The previous essays in this series can be accessed through the links in the left hand column of this post.
This essay covers the Sixth Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," one of the most difficult of the Ten to apply in modern day life. Please remember that, while many try to apply the Commandments to all members of society, they, in fact, apply only to practicing Jews and Christians. Much of the angry debate in the US about the Commandments originates in making the erroneous attempt to apply them to all people.
Please understand also that what I am writing about here is first a discussion of the meaning of the Sixth Commandment in the context of its original meaning for those who first heard it, then, second, in the context of today's world, and finally, third, some personal opinions used as examples of the application of this Commandment. Please do not confuse my analysis of the meaning of the commandment with my personal thoughts on it.
I need to warn you that if you are looking for simple, clear cut, answers about applying the Sixth Commandment in your lives, you aren't going to get them here. They don't exist. But, if you read carefully, you will get some sound guidance on what the Sixth Commandment is really about, and how you can use that knowledge to help you come to your own conclusions about using this Commandment in your life.
The first thing about the Sixth Commandment that you might notice is that I titled this essay, "Thou shalt not kill," which is how it is translated in the King James Version of the Bible. But most modern translations, translate the Hebrew as "You shall not murder." There is a big difference in most people's eyes between "killing" and "murder".
In our culture, killing is often justified. That is we, not necessarily God, often justify killing. But, by definition, "murder" is never justified. Murder is unjustified killing. So the modern translations would seem to take some of the confusion out of the Commandment by changing "Do not kill" to "Do not murder."
The trouble is, however, that it is not clear that the modern translations are correct. The Sixth Commandment in the Hebrew Bible is only two words. The first word translates "No" and the second word translates "killing." "No killing." That's it. That's the whole commandment: "No killing!"
Therefore, it is not clear that God only means "Do not murder." Nor do the more detailed clarifications of the Commandments in so called Covenant Codes found in Exodus Chapters 21 through 24 help much. If you recall those Codes were written to apply the Commandments to the Israelite nation.
In Chapter 21, verses 12-14, there is a distinction between "planned", or "premeditated" killing and "unplanned," or accidental killing. There God is seen as less strict with unplanned killing, saying He will provide a refuge to which the killer can flee. However, the premeditated killer is to be "put to death."
This brings us to a second point, which can be confusing. Having clearly told us not to kill, over and over again in the Old Testament as handed down, edited and redacted from oral stories, God often instructs us to kill. In Chapter 21 we are told that we are to put to death a premeditated killer, and, a couple of verses later, we are told to "put to death" anyone who strikes or even curses his mother or father! The word in Hebrew for "put to death" is a different word in Hebrew than the word for "kill," so obviously the author believed that God intended a distinction.
The distinction is this. The Old Testament says that, at his instruction, we may "put to death" someone, because we are acting for God. And there is another side to that coin. The best example of that is in First Samuel where God deals harshly with King Saul, stripping him of his kingdom, because he did not put all of the Amalkites: men, women and children, and their animals, to death.
Saul was well meaning, showing mercy to the Amalkite king and saving the best animals for a sacrifice to God. But, in the story, God would have nothing of Saul's argument. God had instructed him to kill every living person and their livestock, and when Saul did not, Saul was stripped of his crown! So the conclusion we get from the story is that we may kill if we are acting for God; and if we are told to kill by God we may not chose not to kill! That is how that Commandment was interpreted in ancient Israel.
So, it seems obvious that, if our only source of moral guidance is what the Old Testament tells us God did in the ancient world of the Israelites, God can tell us to kill, and when he does, we are justified in doing it. In fact, some of the most vile, vicious and disgusting acts recorded in the Bible are said to be done so at God's explicit direction. Massive slaughters of men, women, children, of "every living thing" are often ordered by God in the Old Testament.
Just so you'll know where I personally stand on this idea, let me say this. The God I worship would not issue such instructions; so I have never understood it; and if you ask me on my death bed, I still won't understand it. The God described in these stories is a God utterly different than the God that Jesus describes as his Heavenly Father. I seriously doubt that God issued such instructions which were written,redacted,edited and translated to what we read today. I do not accept those kinds of instructions as applicable today. But that is my belief and need not necessarily be yours.
But regardless of how I feel about those gruesome Biblical descriptions of God's orders, it does highlight the most important point about this Commandment. However you translate the Commandment: as "You shall not murder," or "Thou shalt not kill," the fact is that the Commandment is telling us that the only one who has the right to kill is God. God can kill. We cannot, unless we are acting for God, in God's interests, not ours.
That is a key to understanding the Sixth Commandment. The Sixth Commandment is designed to make clear that all life belongs to God who is the Creator of it.
In Genesis 4:10 God is appalled that Cain killed Abel. "And the Lord said, 'What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed...!'"
And in Genesis 9:5-6 God tells Noah: "For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. 6 Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind."
The Bible is clear about one key theological issue. God gives life and God can take it away. But nowhere does it say that man can take life unless he does so when acting for God. Now I know that it doesn't often work the way God intends, but humans are never to kill on their own authority. They are to kill only as agents of God. If you understand that you are a long way toward understanding the Sixth Commandment.
