You Shall Not Kill.
There are some scriptures in the Biblical text that are just easier to not discuss. There are some verses that, could we ignore their presence, we might be less awkward around one another, we’d be able to talk religion at the dinner table, and perhaps we could just skip talking about the seriousness of some of the issues facing our world today that these verses bring to light. Today’s text is at the top of that list. But to not talk about the scriptural implications for our lives as disciples today, to ignore any verses and what they may say to God’s people, and to ignore the impact faithful living according to these scriptures could have in the world, would be a huge mistake. Especially as the text is found in the Decalogue – the 10 Commandments.
As we have in past weeks, we will first seek to understand the commandment as it was offered to the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness, seeking freedom from the oppression of the Egyptians. Having at least somewhat grasped the meaning of the text in historical context, we will seek any application that may still be viable for us today.
The text for today simply says, “You shall not kill.” It is often translated to read, “You shall not murder.” In reality, both English words can be correct, but each word carries a different connotation. The challenge to understand the text lies first and foremost in our ability to fully comprehend how we should understand the intent of the command. The Hebrew word that is translated as kill and murder is the word rasah (ray-ts-achh). The problem with finding the correct translation is that in our English language today, we have a different word for each type of killing that could take place. For example, we have homicide – the act of killing a person intentionally. We have manslaughter – the act of killing unintentionally. We have suicide – the act of killing oneself. We have euthanasia – the act of killing for some form of compassionate reason, also known as mercy killing. We have a different word for killing each member of the family – literally. Matricide is the killing of one’s mother; sororicide, the killing of a sister; filicide, the act of a parent killing a child; no joke, a different word for each family member, including uncles, nephews, and others. We have genocide – the act of killing an entire national, racial, religious, or ethnic group. We even have a different word in our English vocabulary for killing each of many different organisms and animals. Bactericide – killing bacteria; felicide – killing cats; canicide – killing dogs; herbicide – killing unwanted plants; pesticide – killing pests; lupicide – killing wolves; or the more general biocide – which refers to killing a broad spectrum of living organisms.
God, in the ten commandments, doesn’t mention any of those words. God says, do not rasah. Does that mean, because he didn’t mention any of these others by name, they are all exempt from this sixth commandment? Not so fast.
In our attempts to weasel out of this command, we are not helped much by trying to substitute the word murder for kill, or vice versa. The Hebrew word rasah is not so limited as our English vocabulary, indeed, it is quite broad in spectrum. Let’s take a closer look at what the word really means, and how it was understood by the ancient Israelites.
If we look into Numbers 35, we find the most complete description of the word rasah. There are other places in the Old Testament text where the Israelites are taught not to kill, and these other texts are perhaps worth some additional focus in the future. However, Numbers 35 is the primary place we see the same Hebrew word rasah used to describe killing. In the other locations, the Hebrew words used are closely related, but they are different. So, trying to find the most accurate depiction of what God meant by using this word, let’s look at Numbers 35, and see how the word is described.
The first thing we see is that in Numbers 35, one who commits the act of rasah – killing – is called a roseah (row-tsee-ach) – a killer.
Beginning in verse 16, we find that anyone who uses an iron object, stone, or weapon of wood in their hand to intentionally strike another person causing the person to die is a roseah. They are a killer – a murderer. They have committed the act of rasah. They have committed the crime of killing that is commanded against in the sixth commandment. According to Numbers 35, any person who is guilty of such a crime should be put to death.
Moving on to verse 20, we find that if someone strikes another person, or pushes them, due to some hatred and the person dies, the person who caused the death is a roseah, a murderer. If someone strikes another out of enmity, that is, if they strike a person with whom they have a hostile relationship – an enemy, and the person dies, the person who caused the death is a roseah, a murderer. Again, they have committed the act of rasah, and they have broken the sixth commandment. In both situations, the murderer, the one who committed the act of rasah – the killing – is to be killed as well.
Then we get to verse 22. It says that if someone pushes another suddenly, or causes harm to another, not out of enmity, not out of hatred, not out of intentional will … perhaps they accidentally dropped a stone on someone … and with no intent to harm they kill the other person, they are still considered a roseah – a murderer. They have still committed an act described by the same word – rasah. What they have done is against the sixth commandment. The punishment is different in this case. They are to be judged by the congregation – the community – and if found to have killed out of accident, they are sent to a city of refuge to live apart from the community instead of being killed like in the other examples.
As we keep reading, we find in verse 30 the explanation of how one who committed a killing intentionally is to be killed. It says, that the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of multiple witnesses – multiple witnesses, specifically not a single witness. In describing the death of the murderer, the word to describe their death is still the same verb, rasah. The death penalty, while offered as a necessary act for the protection of the community, is still defined by the same word that is given as a prohibition in the sixth commandment.
In the time of ancient Israel, in the time the Ten Commandments were offered, the differences in the types of killing were not distinguishable factors as to whether or not the killing was against God’s will. Unintentional, intentional, premeditated, accidental, hatred, enmity … the rationale for killing in Old Testament times helped determine the outcome and the response, but all of them are prohibited by the sixth commandment.[i]
Even capital punishment, while permissible for the benefit of community, was still against the commandment.
Seeing that all forms of killing, even the permissible forms, were against God’s intent in the sixth commandment tells us a great deal about the purpose of the commandment. As we have seen in the first half of the commandments, the focus of the 10 Commandments is first and foremost to set right our relationship with God. Secondarily, as we consider the second half of the commandments, the 10 are intended to set right our relationship with community.
