Thou Shalt Not Kill
The phrase "Thou shalt not kill" is well known throughout the world as one of the Ten Commandments. Originating in the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, this phrase was originally given to Moses and the Israelite people by God as one of the great commandments and is found in the holy scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Seen as an admonition against murder, the sixth commandment often forms the philosophical foundation for arguments against suicide, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, war, and any other situation where one person might be inclined to take the life of another.
Translation of the Phrase
Traditional translations of this phrase into English have tended to use the word kill. Certain scholars have suggested that this is not the most accurate translation. The key phrase, often translated "to kill" ( rasah ), began in the twentieth century to be translated "Thou shalt not murder," is seen in newer translations of the Bible such as the New Revised Standard Version. The scholar Terence Fretheim notes, "In view of certain passages (e.g., 1 Kings 21:19) it has been suggested that the verb means murder" (1991, p. 232). He goes on to note that this phrase can refer to unintentional killing (Deut. 4:41–42) or the execution of a convicted murderer (Num. 35:30). A growing number of scholars now agree that this term for killing in Hebrew that is used in the Ten Commandments is never used in Hebrew Scripture to refer to the type of killing that takes place in a war.
Hebrew language scholars agree that killing in war is different and not covered by this use of the phrase "to kill." If one soldier is angry with another from his or her same army and shoots him or her, even in a battle, it would still be murder. However, to kill an enemy in the context of a "just" war is not directly covered in this passage. A majority of the world's religious traditions make this distinction, referring to "holy war" or "Jihad" as being acceptable. There are generally some criteria for this type of "just" war that, depending on the world tradition, generally reflects doing the work of God and/or serving the needs of justice in the world order. Historically this commandment is used as the foundation for an argument against going to war, by persons wishing not to serve in such a human conflict. However, to argue this point biblically requires other passages to support the argument.
The Ten Commandments were given to offer order in social relationships due to the understanding that, at the heart of all relationships, love is the model that is to be held up as ideal. Whether discussing God's love, or the love of Jesus Christ for Christians, God and God's prophets are the ideal of this message of love in the various faith traditions. Thus the various traditions understand Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammad, along with other key figures, as this type of model. Further, world religious traditions in general pray for world peace. The values of all three communities reflect the possibility of a world that is free of war and armed conflict. Finally, in each tradition there is a wide variance among interpreters of the various traditions as to what that criterion is. This is as true of Islam as it is of Christianity and Judaism. The complete criteria for a "holy" or "just war" are beyond the scope of what can be written in a book.
John Calvin, the Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century, summarized the meaning of this commandment by saying "that we should not unjustly do violence to anyone." The Book of Numbers clarifies that which constitutes murder as stabbing or hurting another in anger or enmity, or killing another person for personal gain. The primary foundation of this commandment, according to Calvin, reflects the understanding that "undoubtedly God would have the remains of His image, which still shines forth in men, to continue in some estimation, so that all might feel that every homicide is an offence against Him" (Calvin 1993, p. 20).
An Assault against God
The prohibition against murder should be understood in the context that in some way human beings were made in the image of God. Therefore to murder a person is to murder God. There are a variety of ways to explain this from the world traditions. God created the heavens and the earth. In doing so, God created humanity in God's image. Some Jewish and Christian scholars understand that with the Fall of Adam, or original sin, humanity was separated from God, yet something of God's image remains in each person. Some Islamic scholars suggest that the "essential sin is that of forgetfulness of God" (Renard 1998, p. 49). It is sin that separates human beings from the essential nature of humanity that is in the image of God.
To murder a fellow human being is to attack God. The implication is that it is a sin to assault God by killing any person. As such, the person will be judged accordingly by God. A more positive way to state the way human beings are to relate to one another comes from Matthew 7:12: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." This is stated in Hebrew Scripture as Leviticus 19:18: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD." Muhammad said the same thing when he noted, "None among you is a believer until he wishes for his brothers and sisters what he wishes for himself" (Renard 1998, p. 49). Laws that are made by human beings do not offer the same type of universal agreement or sanctions if violated. For example, if human beings have created the law "Thou shalt not murder," then one should remember that in "Nazi Germany, and much of eastern Europe, it was acceptable to kill Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the severely retarded, and any other group deemed inferior" (Renard 1998, p. 176). Laws made by human beings have sanctions that are of this world. Laws made by God have eternal sanctions. Believers find this latter prospect sufficient to serve as a deterrent to murder.
