By Dr. James J. North, Jr.*
This study is an effort to establish what kind of killing is and is not included under the 6th commandment. Based on views passed on from generation to generation, many Seventh-day Adventists (SDAs) have considered the Commandment to prohibit murder, killing in war, suicide, killing in self- and family-protection, etc . . . We have used the commandment to frown on, if not to prohibit, the bearing of arms, guns, as instruments of war, of law enforcement, and of hunting. Many would not have a weapon/gun in their homes as an instrument of self and family protection for fear of a home intrusion that might cause them to kill the intruder.
The commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is translated into English from the original Hebrew in two texts in the OT, Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. They are both statements of the 6th Commandment, given initially by God from Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17) and repeated by Moses (Deuteronomy 5:1-21).
The principal translation that brought the Bible and the Commandments in English to us is the King James Version, the translation authorized by King James I. of England, completed in the year 1611. The phrase, “Thou shalt not kill” is the 1611 (KJV) English translation of the original Hebrew language of the 6th Commandment.
So we start with a gentle reminder that the Word of God in English was preceded by and sprung from the Word of God in Hebrew. Thus the meaning of the English must be first and foremost interpreted by the meaning of the Hebrew.
A second reminder and beginning point in this study is that our understanding of Scripture is not static. A number of factors have caused and will cause us to adjust our understanding of the Bible—archeological discoveries, studies of the ancient languages, historical research, and systematic Bible study. “The path of the just is as a shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18). (see JPST—“The path of the righteous is like radiant sunlight, ever brightening until noon.”). Difficult as it may be, we must be willing to adjust our understanding of Scripture when exegetical, historical, and contextual study corrects our views, even when these views have been handed down to us by revered leaders and writers. This was the experience of our SDA pioneers, who grew as they studied and restudied Scripture. They learned and changed. This has been our history and it will be our future.
Three Hermeneutical Principles
A third reminder has to do with hermeneutics, how we interpret Scripture. Three well proven principles of Biblical interpretation are particularly relevant to this study. The first is that the Bible interprets itself. “The classical understanding for the self-interpretation of Scripture is the famous Protestant principle of sola scriptura—‘the Bible only’—often referred to as the Scripture principle. The Scripture principle—the formal affirmation of the position that the Bible is its own interpreter—is based on its divine-human origin.” (Hasel, Gerhard F. “Principles of Biblical Interpretation”, in A Symposium on Biblical Hermeneutics, ed. By Gordon M. Hyde. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub Assoc, 1974, p. 167.)
A second hermeneutical principle is that all related texts dealing with the topic/word must be considered. Basing a conclusion on a single text or on a partial number of the texts seriously risks a skewed view.
A third hermeneutical principle is that context is vital in understanding the meaning of the text. In this case, one context, the immediate context, is the Decalogue itself. But in this case a broader context is needed—all the texts that contain the word in question.
Text Study of the Hebrew Word rṣḥ
With these several points in mind, let us plunge into a study of the Scriptural meaning of “kill” as derived from a study of the use of the Hebrew word rṣḥ. The Hebrew wording of Ex 20:13 and Deut 5:17 is identical. The commandment in Hebrew consists of two words. The first takes two English words to express, “do not.” The second is rṣḥ, “kill”, or “murder.”
Keeping in mind our three hermeneutical principles, particularly since the 6th commandment carries no explanation, and the rest of the commandments does not provide any context to ascertain the scope of the commandment, we must look at all of Moses’ uses of the word and all the uses in the rest of the Old Testament.
rṣḥ, in its verb, participle, and noun forms, is used a total of 47 times in the Old Testament. These uses are summarized here:
- The commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) -- 2 times;
- Numbers 35 -- 20 times
- Deuteronomy 4, 19, and 22 -- 6 times;
- Joshua 20 and 21 -- 8 times;
- The rest of the OT -- 11 times.
Cities of Refuge
We start with an overview of Numbers 35, the fullest description of the cities of refuge and the most uses of rṣḥ. This chapter is entirely devoted to God’s mandate to Moses to specifically designate as Cities of Refuge 6 of the 48 cities assigned as inheritance cities for the tribe of Levi (Num 35:6-8). The purpose of the 6 cities of refuge was so that someone called a “slayer” or “manslayer” (the Hebrew word is rṣḥ) could escape and find sanctuary there (35:6). In these verses rṣḥ is used as a noun, a participle, and a verb. It is translated “slayer,” “manslayer,” and “murderer” as a noun or participle and “slay,” “kill,” or “murder” as s verb (RSV).