“When we take life for any reason we put ourselves in the place of God. We steal something that God created and that God owns.”[ii] By telling us not to kill – for any reason – God is making clear who has authority over life. “The life of human beings … is God’s creation; human beings, male and female, are created in God’s image and likeness, and only God may authorize the taking of human life.”[iii] Thus, there are times in the Old Testament when God orders for life to be taken, such to safeguard the rest of humanity. When humanity takes the initiative to take life, God is always angered.
The error we make in trying to understand the sixth commandment as it applies to life today is to assume our context remains the same as it did for the Israelites in the wilderness and in their ancient culture. If, at the core of God’s intent in saying, “do not kill,” is the protection of all God has created, we would be wise to consider how it is we carry out such faithful living today.
Walter Harrelson, the late internationally acclaimed Old Testament scholar, suggests that even such permissible killing, like capital punishment, should be reconsidered under the passage of time. Harrelson notes, “Earlier societies had no reliable penal system on the basis of which those bent on destroying human life could be restrained permanently but not put to death.” He continues, “Almost all societies in the developed world have eliminated the death penalty, counting on imprisonment to protect the society.”[iv]
God is seeking to protect that which God created – every last being. As John Calvin so notably said, “To sum up then, all violence, injury, and any harmful thing at all that may injure our neighbor’s body are forbidden to us.”[v]
No one said this faithfulness thing was going to be easy. But if we’re going to even attempt to reclaim faithfulness as it pertains to the sixth commandment, we might as well admit we have an uphill battle to climb. “Our culture is without a doubt the most overtly violent in all of recorded history.”[vi] Intentionally and unintentionally, we see more non-health related deaths per capita in our nation than in any time or any place in history.
Let’s consider a few of the leading cases of killing that take place each year in the US.
Suicide is still one of the leading causes of death among Americans. Suicide claims the life of one person every 15 minutes in the United States – that’s almost 40,000 people per year. It’s suspected that almost 90% of suicide victims have a mental disease that went untreated or unrecognized. If we are going to live faithfully according to the sixth commandment, we need to start paying attention to what causes such a high number of self-claimed lives. We need to be providing the time, research, and effort into addressing the issues that cause mental diseases, and to be more focused on providing the care for any with a mental disease.
Car accidents are still one of the major causes of death in the US. Nearly 35,000 people die each year due to a traffic accident. While many regulations have been enacted to prevent the loss of life in traffic accidents, driving under the influence, driving while distracted, and reckless driving still claim thousands of lives each year.
And we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the number of deaths due to firearms in the US. The two leading causes of death by a firearm are accidental deaths due to a gun discharge and intentional assault by a firearm. Of developed and high income nations in the world, the US has the highest rate of firearm deaths – by a significant margin. In 2015, there were over 50,000 incidents of gun violence in our nation. Not all of these incidents resulted in death, but on average, 36 people died in our nation every day last year due to gun violence.
I don’t really want to consider the number of deaths due to war throughout history – but in the 20th century alone, with the major world wars, over 100 million lives were claimed. Already in the 21st century, only 16 ½ years in, we’ve already seen over a million deaths due to war around the world.
For many of us, we hear the text and we write ourselves off as ‘not guilty.’ We claim that because we aren’t a part of the killings themselves, we are innocent of any crime. I’d like to tell you that you’re right. I’d like to say that so long as you aren’t the person taking the life, you’re cleared. But I can’t tell you that, because I don’t think that jives with God’s intent in the sixth commandment. Jesus, in explaining this commandment to the Jewish leaders, said that it’s not enough to write yourself off as innocent because you haven’t killed. If you even have hatred in your heart toward another, you have broken this command. The call is not just about not taking life, it’s about ensuring that all lives – all that God created – have life abundant.
If we’re honest with ourselves about the intent of the passage, the bottom line of this text is about the sanctity of life. We find that not only is the call for us not to injure, harm, or kill in any way, but the commandment has at its core a truth statement about the protection of all life. God created life, God orders life, and for us to do anything that stands against the preservation of life, it means we are guilty of breaking the sixth commandment. If we do anything – which includes doing nothing – we are guilty. Martin Luther, one of the great reformation leaders, argued that deeds NOT done could be murderous in effect. To not lend aid when aid was needed was indeed an act of killing.
So what does faithful living then look like according to this text? “Rather than ponder how we might skillfully reinterpret this command to suit present circumstances, our time might be better spent wondering how we might change the church to be the sort of place that produces and supports nonviolent people.”[vii] Perhaps we might best find ways to demonstrate for the world what it meant to live according to the will of God, and to share the love of God. This is in and of itself our claim as Christians, who say we are here to make known the perfect love of God as witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We say here at Washington Street that our vision for church is “Making a Place for Everyone.” That means we have to be intentionally caring about everyone. It means we need to be active in supporting anything that offers life to others instead of taking life from others. We need to be finding ways to ensure that others have a quality of life that doesn’t lead them to death, but that helps them find hope for new tomorrow.
You shall not kill is about more than not being the one to pull the trigger – you shall not kill is about ensuring that no more senseless deaths take place on our watch. You shall not kill is about ensuring that people have the means they need to survive in the blistering summer heat, and the frigid winter cold. You shall not kill means advocating on behalf of those whose lives are being taken from them. Period. It’s not a matter of justified or unjustified, it’s not a matter of hatred or enmity, it’s not a matter of premeditated or accidental. You shall not kill. Period.
Because God loves you too much. God loves each of us too much. God is tired of seeing his children killed, and so am I. I hope you are too. So hear his command, and know that it’s offered to help us be in right relationship with God, and with one another. Because God created us to love him, and to love one another. So may it be. Amen.