sends fiery road tar out of the sky for Sodom and Gomorrah, obliterates two perverted, adjoining towns. It’s a bloody book.

Sometimes those people who would say, “I don’t think that God has the right to take life,” it’s because they’re the criminals, and criminals never like justice.

Again, it was never God’s intent to have to use such a drastic measure as taking one’s life to rectify a situation. So, God does make exceptions for the taking of another’s life as long as it lines up with His will. However, premeditated murder of an individual is never God’s will.

“You shall not kill” is actually not a command found in the Ten Commandments. The command from scripture in the original language actually says “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). The Hebrew word for “murder” literally means “the intentional, premeditated killing of another person with malice.”

Interestingly, most of us are familiar with this definition of murder, because it is reflected in the Penal Codes of our country. The Louisiana Penal Code provides this definition of murder:

RS14. (a) Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.

Malice is a form of evil intent that separates “murder” from “killing”. Even today there are acceptable forms of killing that lack this kind of evil intent, and these forms of killing exist as exceptions in the murder laws of the United States. In Louisiana, for example, a homicide is justified (according to Penal Code sections RS14:20) if one of the following conditions is met:

A person kills someone accidentally
A person is trying to defend him or herself and prevent his or her own murder (self-defense)
A person is trying to prevent someone from entering his or her house to commit some violent felony
A person is trying to prevent the murder of someone else (protecting an innocent)

In all these situations, killing is actually legal and justifiable, and exceptions of this nature exist in the Penal Codes of every state in America. Even those who don’t accept the existence of God or the authority of the Bible recognize the necessity for laws like these; laws that allow for deadly force to be used to accomplish some greater good.

It’s interesting to note, however, these exceptions are not the invention of modern humans; they are simply a reflection of ancient Biblical Law. The Bible is the source for these modern laws and the exceptions come straight from the pages of scripture:

An accidental killing is not murder:

Exodus 21:12-13 (HCSB)“Whoever strikes a person so that he dies must be put to death. 13 But if he didn’t intend any harm, and yet God caused it to happen by his hand, I will appoint a place for you where he may flee.

Numbers 35:22-25(HCSB) 22 “But if anyone suddenly pushes a person without hostility or throws any object at him without malicious intent 23 or without looking drops a stone that could kill a person and he dies, but he was not his enemy and wasn’t trying to harm him, 24 the assembly is to judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances. 25 The assembly is to protect the one who kills someone from the hand of the avenger of blood. Then the assembly will return him to the city of refuge he fled to, and he must live there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.

A killing performed in self-defense (or in defense of one’s home) is not murder:

Exodus 22:2 (HCSB)If a thief is caught in the act of breaking in, and he is beaten to death, no one is guilty of bloodshed.

A killing performed in an attempt to save the life of an innocent person is not murder:

Exodus 2:11-12(HCSB) Years later, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his own people[b] and observed their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. 12 Looking all around and seeing no one, he struck the Egyptian dead and hid him in the sand. 

(God did not judge Moses as a murderer because he was protecting the life of the slave)

Genesis 14:14-16 (HCSB) When Abram heard that his relative had been taken prisoner, he assembled[a] his 318 trained men, born in his household, and they went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 And he and his servants deployed against them by night, attacked them, and pursued them as far as Hobah to the north of Damascus. 16 He brought back all the goods and also his relative Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the other people.

(God did not judge Abram as a murderer because he was protecting the life of Lot)

Killing becomes murder when (and only when) it is not properly justified, and the justifications are clear: you can use whatever force necessary to protect your own life from a hostile aggressor, or to save the life of an innocent from such imminent, life-threatening danger. The difference between the legal or illegal use of deadly force is really a matter of motive, intent and justification, and these distinctions come straight from the pages of Scripture.

What is murder in God’s eyes? From the human perspective, murder is the physical act of taking another’s life. However, we also must consider that God defines murder as any thought or feeling of deep-seated hatred or malice against another person. In other words, it is more than just a physical act that constitutes murder to God,

Matthew 5:21-24(HCSB)21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire. 23 So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

1 John 3:15 (ESV)Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. When we harbor hatred in our hearts for another, we have committed the sin of murder in God’s eyes. The disdain towards another person never has to be demonstrated outwardly because God looks upon the heart for the truth (1 Samuel 16:7(ESV)But the Lord said to Samuel, b“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.;

Matthew 15:19(ESV)19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.

As Christians and as human beings, we know that unjustified killing is wrong. God’s Word is very clear on this point: “You shall not murder.” And what God says we must obey, or we face the consequences on judgment day.

One final comment: since all people have sinned against God (Rom. 3:23), all people are under the judgment of God.  The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23); so when God executes someone, it is not murder; it is killing because it is a lawful taking of life.  Remember, all people have sinned.  Sin is the breaking of God’s law.  Therefore, God’s execution is lawful.

Proverbs 8:36(ESV)All who hate me love death. The further you get away from the God of the Bible and thinking like the God of the Bible, the more prone you are to move toward murder. The more you read your Bible, the more you have the mind of Christ, the more you will be pro-life.

Here’s the good news: God is the living God. Our sin brings death. God became the man Jesus Christ, and he started as a baby in his mother’s womb, grew up to hang on a cross and to be murdered. And among his final words were, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus died so that murderers could be forgiven and changed. And he rose, conquering death, that God’s final word was not murder but resurrection.

The hope is in the resurrection. We murdered God, and he conquered sin and death, and he brings forgiveness and life.


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