Saturday, December 30, 2006

Can you tell me more about the Sixth Commandment?

The Sixth Commandment which has been the source of much confusion, misdirection and misinformation for Christians has been translated as follow:

Thou shalt not kill. (Exodus 20:13) KJV
Thou shalt do no murder (1928BCP)

As many people are aware, but perhaps tend to forget, the Ten Commandments had to be written down twice. Moses got them once, but upon his return to camp he found that people had started the party without him. Naturally incensed, he made the blunder of smashing the tablets upon which God had written his commandments. This was God's first work as an author, and now it was lost! But God, being God, felt capable of salvaging the matter. He told Moses that he'd write them down again, exactly as they had been written originally. With two originals, it is not surprising there are now a myriad of different translations. It is often believed one of the key Commandments states, “You shall not kill. ” But the original Hebrew does not use “kill. ” It says, “You shall not murder, ” which is clearly very different.

Like English, Hebrew, the language in which most of the Old Testament was written, uses different words for intentional vs. unintentional killing. The verse translated "Thou shalt not kill" in the KJV translation, is translated “Thou shalt do no murder” or "You shall not murder" in modern translations - because these translations represents the real meaning of the Hebrew text. The Bible in Basic English translates the phrase, "Do not put anyone to death without cause.’ The Hebrew word used here is ratsach, which nearly always refers to intentional killing without cause (unless indicated otherwise by context). Hebrew law recognized accidental killing as not punishable. In fact, specific cities were designated as "cities of refuge’, so that an unintentional killer could flee to escape retribution. The Hebrew word for "kill" in this instance is not ratsach, but nakah, which can refer to either premeditated or unintentional killing, depending upon context. Other Hebrew words also can refer to killing. The punishment for murder was the death sentence. However, to be convicted, there needed to be at least two eyewitnesses.

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. These killings are not prohibited by the Sixth Commandment. 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. For 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.

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