When is a killing a murder?

thou-shalt-not-killThou shalt not kill.  That was number six in the series of ten things that God All-smitey insisted on his young charges, the Hebrews.  Of those ten, most contemporary societies have hung onto three as a matter of law: No killing (6), no thieving (8), and no perjury (9).

The other seven suggest a rather insecure and out-of touch deity: 1) Don’t be fooling around with other deities.  2) Don’t fool around with images of other deities. 3) Don’t invoke my name, vainly. 4) Stop by the house every Sunday. (EVERY Sunday). 5) Listen to your parents 7) Don’t be fooling around with married people.  10) Don’t covet OPP.

But back to number six.

The semantic distinction between “kill” and “murder” changes the definition from absolute to relative. If we prohibit killing of all kinds, that is clear and unambiguous (and probably not applicable in the real world). If we prohibit murder — and we define “murder” as an illegal or unjustified killing — then we have opened the gates for interpretation. And interpret we do, as the parameters for what constitutes a justifiable killing changes over time and place. We find the Bible of little use in settling these distinctions. After all, the Old Testament codified (made legal or justifiable) the killing of people who worshiped false idols, adulterers, and perjurers (in capital cases).

It’s also worth mentioning that the New American Standard Bible changed “Thou shalt not kill” to “Thou shalt not murder” in 1980. Why? Because in 1976 the U.S. reinstated capital punishment and in the years following there was much debate (and discord) in religious communities about whether state-sanctioned killing could be morally justified. The scholars (read: the editorial board of the NASB) settled the matter with this very potent semantic distinction: a murder is, by definition, unjustifiable. The state can’t commit murder because it is the arbiter of what’s justifiable. It is the justifier. That may have settled the matter for a lot of people, but it was very unsettling to me. It was a stark indication that what we call morality, or moral systems, are far more dependent on human beings than on God.

Back to what Moses heard.  The Hebrew word for intentionally killing someone, “retzach” (רצח) is itself open for interpretation. Still, virtually every society has recognized there is something wrong about taking a life–without justification. We are told that the universality of this moral dictum is evidence that morality cannot be relative, but look a little closer at the flexibility–the wiggle room–of the  proscription against “murder” and we see it usually reflects a particular society’s values.

Not to say the Bible is completely useless in this regard. It’s actually less than useless.  Ardent readers of the book insist it offers spiritual guidance. However, the guidance itself is open to interpretation, and that is the problem. Moral systems are, as an ideal, absolute; in practice they are relativistic, and there might not be any way to fix that. Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps we don’t want to.


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