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The Word "to kill"

Dennis Bratcher

The argument is often made in various applications of "You shall not kill" that this Commandment is really a specific prohibition of murder.  This evokes a range of connotations for the English word murder with a primary emphasis on unlawful killing, the premeditated and deliberate killing of another human being. This would be opposed to other forms of killing, which are them presumably legal or acceptable such as execution, war, or self defense. Appeal is usually made to the original Hebrew by arguing that the word used, ratsach, does not mean killing in general but refers specifically to murder. This view seems to be supported in some modern translations, such as the NRSV (a change from the original RSV):

Exod 20:13 You shall not murder.
Deut 5:17 You shall not murder.

However a close examination of the Hebrew word used here raises questions about this translation, or at least the rationale for using the word alone to distinguish between various kinds of killing such as murder, manslaughter, or justifiable homicide. The Hebrew word used in both versions of the Ten Words (Commandments), ratsach, is not nearly as specific as the English word "murder" and has a much wider range of meaning.

For example, in the Priestly Code of Numbers, the word is used twice (35:27, 30) for killing done by the blood avenger, which was considered "legal" in Israelite society (a form of capital punishment). Also, there are several places in Deuteronomy (4:41-42, 19:3-6) as well as 15 or so other passages scattered throughout Numbers and Joshua that use the word to refer to unintentional killing or causing accidental death, what in English we call, manslaughter (Num 35:6-31,  Josh 20:3-5). While the English language uses different terms with different nuances to distinguish different types of killing, the same word in Hebrew can refer to all without distinction in the word itself. The term ratsach can have the connotation of "murder" or "assassinate" (Jud 20:4, 1 Kings 21:19, 2 Kings 6:32). However, that meaning is usually determined by clear markers in context. The term can also mean something much milder, "to beat" or "to assault" (Psalm 62:3). A cognate noun in Psalm 42:10 (Heb. 42:11) means “shattering” or “mortal wound,” while the same cognate noun in Ezekiel 21:22 refers to the slaughter of a battle. These related meanings suggest that the basic word connotes violence, not whether an action was legal or premeditated. Premeditation had to be determined by a judicial process, yet both those found guilty of premeditation and those deemed innocent of premeditation were both described by the same Hebrew term, "the one who kills."

The English word "murder" may or may not be an appropriate translation in the Ten Words. However, we need to recognize that it is not the Hebrew word itself that demands this translation. As a result, the often made distinction between "murder" and other justifiable killing, such as war, execution of criminals, or to protect one's life or family cannot be supported by appealing to the meaning of the Hebrew word alone. Such a move requires a much wider contextual and interpretive reading of a specific text within its context.


-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2016, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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Hebrew Terms

to kill

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