One of the most common questions that someone serious about the Bible will ask has to do with one of the Ten Commandments; namely the sixth commandment that seem to prohibit the act of “killing”. Putting aside for a moment the question about taking the life of an animal, the case of homicide (taking the life of a human) seems to be closed. Upon further examination of the underlying Hebrew original, however, a different, more nuanced picture emerges. Please, allow me to explain.
Most English Bibles, especially the monumental KJV version, inaccurately (or rather not accurately enough) translate the sixth commandment simply as “Do Not Kill” (Exo. 20:13). But the Hebrew under the English translation justifies a much better alternative: “Do Not Murder”. To put this intense ethical matter into simple terms, every murder is killing, but not every killing is murder. (Murder is killing without a just cause.)
The Hebrew verb להרוג (to kill) can include unjustified homicide, but the Hebrew verb לרצח (to murder) is never used to describe a justified killing, such as killing in self-defense or court-ordered capital punishment. (This “justified killing” can also be translated by a different Hebrew verb להמית that is best translated as “to put to death”).
Keeping these insights in mind, the question then becomes simple. Which Hebrew verb is used in the Decalogue? The answer is לרצח – the verb that must be more accurately translated not with the broad meaning–“to kill”, but with a more particular definition–“to murder”.
So, does God forbid homicide? The answer is yes, but he does allow it under some exceptional conditions.
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