Yeshua Explored

16th January 2023


When can killing be lawful?

You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13)

In the Melchita (Jewish writings) it was said that God etched the “Ten Commandments” so that the second group of five matched the first group of five. Consequently, the sixth “commandment”, you shall not murder, was a reflection of the first, I Am the Lord your God. So, anyone who sheds blood is as if they have marred the Divine likeness, as we are all made in the Image of God. It was considered that serious.

The key Hebrew word is retsach and is mostly translated as “murder”. Yet the King James Version (as well as the American Standard Version) uses the word, “kill”. The implication then for English-speaking Christians up to modern times was that every situation involving the taking of life is a breaking of this “commandment”. The word “murder” is, of course, more nuanced and excuses situations of self-defence and war (inasmuch as ‘the laws of war’ are followed) but it is, as always, to the Bible that we turn to get further insight.

The Bible asserts that murder is unlawful killing. As already noted, God hates murder because we are all made in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:4-6). Jesus also spoke out against murder:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22)

Of course, Jesus broadens this to include those who are inclined towards taking their anger to the next stage. Paul adds his penny’s worth:

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. (Romans 1:28-29)

As does James:

 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (James 2:8-11)

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the following constituted lawful killing:

  • punishment for murder (Exodus 21:12-36, Leviticus 24:17,21).
  • punishment for adultery (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22-24).
  • warfare (Deuteronomy 20:1-20).
  • self-defence (Exodus 22:2-3).

Capital punishment (the death penalty) at the time of Moses was quite severe. Exodus 21 gives a long list of lawful killing. This includes punishment for intentional killing, attacking or cursing your parents, kidnapping or allowing your bull to kill someone. Deuteronomy 22 adds to the list matters of adultery and sexual deviancy. You can be killed for promiscuity, adultery and incest. Also to be put to death are sorceresses, those who commit bestiality, or who sacrifice to other gods. There are also other situations, not listed here, but the point has been made that Hebrew society was regulated by the death penalty for extreme misdemeanours.

Warfare provided exceptions to the rule, as we read in Deuteronomy 20. Killing in battle was positively encouraged, as long as God initiated the proceedings, when He even promised to be the one who goes with you to fight for you. There were even exemptions to excuse combat, such as newlyweds and the fearful and fainthearted (vs 5-9). Those who did battle were encouraged to be thorough, often encouraged to completely destroy the enemy (vs. 17).

Another exception is given in Exodus 22:2-3:

“If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed.”

This tells us that the defender’s act of self-defence was acceptable, unless the attack was in daylight, when presumably the defender has had time to assess the situation and that even the thief’s life was considered so valuable to make such a death illegal. This is an extract from the book, Sinner’s Charter: Are the ten commandments for today?, available for £10 at

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