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Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part I

September 6th, 2009 by Matt

One of the most well known biblical commands is the sixth commandment of the Decalogue (according to protestant enumeration). This commandment occurs in the 20th chapter of the book of Exodus and the fifth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. In its most well-known rendition, the King James Version (KJV), this commandment states “thou shalt not kill.”[1] The Hebrew term translated as ‘kill’ here is rasah. The New International Version (NIV) and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translate it as “murder.”

Both interpretations, kill and murder, face problems; in this post I will offer critical comments on both interpretations. Next week, in Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part II, I will articulate and defend what I think to be the best approach to interpreting this passage, an approach advocated by Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century which has been dominant in Christian ethical thought ever since.

The King James Version: Thou Shalt not Kill
As stated, the most known formulation of the sixth commandment is rendered “thou shall not kill.” Taken on its own (and out of its context) this faces problems, some identified as far back as at least the time of Augustine. Eating plants or harvesting food involves killing plants, living creatures. As Augustine notes, “for though this class of creatures has no sensation, yet they also are said to live, and consequently they can die; and therefore, if violence be done them, can be killed.”[2] He then asks rhetorically, “Must we therefore reckon it a breaking of this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, to pull a flower?”[3] In fact, modern knowledge brings other perplexities. Scraping the inside of my mouth kills hundreds of living cells. Taking antibiotics kills bacteria. Understood strictly as a prohibition against all killing, the command is manifestly absurd.

However, contemporary translators have noted that “kill” is not the best English equivalent of rasah, as rasah is not the general Hebrew term for killing. Rather, it is a term that is used only of killing humans; the word literally means “to slay.” For this reason, the N.R.S.V. interprets the noun as “manslay.” However, even as a term for homicide, rasah is comparatively rare in Hebrew. It appears only 46 times in the Hebrew Bible compared with other more frequently-used terms such as harag and hemit,[4] which also refer to killing. It is also not lost on readers of the Hebrew Bible that in many surrounding passages certain forms of homicide are either permitted, such as killing a thief in the night (Ex. 22: 1-2)[5] or even commanded, such as the execution of murderers, (Ex. 21:12).

The Modern Version: You shall not Murder
For this reason, most modern translations translate the verb as murder, as we saw in the NRSV and NIV. However, this is inadequate. Childs notes, “it was soon recognised that the basic distinction between murder and killing, namely the factor of intentionality, cannot be sustained for the verb r.s.h.”[6] In several places the verb is used to designate  accidental or unintentional killing. Koheler suggested that it probably prohibited taking the law into one’s own hands and hence had the sense of private killing.[7] However, as Smedes points out,

As a matter of fact, however, rasah is used at least once for capital punishment (Num. 35:30) and also for accidental manslaughter (Deut. 4:41-43; Josh. 20:3). From a textual point of view, we do not have a clear case for limiting the commandment to private killings or murder.[8]

One of the more thorough studies is that of Stamm. After analysing several uses of rasah, Stamm concludes that rasah means “illegal killing.” He suggests that the most concise English would be “you shall not manslaughter” which would be clarified along the lines that “the life of an Israelite” was to be protected from “illegal, impermissible violence.”[9]

Stamm’s analysis is arguably one of the best to date; however, there are a couple of problems with it. Firstly, as Stamm himself admits, rasah is used at least once of a lawful execution and hence does have a range of meaning which includes killing in a context where killing is lawful. Secondly and perhaps frequently less noted, Stamm’s analysis turns the law into a tautology. To claim, “you shall not kill when it is against the law,” is hardly informative and somewhat states the obvious; of course it is wrong to kill when it is illegal. I think that the commandment is supposed to be saying something substantive so I doubt Stamm is completely on the mark here.

The study of Reventlow modifies Stamm’s position somewhat. Reventlow argues that the vast majority of uses of the verb rasah relate to the idea of “blood vengeance.”[10] This is an idea which has origins in Genesis 4; in some cases of killing the victim’s blood metaphorically cries out to God for vengeance, guilt and responsibility for the crime attaches to the person who committed it, and, in certain circumstances, the land and community in which it occurs. This is atoned for only by the death of the murderer, if the killing was premeditated or the natural death of the high priest, in cases where the killing was accidental or a sacrifice, only in cases where the community authorities are unable to ascertain who is guilty. Milgrom elaborates this motif,

