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Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill

Analysis of the Ten Commandments

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The Sixth Commandment reads:

    Thou shalt not kill. (Exodus 20:13)

Many believers regard this as perhaps the most basic and easily accepted of all the commandments. After all, who would object to the government telling people not to kill? Unfortunately, this position relies upon a very superficial and uninformed understanding of what is going on. This commandment is, in fact, much more controversial and difficult that it appears at first.

To begin with, what does it mean to “kill”? Taken most literally, this would forbid killing animals for food or even plants for food. That seems implausible, however, because the Hebrew scriptures contain extensive descriptions about how to properly go about killing for food and that would be strange if killing were forbidden. More significantly is the fact that there are many examples in the Old Testament of God commanding the Hebrews to kill their enemies — why would God do that if this were a violation of one of the Commandments?

Thus, many translate the original Hebrew word ratsach as “murder” instead of “kill.” This may be reasonable, but the fact that popular lists of the Ten Commandments continue to use “kill” is a problem because if everyone agrees that “murder” is more accurate, then the popular lists — including those often used for government displays — are simply wrong and misleading. In fact, many Jews regard the mistranslation of the text as “kill” to be immoral in and of itself, both because it falsifies the words of God and because there are times when one has an obligation to kill.

How much does the word “murder” help us? Well, it allows us to ignore the killing of plants and animals and focus just on the killing of human beings, which is useful. Unfortunately, not all killing of human beings is wrong. People kill in war, they kill as punishment for crimes, they kill because of accidents, etc. Are these killings prohibited by the Sixth Commandment?

This seems implausible because there is so much in the Hebrew scriptures that describes how and when it is morally licit to kill other human beings. There are many crimes listed in the scriptures for which death is the prescribed punishment. Despite this, there are some Christians who read this commandment as though it prohibits any killing of other human beings. Such committed pacifists would refuse to kill even in times of war or to save their own lives. Most Christians don’t accept this reading, but the existence of this debate shows that the “correct” reading isn’t obvious.

For most Christians, the Sixth Commandment must be read much more narrowly. The most reasonable interpretation would seem to be: Thou shalt not take the lives of other human beings in a manner proscribed by the law. That’s fair and it’s also the basic legal definition of murder. It also creates a problem because it would seem to make this commandment redundant.

What’s the point of saying that it’s against the law to unlawfully kill a person? If we already have laws that say it is illegal to kill people in situations A, B, C, why do we need a further commandment that says you should not break those laws? It seems rather pointless. The other commandments tell us something specific and even new. The Fourth Commandment, for example, tells people to “remember the sabbath,” not “follow the laws that tell you to remember the sabbath.”

Another problem with this commandment is that even if we limit it to a prohibition on the unlawful killing of human beings, we aren’t informed as to who qualifies as “human being” in this context. This might seem obvious, but there is a lot of debate about this issue in modern society in the context of things like abortion and stem-cell research. The Hebrew scriptures do not treat the developing fetus as equivalent of an adult human, so it would appear that abortion would not be a violation of the Sixth Commandment (Jews don’t traditionally think that it does). This is definitely not the attitude that many conservative Christians today adopt and we would look in vain for any clear, unambiguous guidance on how to handle this issue.

Even if we were to arrive at an understanding of this commandment that could be accepted by all Jews, Christians, and Muslims and that wasn’t redundant, it would only be possible after a difficult process of detailed analysis, interpretation, and negotiation. That’s not such a bad thing, but it would demonstrate that this commandment fails to be the obvious, simple, and easily accepted command that so many Christians imagine it to be. Reality is much more difficult and complex than is assumed.

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