The Meaning of the Sixth Commandment

 

 

This commandment is about respect for life, about life’s sacredness.

Jiří Moskala

The Decalogue is a precious gift endowed to humanity by God Himself, uttered and written by Him. It presents the founda­tional principles to preserve life and defines how one maintains the vertical (first four commandments) and horizontal (last six commandments) relationships that are the most valuable properties in life. The Decalogue presupposes salvation and forms the heart of God’s revelation and biblical ethics. It is the Magna Carta of biblical teaching and its summation, the pattern for the rest of biblical legislation. It forms the substance and foundation of divine standards for all humanity; its principles are eternal.

In the Book of Exodus, the Decalogue is called “the Testimony” (Ex. 31:18);1 and in the Book of Deuteronomy, it is named “the words of the covenant” (29:1). In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Decalogue lies at the beginning of the law collections and their interpretation.

 

Crucial Question

The sixth commandment is a very short statement and was originally expressed in Hebrew with just two words; God’s command is identical in both versions of the Decalogue. This brief commandment is clearly translated in the RSV as “‘You shall not kill’” (that is, to take or terminate the life of a person), and this rendering is followed by many other versions. On the other hand, other Bible versions, such as NIV, NKJV, and NASB, render this phrase as “‘You shall not murder.’” Murder is defined as unlawful killing, or killing without a legal justification, or the premeditated and deliberate killing of another human being. This would be distinct from other forms of killing that are then presumably legal or acceptable, such as execution in cases of criminal activities (capital punishment), killing in times of war, or in self-defense.

Which translation is correct: “‘You shall not kill’” or “‘You shall not murder’”? The answer has tremendous implications for decisions in real life. Diligent students of the Bible know that each translation of the biblical text is an interpretation, so one needs to be sure to follow the right one. This question has to be decid­ed only on biblical grounds, which means using the Hebrew word for the taking of a human life in its particular context and by discerning the intended purpose of this fundamental legislation.

Some scholars and writers claim the commandment “‘You shall not kill’” points to a specific prohibition—that is, murder. Appeal is made to the original Hebrew by arguing that the word does not mean killing in general but refers specifically to intended killing, namely murder, or to unauthorized killing. For example, Dozeman observes, “The command forbidding murder is broad.”2 Hyatt comments, “The purpose of the sixth commandment was to prohibit any kind of illegal killing that was contrary to the will and the best interests of the community. Thus its real import was to prohibit murder, in spite of the fact that this meaning is not specifically derived from the verb employed.”3 Ryken states, “What the commandment forbids is not killing, but unlawful killing of a human being.”4 Gane, in his exposé on the Old Testament law for Christians, comments, “The familiar KJV rendering ‘Thou shall not kill’ is misleading because the sixth commandment does not forbid all killing,”5 and he argues that this commandment only “prohibits the illegal, unjustifiable taking of life.”6 North, in his article on the sixth commandment, concludes, “So, in reading Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 we must differ with the translation ‘Thou shall not kill” on the grounds that it is too broad, and thus inaccu­rate and inconsistent with all the contexts in which [the Hebrew word] is used and not used in Scripture.”7 This type of interpretation is reflected in some modern translations as seen above. However, the crucial question remains: Is this argument supported by the biblical data? To the claim that the verb is translated as “mur­der,” Victor Hamilton states, “I do not think it is that simple.”8

What do the biblical data reveal? John Durham rightly argues that “the precise meaning of the sixth commandment depends on the definition of  [the original Hebrew word].”9

 

Usage of the Word Ratsakh

There are four main words in the Hebrew Scripture used for killing: harag (Gen. 4:8, 14, 15, 25, mut (Ex. 1:16), qatal (Job 13:15; Dan. 2:13, 14), and ratsakh. It is significant to observe that three of these verbs (harag, mut, qatal) include killing humans and animals, while the verb ratsakh (used in the sixth commandment) applies only to killing humans.10 This distinction is crucial, because then the difference in usage is not primarily regarding “various circumstances of killing”11 (premeditated/deliberate or accidental/unintentional killing), but who or what is killed. The difference lies “between the object that is killed—humans and animals.”12 The term ratsakh refers uniquely to taking the life of humans.