Not only is the person who commits murder subject to judgment by God, but, according to Hebrew Scripture, he or she is subject to judgment by human courts. Based on the first covenant between God and humanity with Noah, Noah suggests in Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind." This admonition is made clear in the story of Cain and Abel when God says, "And the LORD said, 'What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand'" (Gen. 4:10–11). In response to this first murder, God curses the very ground.
Capital Punishment, Suicide, and Abortion
Jewish and Christian teaching is mixed on the application of these Hebrew scriptures. "For example Jewish law and tradition maintain that the death sentence in a capital case is prohibited if the conviction is on the basis of a strong presumption or circumstantial evidence, even though it appears conclusive" (Schlessinger and Vogel 1998, p. 180). Other persons of faith suggest that the termination of life by the state is the same as any other murder. Capital punishment can be said to be sanctioned by Hebrew Scripture, but these passages alone are not followed without question by all believers. This is particularly true of Roman Catholicism, which is generally against capital punishment. A significant issue for those against capital punishment is the fear that the innocent will pay this ultimate price. Clearly the problem is that capital punishment is employed by human beings who make mistakes. "The Midrash, a compilation of ancient rabbinic reflections, summed up the problem very concisely: Those who are merciful when they must be cruel, will, in the end, be cruel to those who deserve mercy" (Schlessinger and Vogel 1998, p. 182).
Suicide, or the murder of one's self, is the next common application of the commandment. It is understood that God has placed the soul within an earthen vessel that needs to be taken care of. This would suggest that the human body does not simply belong to the person, but rather that the soul which houses the body belongs to God. Catholicism prohibits any kind of mutilation of the body. In Judaism even tattoos that permanently alter the body are prohibited. It has been widely known that until recently Roman Catholics had the lowest incidence of suicide, based on the admonition not to commit such an act.
Abortion is possibly the most controversial of the ramifications of "Thou shalt not murder." Both those who are pro-life and pro-choice would agree that it is murder to take a life. However, the heart of the dialogue is the controversy as to when life begins. On this point the Bible is unclear. Ammunition for this dialogue, however, comes from the Book of Exodus: "When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (Exod. 21:22–25). The scholars Laura Schlessinger and Stewart Vogel note that the heart of the controversy is found in the implication as to who is hurt by the injury to the woman. In Judaism it is understood that this refers to the woman, while Christian interpretation often understands this to refer to the fetus. If it refers to the fetus, then the scripture suggests that any abortion is murder. If it refers to the woman, then it is less clear as to the abortion issue. Most arguments on this issue go on to discussion of the love of God for children. In Islam, "According to some religious scholars of the Hanafi legal school, abortion is permitted until the fetus is fully formed and ensoulment has occurred (about four months along, according to a Hadith)" (Renard 1998, p. 56).
The Ten Commandments have offered a set of rules that traditionally offer order to society. This order can become divisive when placed in public schools and buildings when it implies that the values of these religious traditions should be followed by all. The U.S. Constitution does not say that individuals cannot believe these rules in private, but it does say that the values and beliefs of one tradition should not be forced on all people through the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The sixth commandment offers a point of departure for ethical dialogue for all of those religions of Abraham. It is generally not taken out of context, but rather employed in the context of the entire scripture. As a part of the entire context of the messages as interpreted by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, the sixth commandment is an important rule for living.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on The Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony. 1843. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993.
Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991.
National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. New York: Author, 1990.
Renard, John. Responses to 101 Questions on Islam. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998.
Schlessinger, Laura, and Stewart Vogel. The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God's Laws in Everyday Life. New York: Cliff Street, 1998.
JAMES W. ELLOR