The Bible’s View
Did God Mean “Thou Shalt Not Kill”?
WHO has not heard someone say, ‘In the Ten Commandments God commands, “Thou shalt not kill”’? During recent wars some men gave that as their reason for refusing to fight. It also comes up in discussions of capital punishment.
Yet others refer to this command when trying to show that the Bible is contradictory. One booklet with that aim has a heading “Killing Forbidden” and lists “Thou shalt not kill. (Ex. xx. 13.)” but then calls attention to cases in which God told the Israelites to execute others. (Ex. 32:27; 2 Ki. 10:11, 30) And Jehovah directed the Israelites to exterminate enemy nations. (Deut. 7:1, 2, 16; 12:31; Josh. 6:12-21) So did God really command, “Thou shalt not kill”? What does the sixth of the Ten Commandments mean? And does it categorically rule out warfare and capital punishment?
The phrase “Thou shalt not kill” sounds familiar to most persons for that is how some popular Bibles render Exodus 20:13. (Deut. 5:17) If, though, you look up this text in many modern translations, you will likely find “You must not murder” or “You must not commit murder.”a Why the difference?
The original Hebrew word involved is ratsahh, which literally means “to break” or “to dash to pieces.” In his Hebrew lexicon, scholar John Parkhurst explains that in the Bible ratsahh “denotes manslaughter or murder, i.e. either the accidental or wilful taking away of a man’s life.”
It is noteworthy that of the 47 times ratsahh is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, 33 involve Israel’s cities of refuge. These served in cases where one man took another’s life. If it was determined judicially that the manslaughter was unintentional, the manslayer could remain in the city. But if legal investigation showed that he killed with malice or deliberateness, he would pay with his own life. With these two possibilities in mind, notice how ratsahh is appropriately rendered three times:
“As cities of refuge they will serve for you, and the manslayer must flee there who fatally strikes a soul unintentionally. . . . Now if it was with an instrument of iron [deliberately used as a weapon] that he has struck him so that he dies, he is a murderer. Without fail the murderer should be put to death.”—Num. 35:6, 11-34; Deut. 4:41-43; 19:1-7; Josh. 20:2-6; 21:13-39.
Other verses indicate that ratsahh usually applied to the taking of human life unlawfully, contrary to God’s law. Observe the associated things mentioned in Hosea 4:2: “There are the pronouncing of curses and practicing of deception and murdering and stealing and committing of adultery that have broken forth, and acts of bloodshed have touched other acts of bloodshed.”—Jer. 7:9.
As shown above in the punishment for the deliberate murderer, not all taking of human life was considered ratsahh (murder), nor would it be prohibited by the sixth of the Ten Commandments. After the flood Jehovah God pointedly told Noah: “Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed, for in God’s image he made man.” (Gen. 9:6) Yes, even before he gave a law code to Israel, God permitted capital punishment. “Shedding man’s blood” by murder was what was forbidden by the Sixth Commandment, not the legal execution of a murderer.
This helps us to appreciate the use of ratsahh in connection with King Ahab. The king coveted Naboth’s vineyard and let the man be killed to get it. It was not a case of King Ahab’s directing a legally justified execution of someone who had committed a capital offense in Israel. Rather, it was an illegal killing of a man, something forbidden by the Sixth Commandment. Ahab thus was a “murderer” and deserved to die.—1 Ki. 21:1-10; 2 Ki. 6:32; Lev. 24:17.
But what about war? Were Israel’s wars in violation of God’s command that is fittingly rendered, “You must not murder”?
No, they were not. The fact is that the Bible never uses the term ratsahh (murder) regarding any of those wars. When the Israelites warred at God’s command, they were not acting illegally. They were authorized by and were being directed by the Supreme Lawgiver. (Isa. 33:22; Ps. 19:7) These wars were not wars for limitless territorial conquest, like so many of the national wars in recent times. They were not wars motivated by economic greed. Nor were they wars that violated legally arranged peace treaties or non-aggression pacts, as have some wars in modern history.
Absolutely no nation on earth today is composed entirely of persons worshiping Jehovah, miraculously directed by him through prophets and having a Divine grant to possess a certain portion of the earth. But all of that was the case with ancient Israel. Jehovah had noted that the inhabitants of Canaan were steeped in iniquity, being morally depraved and deserving of execution. (Gen. 15:13-21; Lev. 18:24, 25) As the owner of the entire earth, God determined to give the land to the nation of Israel. And, under the direction of leaders he specially chose, God used Israel to carry out his judgment against the Canaanites.—Deut. 9:4, 5; 12:31; Josh. 10:40.
Hence, in executing Jehovah’s legal and morally upright judgments, or when defending their God-provided land, the Israelites were not guilty of violating the command, “You must not murder.”
What about Christians? Since the Sixth Commandment merely restated what God had said earlier through Noah to the whole human family, we are still obliged to avoid murdering. In fact, the closing chapters of the Bible warn us that unrepentant murderers will experience eternal destruction in the “second death.” (Rev. 21:8; 22:15) How important it thus is to avoid sharing in taking human lives without God’s specifically stated authorization. Consistent with this, Isaiah 2:3, 4 prophetically describes God’s true worshipers, saying: “And many peoples will certainly go and say: ‘Come, you people, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will instruct us about his ways, . . .’ And they will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. . . . Neither will they learn war anymore.”
Furthermore, Christians are alerted to the fact that murders issue from a bad heart. (Matt. 5:21-26; 15:19) If a person allowed hatred for a fellow Christian to develop in his heart, he would as much as be a manslayer or a murderer, something that we must avoid.—1 John 3:15.
So the rendering “Thou shalt not kill” does not truly convey the real flavor of the Sixth Commandment. It is more properly translated “You must not murder.” Appreciating this aids us to see that Israel’s righteous wars did not violate that command. And we can better sense its significance as to our conduct and attitude toward taking human life.
a New World Translation, Today’s English Version, The New English Bible as well as translations by Moffatt, Fenton, T. F. Meek and R. Knox.