This Hebrew verb occurs 47 times in the Old Testament, and its meaning must be deter­mined from the context. In most biblical passages (for example, Exodus 20:13; Numbers 35:6; Deuteronomy 5:17), the motive of killing must be investigated for implementation of the punishment. The intentional killing is punished by death after a court hearing (capital punishment), in contrast to the accidental killing when the killer is required to stay in the city of refuge (the institution of asylum) until the death of the High Priest.

The noun retsakh (“killing,” “murder”) occurs twice. In Psalm 42:10, it means “shattering,” “crushing,” “mortal wound,” or “mortal agony.” In Ezekiel 21:22, it refers to the slaughter by King Nebuchadnezzar in bat­tles when he was conquering Israel. Thus, the Hebrew root ratsakh is also used for killing in war.

 

Summary of Findings in Context

God is the Creator, He is life, and the source of life; this is why only He gives life, and only He can take it away. He is the ruler over life and death (Job 1:21; Isa. 45:7) and as the Creator of life, He has all rights over life and death and the authority to command: “Do not take life.” However, it must be emphasized that it is a strange and alien work for God to kill (Isa. 28:21); it is done only out of the necessity to protect life, as in the case of the biblical flood (Gen. 6:11‒13). The Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Eze. 18:23, 32).

The thematic background of the sixth commandment is in the story of Cain and Abel, with two brothers worshipping God (Gen. 4:3–11). The first murder occurs during their worship together, signifying that the one who kills, kills his brother. The sanctity of human life is underlined.

God’s commandment is also associated with the first explicit prohibition of killing (Gen. 9:5, 6), in spite of the fact that this text is misused to justify capital punish­ment as a divinely ordered act. Humans were created in the image of God; thus, theologically speaking, the one who kills destroys the image of God, and no one has the right to do this. This is why killing humans is absolutely prohibited: It is a sin. Hamilton rightly proclaims, “To kill another human being is to destroy one who is a bearer of the divine image.”13 Doukhan observes, “This implies that killing humans impacts God Himself.”14 By respecting life, one shows a deep respect for the Holy Creator. In Genesis 9, the restriction not to kill humans is given in sharp contrast to God’s permission to kill animals (for food and sacrificial reasons, not for sport-hunting purpos­es); yet, while killing animals, humans have to pour their blood out to demonstrate respect for life because life is in the blood (vss. 4, 5), while shedding the blood of humans is banned. Wenham aptly comments, “No sin shows greater contempt for life than homi­cide. Whereas an animal’s blood may be shed but not consumed, human blood cannot even be shed.”15 Life is sacred, and people cannot take the life of another person on their own. Human life must be highly re­spected and preserved. Even negligence in protecting life was punishable (Deut. 22:8).

The sixth commandment is an apodictic law. Apodictic laws are unconditional and make categorical assertions, whereas casuistic laws explain different conditions and how they must be executed/applied. In principle, killing is killing and cannot be excused. It is an absolute command regarding the respect of life. Thus, one might argue that any taking of human life violates the sixth commandment.

It is significant that no casuistic law is part of the Decalogue (in contrast to the other collections of biblical law). However, when killing occurs, then comes into place casuistic legislation. Gane compares sev­eral collections of biblical laws and rightly concludes, “Casuistic laws appear in all of the major biblical law collections . . . except for the Decalogue.”16 Patrick explains that a casuistic law “defines a specific case, distinguishes it carefully from other similar cases, and stipulates the legal consequences.”17

The sixth commandment is brief, and the word kill is not qualified by motives, alluding to the fact that it should be taken as a general principle. It has a very broad meaning. Dozeman rightly observes, “The law is stated categorically and does not spell out the conse­quences for disobedience.”18

The Hebrew word ratsakh is used only for killing hu­mans, and is not employed even for killing sacrificial animals. No provision is made in the Old Testament sacrificial system for killing people. This crime was too serious and could not be atoned for and forgiven by ritu­als—by killing a sacrificial animal. The legislation was established to investigate acts of killing in the six cities of refuge where the killer could run and be tried to discover if he committed an involuntary slaughter or a murder (Ex. 21:12–14; Num. 35:9–34).

