Murder and Killing in the Sixth Commandment

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I've recently discovered that an argument I've often seen and sometimes used is based on something untrue. Christians pacifists (and pacifists intending to win over Christians) often make the claim that, since one of the ten commandments says "do not kill", it must always be immoral to kill. I've also seen the sixth commandment come up in lists of supposed Bible contradictions. Most such lists are filled with mainly easily-resolved surface-language differences with the occasional serious difficulty that takes some real work to resolve (although I know of no such difficulties that don't have at least one possible solution, thus showing that it's not actually a contradiction).

One (among several) responses to both of these claims is that the word used for murder in the sixth commandment in fact does not mean killing but simply means murder, so the only kinds of killing that it could be talking about are those that are wrong, leaving it open that there are kinds of killing that are not wrong. It turns out that this isn't true. There are several words for killing in biblical Hebrew, and this term isn't the most common one. It's usually reserved for contexts of killing within the covenant community, usually used in cases where the killing is especially divisive, often with inter-tribal conflicts in mind.

Its most frequent occurrences are all in one chapter, though, and that chapter is Numbers 25, which provides the details of the city of refuge provision of the Mosaic law. The ancient near eastern method of bringing murders to justice was to have an appointed avenger within each extended family or clan unit, who would hunt down and kill anyone who killed one of their own. The city of refuge provision took several of the Levitical cities and made them safe havens from avengers until a trial could take place, thus ensuring justice could be pursued more carefully as long as the accused was willing to flee to one of those cities. If the person was not found guilty of deliberate murder, they could live in the Levitical city until the death of the current high priest atoned for their sin of negligence, but otherwise they could be put to death once convicted.

I don't remember all the details now, but after looking over this with someone who knows Hebrew I discovered that most or all of the occurrences of deliberate murder used the same word as in the sixth commandment, but the term also occurs two or three times of the killing by the avenger, which as far as I can determine is legally sanctioned killing. It's not used of outright death penalties for specific crimes in the Torah, but it is used of the avenger's killing of duly convicted criminals. So what was probably the easiest response to the difficulties I mentioned above doesn't seem to be correct. The pacifist may not be able to claim that what the commandment says not to do can cover every kind of killing, but they can claim that the word can be used for legalized killing. Also, you can't get out of the supposed contradiction simply by saying the word doesn't mean "kill" but means "murder", since the Torah seems to allow instances of killing that use this very word. But I don't think this puts a stop to the kind of view I would defend. It just makes one of the easier and quicker responses no longer as easy and quick as I would have liked.

1. The flavor of the term used for killing in Exodus 20:13 is killing within the covenant community. So even if it forbids all killing within the covenant community of Israel, the sixth commandment can't be used by itself to justify universal pacifism. At most it could support pacifism with respect to those within the covenant. The pacifist would have to appeal to Genesis 9 for a more universal prohibition on killing.

2. Genesis 9 includes the first imposition of the death penalty, which is treated as a universal moral principle. The pacifist has a hard time prohibiting all killing when the very passage that seems most to justify it also implements a death penalty for those who violate it.

3. There are places in the Torah that Christians don't observe, most especially when the New Testament itself explicitly removes such practices. The Sabbath, for instance, is fulfilled in Christ, and it's clear in the New Testament that observing special days is in the same category as circumcision -- at best optional and quite possibly counterproductive if it leads to a replacement of the gospel with legalism. The New Testament in this case doesn't remove capital punishment, however. In fact, Romans 13 explicitly includes the use of the sword for promoting justice as one of the legitimate functions of God's appointment of leaders serving in government.

That doesn't deal with the contradiction charge, since it could very well still be that Genesis 9 contradicts itself, just as the death penalties and holy war passages in the Mosaic law might contradict Genesis 9 (and the death penalties might contradict the sixth commandment) for all I've said so far. So more needs to be said for that.

3. One thing to keep in mind is that just because a word can mean something doesn't mean it always includes that sense in every context. So it doesn't follow from the fact that this word can be used of legitimate killing that the prohibition on killing includes a prohibition on legalized killing.

4. In fact, the very existence of legalized killing in the same law code as the sixth commandment is strong evidence that it wasn't intended to cover that category of killing. It's often perfectly legitimate to speak of something that, when taken literally, is false but when taken in a restrictive context is perfectly fine. Saying there's no milk left in the fridge in order to justify buying more is perfectly ok even if there's a tiny puddle of milk at the bottom of the vegetable crisper. Some might object if they hold to a piecemeal approach to the composition of the Pentateuch according to which materials from different time periods and perspectives were combined haphazardly.

