Is the command, “You shall not kill” or “You shall not murder?”

Question: I’m curious if you have a line on the original Hebrew text for Exodus 20:13 which states “Thou shalt not kill” (KJV) vs “You shall not murder” (NIV)?

I had an interesting chat at Christmas with a family member who takes the literal meaning of the “Thou shalt not kill” version. For what it is worth, he had killed people in war but was not comfortable with how God felt about it. After returning home, I was going through my various versions of the Bible and Bible Commentaries and I was finding commentaries stating that self-defense and war-time killing is okay but “murder” is not. Also there was a reference to 1 Kings 2:5,6.

I then ran across Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the OT and learned that even killing in wars is prohibited. Who is right?

Answer: In my Hebrew lexicon, the word ratza (rawt-saw) is defined as “murder, slay” and he further divides the meanings into “murder, slay, with prededitation” (which includes Ex.20:13; Dt.5:17; Hos.4:2; Jer. 7:9; 1 Kings 21:19 and others), and “slay as avenger” (Num. 35:27,30), and “slayer, manslayer without intent” (Dt. 4:42; 19:3,4,6 etc.). Numbers 35:27 is very instructive. Here, after stating that someone guilty of manslaughter (unintentional murder, ratza, verse 25) may find protection from a blood relative bent on vengeance by staying in a city of refuge, it says that if the accused leaves the city and the avenger kills him, the avenger is not guilty of ratza, murder. This clearly indicates that ratza was intended to mean killing that is other than war or captial punishment. God orders the Israelites to kill every man, woman and child of the Canaanites, a clear violation of the commandment if ratza means any and all kinds of killing.  (By the way, there is some indication that this phrase “every man, woman and child” was not meant literally but was a typical wartime expression for getting total victory.)

This same distinction is made in 1 Kings 2:5,6, where David makes a distinction between wartime killing and peacetime. The two men Joab killed were former war enemies who had now entered into covenant with David and given up war against him. Joab was avenging his brother’s death, at the hand of Abner,but not in accordance with the law of Moses. His brother was not killed unintentionally by Abner, but in an act of war. Joab killed Amasa because he had been appointed in Joab’s place by David as commander of David’s armies.

Randall Johnson

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