A close examination of the term ratsakh raises ques­tions about translation of the phrase “do not murder” and using the word alone as a rationale to distinguish between various kinds of killing such as murder, manslaughter, or justifiable homicide, because the term ratsakh does not necessarily mean to kill someone intentionally. Also, the “avenger of blood” may lawfully kill the one guilty of manslaugh­ter should the latter leave a city of refuge (Num. 35:27, 30). In addition, there are several places in Deuteron­omy (4:41, 42; 19:3–6) and passages scattered throughout Numbers and Joshua (Num. 35:6–31; Joshua 20:3–5) that use the word to refer to unintentional killing or causing accidental death, namely man­slaughter. Premeditation had to be determined by a ju­dicial process, yet both those found guilty of premedi­tation and those considered innocent of premeditation were described by the same Hebrew term translated as “the one who kills,” “the one who commits ratsakh.” Of course, the term ratsakh also has the connotation of “murder” or “assassination” (Judges 20:4; 2 Kings 6:32). It is used for premeditated (Num. 35:16–21, 30) as well as accidental or involuntary killing (Num. 35:7, 11; Deut. 4:42). The contextual markers usually indicate if ratsakh means “killing” or “murder.” In the context of the cities of refuge, it is used for executing capital punishment (Num. 35:30).

The word ratsakh in Proverbs 22:13 refers to a lion killing a person, so motivation for killing is not in place. Not only humans, but also animals can kill, which means that motivation for the action is not always included.

By implication, this commandment cannot be used to support not carrying guns (for protection from snakes or wild animals), unless guns are used only for the purpose of killing people.

God speaks to the nation that consists of people who are members of the covenantal community. It means these laws are highly personal, and no one can take his or her own life or the life of another person. God speaks to Israel, His covenantal people, but these principles are for all His people at all times and are the laws for the whole of humankind to keep. When Paul summarizes the law as being love, he quotes from the Decalogue, including the sixth commandment (Rom. 13:8–10). Love is indeed the sum of God’s law because He is the God of love (1 John 4:16). Thus, true love is shown in practical actions springing from faith (Gal. 6:5).

In light of the above observations, the wrong question is often asked in regard to the sixth commandment: When is killing not murder? There is no exception to it because it is stated as the principle. This perspective is for each individual to take it as a given fact. One does not ask similar questions such as, When is steal­ing not wrong? Or, When is adultery permissible?

 

Israelite Casuistic Laws

In contrast to the apodictic law of the sixth command­ment, the biblical text explains what to do in case someone violates it and kills. This is an immense prob­lem, so the casuistic law needs to be implemented. (See, for example, the legislation for the cities of refuge.)

The legal section of the Book of Deuteronomy is structured according to the Decalogue in such a way that each commandment of the Decalogue is further explained or applied in this legal part of the second speech of Moses (Deut. 12:1–25:16). In this way, the Book of Deuteronomy explains, among other things, the application and relationship to the sixth commandment (19:1–22:8). These three chapters deal with homicide, holy war, and criminal justice, which now justify legitimate killing because the principle law of respecting and preserving life was not upheld, or when a nation had to engage in a justified war under God’s command. How should capital punishment and killing as a result of military actions during a holy war be understood? This excellent question does not and should not negate, disprove, or contradict the exegetical, conceptual, and theological interpretation of the sixth commandment. It is recognized that capital punishment and holy war legislation represent a huge tension with the understanding of the Decalogue’s prohibition of killing. These issues, however, must be answered on their own grounds and not by alteration of the meaning and intention of the divine prohibition, “You will not kill.”