But such a view is at odds with the internal evidence of those documents. It's highly implausible that editors would put together contradictory materials in the same passage and not make any attempt to resolve the contradiction, and Genesis 9 includes both the prohibition on general killing along with the death penalty if it's violated. I know of no theory of composition that places these with different sources, but such a view would be on the face of it implausible if it attributed to the editor the utter stupidity that would require putting two contradictory statements immediately next to each other without recognizing the incongruity.

So the best way to take prohibitions on killing is in a more restricted sense in some way, even if the same word can in other places refer to legitimate killing.

5. A view that seems highly plausible to me is that the Genesis 9 passages teaches the general moral badness of killing, emphasizing its seriousness without explaining the moral complexities in practice that the rest of the Torah sometimes will detail with various nuances. It merely gives the most obvious exception, which is that the moral seriousness of murder is so great that one loses one's own right to continue living. Then Exodus 20:13 presents the application of the principle among members of the covenant with the same generality, also without offering the various nuances that the rest of the Torah details. Then the various instances when the presumption against killing is lifted will give care to explaining which exact circumstances those will be, and the various instances when the penalty for killing is mitigated or removed will also explain the details of how that works. This is a perfectly coherent view that much better explains the text as it stands, without resorting to claiming contradiction but without denying the serious nature of the original moral principle behind killing being always bad.

So I think there's plenty to say against both the absolute pacifist's use of the sixth commandment and the claims of those who would classify this surface contradiction as a genuine contradiction, all without making the simpler argument that turns out to rely on a false view of the word for killing in Genesis 20:13. It just takes a little more work to think through the issues and come to a reasonable reconstruction of what's going on in the various texts. But that's true of most biblical interpretation and indeed most interpretation of texts arising from cultural environments somewhat foreign to us. I don't think there's anything especially difficult about this case. I just needed to fill in the details, since I have used the faulty argument myself in the past.

8 Comments

i can't actually see how a total-pacifist would get around your point regarding the death penalty for murder. i'll chip in one further point for consideration: the moral emphasis of the death penalty, as far as i have understood it, was primarily the prevention of evil within the covenant community than retribution for the killer. how far can this principle can be applied outside of the old testament context? i don't venture there, but certainly it is clear that the death penalty (killing) serves a purpose of doing good to the covenant community. again, calvin has a marvellous thing to say about the sixth commandment (i haven't miscounted this time i don't think) emphasising that we misunderstand the commandment unless we grasp what it implies: the commandment exhorts us to love our neighbour as much as it restrains our hatred. a pacifist will also have to demonstrate not merely how his pacifism avoids evil but also how it loves his neighbour.

One big problem with pacifism is that it doesn't love the victim enough in ignoring justice. A pacifist extends Jesus' command not to respond in kind when someone threatens you physically as if it also applies when you're in a situation to protect someone else, something Jesus certainly doesn't say. If someone points a gun at my son in order to get my wife to hand him some money, and I'm right behind the guy where he can't see me, in position to knock his gun out of his hand, I ought to do it if I think I can do it with little risk to my family. But a pacifist calls it violence, and a Christian pacifist says Jesus forbids it. Such a view is certainly not loving to my son or my wife. I can forgive my enemy and not use violence when it's just my possessions or my physical comfort that are in danger (Jesus' two examples) without forsaking my moral obligation to protect those whose care God has put under my stewardship.

I do think you've got a clear retribution justification in Genesis 9, and that's the passage that has a deeper moral principle for all humanity, whereas the Mosaic law is first and foremost directed to Israel as God's people. The principle stated in Genesis 9 is that you forfeit your life if you take another's life. I think you can justify it as love for neighbor if you focus on love of the victim, but I don't think this is love of neighbor as in deterrence for potential future victims, although that might be a separate justification (there's considerable debate in the applied ethics literature about whether the death penalty does deter, but I think the arguments for taking it as a deterrent in lieu of clear evidence are pretty sound).

The common argument that you mention in the first paragraph is one that unbelievers even use (often). When we bring in the Christian common take on Christ's words re: lusting in the Sermon on the Mount, I've been persuaded that if we would accept those two arguments, then we are obligated to be (Reformed) keepers of the Law.

But people who use the arguments (both of them) would reject the conclusion, seeing it as unacceptable, as a Reductio As Absurdum. Arminians would be pushed to study Biblical hermeneutics, being on the horns of a dilemma here.

Reformed keepers of the law & gospel would want to start by saying we must keep the Law not for righteousness sake, but from faith and love for God. And they would probably say that the two respective arguments are fallacious, invalid, specious. We are not to lust after another man's wife any more than we are to earnestly desire to have something we don't own (almost universal), or than we should disrespect our parents teachings (almost universal). And we should still properly interpret killing versus murdering.

It may help your thinking to remember that there are two very different genres of "law".

Casuistic: roughly in the form "if... then..." which operates as we think of laws.

