In the twentieth century, murder went viral. The national security director for the Carter Administration characterized the century with the word “mega-death.” If you accounted for just four human beings ( Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao), under their leadership you could attribute as many as 175 million deaths Even today, people have tattooed serial numbers etched on their forearms, numbers than marked them for death at Auschwitz, as a terrible reminder of history’s cruelty.
More recently, murder has made the news as mass shootings throughout the nation have officials at schools, churches, and communities on alert. Not long ago while visiting a college in Vancouver, I noticed lockdown procedures were prominently placed on the wall in case of such an incident. Mass shootings are happening all around us. Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut on December 12, 2012, killing twenty first grade children. James Holmes burst into a movie theater on July 20, 2012, during the opening night of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” killing 24 people. Closer to home, Major Nidal Hasan murdered thirteen soldiers and civilians in Fort Hood, Texas on November 5, 2009. Just this week, Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist, gunned down twelve people in the Washington Navy Yard. Each of these events represents the mass killing of numerous human lives.
But murder isn’t just a problem in the United States. In the early hours of August 21, civilians around Damascus, Syria were exposed to chemical warfare. U.S. President Barack Obama has called for military intervention in an effort to bring accountability to those who were responsible for a sarin nerve gas attack. The taking of a human life has always been viewed as a serious crime in every civilization. Whether it is ethnic cleansing in Darfur, or brutal killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson, murder has always been a heinous crime.
The Sixth Command
The sixth command comes to us in four simple words:
“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)
Unlike the fifth command, there is no reason given for God’s order not to murder another human being. Nevertheless, the command was necessary even from the beginning of creation. The Bible’s opening plot lines tell of the story of Adam and Eve and their son, Cain, killing his brother, Abel. Think of it: history’s first born killed history’s second born in jealousy. And to prevent anyone from thinking there is such a thing as the perfect murder, God Himself says, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10)
You Must Respect Human Life.
This commandment is one of the shortest as it is just two words in the original Hebrew language – “Don’t kill.” It’s the equivalent to “never murder.” The Hebrew word translated as “murder” is very specific. The word outlaws putting someone to death for selfish reasons. The language of this commandment is worded to distinguish murder from other forms of killing, such as killing in self-defense or in times of war. No one individual has the right to end someone’s life.
This commandment seeks to prevent any act of violence out of hatred or anger, malice, deceit, or personal gain. The fundamental reason why murder is wrong is that God endowed humans with special honor and distinction. Humans were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). To destroy human life is to rob God of HIS creation. Our creativity, our sense of justice and morality, our self-awareness, our ability to communicate and use language, our minds, and our never-dying souls are all evidences that we are made in God’s image. God has taken great care to communicate to us how important life is. Furthermore, murder is not just primarily robbing the person of his life but robbing God of His praise. “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” (Psalm 118:17) When the police catch a criminal before he murders, they are not only protecting human life, they are also protecting God’s praise.
Cities of Refuge
According to Texas Criminal Code, homicide is divided into several categories including: capitol murder, murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide. While ancient Hebrew law did not differentiate murder to such a degree, it did recognize various forms of murder, including accidental killing. God goes into great detail on what to do when a person is killed accidentally. Moses gives an example when a person swings an ax to cut a tree, only the ax head flies off the handle and kills someone (Deuteronomy 19:4-5). A present day example would be a nurse misreading a label and mistakenly causing the death of a patient.
In an accidental killing, the death penalty was not applied (Exodus 21:13). The person who committed manslaughter would flee to one of six designated cities of refuge in order to find safe haven (Numbers 35:9-34). Prior to a formal justice system in Israel, the nearest male relative to the deceased person had the task of avenging his dead relative. But he was forbidden to enter the city of refuge where the killer had gone. The person who committed the accidental death could remain alive in a city of refuge only if he remained inside the city. He was to remain there until the death of the high priest. If he left the city of refuge before the death of the high priest, his life could be taken by the blood avenger. If the man truly murdered someone (i.e., it was not accidental) and attempted to find sanctuary in a city of refuge, it was the city elder’s responsibility to hand him over for execution.
Through all of this, we sense that God highly values life. Even if the death was accidental, your life was disrupted. You could not remain with your family or in your preferred city. Because human life belonged to God, even accidental death caused a major disruption to the killer. God alone reserves the right to terminate life.
What About Today?
When grandma becomes a hardship to care for, when a baby is born severely handicapped, or when more tax money is required to support the infirm and afflicted, many think the logical choice is obvious. Sometimes death carries a clipboard and wears a lab coat. Nevertheless, God’s Word commands us not to murder. This includes ending someone else’s life for the purposes of “mercy.”
In April 2001, Holland became the first country to give legal status to doctor-assisted suicide. One group, the Royal Dutch Society of Pharmacology, sends a book to doctors that includes formulas on how to use poison for the purposes of euthanasia. The present practice stands at odds with how Dutch medical doctors acted during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Then, in contrast to the physicians of every other Nazi-occupied country, Dutch doctors never recommended or participated in a single euthanasia during World War II, according to a 1949 New England Journal of Medicine article. Essayist Malcolm Muggeridge noted, “It only took a generation to transform a war crime into an act of compassion.”
The very word “abortion” raises powerful emotions as witnessed in the Texas Senate earlier this year. Nevertheless, abortion is the defining moral issue of our day. Christians have historically understood abortion to be wrong (Psalms 139:15-16). The Didache, was a second century teaching tool for Christians to teach the faith to new converts. It stated, “Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.” Medical science agrees. Professor Micheline Matthews-Roth of Harvard University Medical School argues, “It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception.” So, the question is not when a fetus is viable; instead, the question is, “Is the person inside of you made in the image of God?”
I predict abortion will one day be overturned, perhaps as early as during my lifetime as abortion is becoming less and less popular in polls among Americans.
The ban on murder includes the ban on taking one’s own life. From 1952 to 1992, the incidence of suicide among teens and young adults tripled. Today, it is the eleventh leading cause of death as more than 34,000 people shot, suffocated, or poisoned themselves in 2007. In 2008, more than 376,000 people were treated for self-inflicted injuries at emergency rooms across the United States. In committing suicide, perhaps more than in any other act, we defiantly say, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
Programming Note: I will post on the Ten Commandments each Tuesday and Friday morning for the next two weeks. For the introduction to this series, visit: Three Reasons Why the Ten Commandments Remain Important. For previous posts, see the featured posts column on the right hand of your screen.