In dealing with strong tensions in the biblical text—on the one hand, God’s prescription not to kill, and on the other hand, His own orders to kill and punish by taking life in specific cases, like murder, rape, kidnap­ping, defiant transgression of the Sabbath, and holy war—one must have in mind the following facts, on the basis of which they should be understood:

The Ten Commandments are expressed in a personal way; they address individuals (stated in the second person singular). It means that no one should kill a person. When killing occurred, Israel as a society had a legal obligation to deal with the crime or accident, but no person had the right to avenge the killing or murder personally. Proper judicial procedure needed to take place. No Israelite was permitted to take justice into his or her own hands. Only the authorized ending of life as an expression of the administration of justice upon God’s command was permissible in a specific situa­tion, in which case a judge and at least two witnesses had to be involved. Thus, a theocratic community was delegated with such tasks, and capital punishment was rarely executed in Israel’s society.

The gravity of killing is demonstrated by the severity of the punishment. There was no sacrificial compensa­tion for killing; only life pays for life in case of murder, or asylum in situations of accidental killing. Ryken writes, “Some [I would say: all] accidental death, al­though unintentional, are nevertheless culpable, which is why God’s law includes legal sanctions for a person who ‘unintentionally killed his neighbor without malice aforethought’ (Deut. 4:42).”19 The protection of one’s life, family, or nation, as well as God’s honor, cannot be supported by appealing to the meaning of the Hebrew word ratsakh alone. Such a move requires a much wider interpretive reading. The satisfaction for the crime of murder has to be performed because life has infinite value (Gen. 9:6), and it is not within human power ultimately to forgive a murderer (Num. 35:31) because the giver of life is God Himself, and only upon His command can it be taken away. Ellen G. White wisely commented, “The safety and purity of the nation demanded that the sin of murder be severe­ly punished. Human life, which God alone could give, must be sacredly guarded.”20 Ryken rightly underlines that the various casuistic legislations have one purpose in mind: “The goal is always not the destruction of life but its preservation. Sometimes it is necessary to take a life in order to save a life.”21 The biblical flood is the primary example of this principle, when God destroys to ultimately preserve life.

God did not intend for the people of Israel to kill other people on the way to the Promised Land. He wanted to fight for His people as He did during the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea. Unfortunately, His plan for fighting for His people so that they would not need to fight and kill in war failed because of Israel’s lack of trust in God and their disobedience (Gen. 15:13–16; Ex. 14:13, 14, 19, 24, 25; Deut. 7:20).

In interpreting biblical laws regarding capital pun­ishment and engaging in war, one needs to take into account the “theocracy principle.” These biblical laws may be applied only in a situation in which God’s people live under God’s direct leadership and rules, which is no longer the case because the theocracy of Israel as a holy nation ended. So, this legislation was valid only during the ancient Israelite society.

 

The Meaning of the Sixth Commandment

The meaning is apparent: respect for life, which is a precious gift from God. Life is extremely fragile and must be carefully preserved; even negligence is punishable (Deut. 22:8). This commandment lacks specificity, as no person or object is directly defined, and the prohibition is consequently more inclusive:

1. Respect for the life of other people (against killing or murder).

2. Respect for one’s own life (against suicide).

3. Respect for the unborn life (against abortion and euthanasia).

Durham states: “Its basic prohibition was against killing, for whatever cause, under whatever circumstances, and by whatever method, a fellow-member of the community. . . . The primary reference of the commandment is religious, not social . . . . [It] describes a killing of human be­ings forbidden by Yahweh to those who are in covenant with him.22

It is true that the Decalogue was given to the faith community. However, this legislation goes beyond borders, beyond Israel’s community of faith. All hu­man beings are included, as all were created in God’s image. Thus, the prohibition of killing applies not only to killing a fellow believer, but also has universal implications.

 

Commandments as God’s Promises

One needs to keep in mind that God’s commandments are actually God’s promises. They are given to His peo­ple to obey out of love and gratitude. As Seventh-day Adventists, this is our special contribution to under­standing the meaning of the Decalogue.  This is why God gives these permanent commandments as His promises. Ellen G. White offered this insight into the function of the Decalogue: “The Ten Commandments . . . are ten promises.”23 She stressed that “the voice of God from heaven” speaks “to the soul in promise, ‘This do, and you will not come under the dominion and control of Satan.”’24 The Ten Commandments are a special gift from God to guide believers to know what He can do for and in them when they let Him. “In the Ten Commandments God has laid down the laws of His king­dom. The Lord has given His holy commandments to be a wall of protection around His created beings.”25 Ellen G. White declares that “all His biddings are enablings.”26

In the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ made it clear that the intention of the sixth commandment is purity of heart, grounded in deep respect for the life of other human beings. He elo­quently spoke about right attitudes toward others, and even against verbal abuse: “‘You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you, who­ever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, “Raqa,” will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, “You fool,” will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be rec­onciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny’” (Matt. 5:21–26, NAB).

