“Coveting, slander, theft and adultery can really drive you wild. But when you’re dead you’re dead!”
NOW I MAY JUST BE TALKING TO MYSELF HERE, BUT…..
Of all the prohibitions and ‘stop signs’ of the Ten Commandments, there’s one that surely ought to be a ‘no brainer’ for everybody on the planet.
After all, no one wants to get dead.
If there’s any humanity in Humanity surely everyone must agree that killing is wrong. Bereavement is the bane of our lives, illness carries the fear of death, and as Woody Allen so acutely observed: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
No matter how inevitable death is, surely everyone must know that ‘fast-forwarding’ the process for any of our fellow human beings is an evil act.
“You shall not murder.” (Deuteronomy 5.17)
But actually, there’s no ‘surely’ about it. Killing one another is a constant and continuous component of the human condition. In anger or in cold blood, with hatred or with indifference, as an isolated incident or as mass slaughter – we’re at it all the time. We even enjoy watching killing on the television as a spectator sport!
Fictional portrayals aside however, the word used in the commandment usually means a premeditated and deliberate act. So whether you’re killed by a friend, a serial killer, a war machine, an act of genocide, a systematic holocaust, a legal abortion or a compassionate policy of euthanasia – you’ve been murdered.
And God says “Don’t do that!”
But hey, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s ‘start at the very beginning’ again on this one, or we’ll soon be misusing the Bible as so many do in heated debates about the death penalty, war and pacifism.
I think we’d like to believe that murder is an extreme thing, something that crops up at the end of a long process of human sin. But I’m afraid it can trace its ancestry right back to the very start of human activity.
Of course, the first breaking of what would become the Commandments was an act of covetousness and ambition when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit because they believed what the devil had told them: “…you will be like God…” (Genesis 3.4-5).
But murder came hard on its heals, in the second generation…
“Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4.1-8)
And it wasn’t just a crime of passion, it was carried through with indifference…
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?'” (Genesis 4.9)
Even in the face of this cold attitude to his crime, it’s interesting to note that God didn’t punish Cain with death but with banishment from a settled and ‘well-provisioned’ life to an unsettled, isolated and nomadic existence (Genesis 4.10-12). And this filled Cain with fear – ironically because he thought he might be murdered!
“Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.’ Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no-one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” (Genesis 4.13-16)
So God very clearly did not want people killing people – not even Cain the murderer! And this protectiveness towards human life is characteristic of all God’s dealings with human beings – even though He banished the murderer from His presence.
But things only got worse amongst Cain’s descendants, and one of them – a man called Lamech – demonstrates how commonplace murder became…
“Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.'” (Genesis 4.23-24)
In contrast to this arrogance, brutality and self-reliance, when Adam and Eve had another son, some on his side of the family began looking to God…
“Adam lay with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, ‘God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.’ Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.” (Genesis 4.25-26)
Down the subsequent generations of Mankind, although it was always possible to “walk with God’ – Enoch and Noah did so (Genesis 5.21-24 and 6.9) – the accumulating consequences of human sin became utterly appalling and, after a patience enduring some 1700 years (Genesis chapter 5), eventually…
“The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, ‘I will wipe mankind whom I have created, from the face of the earth… But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6.5-8)
Indeed, God did wipe out the human race and most animal life – with a flood. But He also promised Noah, whose family He spared, that He would never do that again…
“‘I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off… I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth… Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.’ So God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.'” (Genesis 9.11-17)
However, part of God’s covenant with Noah included these words…
“And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.'” (Genesis 6.5-6)
It seems to me incredibly important that we understand what all this is telling us about killing and about God. God does not want people killing one another. And God does not want to kill people. The Bible teaches us right from the beginning that, far from being the often-portrayed ‘violent and vengeful God of the Old Testament’, for Him killing is an absolute last resort in order to prevent a ‘total meltdown’ in the human race. Wherever our violence and killing came from, we didn’t get it from Him! Quite the reverse. He has to “contend with it” in us.
