CHAPTER IV from the book "Capital Punishment"
The Sixth Commandment
Understandably, the traditional confusion about the attitude
of the Hebrew Bible toward capital punishment arises from the
sixth of the Ten Commandments. In the classic English version
(KJV and others) we read, "Thou shalt not kill" (Exod.20:18;
Deut.5:17). "Kill," as a comprehensive term, does not distinguish
between accident (involuntary manslaughter), malice (murder),
self-defense, legal execution, or death in battle. Since no
object is specified (humans), it could be argued that this is an
absolute prohibition against the ending of any life, animal or
human (Nahmani). As such, the commandment would seem to be in
tension with the death sentences which we have previously
reviewed, as well as with the frequent commands for Israel to
enter into battle with enemies (e.g., Exod.17:8-18; Deut.
20:10-18). The situation seems especially puzzling in view of the
fact that it is the same Moses who says, "You shall not kill" and
(a mere chapter later), "Whoever strikes his father or his mother
shall be put to death" (Exod.21:15).
It is surprising that many readers do not discover this
"problem" on their own; indeed, students in seminary are
sometimes astonished when it is pointed out to them. Such
blindness results from the tendency to read the Bible as if each
sentence stands on its own, with a self-contained truth.
There supposedly is no need to study the larger context.
Thus, if the text says, "You shall not kill," then that is the
way it is! Should a tension be sensed with another text, then the
fault must he in our inadequate understanding: "Somehow, it is
Readers of some recent versions of the Bible (new
translations such as TEV, rather than revisions of earlier ones
such as KJV and RSV) have been surprised to find that the
commandment reads, "You shall not commit murder" (so NEB; see
also NIV, NJV, TEV). That the issue is not settled, however, is
suggested by the fact that other recent translations continue the
traditional wording (JB, NAB).
The problem resides in the fact that the verb (Hebrew
r-ts-ch) does not evidence a single narrow and precise meaning in
its forty-six occurrences in the Bible. Hence even the King James
Version rendered it, at one place or another, as "kill" (I Kings
21:19), "murder" (Jer.7:9), "put to death" (Num.35:30), and
"slay" (Deut.22:26). Complicating things even more is the fact
that a number of other verbs are rendered "to kill" at one place
or another by the King James Version, among them h-r-g, z-b-ch,
ch-1-t, t-b-ch, m-met, n-k-h, q-t-l, and sh-ch-t. May one assume
that the types of "killing" which all those verbs denote are
different from what the commandment forbids by the verb r-ts-ch?
No wonder that the careful reader of the Bible may end up in
a state of confusion, and that the same text (the sixth
commandment) was used by both the prosecutor and the defense
attorney in the trial which I witnessed as a child (see the
Whatever the meaning of the commandment may be, it is
helpful to realize that it does not use the customary vocabulary
(verb) for execution or killing in battle. In the former case,
the verb of choice is usually m-w-t ("to die"). Hence, in the
series of capital offenses outlined in Exodus 21 and in Leviticus
20, the refrain is .. mot yumat, "he shall be put to death." In
the latter case, the customary verb is n-k-h ("to smite").
What, then, does the commandment mean? Sometimes the verb
r-ts-ch is used to describe an unintentional killing (Deut.
4:41-42). It does not seem likely, however, that the commandment
would seek to forbid accidents. In other cases, the verb is used
for sanctioned execution (Num.35:30, "shall be put to death"). If
the commandment forbids that, then it is in tension with clear
divine mandate elsewhere in Scripture. In yet other cases, the
verb seems to describe premeditated murder (Ps.94:4-7; Hos.6:9).
The verb seemingly is used in that sense by the prophets, who
condemn such action in the strongest of terms (Jer.7:9; Hos.
In view of such diverse usage, the following solutions have
1. Given the range of usage and the imprecision in individual
texts, it is impossible to know what the commandment intends. (It
may be for this reason that some recent translations continue to
use the term "kill": Not that they take the commandment to be an
absolute prohibition of taking human life, but that they prefer
latitude to precision in view of the linguistic uncertainty.)
2. Given the wide range of individual usages, it is preferable to
incorporate them all into a comprehensive meaning: It is an
absolute prohibition against the taking of human life. It is a
pristine Mosaic ideal which was soon given up. Texts which allow
killing in battle or which order the execution of criminals are
thus a later and degenerate form of Israel's religion. They do
not represent the values of the historical Moses. (Such an
approach has only been offered by an occasional solitary voice.)
3. The verb r-ts-ch, rather than having all its attested meanings
at the same period in Israel's history, has developed meanings
with the passage of time (just as words do in any language). The
early meaning was the taking of human life which necessitated
execution by the "avenger of blood" (i.e., the question of the
killer's motives was irrelevant). The later meaning injects the
motive of malice and violence (murder). It is the later meaning
which the commandment has in mind (Childs, p.421). (Since the
date of the formation of the commandments is itself vigorously
debated, such an argument is not without its problems, especially
if one wishes to date them earlier, i.e., to the Mosaic period.)
4. The meaning of the commandment cannot be decided on linguistic
grounds (vocabulary and grammar), but only by placing it within
the context of other Pentateuchal legislation (especially from
the same period from which the commandments are presumed to have
originated). It is a context in which killing in battle and
execution for capital offense is dearly and repeatedly mandated.
The larger historical and literary context (Joshua-Kings and the
prophetic books) reveals a strong aversion to the malicious
taking of human life. Thus, there is clearly socially sanctioned
killing, and there is forbidden killing. The term "murder,"
however imprecise it may be, is thus preferable to any other.
This last solution might cause the conscientious reader of the
Bible to breathe a sign of relief: The tension between the
commandment and the demands for execution elsewhere in Scripture
has resulted from translators' lack of precision, and does not
necessarily reside within the text itself.
The closest parallels to the commandment are the following:
"Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death."
"Cursed be he who slays his neighbor in secret." (Deut.27:24)
"He who kills a man shall be put to death." (Lev. 24:17)
What is it that the person has done in these cases to merit
death? Despite the differing translations ("strikes." "slays,"
"kills"), the Hebrew verb is the same in each case (n-k-h). It is
a verb which suggests attack, striking, violence, intention,
malice. It is, therefore, the verb of choice for describing death
in battle (2 Sam.2:29; 20:10) but is by no means limited to that
situation (1 Sam.17:95) or even to a fatality (Exod.2:11,19;
hence the added stipulation above in Exod.21:12, "so that he
dies"). Hence the King James Version prefers to render it by "to
smite" (including at two of the texts quoted above). Note
especially that Deuteronomy adds the phrase "in secret,"
suggesting that the life was not taken within the bounds of
One may plausibly suggest, therefore, that the concern of
the commandment (r-ts-ch) is closely related to, if not identical
with, the concern of the other three texts (n-k-h). That is, it
forbids premeditated, malicious violence that is not sanctioned
by divine decree as mediated by the stipulations of Israel's
The author/s have indeed spoken the correct meaning in the last
paragraph above. The Bible must be read as a whole, not isolating
one verse, or what I call reading the Bible with "tunnel vision."
Obviously then, when reading the 6th commandment WITHIN the whole
Old Testament, we see that God allowing killing in "battles" (and
that is another subject, you can study in my studies on "The
Christian and Warfare") and killing (executing) the malicious,
premeditated, murderers. There was a LARGE difference in someone
under the Old Covenant belonging to the nations "war machine" or
someone appointed as "executioner" to kill the personal
premeditated, malicious, murderer, and someone who was murdering
people for personal intend, premeditated, and a malicious mind-
set. The 6th commandment was obviously aimed at the latter person
- Keith Hunt
Entered on this Website November 2007