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The Sixth Commandment: Don’t Murder

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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“You must not murder.”

Exodus 20:13

When we read the sixth commandment in the New Living Translation, “You must not murder,” we wonder whatever happened to the “Thou shalt not kill” of the King James Version. Does this commandment prohibit all killing in general? Or is it limited to unlawful premeditated killing of another human being, which is the usual sense of the English word “murder”?

As you can imagine, there has been plenty of scholarly debate about the precise meaning of the Hebrew verb ratzach, which appears in Exodus 20:13. It is one of several Hebrew verbs that mean “to kill” in some sense. Ratzach is one of the less common verbs, and is limited to the killing of humans by humans, though it is never used for killing in the context of war. It often refers to murder, though may also be used for what we would call manslaughter (killing another human being without malice, for example, Josh. 20:3) or even for legal capital punishment, though this is an unusual use of the word (Num. 35:30). When interpreted in the context of the Hebrew law, the sixth commandment prohibits a person from killing another human being, either with malice or by accident. It does not imply that it is always wrong to take the life of another person, such as in cases of war or legal punishment.

The sixth commandment underscores a basic truth of human nature: we were created in God’s image and are therefore sacred. Human life, as a gift of God, must be protected and preserved. For centuries, Christians have debated the implications of the sacredness of human life when it comes to issues such as war, capital punishment, and abortion. As we engage in this crucial debate, we must remember what Jesus said with regard to the commandment not to murder: “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell” (Matt. 5:21-22). Unfortunately, in the context of arguing about the sacredness of human life, we sometimes do exactly what Jesus warns against, treating our ideological opponents with anger, cursing, and insults. Faithfulness to the deeper meaning of the sixth commandment, as interpreted by Jesus, calls us to treat all people with dignity, not only by not killing them, but also by speaking respectfully with them, even when we disagree.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: How does a commitment to the sacredness of human life make a difference to you? How might you live each day in light of the fact that all people are created in God’s image?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, today I’m reminded about the sacredness of all human life. What a glorious privilege to have been created in your image. Even though sin has tarnished that image, we still reflect you, however imperfectly.

Though I have never found myself in a place where I wanted to take the life of another human being, I am challenged by what Jesus said about how we are to treat others. There are times, Lord, when, in my anger, I want to call people idiots. And, as you know, sometimes I give in to this temptation. Forgive me for the times I have disrespected the sacred humanity of other people. Help me to treat all people respectfully, even those with whom I disagree about significant matters.

Finally, I want to pray today for our society and the larger world. There is far too much senseless killing in the world today, Lord. I yearn for the day when your kingdom comes with its peace and justice for all people. In the meanwhile, may I join with your church as we stand for the sacredness of human life, reaching out to treat all people with respect and love, for your sake. Amen.

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