Thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13).
God made human beings distinct from other creatures. Humans, not birds or fish or any other creatures, were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Much can be said about the importance of understanding the results of the fact that man is made in the image of God; one aspect of this involves the sanctity of human life.
After sin and death entered the world, an important distinction was made and upheld in Genesis 9:2-6. Humans could kill and eat animals as they wished, but it was not for man to kill another man. The strictest punishment was enacted against those who took the lives of others with malice aforethought– they were to be killed themselves (Genesis 9:6).
It is not surprising, then, that right after God establishes for Israel the importance of honoring father and mother, He declares that the Israelites shall not kill. Capital punishment was required when evidence was sufficient to prove the crime (Numbers 35:30-31).
For the most part, even to this day, we understand why killing other people is not a good idea. First degree and second degree murder is understandably cruel and intolerable for any society. This has been true throughout all societies and cultures throughout the generations. Whenever such murder was rampant, it precipitated or was precipitated by a complete collapse of social order. There can be no real trust among human beings if “you shall not murder” is not a generally accepted law, and without that trust, there cannot be cooperation, and without cooperation, we flounder.
Most people consider involuntary manslaughter and other forms of death at the hands of another person, whether intentional or unintentional, as tragic. Most people understand that such should not be the case.
The great challenge about this command, however, is how many times we see Israelites killing others. Ethnic cleansing was commanded in Joshua; the history of Israel as reflected in Judges through 2 Chronicles is full of episodes of killing, many of them at God’s direction. On account of this, many make the distinction that God is really addressing murder in a civil context in Exodus 20 and not a military context.
Nevertheless, we should emphasize that it was not God’s intent for any person to take the life of any other person for whatever reason (Ezekiel 18:32). The inhabitants of Canaan were slated for destruction because of their great sinfulness (Genesis 15:16, Deuteronomy 20:14-18). Execution was acceptable only when sin had been committed and proven.
In general, therefore, we understand the seriousness of murder. Very, very few of us would ever imagine that we would find ourselves in the position of killing another person. We understand the “Golden Rule,” that we should do to others as we would have them do to us (Luke 16:31), or at least, in this case, the negative version: just as we do not want to be murdered, thus, we know that we should not murder. Killing disrespects the gift of life that God has bestowed upon another.
Ultimately, we are not to kill because we are to love everyone (Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 10:27-39, Romans 13:8). This means that we must love the unlovable just as the one more easily loved. If we take a life, for whatever reason, we have taken it upon ourselves to end that person’s opportunities to repent and change their ways. God was being patient, yet we, if we kill, are not (2 Peter 3:9). Instead, we do well to seek to direct all people toward the Source of that which truly is life so as to avoid the second death (cf. Revelation 20-22). Let us not kill but respect our fellow humans who are made in God’s image!
Ethan R. Longhenry