Written in a distinctive terse style, the Ten Commandments are set apart as foundational, given by no less an authority than the very hand of God (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:4-21). The commandments can be divided into sets of five with the second group addressing life in community (Exodus 20:13-17; Deuteronomy 5:17-21). The shift occurs with the sixth commandment.
You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13 NASB; cf. Deuteronomy 5:17).This commandment is the first to address a relationship among equals and affirms that the protection of human life is the starting point of living in community.
One could hardly derive a more natural, universal law as the taking of life has been objectionable throughout the annals of history. The clarity of the sixth commandment is seen in the fact that (unlike many of its counterparts) the prohibition contains no explanation or threat of consequences. Its merits are self evident.
Yet not all killings are viewed the same. For instance, murder is a singular sin. W.H. Auden (1907-1973) writes, “Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest (Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story by an Addict”, Harper’s Magazine, 1948, 406).”
The sixth commandment has been cited in arguments regarding abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, self-defense, suicide, war, etc. The forbidden action (ratsach) is typically translated as either “murder” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV) or “kill” (ASV, KJV, RSV). Though not an uncommon term, this is the first time word is used in the Bible.
The scope of the term is not rigidly bounded. If anything, the Hebrew muddies the waters further. Patrick D. Miller (b. 1935) expounds:
The simplicity of the commandment fades quickly as soon as one tries to translate it. Matters become more complex when one tries to relate the prohibition to actual acts of taking life...The commandment consists of a negative particle, “do not,” and the second-person imperfect of the verb rāṣaḥ. The precise meaning of this verb, however, is where the complexities arise. The divided voice of the NRSV translation committee, which split down the middle on the matter, is indicative of the issue and its complexity. Usually the commandment is translated either “You shall not kill”...or “You shall not murder”...More recent translations have tended toward the latter interpretation, recognizing that the verb of the commandment is a more particular and specialized verb, a more technical term in a sense, than others commonly translated in English as “kill”...or “put to death”...The problem, however, is that the verb does not have a single narrow meaning or usage “to murder.” The matter is more complicated, and the force of the verb as it is examined on its trajectory of meaning and usage in the Scriptures broadens toward a wider understanding from the very beginning. Thus the tension between a narrower and a wider interpretation of the verb is an inevitable and the locus of the community’s effort to comprehend and obey the commandment (Miller, The Ten Commandments (Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church), 221-223)Peter Enns (b. 1961) adds:
The Hebrew word translated “murder”...is a common one in the Old Testament. It is a restricted term, generally referring to the killing of someone who is not an “enemy” of the people. In other words, it is not used in contexts of war or just punishment for a crime. It can, however, refer to unintentional killing (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:41-43), a circumstance in which “murder” is not an appropriate term...at the very least we can state that this commandment refers to any type of killing that God disallows. Just what that means is, again, a matter of wise reflection on the part of Israelite leaders. (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 422)Though the Hebrew verb is different (harag, not ratsach), it is said that there is a “a time to kill” (Ecclesiastes 3:3). When is taking life acceptable? Why? What makes this Biblical commandment any different from the countless other mandates against killing in virtually every society in human history?
While the biblical rule reads the same as those in other cultures, the rationale is different. Terence E. Fretheim (b. 1936) explains, “The basis of the command is that all life belongs to God (Leviticus 17:11; Genesis 9:6). The divine intention in creation is that no life be taken. Life is thus not for human beings to do with as they will; they are not God. It is to God to determine what shall be done with life (Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 233).”
After researching countless comparable laws in parallel cultures, Mark F. Rooker (b. 1951) concludes:
Differences between ancient Near Eastern and biblical views of murder are ultimately connected to their contrastive views of the nature of God and man. Although the literature of Mesopotamia considered murder to be a severe iniquity, which aroused the anger of the gods, man was considered as part of the creation and nothing more than an economic value. He was created to be a servant of the gods. Another contrast has to do with payment of a fine as punishment for a convicted murderer. In most of ancient Near Eastern law, the acceptance of a ransom or a fine was dependent completely on the will of the relatives of the murder victim. Biblical law prohibited acceptance of a ransom or fine for a murder that happened with malice or by accident (Numbers 35:31; Deuteronomy 19:12). This distinction shows that the Bible places a high premium on the life of man because man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). (Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century, 123)The sixth commandment’s underlying belief is that life comes from God and as such is precious. David Hazony (b. 1969) wonders:
From violence in our streets to terror in our skies, from honor killings to organized crime to wartime atrocities to domestic violence, we tolerate murder to a breathtaking degree. Not so long ago, the most enlightened nation in Europe embarked on the most far-reaching plan of genocide in human history, exterminating its innocents by the millions as the world stood by. Today, similar wickedness is repeated elsewhere in the world, in places like Sudan and Rwanda, places where if we really cared we would stop the killing. Our collective Western pride blinds us to our collective failure to stop the worst crimes. Do we really care about life as much as we think? (Hazony, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, 145)Do you truly value life as much as you should?
“How strange it is that murder has the sanction of law in one and only one of the human relationships, and that is the most important of all, that of nation to nation.”
Paul Harris (1868-1947), lawyer who founded the Rotary Club in 1905