So, we understand now that the Old Testament teaches that God says that there are legitimate and illegitimate killings. Any killing that God allows is legitimate and therefore justified, in spite of the Sixth Commandment. But any killing that God disallows is covered by the Sixth Commandment and is prohibited. And, ironically, the penalty for violation of the Sixth Commandment is to be "put to death."
I know that this is not easy to understand. And you may have to read the last two paragraphs slowly and carefully a few times to be straight on it. Even when you understand the principle enunciated here, it is not clear as to exactly how it is to be applied. Nor is it clear when to apply it and to whom.
So lets just jump into some hot water together here and see if we can swim out of it or if we will just get boiled. Lets get more specific as to its application in real life today. The Sixth Commandment is both cited and ignored by both sides, depending on where the side wants to come out, in discussions of many major social issues facing this nation.
Think about it. Abortion, war, including the preemptive strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued US presence in both countries, capital punishment, suicide, euthanasia, self-defense, stem cell research, and many other issues in this country all can be discussed in view of the Sixth Commandment. Is abortion killing? Is it murder? Is it ever justified? Capital punishment is killing. Is it, as many claim, only state sponsored murder? Or is it justified because the government is acting on behalf of God? Is war justified? If so, when? In war who can you kill? Does it matter how they are killed? These are but a few of the questions that people have related to the injunction of the Sixth Commandment.
On every one of these terribly difficult and emotionally laden issues someone is citing the Sixth Commandment as the answer. For example, the same people who are against capital punishment cite the Sixth Commandment as prohibiting capitol punishment, but ignore it when marching in "pro-choice" rallies.
And citing the Sixth Commandment in arguments about such things is somehow "acceptable" to many Christians even though the Commandment only applies to practicing believers! The simple implication of that, of course, is that they think that the Commandments either do apply to all people, when they clearly do not, or that they "should" apply to all people, even though that was never God's intention.
Now we are not going to resolve these debates here. In fact, none of them will ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. But believing Jews and Christians are arguing on shaky ground every time we ignore the Sixth Commandment unless we have logical proof that our actions supporting killing are, in fact, instructed by, or allowed by, God. And God has given us little guidance to know when that is the case.
Let me give you two examples. I will share with you my personal positions on these issues. Please do not focus on my positions, that is not the point here; but focus on how the Sixth Commandment comes into play. I will not argue with anyone about whether I am right or wrong. And I may change my mind later anyway. Just try to see how the Sixth Commandment comes into my thinking process as an example of how it does influence me in my own decisions.
Example number one. It is clear to me that the Old Testament, in spite of the Sixth Commandment allows capital punishment; and in many cases, instructs it. However, I do not support capital punishment. I base my position not on the Sixth Commandment, but on Jesus' words and actions.
For Christians, Jesus' words and actions supercede conflicting information in the Old Testament. And, for example, Jesus interfered with the stoning to death of the woman caught in adultery, which was a mode of capital punishment in that day. He said that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. Since I am not without sin, I will not cast the first stone.
Others argue that the Bible not only allows, but instructs, capital punishment. And that is also true. But that instruction was to the ancient Israelites and I do not think that it is applicable to us today, in the light of the teachings of Jesus.
And I doubt seriously that those same people who support capital punishment would choose to apply capital punishment to someone who curses his or her parents, or would apply it to many of the other offenses listed in the Old Testament as punishable by death, many of which we would consider trivial, and often bizarre, today.
Example number two. In the same vein, because I believe that a fetus is a living human being, I oppose abortion in most cases. Notice I said "most cases," because I have known cases where the mother would die if she tried to carry the fetus to term, and the fetus had to be taken to save the mother. Some would chose otherwise and let the mother die.
In the case of abortion I use the Sixth Commandment to help guide me to my overall position on the issue. But, interestingly, I am also what is called "Pro Choice." While I am against abortion in most situations, I also strongly believe that the government should keep out of that decision. I believe that is a decision to be made by the woman, hopefully in consultation with her family and doctors. But in no way do I think that my religious belief should be enforced by the government.
The point of giving you these two examples is not for you to judge whether my positions on them are right or wrong. The point is to show that that these are not easy questions, and sincere people can come down differently on them. And, in spite of what the zealots on both sides of most of difficult issues involving life and death say, there are no easy answers.
So I hope we have learned that the Sixth Commandment does not provide anything like detailed guidance which would allow believers to say "yes" or "no" in specific cases. And God did not intend it to. He intends us to wrestle with difficult issues, all the while being aware of the great principle behind the Sixth Commandment: That all life belongs to God.
In sum, the Six Commandment states a non-negotiable principal: people should not kill. Killing is God's prerogative. Believers should not casually support killing just because we want to, or because it is easy, or because it offers a way of revenge, or even because we think it is right to do so.
When believers do kill or support killing, they had best be sure that they are doing it consistent with the reverence for life that God has, and with the knowledge that only God gives life and can take it away.
I believe that it is incumbent upon practicing Jews and Christians to act in these matters with utmost caution, and with genuine humility. We are not God, and it can be a terrible thing if we delude ourselves into thinking that we have God's authority when we do not.
Next: You Shall Not Commit Adultery.