Monday, June 11, 2012

Exodus 20:13 Don't Murder

"You shall not murder."

Exodus 20:13 (NIV)

This is a familiar commandment. It seems very obvious:  Of course you can't just go around killing people.  However, this raises some questions, doesn't it?

  • If we are not supposed to murder, why are killings which occur during wars considered justifiable?
  • Why did God sometimes command the Israelites to wipe out other nations?
  • Does the New Testament forbid all killing?

Let's take a look at some of these issues.

Why is killing during war considered justifiable?  First of all, in the commandment above, the word for 'murder' refers to a different concept than "kill".  To kill someone, according to the Oxford Desk Dictionary, is to "cause death or the death of".  Murder, on the other hand is defined as the "intentional unlawful killing of a human being by another".  Murder has more of a premeditated, deliberate intent to it.  If someone attacks me and tries to take my life, I might kill that individual in order to save my life, and that would be justified.  However, if I am angry at someone and lie in wait to kill that person, it is considered murder.  Both ways a person ends up dead, but the latter action could result in the murderer going to jail, for it is an unlawful killing.

In times of war, individuals on both sides are considered to be engaged in a battle, in which some will inevitably be killed.  That does not make such killing any less horrific, but it is considered lawful.  However, if in the course of that battle a soldier decided to deliberately wreak revenge upon some civilians which are present, it becomes a whole other issue, and such soldiers could be prosecuted for murder.  I imagine it gets very difficult to distinguish between self defense and revenge attacks when the 'civilians' are also engaged in a kind of guerrilla warfare.  In that case it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between combatants and civilians.  During times of war, even innocent civilians could be mistaken for combatants and killed, when the soldier had no intent to murder.  Although human juries might have difficulty judging the lawfulness of specific acts of killing, God has no such difficulty, for He is able to judge the thoughts and intents of a person's heart.

Why did God sometimes command the Israelites to wipe out other nations? This is a difficult concept to understand.  I think of the example of the destruction of the city of Jericho.  In that case, the Israelites were commanded to kill all of the people of Jericho, except a woman named Rahab and whatever family she had gathered within her home.  Rahab had been spared because she had hidden the Israelite spies who had previously come to reconnoiter the city.  She had heard of what the LORD had done to the Egyptians, and had seemed to have come to the realization that God was the only true God.  Joshua, the commander of the LORD's army, made certain that she and her family were evacuated before destroying the city.

No mention is made of an attempt to convince the rest of the city's inhabitants that the LORD was God.  However, it is interesting to note that, years before, God had told Abraham that part of the reason why He was sending the Israelites down to Egypt (for the next 400 years!) was that "...the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure."  (See Genesis 15:13-16).  In other words, God was giving the Amorite people 400 additional years to repent.  The fact that Rahab (in Jericho) had heard of the works of the LORD in faraway Egypt tells me that word traveled through the grapevine back to her area in much the same way that news travels today.  [No, they didn't have television or the internet, but travelers, traders, soldiers and family members were able to bring news of events occurring in other lands.]  Apparently no one else except Rahab (and possibly some of her family) had turned to acknowledge the LORD.   (Once again, only the LORD, who knows people's hearts and minds, could determine when enough was enough and that the time and opportunity for repentance had passed.)

My point is that often we do not have the whole picture when we read about various tragedies which occur in the Bible, or even, in our own lives. God does, though, and since He is sinless, pure and righteous, He will never indiscriminately wipe out people or nations without cause.

God was bringing His people Israel into the land which He had promised them, the land which God had given years before to Abraham and his descendants forever.  (See Genesis 15:17-21).  The Israelites had left Egypt exactly on schedule, to the very day (Exodus 12:40-41).  Jericho was the first city they would encounter on their way into the promised land.  All of the above may account for the LORD's instructions to destroy the city's inhabitants in this case.

Does the New Testament forbid all killing?

Interestingly, in the New Testament, Jesus seems to take the provision against murder even further. In Matthew 5, Jesus says:

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago,
'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.
Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca', is answerable to the Sanhedrin.
But anyone who says 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar
and there remember that your brother has something against you,
leave your gift there in front of the altar.
First go and be reconciled to your brother;
then come and offer your gift."

Matthew 5:21-24 (NIV)

First, it is important to know that right before this passage, in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus made clear that He was not casting the Law aside.  Instead, Jesus often emphasized the principles behind the Law and preached against a mere external keeping of the Law in order to gain righteousness with God, while inwardly actually continuing to violate the spirit of the Law.  In this passage in Matthew and in the chapters which follow it, Jesus exposes the Pharisaical interpretation of the Law and their view of 'righteousness by works'.  Such legalism could result in a rather schizophrenic type of 'righteousness' in which it was possible for these Pharisees to chasten Jesus for the way He or his disciples kept the Sabbath, while simultaneously  plotting to put Jesus to death.  See Matthew 12:1-14 for an example of this.

In the Matthew 5:17-20 passage, Jesus is not setting up a contrast between His own teaching and that of the Old Testament.  Rather, He is contrasting the external keeping of the Law under the rabbinic tradition with his own correct interpretation of the Law.  In this case, we get the idea that even small conflicts can escalate to the point of murder, and that it was best to deal with that anger before it got to that point and, most importantly, before we even consider appearing before God with an offering.  To bring an outward offering to God while internally simmering in a state of conflict with a brother or sister is not acceptable to God.

No comments:

Post a Comment