Thou Shalt Not Kill
by Leigh Wilmington
In Exodus 10 we see the giving of the 10 Commandments to the Israelites. The 6th commandment in verse 13 simply reads, “Thou shalt not kill”, or in some translations “You shall not murder”. For Christians working in the military, taking this commandment in isolation can and does cause moral issues. Taking any command or passage from the Bible in isolation is fraught with danger so let us consider this important issue in the wider context of scripture.
Leviticus is considered by many as the Book of the Law that is found in the temple when an Israelite king decides to re-open the temple after a period of backsliding by the Jewish nation. Leviticus 20 starts to outline the various punishments for sin. There are no less than 10 punishments which require the perpetrator to put to death. But surely to do so would involve not only killing but murder? Reading a bit further in Deuteronomy 7, where Israel is commanded to drive out the nations from the promised land, in verse 2 we read “you must destroy them totally.” Again in 1 Samuel 15:3 we read, “Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” So this is not killing or murder but genocide – and it is commanded from God!
The first clue comes from what is commanded to be done to someone who is indeed guilty of breaking the 6th Commandment. In Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 4, Deuteronomy 19, and Joshua 20 we read about cities of refuge. When something is mentioned 4 times in the Bible then we really should take notice. To paraphrase, if you killed someone, the next of kin – the avenger of blood – is allowed to pursue and kill you. The cities of refuge were places where a killer could flee and plead his case if the killing had been unintentional. If indeed the killing was unintentional, ie. accidental, then the killer was allowed to live and the avenger of blood was not permitted to avenge, ie. preventing the avenger from shedding innocent blood (Exodus 23:7). Note that the killer was not just declared innocent and allowed to return to their normal life, but rather had to remain in the protection of the city of refuge otherwise the avenger of blood was still allowed to kill the killer outside of the city of refuge.
There are a further 4 references to not shedding innocent blood in Deuteronomy 19 and 21.
A further clue comes when Israel is facing destruction. 2 Kings 21 and 24 detail the “filling of Jerusalem” with innocent blood that “the Lord was not willing to forgive”.
So we are starting to see that God allows the Israelite community to kill in order to exercise judgement but really detests the shedding of innocent blood – “You must purge from Israel the guilt of shedding innocent blood” (Deuteronomy 19 and 21). The destruction of the nations in the promised land prior to Israel taking possession was commanded by a just God in righteous judgement “due to the wickedness of these nations” (Deuteronomy 9:4-5).
The Israelites were however commanded in a particular case to shed innocent blood – the blood of animal sacrifices – as it is only by the shedding of innocent blood that sins are forgiven. At the time when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, after taking the forbidden fruit, God himself killed an animal to make clothing for them, not only to cover their nakedness, but as a sign that innocent blood had to be shed for their sin. Note that they were still banished from the Garden even though their sin had been atoned for. This is one of the issues for the Jewish community today, with no temple or tabernacle to present their sacrifices, as to how they gain atonement for their sins. If only they would avail themselves of the one true shedding of innocent blood for the forgiveness of sins – for everyone across all ages – the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Looking at the list of punishments from Leviticus 20 one has to question why, for what seems relatively minor offences, the death penalty is commanded. One of the possible reasons was that at the time of the giving of the law the Israelite community was a nomadic community – moving from place to place on their way to the promised land. This means that they had no gaols or other means of detaining offenders. No fewer than 10 times in Deuteronomy God commands the Israelites that “You must purge the evil from among you.” Indeed the punishment for a stubborn and rebellious son was stoning so that “all Israel will hear of it and be afraid [to commit similar sins]”. Israel was called to be a holy nation serving the one true living God. Departure from the law was not to be tolerated.
God is also upset at the evil of man throughout the world, resorting to the flood to wipe out evil initially (Genesis 6), wiping out entire cities with Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), and eradicating entire nations with Israel’s occupation of the promised land (Deuteronomy 9) and the commandment to King Saul to wipe out the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) as punishment for waylaying Israel as they came up from Egypt.
Christians in the Military
As you may have noted, all the Bible references above are from the Old Testament. What does the New Testament tell us about this subject? Jesus definitely taught about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile but the only times Jesus mentions killing is either about his own death or when he confronts the Jewish leadership about their history of killing the prophets. So we are forced to fall back to the basis of Christianity – Love. “Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
We are instructed to live at peace with all men (1 Timothy 2) however what happens when those opposed to us do not want peace. Some go so far as to advocate passivism ie. allowing an aggressor to kill and destroy as they desire. But is passivism love? Does allowing an aggressor to take your life classify as laying down your life for your friends? How does the loss of your life in such circumstances aid your friends? It is clear that it is only when you are doing something that prevents your friends from also being killed that you can be said that you are laying down your life for your friends. Jesus laid down his life for us, not that we might not die, but that we will not be tormented in hell.
So laying down one’s life is not a passive thing but an active choice. To defend those that cannot defend themselves is the ultimate expression of this. It is one of the things I love about Australia – we have a Department of Defence, not a Department of War, where we are going out to try and gain more territory or resources, but a department committed to defending others – often on foreign soil. In the process of defending others it is of course preferable to take “prisoners of war” than to kill, but such an option is often unavailable.
God detests the shedding of innocent blood, and with this the civilised world agrees. So my response to questions regarding “Thou shall not kill” is that this commandment should be read with the bi-line “Thou shall not shed innocent blood”.