To answer the question about the meaning of any word in the Bible, I have to apply some logic. The first step of logic is to view the word in context with the verses around it. The next is to study it in relation to the rest of the Bible. If my interpretation contradicts other passages, then I may very well have the wrong meaning. I can also view the word in context of the society to which it was addressed; in other words, I try to determine what the original readers thought it meant. I can also look at more modern translations of the Bible. The King James Version was written so that commoners could understand it in 1604. Since then, the English language and the meaning of many words have changed. Modern translations also do a much better job examining the original languages and culture.
When I look at Exodus 20:10 in several newer translations, they all use the word “murder” and not “kill.” I think they are correct because of the immediate context of the other verses. Exodus 10:2-17 comprise the text of the Ten Commandments. The first four are commands regarding our relationship to God. The last six are commands regarding our relationships with each other.
Since these are commands regarding people, I can immediately eliminate the possibility that the command is telling me I shouldn’t kill animals. This agrees with Gen 9:2-3. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. (NIV) If you think that God had changed the rules in the N.T., then you can look at Acts 10:11-13. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat." (NIV)
Eliminating one possibility leaves only one option and that the command is a prohibition against killing people. Does this mean that there are no circumstances when I am allowed to kill another or does it relate specifically to murder as the modern translations indicate? Again, I’ll look to other Scripture to see what it says.
Num 35:16-20 “'If a man strikes someone with an iron object so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. Or if anyone has a stone in his hand that could kill, and he strikes someone so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. Or if anyone has a wooden object in his hand that could kill, and he hits someone so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. (NIV)
The Hebrew word for murder used in this verse is ratsach (raw-tsakh'.) It is the same word as used in Exodus 20:13. If you read the verses around Numbers 35:16-20 you will get a clear indication of the meaning of the word murder. It includes the motives of malice and hostility. Finally, there is not a prohibition against all killing. The “avenger of blood” (usually a close relative of the victim) not only was permitted to kill the murder, but it was his duty. The remaining verses around these talked about the cities of refuge where an accused killer could run, face a trial, and be protection if he was innocent.
Does the N.T. change things? Romans 13:1-4 make it clear that the government is responsible for the punishment of wrongdoers. Does it include capital punishment? Yes, it may, depending on the government. That is, if the government is going to use the principals found in the O.T.
I find three reasons for capital punishment in the O.T. The first is spiritual. Num 35:33-34 “So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. And you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel.” (NASB) God lives in the land. He is among us and it ticks Him off when someone murders another person. In a spiritual sense, if the government doesn’t do something about the murder, then everyone is polluted by that crime. God says that there is no expiation, or no way to make amends except by the death of the murder.
This leads right into the practical reasons for the death penalty. Ten times in the NIV translation the phrase “You must purge the evil from among you (or Israel.)” is used as the reason for the death penalty. The most practical reason is that there is absolutely no opportunity for the person to commit another crime. You can look up the verses and see that there were quite a few crimes, some of which we wouldn’t even consider as a capital crime today. (Deut 13:4, 17:7, 17:12, 19:19, 21:21, 22:21, 22;22, 22:24, 24:7, and Judges 20:13) I think the point is clear, when the government decides that a crime is so repugnant that it deserves death, then that criminal never has a chance of repeating it.
Deut 21:21 provides the last reason for capital punishment. Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid. (NIV) People argue that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime. As far as I’m concerned, if God said it was, then it is.
Now I don’t want to put myself in the place of government and make the decisions of which crimes are punishable by death. If I were to go through all ten verses above and comment on them, I feel I would never finish this article. Do I have to agree with my government when it pronounces death for someone because they changed their faith as example? No, I don’t. The same applies to war. I have to obey my government when it goes to war. Do I unconditionally support my government when that war is unjust or the consequences of continued action no longer achieve the original purpose? No I don’t. In a previous blog, I talked about when it is right to disobey your government so enough said for now.
Finally, I need to address Jesus’ view of killing. I’m going to back into this with an example. John 8:10-11 Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." (RSV) According to the O.T. commands given above, this woman deserved to be stoned for adultery. If Jesus wanted me to continue to follow the O.T. law, He would have let the people stone her. However, Jesus came to fulfill the law. Matt 5:17-18 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (NIV) There is a big difference between abolishing the law and fulfilling it. If Jesus wanted to abolish it, then He would have said that it was ok to commit adultery. Instead, He acknowledged her sin but fulfilled the law by giving her mercy and another chance. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the law because He took my sin upon Himself so that I can receive mercy from God. This encounter with the woman was a preview of what He was going to do for all of us.
Regarding killing, Jesus had some choice words about it. Matt 5:21-22 "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire.” (RSV) Jesus cut past the action of murder or killing to the matter of the heart. If I’m angry with another person, I am no different from a murderer. I have committed murder in my heart and I stand condemned. If there is any doubt about what condemned means, Jesus added that little bit about the fires of hell. He is talking about eternal condemnation, not the death penalty.
In thepassages that follow, Jesus expands on the meaning of some of the other Jewish laws and traditions. He boiled adultery down to simply lusting after another person. I’m guilty again. He said that I must love my enemy and pray for anyone who persecutes me instead of hating them. Jesus was making it perfectly clear that there is no way that I can possibly meet the strict requirement of the law.
The question now is not “What does ‘thou shalt not kill’ mean?” It is now, knowing that I am a murder, what can I do to escape the just punishment of God? It is simple, yet profound. I admit that I am a murder, thief, liar, and many more things, any one of which is punishable by eternal hell fire. I believe that Jesus, when He died on the cross, paid the penalty for all my sins and those of the whole world. I accept, by faith, that free gift of eternal life. I prove my faith by repenting (changing my mind about how good I am and agreeing with God that I’m not) and surrender myself to Jesus to do as He wants with me. That mean He is my Lord and I will obey Him.
In prayer I have asked Him to forgive me and take over my life. When I did that, many years ago, He changed me so that my desires changed. I haven’t lived perfectly and have even hated and lusted since then. However, I come back to Him and slowly but surely He keeps on changing me. Will I fail Him again? Probably. Do I want to fail Him? Absolutely not. This I know, I am forgiven and I will be with Him forever should I die or He comes back before then.