It is evident that Jesus goes beyond physical killing. Hamilton aptly comments, “Jesus has the story of Cain’s act of fratricide against Abel in mind when he speaks of ‘anyone who is angry with his brother’ as a kind of killing, or something that, if not controlled, could lead to killing” and he further connects Jesus’ statement with Genesis 4 “by the emphasis on a ‘gift’ in both units.”27

One needs to pray earnestly and sincerely to not be in a situation in which he or she would be tempted to kill anoth­er human being. Jesus teaches in the case of Sabbath observance that it is a matter of prayer and trusting God (Matt. 24:20).

 

Conclusion

The Hebrew word ratsakh has a wide range of meanings. It is used in both versions of the Ten Command­ments, and is not used only for specific unauthorized killing because such a narrow view cannot be substan­tiated by the biblical data. Thus, the word murder is not an appropriate translation of the sixth command­ment, even though it includes murder. Our study leads to the recognition that all killing or taking of human life is prohibited in principle. This commandment is about respect for life, about life’s sacredness, and thus about respect for the Creator God who created humans in His image. So the translation of the sixth commandment should be in broad terms, “‘You shall not kill,’” because it is obvious that the meaning of the word ratsakh is not limited to murder. When explaining the sixth commandment, The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary states: “Any rightful un­derstanding of our relation to our neighbor indicates that we must respect and honor his life, for all life is sacred (Gen. 9:5, 6).”28

Doukhan states: “The sixth commandment should not be translated ‘you shall not murder,’ implying only the specific case of a criminal act, but ‘you shall not kill humans’ in a general sense. The prohibition as ‘murder’ would not make sense for an activity in which most common people would rarely think of engaging.”29

Hasel comes to a similar conclusion in his study: “The military pledge of allegiance conflicts with allegiance to God’s Word and His unchanging law that commands, among other things, not to kill another person (cf. Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:17).”30 The sixth com­mandment is an absolute command and has a preven­tive character to preserve the gift of life, because life is sacred. It has a universal sense.

 

Jiří Moskala, ThD, PhD, is Dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A., and Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Theology.

 

NOTES AND REFERENCES

 

1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.

2. Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009), 494.

3. J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus (Edinburgh: Oliphants, 1971), 214.

4. Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2005), 616.

5. Roy E. Gane, Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017), 261.

6. Ibid.

7. James J. North Jr., “When Killing Isn’t Murder,” The Adventist Chaplain, Issue 1, 2019: 4:  https://adventistchaplains.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/AdvChaplain_Issue1_2019-web.pdf.

8. Victor P. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), 343.

9. John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word, 1987), 3:292.

10. Jacques B. Doukhan, Genesis, Seventh-day Adventist International Commentary (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2016), 161.

11. Ibid., 162.

12. Ibid.

13. Victor P. Hamilton, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990), 315.

14. Doukhan, Genesis, 161.

15. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word, 1987), 1:193.

16. Gane, Old Testament Law for Christians, 89.

17. Dale Patrick, Old Testament Law (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 21.

18. Dozeman, Exodus, 494.

19. Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 616.

20. Patriarchs and Prophets, 516.

21. Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory, 617.

22. Durham, Exodus, 293.

23. Ellen G. White, Manuscript 41, 1896.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Christ’s Object Lessons, 333.

27. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 344.

28. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Wash­ington D.C.: Review and Herald, 1976), 1:606.

29. Doukhan, Genesis, 162.

30. Frank M. Hasel, “Ethical Challenges in Military Service,” in Frank M. Hasel, Barna Magyarosi, and Stefan Hoschele, eds., Adventists and Military Service: Biblical, Historical, and Eth­ical Perspectives (Madrid: Safeliz Editorial, 2019), 162.