First Mennonite Church
October 6, 2019
The Fifth Commandment: You Shall Not Kill
Exodus 20: 13
13 “You shall not murder. (NIV) Thou shalt not kill. (KJV)
This commandment consists of four words in the English language. In Hebrew, it consists of only two: Lo ratsach.
Killing in the Old Testament
The commandment that prohibits killing is quite interesting in the Old Testament. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament would reveal that there is a lot of killing in it. In the Old Testament, there are stories of revenge killings, wars, and explicit cases in which God gives the instruction for the killing of some for committing some particular acts. Some examples of the last case are of that of children who curse or disobey their parents. (Exodus 21: 17, Deut. 21: 20). Another example is that of someone who kills another person, specifically if the killing was premeditated (Exodus 21:14). God’s instruction was that those who were condemned to die be put to death by stoning. (Please know that the word for premeditated killing in Exodus 21, verse 14, is not the one used in the commandment, but is the word harag).
Tacit interpretation in Bible translation
We should note that the majority of translations has: You shall not murder. The Hebrew word ratsach is undefined and simply means to kill, plain and simple. The Bibles that translate ratsach as murder, clearly intend to align the prohibition in this commandment with the penal code, which considers murder as the highest degree of killing. According to the penal code, there are four categories of killing: first and second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. Killing under the state’s authority includes capital punishment and killings in war. Therefore, when Bible translators opt for “murder” instead of “kill” in their translation of the commandment, they are tacitly acknowledging some forms of killings as sanctioned under the authority of the state. For example: when a soldier kills the “enemy” such killing is not considered murder under the state’s legal code. Another example would be, when prison authorities execute a convict given capital punishment, their killing is not considered murder.
Some who favor the translation of the commandment to read “murder” instead of “kill,” say that if God intended to eliminate all forms of human killing as his perfect will, then God himself violated his rule when he ordered the killing of humans by his own people. They argue that God cannot violate his own will if human-killing was his intended purpose in giving the commandment. What such an argument fails to see is that it puts God at the same level as a human being, which we cannot. God is the Creator of mankind. He is the Giver of life and he is sovereign. Therefore, he can ordain what could be done and what should not be done by humans.
If we were to take the commandment against killing literally, we could feel good about ourselves. First, it does not mean not to kill cockroaches, other bugs, or hunting animals, or slaughtering domestic animals for food. A literal reading of the commandment might make us feel good knowing that we have not shed human blood. But then, we read the words of Jesus who said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21, 22). Jesus reaffirms the commandment; he then not only radicalizes it but also applies it to daily life.
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus revisits and reinterprets six issues, some of which directly come from the Ten Commandments. If Jesus’ disciples were to practice his new interpretation of the commandments, they would surpass the righteousness of the Scribes. And in the case of murder, Jesus does not go to peripheral matters of the law regarding killing. Instead, he does a verbatim quotation of the law: “You shall not kill,” and summarizes the other laws against killing in the supplementary clarification that follows: “and anyone who kills will be subject to judgment.” By doing so, he puts all kinds of human bloodshed under his new interpretation.
Radicalizing the Commandment
“But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” When Jesus reinterprets the commandment about murder, he goes to the root cause of it. Jesus does not equate anger with murder. But he singles out anger as the starting arch of the pendulum that ends on the other side with murder. Anger is a human emotion, just like joy, sadness, and other feelings are, but Jesus identifies anger as the primal emotion that can lead to murder. Murder is the physical destruction of a person. But the act of destroying someone does not have to be physical. According to Jesus, any feeling other than love towards our brothers and sisters will be subject to God’s judgment. We will have to give an account for any name-calling we do to our brothers and sisters. Anger against or/and name-calling to another is the beginning of effacing the divine image in the other. We do not have to physically destroy our fellow brother or sister in order to be murderous before the eyes of God. We must consider that God defines murder as any thought or feeling of deep-seated hatred or malice against another person. In other words, it is more than just a physical act that constitutes murder before God. The Apostle John writes: Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15 ESV).
Application of the commandment
God knows what is in our hearts. The Lord knows our thoughts. We should take note that the six issues Jesus deals within this section in Matthew do not necessarily have to do with religious duties, but relational issues. Anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love are issues of human relations. However, in the case of anger, Jesus says that if at the very moment you are giving your offering to God you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to him or her then come and offer your gift. This shows the high priority Jesus gives to harmonious relations among his disciples, over religious practices. Good relationships have high priority in the heart of God for his children. Peace, reconciliation, and unity in the spirit among brothers and sisters are preconditions for worshiping God in truth and in the spirit.
Jesus said that the two most important commandments are: to love God and to love neighbor. It is impossible to love God while not loving the neighbor. Murder destroys the neighbor. Murder violates the image God imprinted in the neighbor. Jesus says that anger also violates the image of God among his disciples. It is not possible to please God in worship if we are angry against our fellow brothers and sisters
May the Lord free us from the grip of anger. Amen!