Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — Do Not Kill or Do Not Murder (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17)?
Murder, defined as unlawful and premeditated killing of another person, is commonly deemed to be wrong. There are some, however, who believe all killing is unlawful and therefore wrong, and some Bible-believing people base this on the KJV translation of Exod 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill.” This creates a tension within the OT, however, since the Israelites are commanded to kill, whether it be enemy nations or perpetrators of certain crimes. Other Modern translations render the command, “You shall not murder” (NIV, NASB, ESV, NRSV, etc.). This alleviates the tension, but might it lead to other confusion instead?
The commandment in Exod 20:13 is only two Hebrew words: לֹא תִּרְצָח (lōʾ tirṣāḥ). The negative particle לֹא is the general negative making the prohibition permanent (see the March 2015 column, No “Yes,” But Two Nos: Zechariah 1:4). The question is: What is the range of meaning of the word תִּרְצָח?
Distribution of the Root רצח
Recall that Hebrew has seven basic stems that can be grouped in to five categories, two pairs of the seven being simply active and passive voices of a stem: Qal, Niphal, Piel+Pual, Hiphil+Hophal, and Hithpael. The meanings of the root is the various stems often follows patterns, but is often unpredictable. Therefore, when studying a verb, each of these stem categories must be treated as a separate vocabulary item.
The root רצח appears as the verb 47 times in the Hebrew Bible. Here is the distribution of רצח in the various stems:
Stems of רצח in the Hebrew Bible
The vast number of occurrences are in the Qal stem, and since our passage is as well, it is those 40 that will claim most of our attention. We will include also the Niphal, since it functions as the passive of the Qal.
In the Qal, 32/40 are the active Participle. Twenty of the occurrences are in Num 35, the chapter on the law of the cities of refuge. Of these twenty, 18 are the Participle used as a substantive referring to the person who commits this act. These laws are treated again more briefly in Deut 4:42; 19; Josh 20–21.
The range of meaning is as follows:
- A person (not carrying out a judicial sentence) who kills another without intent (בִּשְׁגָגָה [bišegāgâ, “by accident”] in Num; בִּבְלִי־דַעַת [biblî daʿat, “without forethought”] in Deut 4:42): Num 35:11, 12, 25, 26, 27, 28; Deut 4:422; 19:3, 4, 6; Josh 20:3, 5, 6; 21:13, 21, 27, 32, 38.
This is manslaughter. He is not put to death, but must remain in the city of refuge in order to remain safe from retribution by the blood avenger. If he leaves, the avenger may put him to death. No one is allowed to pay a ransom for the release of this killer. He may only return to his home after the death of the high priest.
- A person (not carrying out a judicial sentence) who kills with intent (with or without a weapon): Num 35:162, 172, 182, 19, 212, 302, 31; Deut 22:26; Jdg 20:4; 1 Kgs 21:19; Job 24:14.
This is murder. There must be at least two witnesses to convict a person of murder. No one is allowed to redeem from the death penalty one thusly found guilty. In Deut 19, the root רצח is not used to refer to the one who murdered with intent, probably to avoid confusion.
- Authorized killing of the murderer by the blood avenger: Num 35:27, 30.
In most passages, the word used for the act of the blood avenger is the root מות (mwt), not the root רצח. In these two verses, the verb describes authorized killing of a criminal by the blood avenger. The English versions translate it at a passive in v. 30 leaving the identity of the agent unclear. However, the verb is active not passive, and the agent is clearly indicated in v. 27. Interestingly the Septuagint translates Num 35:30 with φονεύσεις τὸν φονεύσαντα, “You shall kill the killer.” The Greek verb has about the same range of meaning as the Hebrew. The point of interest is that it changes the person of the verb from 3rd, the blood avenger, to 2nd, the community of Israel. For discussion, see John William Wevers, Notes on the Greek Text of Numbers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 597.
To these we add the following:
- Action done by a lion (a wild animal): Prov 22:13.
This leaves only Jer 7:9 and Hos 4:2, but both of them are allusions to the Commandment in Exod 20:13 and Deut 5:17, which we treat in the summary.
Here are some observations:
- The range of meaning of the verb includes more than murder. This is a drawback to the current English translations: it makes the application too small. Even the person guilty only of manslaughter suffers some consequences. The cities of refuge are not incarceration, but protection.
- The translation of the KJV, “kill,” is too broad in English. Some might infer from it that all killing is prohibited, but the Bible clearly teaches that legitimate authority can justly carry out capital punishment. The blood avenger-cities of refuge system is different than a system of specially named government officials, such as our modern police force and court system, but it was a system that opposed anarchy and vigilantism and yet carried out justice.
- The Qal root of רצח is not always negative behavior. This is confirmed by meaning #3. Indirectly, meaning #4 also confirms this. Though the lion is violent, it is an animal and does not act with premeditation.
So, what is this commandment prohibiting? It is probably prohibiting both murder and manslaughter. It is not prohibiting authorized execution of people guilty of certain crimes.
Conscientious objectors deserve respect, but I do not think Christians must become pacifists, in order to obey NT teachings. Retribution is a function of government established by God (Rom 13:1–7). Even accidental killing, though, is a serious matter. Each life is precious to God. Distinct from the role of government is the role of the individual. Jesus’ teaching as recorded in Matt 5:21–26 brings us to the realization that how we treat and even think about others is serious as well.
(Image:”Cain after murder of Abel.” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Lee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.
Learn more about Lee’s innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.