All of this means that, yes, God does have a moral right to tell us not to kill one another! But it also tells us that, as our Creator, who gave us life and has promised never to walk away from His creation again whatever we may perpetrate, He also has the moral right to use death to curb humanity’s worst excesses – because He continues to see “how great man’s wickedness on the earth has become.” Indeed, as an introduction to the story of the flood we’re told that God even restricts our lifespan in order to curb these excesses…
“Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with man for ever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.'” (Genesis 6.3)
So… given that this is the kind of God He is, we’re not surprised, that after choosing and walking with Abraham, and growing, protecting and rescuing a nation, when He gives them His Commandments He includes one that says “You shall not murder.”
But we should also not be surprised to find that alongside His foundational Ten Commandments, he also gives them other laws designed to deter and to curb those excesses and behaviours which will destroy their society – and for a few of them He prescribes the death penalty for breaking them.
His intention in giving them all of His laws was that they should live a protected and prosperous life, living ‘with the grain’ of His created order. This is wonderfully expressed in these words that come just after the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy…
“‘Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and their children always!’ … So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you… walk in all the ways that the Lord God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” (Deuteronomy 5.29-33)
Some of these commandments include civil punishments for those who disobey them. We should remember that they were given to the Israelites in a nomadic situation when the whole nation was constantly on the move, so sanctions against serious anti-social and criminal behaviour were limited. In particular, prisons were not really an option.
For some things, people were to be “held responsible” or “God will set his face against them.” For other things, a time of isolation is prescribed. But the death penalty is prescribed for murder, child sacrifice, kidnapping, cursing God, idolatry, attacking or cursing your parents, committing adultery, rape, male homosexual intercourse, marrying both a woman and her mother, having sex with animals, and for being a medium or a spiritist (see particularly Leviticus chapters 18 – 25 but also Exodus chapter 21).
The question of whether other nations that are not ‘God’s People’ should apply these particular punishments to these particular behaviours is not addressed here. This simply tells us what was required of the Israelite nation then – and of course, there is no longer any such thing as a Nation that is also the People of God. But a failure to recognise these behaviours as damaging to society, and a failure to apply sanctions to them, is morally negligent, bearing in mind the clear connection they have with the personal suffering of so many, and the breakdown of so many societies. God holds all nations responsible for such negligence.
And by the way, we shouldn’t allow the mention of child sacrifice to fool us into thinking that this deals with an obviously more primitive age than our own, and doesn’t apply to us. Child abuse and child sacrifice are features of all modern societies, not the least of which is the killing of so many babies in the womb – sacrifices to the ‘gods’ of personal choice, personal freedom and personal self-fulfilment.
So apart from making it clear that we can’t use it as an argument against the death penalty, where does this leave us with regard to the Commandment “You shall not commit murder”? If God demands from each of us an accounting for the life of another, who exactly should we not kill, according to the Bible?
The application of the death penalty in Israel answers this question. It’s quite clear who this Commandment is intended to protect…
“If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely… and there is serious injury, you are to take life for life…” (Exodus 21.22-25)
“Anyone who strikes a person and kills them shall surely be put to death… If anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.” (Exodus 21.12-14)
“Anyone who attacks (or kills) his father or his mother must be put to death.” (Exodus 21.15)
This Commandment is intended to protect people from before birth until old age. It’s as simple as that.
And in case there’s still any doubt, throughout the Scriptures pre-born infants are spoken of by God as persons for whom He has a purpose – from Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25.22-24), to Samson (Judges 13.1-14), to John the Baptist (Luke 1.11-17, 39-45) to Jesus (Luke 1.26-39 and 67-79).
And not forgetting, of course, the prophet Jeremiah to whom God said…
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1.5)
And of course, king David famously said of himself…
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139.13-16)
All that is required for you to be protected by this Commandment is that you were once a twinkle in your heavenly Father’s eye.
So it only remains to address the question of war – in the Bible and in our own day.
