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.”
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.