Does The Sixth Commandment Prohibit All Killing?

asfThe 6th Commandment has been translated as both “thou shall not kill” (King James Version) and “thou shall not murder,” in newer versions, such as the New American Standard. Skeptics delight in such apparent contradictions, contending that Christians are either hypocritical, for not following the command to not “kill,” or are engaging in “special pleading,” if they insist that “murder” is the correct interpretation. Either way, the skeptic is likely to cry foul.

But is the skeptic’s view correct? Are we forced to concede that the Bible’s command is nonsensical, if it prohibits all killing, or that we are forcing our interpretation on it? According to scholars, the Hebrew term that was originally used – ratsach – can be translated to include a broad range of killing or slaying, encompassing intentional murder, such as predatory “lying in wait” as well as less culpable forms of killing. Looking only at the phrase or sentence which contained the term, one would be left with an undecipherable message as to what the author meant. This is true, of course, of any use of language.

Words have multiple meanings and nuances that allow us to reduce our thoughts to a medium that allows for expression and, more importantly, communication. Unfortunately, it also allows for confusion. The only solution to this confusion is context. A word that does not fit into the broader meaning of the passage is probably poorly chosen. A word that contradicts large portions of the surrounding text is probably mistakenly translated. This is not an example of special pleading, but of sound interpretation. Special pleading, by contrast, is the logical fallacy that occurs when a person seeks to apply an exception to a general rule without justifying the exception. For example, let’s suppose I claim that the deliberate taking of innocent human life is always wrong. However, I wish to make an exception for abortion, but I don’t attempt to justify why such an exception would apply. I don’t bother showing that the fetus is not human, or that it is not innocent. I would be guilty of fallacious reasoning. (This, of course, is what makes debating “pro choice” defenders difficult, as they are refusing to follow principled thinking. But, I digress.)

Now, let’s consider the difference in the verbs “to kill” and “to murder.” “To kill” is a broad term which could encompass the taking of any life form; it has no connotation with regard to the mental state of the killer, what type of life was taken, the reason for the action, or the ability to justify the act. “To murder,” by contrast, is a specific term which conveys the killer’s mental state – historically called “malice,” the taking of human as opposed to other life, the baseness of the reason and the lack of justification. Applying these concepts to the Bible, it would be nonsensical to conclude that the 6th Commandment prohibits “killing” of all kinds. After all, the people of that day killed much of what they used for food. The Author of the Old Testament commanded them to take life in certain settings, including the imposition of capital punishment in a variety of situations. Moreover, using the term to mean “to kill” would render sinful even the accidental taking of life or the taking of life in self-defense, a situation in which the defender is himself the victim of wrongful conduct.

This would essentially eliminate any notion of moral behavior, as a wrongdoer bent on killing multitudes could not justifiably be stopped with deadly force, and would be no more immoral than a person who accidentally killed someone in a moment of inattention. Understanding “ratsach” in this context to mean murder makes sense of the passage and allows it to be harmonized into the whole. It still prohibits a great deal of conduct, but the prohibition applies to the wrongfulness of the conduct. Thus, a person who accidentally takes the life of a friend through an accident no fault of his own is not considered on the same par morally with the person who lays in wait to murder his rival. This form of reasoning cannot properly be considered fallacious. It is not as if “ratsach” only meant “to kill without malice, including accidentally” and when we do not like the meaning, we invoke an unjustified exception. Instead, we are using the meaning that best comports with the overall meaning of the Bible. By contrast, the person insisting that the term be taken to mean “to kill” – ostensibly to avoid a fallacy – is committing the greater fallacy of forcing an irrational interpretation of the passage.

Posted by Al Serrato



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