The most vivid examples of this belief appear in connection with unlawful homicide, where innocent blood (dam naki; Jonah 1:14) cries out for vengeance (Gen. 4:10). Rejected by the earth (Isa. 26:21; Ezek. 24:7), it attaches itself to the slayer and his family, literally “dancing around their heads”(2 Sam. 3:28-29) for generations (2 Sam. 21:4-6 2 Kings 9:26) and even affecting his city (Deut. 21:1-9; Jer. 26:15), nation (Deut 19:10,13), and land (Num 35:33-34). The latter two citations illustrate the variant grounds that provide the rationale for homicide laws in the Deuteronomic and priestly texts. In the former, the people Israel bear bloodguilt; in the latter, it is the land that is polluted by it. The technical term for bearing bloodguilt damo bo or damo be-ro’sho, meant originally “his blood [remains] on him/on his (the murderer’s) head” (Josh. 2:19; I Kings 2:33; Ezek. 33:5), and the legal formula mot yumat damav bo (Lev 20:9-16) means that in the case of lawful execution, the blood of the guilty victim remains on his own person and does not attach itself to the executioner.[11] [Emphasis original]

Reventlow suggests that rasah means a homicide liable for blood vengeance. The problem with this analysis is that it appears to get things backwards. A killing is liable for blood vengeance and requires punishment or atonement presumably because it is wrong or unlawful. It is not unlawful because it requires punishment. The commandment must be prior to the ground for blood vengeance not vice versa. This observation also leads to a conclusion that does not really differ from Stamm’s. After all, a killing is liable for blood vengeance only if it is wrong so a killing liable for blood vengeance and an unlawful killing are in fact co-extensive.

By itself then neither interpretation seems entirely correct. In my next post, Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part II, I want to suggest a way of interpreting the passage which avoids the above problems. It is hardly original; it was suggested by Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century.

[1] Exodus 20:13 KJV.
Augustine The City of God 1:21.
[3] Ibid.
Johann J. Stamm The Ten Commandments in Recent Research (London: S.C.M. Press, 1967) 98.
This passage is perhaps best illuminated by a passage in Job 24:14, “When daylight is gone, the murderer rises up and kills the poor and needy; in the night he steals forth like a thief.” This suggests that a person who broke in at night could not be distinguished from a person with murderous intent. The law also contrasts with Ancient Near Eastern case law of the same period, which allowed a person to summarily execute a thief caught on his property. The Torah states by contrast, “A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.” Hence, it teaches that a thief cannot be executed for theft; a thief can be killed only if he or she is perceived to be a threat to one’s life. If not, the thief must pay restitution.
Brevard S Childs Exodus: A Commentary (London: SCM Press, 1974) 419-420.
Ibid, 420.
Lewis B Smedes “’Respect for Human Life’ Thou Shall not Kill” in On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics Ed. Stephen E Lammers & Allen Verhey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 144.
Stamm The Ten Commandments in Recent Research 99.
Childs Exodus 420.
Jacob Milgrom Numbers: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the new JPS Translation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990) 509.

Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part II

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5 responses so far ↓

  • Matt you refer to the 10 Commandments listed in Ex 20 and Deut 5, but what about the 10 Commandments listed in Ex 34: 14-28 which God gave to Moses after Moses broke the tablets containing the original 10 Commandments? This second set of Commandments are quite different than the first set. So which set of Commandments are we to obey?

  • Matt, as a Christian would you like to say how this is to be interpreted in light of Jesus sermon?

  • I think living in faith means to go by what the spirit moves us to do for any given moment in our life. Each day we learn to develop and improve upon our conscious communication and interpretation of gods spirit in the here and now.

    I believe the 10 commandments served its purpose and was a reference point for that time in history. There’s no point in over thinking and analyzing events in the past to get ourselves right with God when his spirit is alive and well at this very moment to direct us between right and wrong….

    That is where all the answers are.

  • According to an etymological dictionary the meaning is murder, so that solves the question.

    You wrote in your about-page: “The MandM blog addresses philosophy of religion, ethics, theology, jurisprudence and social commentary from a Christian perspective,”

    I recommend you the page which contains research about Ribi Yehoshua (the Messiah) from Nazareth.

    Anders Branderud

  • […] a previous post, Sunday Study: Interpreting the Sixth Commandment Part I, I discussed some translations of the sixth commandment of the Decalogue. I began with the King […]