But first some surprising and sobering statistics that might help us to gain some perspective.
Amnesty International estimate that there were some 607 known executions world-wide in 2014. This does not include figures for China for whom these statistics are a state secret – Amnesty International estimates “thousands.”
Our World in Data estimate that there were some 105,000 battle-related deaths in wars world-wide in 2014.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimate that there were some 437,000 murders world-wide in 2012.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that there were some 56 million induced abortions world-wide in 2014.
However inaccurate these figures might be, it’s absolutely clear which is Mankind’s preferred method of breaking the Sixth Commandment.
In the course of writing my forthcoming book, ‘A Pathway into the Bible – Walking with God, Then and Now’, I have read and re-read the Bible many times and very thoroughly, and whether we like what it says or not, it’s really very clear on the subject of war. And when we’ve understood what it’s telling us we’re still left with a dilemma – the dilemma God Himself continuously faces as He not only keeps His promise never to walk away from us but also still has to contend with the full extent and consequences of human sin.
On the one hand, it’s quite clear that God hates war. He condemns nations for war crimes, genocides and crimes against humanity through the words of the prophets from Amos onwards (Amos 1.3 – 2.5). Not only does He hate war but we find, particularly in the prophet Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations, that He is a God whose heart is broken and who weeps at the violence and death that results from human sin. In what the context shows us is a heart-rending description of the dead bodies of people whom God treasures littering the streets of Jerusalem during the terrible 18-month siege of the city, He says…
“The sacred gems are scattered at the head of every street.” (Lamentations 4.1)
But on the other hand, it’s equally clear that God uses warfare to limit, control and punish nations that persist in aggression and violence – even when He has patiently given them every opportunity to pursue justice and a peaceful ‘foreign policy.’ This painful and awesome activity of God is written all over the Prophets and is an inescapable aspect of the History Books of the Old Testament, and what the Bible teaches about God’s dealings with humanity – including with His own ancient people.
Neither Jesus nor any of the writers of the New Testament modify this understanding of how God is at work on the global stage. In fact, the only words (as far as I am aware) that Jesus addresses to secular power are the ones He addresses to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate…
“‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realise I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.'” (John 19.10-11)
And some of the very last words describing the final actions of Jesus Himself in our world, before the coming of the New Heaven and the New Earth, speak the same language as the Old Testament…
“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns…. He is dressed in a robe dripping with blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him… On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Revelation 19.11-14)
Thank God that it is Jesus, the Saviour – and only He – who carries through this aspect of the activity of God in our fallen world!
But it’s in the words of Jeremiah in the Old Testament book of Lamentations, written from the very crucible of war, that we hear a very New Testament note of hope…
“Yet this I call to mind and have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness… For men are not cast off by the Lord for ever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.” (Lamentations 3.21-23, 31-33)
God’s great dilemma is clear throughout the whole Bible.
He has promised that He will never again “cut off all life” (Genesis 9.11). He has shown Himself determined to always give us freedom to choose. He has demonstrated in His dealings with humanity that He will never walk away from us. Clearly, in God’s economy, freedom of choice and the opportunity to repent is to remain open for as long as possible.
And it continues to be true that God sees “how great man’s wickedness on the earth has become.”
What safer communities and what a more peaceful globe we would have if we took to obeying the command “You shall not murder.”
And what great patience must God have, what broken-heartedness must He suffer, and what a precious gift the opportunity of repentance and forgiveness must offer, that He should continue to walk with societies and with nations where babies are killed in the womb at a far greater rate than warfare and death penalty and cold-blooded murder have ever killed.
But the Old Testament and the New, the Prophets, the History Books and Jesus Himself tell us that God’s patience will not last for ever.
3 thoughts on “VI: SAFER COMMUNITIES – NO KILLING!”
Your blogs are always very thought provoking and biblically based I have picked this up rather late so will read it again tomorrow God Bless Joan C
Thank you Joan. Hope it helps you….