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Title:  6. How can we justify killing in any form, when the Ten Commandments say “You shall not kill”?


A series that helps consider difficult questions of the Christian faith


In the Old Testament in Exodus 20:13 it says, “You shall not kill”. How can we therefore justify executing people or even going to war to kill people?



When we seek to interpret Scripture there are at least two rules of interpretation that would apply here:


1. Check the normal meaning for the words used, and


2. See the teaching in the light of the teaching in the Bible generally.


1. The Meaning of the Command

The command in Exodus 20:13 actually says you shall not “murder”.  

The word, that the old Authorised Version translates“kill”, is the Hebrew word more accurately translated, as it now is in modern versions, “murder”.

Thus the command is more accurately translated “You shall not murder”

Murder is usually considered to mean the unlawful, purposeful, wilful killing of someone else with malicious intent.


2. Wider Teaching

     "Killing", while NOT given general approval in the Bible, is:

a) legislated for, in the case of manslaughter, and

b) required in the case of capital punishment in the Old Testament  period


a) Manslaughter

Manslaughter is usually defined as the unlawful killing of a human being without malicious intent.

Where manslaughter occurred, the Old Testament Law given by God provided “cities of refuge” where the culprit may flee to, to avoid and receive protection from those seeking retribution (see Num 35:6,11,12)

The distinction is made between murder (see Num 35:16-21 ) and accidental killing (Num 35:22,23). See also Exodus 21:12-14 .

b) Capital Punishment

The earliest teaching is found in Genesis 9:5,6 where God declares that anyone who sheds blood will be held accountable to Him, and that person's blood will be shed.

Within the Old Testament Law given by God, there are a number of causes given for capital punishment, e.g. Exodus 21:15-17

In some instances it was expressly stated that the community should carry out the execution by stoning (Lev 20:2, 24:13-16, Deut 17:5-7, 21:18 -21, 22:21 ).

While this may appear terrible to our modern minds, the reality of it was long lasting and probably created a much more peaceful society than our own. To justify that statement we need to consider this form of execution.

First there needed to be at least two witnesses – and these witnesses would be required to be the first to start the stoning.

Second, you need to think about the awfulness of stoning someone. It is a long and slow process. You may start out angry but after the first stone or two the horror of what you are doing comes through. By the end of it, there is a bloody wreck of a person left dead on the ground – and you've been the means of doing that. You will probably have nightmares for weeks if not years, and you'll vow never to let that happen again. However awful the original crime, as you stone by stone take the life from this person in front of you, all of your anger and desire for vengeance would have seeped away. No, from every angle, a ghastly experience, but one that you and your community vow mustn't happen again. It becomes a very law abiding community!

c) War

To see more on this, we suggest you go to the “Difficult Question” on this site, about God instructing Israel to kill enemies.

There is also the so-called “Just War Theory” that suggests that it is permissible to kill in a war that is necessary to defend against an aggressor.


To Summarise

The command is not to murder, i.e. not to kill another with malice.

This is to be distinguished from manslaughter (the accidental killing of another), and capital punishment (the lawful execution of an extreme lawbreaker.

We realise that this topic opens up into other wider issues, but we will limit it here to the implied scope of the question.

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