Thursday, November 15, 2012

Not All Killing is Killing

Thou shalt not kill - Deut. 5:17

To even understand what this law forbids you have to know something of the context of the Bible as a whole. This is simply a summary command.  Everyone who knows the Bible as a whole knows that this imperative is not meant to be taken absolutely.   It has to be understood in context.

About a decade ago, after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center, this appeared in Christianity Today: “If we kill as a response to this great tragedy, we are no better than the terrorists who launched this awful offensive. Killing is killing, and killing is always wrong.”

No, that's not the case at all.  Suppose someone says, "I take the 6th commandment seriously. I believe all killing is wrong.  That's why I'm a vegetarian."  Has he really understood the meaning of this commandment.  Is he taking the commandment seriously? You want to ask him: So do you also not kill mosquitoes, roaches, and mice?

What about the guy who says, "I am against the death penalty because I take the 6th commandment seriously. All human life is sacred and all killing is wrong."  Or the workmate who says,  "I’m a pacifist because I take the 6th commandment seriously. All killing is forbidden, therefore all wars are immoral. No one should ever take a human life."

No, the pacifist, the anti-capital punishment activist, and the vegetarian who opposes taking the life of animals—they do not take the 6th commandment seriously. There may be legitimate reasons for their convictions, but they are unrelated to the 6th commandment.  Taking the commandment seriously means learning what it means in context.  The meaning of the summary command “thou shalt not kill” is fleshed out in the Bible as a whole.  And it’s clear that God does not forbid the slaughter of animals for food, does not forbid the use of the sword by civil rulers for capital crimes, and does not forbid taking human life in defense against violent aggression.

The Hebrew verb used here in this commandment is one of 8 different words used for killing in the Scriptures. This one is chosen carefully. It refers to manslaughter and murder, but that’s not all. There are other words for the execution of a death sentence or the kind of killing a soldier does in combat. And this is not about killing animals, either for sacrifice or hunting. But it’s not just the word that makes the difference; it’s how we understand this seemingly absolute commandment in the context of the whole bible—the laws that flesh out this summary commandment as well as the stories of the Bible. What we know, then, is that the summary commandment here has to do with what we call murder—voluntary, unjustified manslaughter—and also accidental deaths that may be unintentional but nevertheless often entail the culpability of the one who has indirect responsibility because of negligence or carelessness.

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