“Thou shalt not kill” vs. “Thou shalt not murder”

When I lecture on the First Crusade in my courses at Florida State College at Jacksonville, I occasionally get a question from one of my students along the lines of “How could Christians do this?”

They ask because, as modern Christians with a post-Enlightenment understanding of their faith, they find the idea of God- or Jesus more specifically- supporting warfare to be troubling. Such students tend to associate New Testament Christianity with peace as Jesus himself famously called on others to turn the other cheek when confronted with violence. Often, in such cases, students will cite the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) as a proof-text supporting their assumptions that medieval Christians who participated in the crusades simply did not understand the Bible.

I find I often have to restrain myself a bit when I respond. Not because I am upset with the student, of course, but because I feel tempted to cover too much in my response. There are a number of assumptions here that are either demonstrably false or (at the least) highly debatable, but among the most significant, perhaps, is the idea that Exodus 20:13 represents a biblical injunction against “killing.” There are two major problems with this assumption.

  1. It would make nonsense of much of the rest of the Old Testament.

As Swiss Jesuit theologian Raymund Schwager has identified, the Old Testament contains 600 passages of explicit violence, around 1000 verses detailing God’s own violent punishments, and most significantly over 100 passages where God expressly commands others to kill people.

Schwager notes: “The passages are numerous where God explicitly commands someone to kill. Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people. These passages do not have God himself do the killing; he keeps somewhat aloof. Yet it is he who gives the order to destroy human life,”

See Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible (San Francisco: Harper, 1987), 60, see also 47.

Indeed, if we treat the Hebrew Scriptures as a historical source, the ancient Israelites were often at war with their neighbors or enemies and so it is not surprising that their scriptural texts would reflect this violent reality.

A representative sampling…

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations…then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)

“…do not leave alive anything that breaths. Completely destroy them…as the Lord your God has commanded you…” Deuteronomy 20:16

“This is what the Lord Almighty says… ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” (1 Samuel 15:3)

“Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:9)

In light of the extreme violence often advocated and sanctioned in the Old Testament, to make the claim that Exodus 20:13 forbids “killing” would require extraordinary and unbelievable hermeneutical gymnastics. Indeed, we have not even considered the many explicit references to the divinely approved executions of various sinners (e.g. witches, homosexuals, etc….see Exodus 22:18, Lev. 20:13, etc…) also found in the Old Testament.

  1. The second major objection to citing Exodus 20:13 as a prohibition on killing is that it is based on an incorrect translation of the verse. It should be translated as “Thou shalt not murder” rather than “Thou shalt not kill,” and there is quite a moral distinction between the two terms.

I may not know Hebrew, but I know of many scholars who do, and they all agree that the proper translation of Exodus 20:13 is “Thou shalt not murder.” As Professor Berel Lang of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut has noted:

“The original Hebrew, lo tirtsah., is very clear, since the verb ratsah. means ‘murder,’ not ‘kill.’ If the commandment proscribed killing as such, it would position Judaism against capital punishment and make it pacifist even in wartime. These may be defensible or admirable views, but they’re certainly not biblical.”

See http://forward.com/articles/6091/on-language/#ixzz3UVUsv589

Indeed, not only do Jewish translations of Exodus 20:13 include use of the word “murder,” rather than “kill,” but most Christian versions of the Bible have also made the switch over the course of the later twentieth-century.

As Philologos notes in his January 9, 2004 essay on the topic for The Jewish Daily Forward:

“This argument [the use of murder in place of kill] has not been taken lightly by contemporary Christian scholarship. On the contrary, it has had a great effect, so much so that the majority of contemporary Christian Bible translations into English have changed the Sixth Commandment’s “kill” to “murder.” These translations include the British New International Version (1973), the New King James Version (1983), the New Living Translation (1996), the New American Standard Bible (2000), and the 2002 Message Bible. (The earliest English Bible to do this, apparently, was the 1898 Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, which in this respect predated even the 1917 Jewish Publication Society’s The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text.)”

See http://forward.com/articles/6091/on-language/#ixzz3UVVecV35

What then, as my students sometimes wonder, is the distinction between killing and murder? Although they intuitively sense there is a difference, it is always popular discussion when we engage the topic in class.

Primarily, it is a legal distinction. All murder involves killing, but not all killings are considered murders. Murder represents an unlawful killing. Soldiers who kill in combat during the course of a war, for example, kill their enemies, but such killings have not typically been considered murder. Similarly, a state may kill/execute murderers for their crimes, but the representatives of such states would not see their execution as equivalent to what the murderer did. In both of these examples, the killing is done by representatives of the state and is therefore, technically, legal. There is also a moral distinction. In some cases, private citizens can kill someone without charge. A car driver may accidently hit a jaywalking pedestrian, killing them, but this is not seen as “murder.” Similarly, a woman may shoot an attacker in self-defense, killing him, but of course killing in self defense is not typically seen as murder.

It is for related reasons that even the New Testament cannot be said to be a pacifist text, forbidding violence. As I have written elsewhere, in another context that nevertheless applies here:

“If we accept the Gospels as reliable historical sources, Jesus was a non-violent man better known for his command to “turn the other cheek,” rather than commit acts of violence even when seemingly justified. He rebuked the apostle Peter, for example, for daring to cut off the ear of a soldier who had come to arrest him. Moreover, so far as we know, Jesus never called for (much less participated in) a holy war against either the Romans, who forcibly occupied Jewish lands, or the Jews, who sometimes violently rejected his message. [Yet] This is not to say that Jesus never would have sanctioned violence under any circumstances. Indeed, the reason Peter was likely carrying a sword in the first place was because (as the Gospel of Luke states) Jesus commanded his followers carry at least two of them (Luke 22:38). In other words, as this verse suggests, Jesus and his followers were armed as they made their travels during his ministry. Jesus may have objected to Peter intervening with his arrest, but that does not necessarily mean Jesus opposed Christians using force to defend others. Christ, according to the Christian narrative, had to be crucified for the salvation of mankind. Peter was unthinkingly trying to prevent that.

Other verses suggest Jesus could be prone to fits of anger [or violent behavior]. He famously, for example, violently over-turns the moneychangers table as he thought they were desecrating the Temple (Matt. 21:12)…

Other New Testament verses, although not specifically in reference to Jesus, provide much stronger calls to violence, as is justified in the case of rulers. In Romans 13:3-4, the apostle Paul writes:

“For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.”

[Romans 13 has historically been understood by Christians as] a justification from the New Testament for the legitimate use of force by the state. It’s even more striking when one considers the broader context. Paul was writing to Christians living in Rome under the authority of the pagan Roman emperor (who nevertheless acts as a “minister of God” who “bears the sword” to bring wrath on evil doers). That the emperor was a pagan did not lessen his authority to use force in Paul’s view.”

See https://apholt.com/2014/11/22/eighty-six-military-campaigns/

Andrew Holt