Commandment six is brief and to the point. In its most familiar form for those reading this blog, the English rendering, “You shall not kill”, appears somewhat vague and begs for clarification. I shouldn’t kill what? Does this commandment forbid only the killing of humans or does it extend also to killing animals? I killed a roach last night. Was that a sin? My wife has never sinned by killing a roach simply because she refuses to get close enough to kill one. I am husband, father, pastor, roach killer.
Not only does the brevity of the commandment engender questions, but it seems to be a glaring contradiction in the context of Scripture. If God says not to kill in Exodus 20:13 then how can He justify His command for the Joshua genocides and the constant call for enforcement of capital punishment throughout the Old Testament (Gen. 9:6, Ex. 21:12). God calls for capital punishment in cases of adultery (Lev. 20:10) and rape (Deut 22:23-27). The list of capital offenses also includes false prophets, distorted offerings, witchcraft, and even rebellious kids (Exo. 21:15, 17). In our society most of what you see on primetime television would warrant capital punishment. Furthermore, when a child hits or curses his parents we are more prone to think of family counseling, not necessarily the electric chair. Comparatively speaking, it seems that God is more for killing than we are. How then can we reconcile commandment six with the bulk of the often bloody Old Testament?
One question often overlooked with commandment six is what does the word “kill” mean? The ESV translates the word “murder.” The Hebrew word is a term used to refer primarily to the intentional taking of a life out of revenge. It is a word that covers the taking of a life unjustly whether it be intentionally (what we generally equate to murder) or unintentionally (what we generally refer to as involuntary manslaughter). When the Bible speaks of capital punishment, war, or national conquest it does not use the same Hebrew term we often translate kill/murder in commandment six.
So what are the implications? The basic meaning of commandment six is that God has ultimate claim over human life. We have no right to claim, of our own volition, human life. It is not the duty of the medical profession to determine who lives and who dies. A person does not have the right to claim their own life. No one has the right to abort a baby. No one has the right to claim a life out of vengeance. Commandment six means we should be careful not to be careless when we drive a car. We should drive in such a way that reflects ultimate care for others. We should not go through life haphazardly so that our carelessness results in claiming the life of another. God alone lays claim to human life. He has ordained human government to exact justice through capital punishment. He has also given warrant for national governments to assemble militaries capable of not only defending civilian life but also destroying tyranny around the world.
Commandment six sends a strong message. We are created in the image of God. He claims our lives. We do not have the right to claim our own life, nor the lives of others. We should not only treasure human life, but make every effort to protect it.