Apodictic: which states a general principle or goal to aim for, and is expressed in absolute terms.

If this is right: "Do not kill!" is a goal to aim for, a principle to observe (killing is a bad thing) rather than a law which is either obeyed or not...

We always look for chapter and verse to support our positions, and rightfully so, but sometimes you need to step back and use some good old fashioned common sense on these things.

A prohibition against killing and provisions for capital punishment aren't "contradictory." They're saying individuals cannot kill but society can. That it isn't carefully spelled out in black and white only proves that they didn't have lawyers yet.

The Torah was Israel's national law as well as religious rules. Their law, like ours, said, "Thou shalt not kill, and we'll kill you if you do."

Well, no one with a good grip of how semantic domains work would really expect anything so neat as "killing" versus "murder" to hold up under detailed scrutiny, but I've heard and used this argument, too. I actually think that in terms of operational definition it's still a valid point, but not lexically.

I wonder if your legalized-versus-extralegal isn't getting in your way here. Especially (but not only) in light of your observation that the most typical domain for this would be in terms of kinslaying, or killing within the covenant community, it seems clear that we have a very workable operational definition, here. I'm being simplistic, but it comes to this:

* within the covenant, killing is forbidden.
* covenant breakers are subject to death.
* killing anyone not a covenant breaker is therefore breaking covenant, which incurs bloodguilt;
* but killing a covenant breaker is participating in the covenant, which does not incur bloodguilt.

The question continues to be whether we understand paradox as establishing the limits of terms, or whether we understand terms as lexically univocal by whatever standard suits our needs at the moment. Only one of these exhibits power-relations consistent with a believer's approach to Scripture.

Jeremy,

I have no serious quarrels with your approach here, though I think more stress needs to laid on the fact that not all of the Ten Commandment are principles which have no exceptions. There are times in which it is necessary not to honor one's parents - in order to honor God. There are times in which it is necessary to bear false witness, in order to avoid killing (see Exodus 1). There are times in which killing is sanctioned, in order to deter further killing.

For the rest - though I am on the same page as you are here - I think you make it too easy on yourself. John Howard Yoder wrote a piece on the 6th Commandment for Interpretation years ago. If I remember right, he does a fine job of developing an understanding of the commandment in light of the whole canon. At some point, the full force of the New Testament witness has to be brought to bear. The Gospel song I learned as a kid went like this, "Jesus didn't teach us how to kill with love." What I like about that phrase is how well it describes a part of the dilemma.


John, I don't think of all of the 10 Commandments as exceptionless principles. It's just that something needs to be said to explain why any given case would be an exception, so I was trying to say what that might be in the cases where there does seem to be an exception.

(For the record, I don't think Exodus 1 is the clearest case of bearing false witness against someone, though, because it doesn't seem as if they're bearing false witness against someone but rather defending someone by lying. In fact, the only cases I can think of right now in the Bible where lying seems to be condoned are of that sort. When Rahab lies about her protection of the spies from the Israelites, it's not to charge them with wrongdoing falsely. When God commands Samuel to lie about why he's in Bethlehem, it's to protect David and his family from Saul, not to testify falsely against someone. When David says he's on a mission from Saul when he's in fact running from him, he isn't saying anything false and condemnatory of Saul. He's actually hiding Saul's sin. So I'm not sure there are exceptions to the false witness prohibition as it's literally worded, although there are exceptions to bearing false witness when it's not charging someone with something they didn't do.)

As for the New Testament, I don't think there's much that has a direct role to play. Jesus certainly says not to return force when someone wants something of yours or wants to harm you, so there is a presumption of pacifism about matters of personal stake. There's never any indication of what happens when someone else's life is at stake, though. There do seem enough examples in the OT about defending the helpless that the complete lack of NT discussion doesn't outweigh those principles as if it's somehow positive evidence in the other direction.

I did mention the clear Romans 13 statement about divine ordination of the sword for justice, and there are several places where NT authors (and even Jesus) could have introduced a comment about the immorality of being a soldier (e.g. when soldiers interacted with Jesus and John the Baptist, sometimes they get nothing but a positive evaluation), and I Peter's respect for authorities in an age of persecution by those authorities fits with Romans 1's emphasis on the legitimacy even of unjust governments in carrying out what justice they do serve (and it's never nothing).

It also doesn't do to say that love outstrips justice in the NT or some such thing, because that only happens within the new covenant community, and even then justice is still satisfied (just by Christ's death). There's certainly no room for resolving disputes within the church by violence as a matter of course, but it's very hard to get an argument for pacifism in the way that most pacifists do. I'm not arguing against a presumption of nonviolence. I'm just arguing that pacifism goes too far in excluding all violence, and while I don't agree with everything that might be said within just war theory or defenses of capital punishment, I do think the Bible can support both.

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