Week 7: The Sixth Commandment
I never seriously contemplated the possibility of killing another human being or the possibility of another human being killing me before my training at the Dallas Police Academy. The academy was the first setting that required me to personally consider life and death issues with a sense of existential urgency. We were trained on the use of force, up to and including deadly force. The Department brought in several lawyers to instruct us on Texas law regarding deadly force. Under Texas law, "deadly force" means force that is “intended or known by the actor to cause, or in the manner of its use or intended use is capable of causing, death or serious bodily injury.” The lawyers made it very clear that deadly force is not “justified” unless the police officer “reasonably believes” deadly force “is immediately necessary.”
As a follower of Jesus, I had to analyze and reconcile the concept of “justifiable” deadly force with the familiar words of the King James Version (KJV), “Thou shalt not kill.” Is this commandment a broad prohibition on all killing? Are there loopholes or exceptions? If so, did Jesus change the rules? I cannot do this topic justice in just a few hundred words. With that disclaimer, I will briefly pose and answer a few basic questions about the Sixth Commandment.
1. Did the KJV botch the translation?
I have profound gratitude and respect for the KJV as a theological and literary masterpiece, so I will not answer that rude question directly. Instead, I will simply note that the majority of translators have determined that a better translation of the Hebrew is “You shall not murder.” The arguments for murder over kill are lexical and contextual. There are multiple Hebrew words for kill, and the one we find in this command (ratsach) does not broadly refer to all types of killing. For example, ratsach does not refer to killing animals for food (Gen. 9:3), defending one’s home against criminal intruders (Ex. 22:2), accidental killings (Dt. 19:5), and the death penalty for murderers (Gen. 9:6). In the context of the Old Testament, killing is not per se prohibited, and some killing is expressly sanctioned. In most contexts, ratsach refers specifically to intentionally taking a human life due to personal animus or for a personal benefit or advantage (Ps. 94:6, Is. 1:21, Hos. 4:2, Jer. 7:9).
2. What is the deep principle behind this command?
Each human life is sacred because human beings are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), and each human life is a gift from God. The intrinsic and transcendent value of human life is established by the ultimate arbiter of value (Gal 3:28), the Logos Himself, who breathes life into us, became one of us, died for us, and invites us into His eternal communion.
3. Does the principle hold true if there is no God?
If there is no God, then what are we? Arguably, we are nothing more than the unplanned by-products of a highly improbable (and currently inexplicable) chemical reaction in a primordial soup. We have become what we are through impersonal, undirected evolutionary processes, sometimes described as random sequences of fortuitous adaptive mutations. As such, we individually and collectively exist (live) for a short time in accord with genetically determined survival-oriented proclivities; when we die, we become food for worms; we have no intrinsic value or transcendent purpose because there is no transcendent purpose or intrinsic value to be had. But please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that non-theists cannot recognize the value human life. Many (perhaps a significant majority) of non-theists recognize the value of human life, and they act to protect human life based on deeply held personal sentiments. If pressed, however, they must concede that their personal sentiments are not grounded in timeless and transcendent verities about human nature or any notion of Ultimate Reality.
4. If every human life is sacred, then why does the Torah include capital punishment?
According to the Torah, there is no inherent contradiction between affirming the value of human life and supporting the use of the death penalty in specific legally sanctioned contexts. In fact, the value of human life is the explicit rationale for the death penalty. YHWH says, “Whoever sheds human blood, by human beings shall their blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made human beings” (Gen. 9:6). This idea is implicitly confirmed in the New Testament (Rom. 13:1-4). Yet Scripture does not compel any Christian to be a gung-ho supporter of the death penalty. As followers of an innocent man who was executed by Rome, we should be cognizant of the limitations and injustices that affect every human government. At the very least, biblically informed Christian realism should shape and motivate our advocacy for limited government, civil liberties, due process and equal justice under the law.
5. Did Jesus change the rules?
Jesus preached a standard of rightly ordered relationships (justice) that was qualitatively distinctive from the so-called “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (Mt. 5:20). Jesus specifically contrasted the command not to murder with the ethical standard of his kingdom. Jesus said that “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” and anyone who belittles or verbally abuses a brother or sister “will be in danger of the fire of Hell” (Mt. 5:21-22). In that same context, Jesus preached a radical ethic of non-retaliation and love for enemies (Mt. 5:38-48). This ethic—which presupposes repentance and the power of the Holy Spirit—goes right to the heart of the deep principle of human value and the dignity of the individual. Followers of Jesus, agents of His shalom restoration project (i.e. the kingdom of God), are called together to a way of life that cannot be reconciled with the standard operating procedures of this broken and rebellious world. We are not merely prohibited from the physical violence of murder; we are set free for a way of life that is not burdened by the anger of personal animus or polluted by dehumanizing vindictive speech, a way of life that imitates God in his love for enemies (Mt. 5:48; Rom. 5:10). This humanly impossible standard of behavior is our duty as citizens of God’s kingdom. (I feel compelled to add a special parenthetical note for this depressing election season: there is no exception for those terrible people who disagree with you politically.)
Questions for Reflection
- What does the Sixth Commandment expressly prohibit? What does it implicitly permit?
- In your opinion, what is the best argument for / against the death penalty?
- Does the non-theistic evolutionary perspective foster respect for the value of human life? Why or why not?
- How does your life reflect God’s respect and value of human life? Where might be God calling you to align your life more with His values?
- Some people say that it is logically inconsistent for a person to favor the death penalty and to oppose abortion. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
- Read through Matthew 5:21-26. Why do you think Jesus speaks so strongly about being angry with and insulting of others (v.22)?
- How does Jesus’ teaching impact your understanding of the Sixth Commandment?
A Prayer for the Week
Almighty God, all life comes from You and we give You thanks for each and every life you have made. Help us to put aside all anger and hatred and teach us to regard one another with the type of love that reflects our identity as citizens in Your kingdom, under the lordship of our King Jesus. Amen.