God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Ten Commandments Don’t Forbid Killing

The Pope’s latest comments about condoms have again brought up the Ten Commandments, and, in particular, “thou shalt not kill,” which Catholics and some others number as the fifth commandment, while Jews and most Protestants call it the sixth.

Unfortunately, “kill” is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew, which does not say, “you shall not kill.”

The Hebrew verb here is ratsach, and it only refers to illegal killing.

We see this pretty clearly from Numbers 35, which deals with different kinds of killing — somewhat like modern murder vs. manslaughter laws.

For example, in Numbers 35:16, we learn that one person who kills another with an iron instrument has ratsached. Verses 17-18 expand ratsach to include killing by hitting someone with a deadly stone object or a deadly wooden object. The reasoning seems to be that iron is assumed to be a deadly weapon, while stones and wood come in both deadly and non-deadly varieties. Hitting someone with a deadly instrument is a case of ratsaching.

The point of these clauses is that there are lots of kinds of killing, and only some of them are instances of ratsaching.

Other kinds of killing — for example, killing the assailant from verses 16-18 — is not only allowed but required. That sort of required killing (capital punishment, as we call it now) is not ratsaching, and is not forbidden by the Ten Commandments.

Similarly, many other kinds of killing are not addressed in the Ten Commandments.

I go through much more evidence in Chapter 7 of And God Said, so I won’t repeat it here.

Much of this information, though, is not new.

The commandment — from Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, quoted in Matthew 5:21, Matthew 19:18 and Romans 13:9 — is translated into English with the verb “murder” instead of “kill” by many popular Bible translations, including the ESV, NIV, NRSV, and JPS renditions. “Murder” is not exactly right either — again, I go through the evidence in And God Said — because “murder” is too narrow. (A note in the ESV correctly points out that, “The Hebrew word also covers causing human death through carelessness or negligence.”)

But “you shall not murder,” though also wrong, is closer than “you shall not kill.”

I can understand why lay readers of the NAB (which sticks with “kill” here) might not know what the commandment really means.

But it seems to me that people like Thomas J. Reese, S.J., a “senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University,” ought to know better. So I was surprised when he wrote for the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” that, “[f]or a person with AIDS not to use a condom when having sex is a sin against the Fifth Commandment–Thou shalt not kill.”

Then USA Today‘s “Faith and Reason” blog quoted Reese, confusing more people.

It seems to me that religious leaders have a right to believe what they want. But to publicly base a belief on a known mistranslation strikes me as a poor way to proceed.


November 24, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Is “illegal” the right word? Or perhaps “unjustified”? After all, it’s a little circular for a legal code to say “Do not do something illegal.” Also, couldn’t there be such thing as state-sponsored retzach, which would be unjustified or unethical but not exactly illegal?

    Comment by Aaron | November 24, 2010

    • It’s a great question, Aaron.

      I don’t think that the Ten Commandments are a legal code. Rather, the legal aspects appear elsewhere (Numbers 35, for example). I think the point of the Ten Commandments is to indicate which laws also have a moral component. I have more on-line in a short video clip about the Ten Commandments (from a lecture I gave some months ago in New Jersey), and even more in And God Said.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 24, 2010

  2. Nor do I think that they forbid lesbianism.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | November 24, 2010

    • Or cannibalism, though I don’t quite get your point, WE.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | November 25, 2010

  3. I was just calling attention to the fact that, despite people’s claim that the “Ten Commandments” is the “comprehensive moral law of God”, it acttually is just a list of some very specific prohibitions.

    If we apply the principle applicable in the garden (and applicable in the USA), then whatever is not explicitly forbidden is permittted. “Of every tree you may eat except…”

    Since the Torah forbids adultery, but not sex between unmarried people, is it allowed? I mean, “thou shalt not kill” as the OP says, is really not forbidding killing, just causing unmerited death. Obviously, YHVH doesn’t get upset with lots of killing, in wars, or even:

    Num 25:7 And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;
    Num 25:8 And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

    Do the “Ten Commandments” provide adequate moral law? Did Phinaeas murder? Was that an exception?