The terms “slayer” or “manslayer” are defined in vv. 11 and 15 as someone who kills a person without intent. The Cities of Refuge were selected, so an unintentional killer might not die at the hand of an “avenger of blood” until he was judged or tried by his peers (the congregation, v.12). This provision included Israelites, strangers, and sojourners (v. 15). Deut 19:1-3, 7-10 and Joshua 20:1-6 repeat and expand this information, as Moses reminded Israel of the divine provision and Joshua executed the land apportionment mandate. Unintentional killing is further defined as killing someone without having been at enmity with the person in the past (Deut 19:4, 6; 4:41, 42).
In two passages God gives very concrete examples of unintentional killing or manslaying (killing unintentionally or unwittingly and without previous enmity – Joshua 20:3, 5).
- stabbing someone suddenly without enmity
- hurling an object without lying in wait
- casting a stone on someone without seeing him.
In each of these cases the slayer must not have been the slain person’s enemy and the slayer was not seeking the victim’s harm.
- In cutting wood, an axe head slips off an ax handle and kills a neighbor.
Inspiration is quite clear that although the slayer has killed, he is innocent of murder and does not deserve to die because he was not at enmity with his neighbor. Yet, because life is irreplaceable, there is responsibility, and the slayer must outrun the avenger to a city of refuge to be safe (Deut 19:6).
God instructs Joshua further in 20:1-6 that, upon arriving at the gate to a city of refuge, the manslayer must there explain his case to the elders, who must take him into the city, where he must remain. If an avenger is pursuing him, the elders shall not hand him over to the avenger. But the slayer must remain in that city until the current high priest dies. He is then free to return to his own home and the avenger cannot kill him. Num 35:24, 25 indicates that the congregation should judge between the slayer and the avenger, and in this case they shall restore him to the city of refuge, where he must live until the high priest’s death. If the slayer should venture from the city of refuge and the avenger finds him, the avenger may kill him and not be guilty of blood, that is, guilty of murder (Num 35:26-28).
6 examples of intentional killing are clear, as is the penalty.
- striking someone and causing death
- - with an instrument of iron
- - with a stone in hand
- - with a wood weapon in hand
Each of these statements is followed by the instruction, “he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death.” The set of cases is followed by the instruction, “the avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death.”
The last 3 examples of intentional killing are:
- stabbing someone from hatred
- hurling at someone from lying in wait
- striking someone in enmity with one’s hand.
The last case is followed by the instruction, “he who struck the blow shall be put to death; he is a murderer; the avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death, when he meets him.” In every case “murderer” is rṣḥ.
Deuteronomy 19:11-13 gives the case of a murderer who flees to a city of refuge.
A man hates his neighbor, ambushes him, and mortally wounds him, and then flees to a city of refuge. The instruction is, “The elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and hand him over to the avenger so that he may die“. No pity is to be shown. The guilt of innocent blood is to be purged from Israel . . .” (RSV).
In a single instance in Num 35:27, rṣḥ is used of the avenger of blood, the next of kin to the deceased, who is legally permitted/instructed to kill the one convicted of murder and not be guilty of murder himself.
Deut 4:43 names three of the cities of refuge all six are named in Joshua 20:7-9 and 21:13, 21, 27, 32, 36, and 38. In these passages rṣḥ is the slayer or manslayer who kills (rṣḥ) unintentionally. It is clear that these cities are refuges only for persons who kill unintentionally.
Survey of 12 Other Texts
Now we will complete this study with a survey of the other 12 texts, which are in other contexts than the cities of refuge.
1. Deut 22:26. Rape of a woman where her screams cannot be heard is analogous to murder. Only the man is to be put to death, for “this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders [rṣḥ] a neighbor.”
2. Judges 19:4. An act of murder by a Levite or by Gibeonites. 400,000 armed soldiers ask, “How did this criminal act come about?” (20:3 NRSV). The Scripture refers to the Levite as “the husband of the murdered (rṣḥ) woman . . .” The Scripture is not clear whether she died from the multiple rapes or from the Levite’s knife. In either case, her death is referred to as rṣḥ, murder.
