verse XXIII – The Sanctity of Life
Violence and murder are shocking not only to the psyche of the individual, but also to the psyche of a community. The sound of gunshots and sirens, the echoing voices of those directly caught up in a moment of terror. We do not always readily acknowledge the fragility of life until we experience firsthand the shock of loss.
In my articles covering the Decalogue of Exodus 20, we have covered the vertical commands, and now, moving to the second table of commandments, will consider the meaning of the horizontal commandments. This table begins with an ethical, apodictic law protecting the sanctity of human life.
You shall not…
Exodus 20:13 is very short in English, “You do not murder,” and even shorter in Hebrew:
How these two Hebrew words have historically been translated has been a source of confusion as to their specific meaning. In the KJV, RSV and the ASV, it has been translated “You do not kill,” causing many to believe that there is a general prohibition to killing even for purposes of food. An interpretation of “kill” leaves a terrible theological struggle with sacrifice, also commanded by the Lord.
What’s this about?
This, however, is not the case. The sixth commandment does not forbid killing. Rather, when we consider the Hebrew language, we understand more clearly what is being expressed and prohibited. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find at least eight different words that are used to communicate killing. In the sixth commandment, the underlying Hebrew verb is רָצַח, ratsach, which appears for the first time in this verse. It is then used dozens of times thereafter specifically referring to murder, not killing.
Dr. Mark Rooker defines “ratsach” as “any act of violence against an individual out of hatred, anger, malice, deceit, or for personal gain, in whatever circumstance and by whatever method, that might result in death.” Bearing this in mind, we discover that the sixth commandment does not forbid the killing of animals, as it is addressing issues relating to human beings.
As the Torah unfolds, the Lord through Moses will define the difference between murder and manslaughter. An individual who accidently kills another is not guilty of murder according to the Torah; neither are those who have killed someone in self-defense, during times of war, or state-ordered capital punishment.
Why does the Lord take this issue so seriously?
In Genesis 9:5-6 we read, “But only your blood for your lives I require, from the hand of every beast I require it, and from the hand of every man. From the hand of every man’s brother I require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood is shed, for in the image of God has He made man.”
Man, the image bearer.
Man is made in the image of God, and as Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz explains, “The infinite worth of human life is based on the fact that man is created ‘in the image of God.’ God alone gives life, and He alone may take it. The intentional killing of any human being, apart from capital punishment legally imposed by a judicial tribunal, or in a war for the defense of national or human rights, is absolutely forbidden.”
Man, created in the image of man, is of immeasurable value; thus, we learn that the sixth commandment not only prohibits murder – but it also sets as an ethical absolute: respect for the sanctity of human life – both born and unborn – as the Torah gives legal protection to an unborn child, just as it does the mother (Ex. 21:22-25). Still, in instances where an ethical dilemma emerged, and the mother of an unborn child’s life is in danger, Jewish law has always placed priority on the life of the mother.
Killing in effigy.
Murder and destruction of human life can be likened to smashing the very image of God, or even killing God in effigy. Rabbi Hertz continues, “Child life is as sacred as that of an adult. In Greece, weak children were exposed; that is, abandoned on a lonely mountain to perish. Jewish horror of child-murder was long looked upon as a contemptible prejudice. ‘It is a crime among the Jews to kill any child,’ sneered the Roman historian Tacitus.”
The sanctity of life.
The sanctity of human life is the fundamental principle of this commandment; therefore we could rightly translate this verse in two additional ways without doing damage to the underlying spirit of the text: 1) “Preserve innocent human life;” and 2) “Protect the life of the other.”
Not only are we commanded to abstain from vengefully, or angrily taking human life, the sixth commandment implies that we must also protect the sanctity of human life. The protection of this commandment is not only a guard against murder, but it also addresses issues such a hunger, oppression, and slavery. It not only addresses one’s actions, but it also intends to govern one’s heart.
The application of Yeshua.
In Matthew 5:21-22, Yeshua specifically references the sixth commandment, and not only forbids the physical act, but also the thought life and speech that would lead to the act. Alasdair Begg has made this succinct observation, “We kill people all the time without contemptuous anger, our animosity and malice, our hostility and gossip. Little hidden murders.”
Our inability to control our tongues, which the apostle James writes extensively about in the third chapter of his epistle, can do irreparable damage to someone’s life (Gal. 5:13-15). In such situations, in causing them to stumble, will we not be judged? Is this displaying the holiness that the Lord God has called us to when we murder with our tongues? Being “under grace” are we able to damage others without regard for the long-term wounds they now carry? Certainly not.
The expectation of holiness found in the Bible is not blind adherence to a commandment, or a rule, or an adage – it is loving the Lord God and acting in community in self-giving ways to ensure the safety, well-being and life of those around you. We can make for ourselves priorities for holiness, yet we will find that our priorities and the Lord’s priorities are often not in agreement. The Pharisees, too, set their own priorities in holiness, and it left them lacking righteousness in faith (Matt. 5:20). Therefore, biblical holiness is a matter of loving God and our neighbor, not of doing homage to a rule. This is why it is vital to not add to, or take away from what the Lord has commanded.
The Heidelberg Catechism makes an interesting observation about the sixth commandment, “In forbidding murder God means to teach us that he abhors the root of murder, which is envy, hatred, anger, and the desire for revenge, and that he regards all these as hidden murder.”
Yeshua, in the Sermon on the Mount, explains how the internal presence of the Torah, written on our hearts, appears as we walk in life. If we are earnestly seeking the Lord God, not only will we preserve the sanctity of life by guarding the forcible and violent taking of life, but we will also guard the dignity of human life, by tending to the needs of those around us. We will lay aside the root causes of murder by speech, and we will honor the image of God in the other.
Shalom. Be well.