    Again, my main point is a rebuff to those who claim too much for these ten matters. They are specific prohibitions with very little nuamce, and gradiose claims should not be made about them that cannot bear up to scrutiny.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | November 25, 2010

  4. Joel, I was surprised to find the RSV, NAB, NJB using “kill” rather than “murder” in Deuteronomy 5:17 and Exod. 20:13.

    Comment by Kevin S. | November 25, 2010

    • The NAB, at least, is pretty much locked into “kill” for theological reasons, so I don’t find it so surprising there. (And, come to think of it, I guess it’s not so unreasonable for Dr. Reese to quote the translation he uses.) But even the NKJV goes with the more accurate “murder.”

      Comment by Joel H. | November 28, 2010

  5. Great blog Dr. Hoffman. I understand the kill/murder issue and have been for a while leaning towards the “murder” interpretation in the 10 commandments. However, I am puzzled as to why, if R-Tz-Ch denotes murder/illegal killing, Nu.35:11 uses this when referring to the unintentional (“BiShgaga”) killer. Would this be one of the exceptions that broadens ‘Ratsach?’ I look forward to your reply.

    Comment by Reuvein | May 8, 2011

    • Great question!

      In the Bible, even accidental killing was illegal, which is why accidental killers were sentenced to the cities of refuge until the death of the high priest. Where I live (in the US), if you kill someone completely by accident, you don’t get punished because it wasn’t your fault. In the Bible, if you killed someone completely by accident, you did get punished because the blood of the killed pollutes the earth.

      I once had a long conversation with an assistant DA about this really important difference. He was thrilled about our progress since the days of the Bible. I’m not sure which approach I like better. (A high-school student I taught long ago suggested that punishing the accidental killer might be beneficial both for the family of the person who was killed and even for the killer, helping the killer get over his or her feelings of guilt.)

      So Numbers 35:11 isn’t an exception, but it does help demonstrate exactly why “murder” is too narrow for ratsach.

      Comment by Joel H. | May 9, 2011

      • Thank you for your timely and detailed reply. Is it fair then to interpret “lo tirtzach” as something along the lines of “don’t murder and (also) make every effort to not do anything that will accidentally kill someone” ? I apologize for beating the proverbial dead horse, but I’m sure you’ll understand. Best regards.

        Comment by Reuvein | May 9, 2011

      • I think we have to divide the question into two parts:

        1. The point of lo tirtzach was to include the legal prohibition against ratzaching — which is detailed elsewhere — in the list of things that are not only illegal but also immoral. (I go through this in much more detail in And God Said, as well as in a video clip about the Ten Commandments from a lecture I gave in New Jersey.)

        2. The verb ratzach seems to have referred to any illegal killing.

        It seems to me there are two ways, then, to incorporate this commandment into modern life in America.

        One is to capture the point of ratsach. According to this approach, the Ten Commandments remind us that, unlike parking for too long at a parking meter (this is the example I use in the video), matters of killing are also matters of morality. So we should pay more attention to the laws of murder, manslaughter, etc. than we do to other laws.

        The second way is to capture the details of ratsach. This approach would caution that we have committed a moral crime even by inadvertent killing. So following modern laws may not be enough to satisfy the Ten Commandments, and, conversely, sometimes the Ten Commandments may allow (or even demand!) that we break modern laws.

        The good news is that, at least according to the Ten Commandments, beating a dead horse is okay.

        Comment by Joel H. | May 9, 2011

  6. Fascinating discussion, Dr. Hoffman. Suffice to say it’s simplistic to define RTzCH precisely as murder. Num. 30:30 and Deut. 19:4 complicate this approach. I appreciate your response and will see out yoru book. Regards.

    Comment by Reuvein | May 10, 2011

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