Thou shalt not what?*
Those who attempt to explain away Jesus’ command “Do not resist an evil person”, have increasingly used the supposed argument stopper that Exodus 20:13: should be translated, Thou shalt not murder instead of thou shalt not kill.
This statement does illicit a meditative pause upon first hearing it, because one’s first thought when it comes to human life would be, What’s the difference? except, the argument is used to justify Christians killing people. Regardless of how one perceives the ways and will of God, a Christ follower will always take our Lord’s words and commands as the final word, command and will of God for His people.
The disciples, with their Jewish background, were constantly dealing with the seeming changes in God’s character from many angles. The concept of the Kingdom of God being a spiritual kingdom within, rather than an earthy Jewish kingdom, must have been a constant challenge. The Old Testament mentality that material wealth was a sign of spirituality, was so shattered after Jesus stated it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, that they asked “who then can be saved?”. Through repeated statements, Jesus completely overturned their Jewish teachings on divorce, oaths, accumulation of wealth, and the eye for an eye concept of justice.
So, although our Lord couldn’t have been clearer concerning the issues of oath taking, accumulation of wealth, divorce and non-resistance, there are those who continually try to explain their way around His commands, and also teach others to do so. The use of the kill vs. murder argument has become just another attempt to talk and reason away Jesus’ clear teaching on non-resistance.
The kill vs. murder argument has some basis if a person is building their case on English Bible translations over the past 100 years. In chapter 31, of his book Blood Guilt, Philip Kapusta* lists all the English translations from Wycliffe’s Bible of 1395. Since Wycliffe’s Bible we find the 8th English translation in 1898 is the first to translate Exodus 20:13 as murder. Of the 23 translations since 1898, 15 translate to murder instead of kill.
Kapusta points out, that murder is actually a legal term for a certain type of killing. In our own culture we have at least three degrees of murder, and also various degrees of manslaughter, which are legal designations for the killing of human life. There are nations where abortion and euthanasia are murder, and other nations in our world where they are not. In fact the dictionary defines murder as “unlawful killing”, which is why abortion is not legally murder in the United States. The use of the legal term ‘murder’ in Exodus 20:13 opens the interpretation of the text to bias based on culture and tradition.
To fully understand the meaning of Exodus 20:13 Kapusta only mentions the legal aspect as an aside to the argument, and devotes the bulk of his study to letting the scripture interpret itself in light of scripture. To do this he looks at the word in question, which is the Hebrew word ‘ratsach’ (strongs 7522 which is translated either kill or murder), and he lists the forty seven times it is used in the Old Testament in it’s various tenses and forms.
What the word meant to the Hebrew people at the time is found by inserting the Hebrew word ratsach into each of the forty seven text references. When ratsach is included in lists, as in our text, Deut. 5:17-21, Jer. 7:9, and Hosea 4:2, the meaning is ambiguous whether kill or murder is appropriate. This ambiguity could also include suicide, euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, war, police action, human sacrifice, or whatever killing one would insert, therefore the meaning and context of the remaining 45 uses of the word must be searched for the answer.
The majority of the remaining 45 uses of ratsach appear in reference to cities of refuge from the “avenger of blood”, until there was a trial. Many times ratsach is used as a noun to describe a person who accidently kills another person, and three times as a verb. Deut. 4:42 is an example where ratsach is used to describe both the person who accidently kills someone and the action of doing of the killing. Translated would read- “…that a ratsach might flee there, who unintentionally ratsach his neighbor without having enmity toward him in time past, and by fleeing to one of these cities he might live.” Remember, this is the same word used in the 6th commandment, and “unintentionally” would not fit a murder definition.
In Numbers 35:27 ratsach is used to describe the act of an avenger of blood who kills a killer (manslayer) who was acquitted by the court. Of course our legal system would call the killing of a man found innocent murder, but the word is translated kill. It would translate thus: “…and the blood avenger finds him (aquitted killer) outside the city of refuge, and the blood avenger ratsach the ratsach, he will not be guilty of blood”.
Numbers 35:30 ratsach refers to the convicted killer/murderer and also to the action of the court in administering the death penalty. If one would translate the same word as murder, the court would then be a murderer. The passage would read like this: “…the ratsach shall be ratsach on the testimony of…”. In this instance the second form of ratsach is translated “put to death”, and never murder, but it is simply a different tense of the same Hebrew word which is also translated kill in Exodus 20:13.
Proverbs 22:13 uses the word ratsach which is always for good reason translated killed, because nowhere is it considered murder for a lion to take the life of a person. If we translate ratsach here as murder like in Exodus 20:13, it would read like this “…I might meet a lion in the street and be murdered”. So, here the context is clear, whereas in the sixth commandment there is no context. Yet, modern translators have arbitrarily chosen to use murder instead of kill, regardless of the contextual use of the word in Numbers 35 and elsewhere, which clearly show the word is also used for accidental deaths and the action of the courts to sentence to death.
In summary, the Hebrew word ratsach is used in scripture to describe 1) those who are guilty of premeditated murder, 2) those who accidently take a life, 3) the court sentence of execution, 4) the avenger who kills the accused before trial, 4) the avenger who kills one found innocent, and 5) a lion which kills a man. All this said, Exodus 20:13 could very properly be read, Thou shalt not take a human life, but which is also appropriately rendered, Thou shalt not kill. Translating ratsach as murder is fine, as long as the reader understands that the word has a broad overall meaning of taking of human life, and not the twenty-first century American legal definition of murder.
* The inspiration for this article and the referenced research is a condensation of information found in chapter 31 with the title “Thou shalt not what?”, in the book Bloodguilt – Christian responses to America’s war on terror; Kapusta, Philip K., New Covenant Press, 2011. This article could be titled a review of chapter 31 of Kapusta’s book. Polyventure Publications highly recommends this well written, highly researched and documented, 530 page book, which can be purchased from the publisher at http://covenant.nu/.
Since writing the above, we've found at least the following reputable sites which agree with the conclusions from a study of the word ratsach: http://www.crivoice.org/terms/t-kill.html; http://www.tektonics.org/lp/nokilling.html; http://blog.beliefnet.com/fearofwhales/page/4/; http://wordsfitlyspoken.org/gospel_guardian/v16/v16n13p5,13a.html