Foundations: You Shall Not Murder

Here’s a good place to start with Foundations.

“You shall not murder.” – Exodus 20:13

This is the sixth of the ten commandments as dictated to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai.  As far as a starting point goes, this one is a little bit controversial, because to use it gives rise to an awful lot of questions, such as:

“How can this apply to war?”

“What about self-defense?”

“Aren’t you stretching this to meet your ideas?”

All of these are valid questions applicable to this scripture portion, and I will hopefully be able to answer them well enough here.  There’s a certain understanding we must approach the Ten Commandments with when interpreting them and understanding them in light of the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as those of the early church.  Because I am still moving things into my new apartment, my resources are limited to my ESV Study Bible and the online resources it gives me, so bear with me here.

The contributor for the notes on Exodus comes from Kenneth Laing Harris of Covenant Theological Seminary, who has this perspective to offer on the Ten Commandments (Scripture references omitted for continuity):

The sixth through eighth commandments present general prohibitions not to murder, commit adultery, or steal. In doing so, they set the minimum standards for Israel to be a just society and indicate the context in which the people will be call further to be holy and to love the Lord with all their heart, soul, and might , and their neighbors with goodwill and generosity.

What Harris is indicating here is that, in this case, not murdering is the least a person can do when seeking not to harm his/her neighbor.  These commandments illustrate the minimum a person can do to be righteous.  However, God has never been about his followers just doing enough to get by, and Christ’s teachings definitely indicate this because he demonstrates that doing the minimum isn’t enough, usually in his “you have heard it said, but I tell you,” statements.  He called the people of Israel (and subsequently, us) to greater than the minimum.

So what does that look like?  Well, a lot of things.  When Moses restated the law for future generations in Deuteronomy, this commandment was also included, and Paul Barker, contributor for Deuteronomy, unpacks the verb used for murder here (ratsakh), citing that it “includes both the unlawful and the immoral killing of another human being.”  My Exodus notes also indicate that the verb included death through negligence.  Barker is also quick to point out that nowhere else in the Old Testament is the verb used to mean killing in war.  However, things take an interesting turn when Barker points to Lev. 19:18, where he indicates the exact opposite of murder is shown in the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In other words, not murdering instead looks like loving your neighbor as yourself.  In fact, that entire section of Leviticus (verses 9-18) has to do with interacting with ones neighbors,which included sojourners (or aliens, if you will), your accuser in court, the poor, the rich, and your brother.  Again, though, even this could be said to refer to the minimum, particularly in Luke 10, where Jesus answers a lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor?” with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Here we see a group of people despised as evil and depraved by the Jews helping out a man who surely hates him (being a Jew himself), and doing so unconditionally.  Loving your neighbor, according to Jesus, also looks like loving your enemy (see Matthew 5:44-48). Therefore, it is not enough to simply love your friends, or your physical neighbors. Instead, it is commanded of you to love every man, and every woman, you come into contact with, as yourself.

It still seems simple, I suppose.  Just don’t murder your neighbor, but what does murder look like? Is it just killing another human being, whether through premeditated act or negligence?  Jesus takes that even further in the Sermon on the Mount, when speaking of anger.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council, and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire.

These commands seem heavy, but let us consider what Jesus means with this anger.  According to Michael J. Wilkins, contributor of commentary to Matthew in the ESV Study Bible:

Anger typically entails a desire to damage or destroy the other person, either in some personal way or literally in the form of murder.  Calling someone a fool is closely related to anger, in that it represents a destructive attack on one’s character and identity.

So even insult is just as bad as murder.  Even hatred, anger toward another person, is just as bad as murder.  Why?  Because anger drives us to harm, to demean, and belittle other individuals.  We set those individuals beneath us, and make them subhuman.  One of Christ’s aims here on earth was to end such injustices, and to set each human being on an equal level.  No one is inferior, no one is subhuman.  In fact, we are all sinners.  Anger is what makes others feel as though they cannot be redeemed, and Christ preached and taught against such thinking, both in word and deed.

Anger makes you unfit to pray, to worship, as Christ indicates in verses 23-25:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.  First be reconciled to your bother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.

God will not allow conflict to interfere with worship, therefore be resolved and reconciled in your relationships with all.

To sum it all up, to not murder is to love your neighbor, and everyone is your neighbor, no exceptions.  To murder is to even go so far as to insult or harbor anger against another person.  Therefore, harbor anger against no one, and in the words of Paul, “as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)

What do you think?  Do Christians do a good job at loving their neighbors around them?  How about in their cities?  How about worldwide?

How well have you learned to love your neighbor?  Based on the standards for murder, are you guilty of murder?

(Note:  I know I didn’t answer those questions about war and self defense, but I will soon.)


2 thoughts on “Foundations: You Shall Not Murder

  1. The thought that always gets left out is between self-defense and war: protecting another. I’d be interested to see you address that. I have no interest in defending myself with anything but bare minimum violence (i.e. I wouldn’t kill to save myself), but my girlfriend? Family? Friends? Yeah. I probably would.

    • And I shall in due time, but this post was already about the size of a 5-page paper. Thanks for askin’, though!

      Also, for anyone interested, Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love has an excellent discourse on loving one’s neighbor. It’s pretty wordy, but he gets his point across all the same.

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