“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13, ESV)
The traditional writings simply said “Thou shalt not kil.” (Exodus 20:13, Geneva); “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13, KJV 1900). However, the Hebrew word in this commandment is never used in general killing.
In summary, rṣḥ can be defined as a crime against life and limb of another Israelite. Because the root already includes the notion of a victim (a fellow Israelite, a resident or transient alien [Nu. 35:15], or a Levite’s concubine [Jgs. 20:4ff.])…F. L. Hossfeld, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 2004, 13, 634.
The studies of the word usage in context gave rise to the current translations like the ESV quoted above. If we believe in the doctrine of inspiration, we take great care in translating the Word of God, for every word is inspired. When we forget the significance of the words used by the inspired authors, we run into many interpretive errors. The sixth commandment has been used to create theologies of pacifism and injustice. Good Christian women and men are swayed into believing heresies such as there is never a just cause for war or legal executions are always wrong.
The 1995 movie Dead Man Walking was based on a book written by Helen Prejean. Sister Prejean makes the mistake by attempting to get the reader to sympathize with those being executed for their crimes. As Hollywood does so often, the man on death row is a blending of the men in the book. Yes, his crime of murder and rape is worthy of the death penalty. Yet with the use of many Christian symbols throughout, we are manipulated toward a thou shalt not kill because such killing does not consider the criminal’s family, nor does it ease the suffering of those who lost their children by the man’s hand. The final scene is most disconcerting. Sean Penn appears remorseful as he is stretched and bound on a table shaped as a cross.
The theological equation is that if God forgives the sinner, should we not also forgive him? However, civil executions do not deny that God can and does forgive sinners who repent. This forgiveness does allow one to enter the Kingdom of God for eternity , vis-à-vis the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Yet the crime has been committed and the civil government, ordained by God for the righteous order of society, must still carry out sentence. Failure to do so leads to the kind of society in which criminals act with impunity and life itself becomes of little value.
Thou shalt not murder. Murder is one of a commonly used triad including stealing and adultery (the next two commandments). Whereas theft can be restored, but life cannot. To say that a life stolen does not require the penalty of a life is to devalue both lives, a sin against the Creator of life and the giver of the law. A life sentence in prison may be a riskier kind of life, but it still falls short of restorative justice. The question we must all ask today is, what is a life worth?
Maybe the question is really, is one life equal to another life? Today there are people who are calling for equality among all people. Do they really want “All men are created equal?” White people are worth less than black people. Born people are worth more than unborn people. Poor people are worth more than rich people. Uneducated people are worth more than educated people. With these and other inequalities it becomes normal to steal from people wealthier than you. It becomes normal for people to kill the unborn. Soon it will become normal to kill the elderly, the infirm, the mentally incapacitated. After all, survival is for the fittest and as Hitler preached, survival requires acts of violence. Ask any Jew how that one turned out.
Thou shalt not kill. Any individual or communal act against another’s life will be judged. Many who have died at the hand of another will live forever. All unreptented murderers will themselves die forever. Is it not more loving and compassionate for the civil government to justly stop and prevent killing through the death penalty? Of course, not all executions are just. In these cases, those who are killed become the murderers. They may not receive righteous judgment in this life, but they will certainly be judged in the next. Governments are not immune to the Law. Those who govern are under the government of Christ the King, who did not come to kill, but to be killed. He did not come to be served, but to serve.
Life is the gift of God. He controls the beginning and the ending of life. Humanity thinks they control life. That is why all humans are dead in their sins and their trespasses. But there is a new life offered because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The commandments are juxtaposed, you shall not commit murder; you must be born again. Jesus gave up his life emphasizing the true value of life. Repent and be saved.