3. 1 Kgs 21:21. An act of murder attributed to Ahab. Naboth is executed by stoning based on Jezebel’s false charges so that Ahab can possess his vineyard. Elijah rebukes Ahab at God’s order (v. 21), “Have you killed (rṣḥ), and also taken possession? . . .” Stoning, a legal form of execution, is here used illegally based on a false charge, and is thus a premeditated murder.
4. 2 Kgs 6:32. The king of Israel, intending to execute Elisha, is defined as a murderer. The King of Israel blames the prophet for infanticide (6:26-32) resulting from the siege by the King of Syria or Aramea, and sends a person to put Elisha to death. Elisha says to the elders before the messenger arrives, “Do you see how this murderer [rṣḥ] has sent to take off my head?” Note also that the setting here is one of armed aggression by the Syrians (6:24), but rṣḥ is used, not concerning the inter-tribal hostilities, but concerning an interpersonal conflict between two Israelites.
5. Job 24:14. The indigent are murdered because God is an absentee God. Job accuses, “The murderer [rṣḥ] rises at dusk to kill the poor and needy, and in the night is like a thief.” Clearly he is referring to intentional killing.
6. Psalms 62:3. In spite of the murderous actions of his assailants, David trusts God. David, using the third person rather than the first person, questions those assaulting him, “How long will you assail a person, will you batter (rṣḥ) your victim, all of you. . .? (NKJV). The New American Standard Bible translates rṣḥ very literally, “How long will you assail a man, that you may murder (rṣḥ) him, all of you . . .?”
7. Psalm 94:6. David prays divine vengeance on the wicked. He accuses, “They slay the widow and the sojourner; and murder (rṣḥ) the fatherless” (RSV.)
8. Prov 22:13. Solomon characterizes the sluggard as excusing his laziness because man or animal will murder him. “The sluggard says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be slain (rṣḥ) in the streets!” (RSV). This is the only time that rṣḥ is attributed to an animal. Of course, the sluggard could be using personification.
9. Isa 1:21. Isaiah says that while Jerusalem was once the lodging of righteousness, murderers now inhabit the city. He mourns, “How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers (rṣḥ).”
10. Jer 7:9. Jeremiah personifies Jerusalem as presumptuously committing murder, while facing God and saying, “We are delivered.” Clearly pointing out the sins, God says, “Will you steal, murder (rṣḥ), commit adultery, . . . and then . . .stand before me . . . and say, ’We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?”
11. Hosea 4:2. Hosea states “ . . . the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land.” V.2 continues, “There is swearing, lying, killing (rṣḥ), stealing . . .” (RSV).
12. Hosea 6:9. Hosea describes the priests as banding together to commit murder. “As robbers lie in wait for a man, so the priests are banded together; they murder (rṣḥ) on the way to Shechem . . .”
Several facts have become obvious: 1) In Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, in the context of the cities of refuge, rṣḥ is principally used of only two types of violence—accidental or unintentional killing and intentional or premeditated killing of one individual by another. The former is termed manslaughter and the latter, murder—in today’s legal system, homicide. 2) Numbers 35:27 uses it to indicate that when the avenger of blood kills the manslayer outside a city of refuge, the avenger is not guilty of blood, that is, guilty of murder. The avenger is performing an appropriate act of vengeance. 3) In its other 12 occurrences, rṣḥ refers to intentional killing or murder. 4) Rṣḥ is never, in all of the 47 citations, used in connection with war or in relation to the killing that takes place in war. 5) Rṣḥ is never used of any other kind of killing, such as animal sacrificing.
We might note at this juncture, that to institute a commandment to prohibit unintentional/accidental killing would be irrational. So God has made a clear distinction between manslaughter and murder. The 6th Commandment is a prohibition of intentional, premeditated, and malicious killing. Rṣḥ, employed in the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is thus more accurately translated, “thou shalt not murder.”
This satisfies the three rules of hermeneutics mentioned earlier: 1) The Scripture has interpreted its use of rṣḥ; 2) The Hebrew word RṢḤ has a more limited scope of meanings than the English word “kill”; and 3) the contexts of the use of RṢḤ have determined and limited its meaning and scope. **Additionally there are numerous opportunities in the OT for rṣḥ to be used in connection with war, as the OT is replete with war, but it is never used in this connection (see 2 Kings 6:32-7:20).
Exodus 20:13 and the SDA Church
We have taught, since the Civil War, that SDA persons who are drafted (under the Selective Service Law) should apply for a 1-A-O classification, which exempts them, in the military, from being required to train with or use a weapon at any time during their military service. 1-A-Os have been trained only in fields that do not require use of a weapon, e.g., the medical field. This stance is called “noncombatancy.” And we have strongly advised against volunteering for military service because those who voluntarily enlist must be trained in the use of firearms and must use them to kill the enemy when ordered to do so. One of the key texts used in support of noncombatancy has been Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill” (KJV), thus interpreting the commandment as a broad prohibition of killing, which the word rṣḥ does not support. The translation of the commandment with the word “kill” has provided conveniently, but somewhat erroneously, a doctrine-like prohibition of military killing. If one is breaking a commandment in participating in military killing in war, that person is committing a grave sin, equivalent to breaking any of the other commandments--stealing, committing adultery, idolatry, and Sabbath breaking. Such offenses require ecclesiastical discipline – censure or removal from membership – which the Church in its General Conference sessions has never attached to any of the legal forms of arms bearing.
Much as we might dislike having to say so, Bible translations have been errantly influenced by the philosophical and theological views of the translators or by lack of proper information concerning the meaning of the original language. One notable example of this is what Jesus promised to the thief on the cross, who asked Jesus to remember him at His coming. We take a view that is not in agreement with the translators’ punctuation of Jesus reply. Every translation places the comma so that Jesus said, “I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). We oppose this unanimous translation on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the rest of Scriptural teaching on the condition of persons in death. We believe the Scripture should be punctuated, “I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
So, it seems that in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 we must differ with the translation “Thou shalt not kill” on the grounds that it is too broad, and thus is inaccurate and inconsistent with all the contexts in which rṣḥ is used in Scripture.
We must study what the whole of Scripture contributes to our understanding of the topic. Presently, our teaching on noncombatancy has a basis comparable to that of vegetarianism. Based on Scriptural evidence and the health principles with which that evidence has been found to be consistent, we forbid the eating of unclean meats. The matter of whether to eat the clean meats or be vegetarian in diet is a matter of conscience. But we do teach that an appropriate vegetarian diet is a much more healthy diet than a non-vegetarian diet. There is no statement in Scripture prohibiting the eating of clean meats. In fact, Jesus and His disciples are clearly eaters of clean meats—lamb and fish, in particular.
So noncombatancy has also always been a matter of personal conscience and we need to consider whether the New Testament does or does not support that status.
*Born and raised in the Bronx, NY, James North graduated from Atlantic Union College (BA in Theology, 1960), Andrews University SDA Theological Seminary (M Div, 1963; D.Min. 1989). He pastored in the Oregon Conference when he accepted a General Conference call to the US Air Force Chaplaincy, where he served 20 years in different countries, including Viet Nam. About this time he writes: "During my year in Viet Nam, I learned first hand the awfulness of war and its intimate companions, killing and death. One of my regular chaplain visitation and ministry sites was the mortuary at Tan Son Nhut AB.I have seen the charred corpses of military persons killed in helicopter crashes; ministered to those with horrible wounds who were evacuated from battle to our Casualty Staging Unit before air evacuation to a major military hospital; felt the earth shaking vibrations and seen the distant flashes of B-52 bombings; fled to bunkers during rocket attacks, and shared with my fellow military persons the heart rending year-long separation from family. ... I spent 5 years at Arlington National Cemetery in AF funeral and burial ministry. So I have much personal ministry experience with grief and death related to military service."
Since 1988 James North teaches at the SDA Theol. Seminary, Andrews University as Professor of Pastoral Care and Chaplaincy, and serves there as Seminary Chaplain, sponsor of the Seminary Chaplains Club and Seminary Student Forum, and advisor to Seminarians entering military, health-care, correctional, and campus chaplaincy. In this last area, he is also a representative of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM) at the General Conference, in which position his work is also to give realistic advice and spiritual counsel to academy and college youth who are interested in or who have joined one of the US military services and to share the spiritual support that ACM provides to SDA military persons. He is married to Audrey and they have 3 daughters, a son and 6 grandchildren.