This past summer, the US media was consumed by the drama involving Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie. The couple was making a cross country trip when Gabby’s body was found in northern Wyoming along the border of the Grand Teton National Park. Her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, was under suspicion of causing her death. Later his body was discovered along a trail in the Florida wilderness. Recently Alec Baldwin was involved in a shooting on a movie set near Santa Fe, New Mexico. It seems that the shooting was accidental pending further investigation. Was it murder in either case?
The Book of Exodus records the command of God, “You shall not murder.” Is murder different from “killing?” Does the ordinance forbid any killing or just murder.
The Hebrew word used in Exodus is ratsakh, which implies a killing with intent. Most Bible translations use the word “murder” in Exodus 20:13. The essential meaning of murder is “the crime of deliberately killing a person.” The Canadian criminal code attaches the words “means to cause death” to murder. Was Gabby Petito murdered? We may never know for sure. Could Alex Baldwin or some other person connected to the props used on the set, be convicted of murder in the death of Halyna Hutchins? Time will tell.
The Book of Numbers gives this direction to the people of Israel, “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” If intent to kill can be ascertained, then the death penalty can be enacted upon the murderer, if there is more than one witness to the killing. On the evidence of one witness the death penalty is not used but the person could still be convicted of murder and suffer appropriate penalties. That was the ancient Hebrew legal system.
One Hebrew word for “kill” is hawrag. This word is used in the sense of killing animals, killing in the context of war, and killing resulting from God’s judgement. It implies a violent destruction. Another Hebrew word for “kill” is nakah. This includes the concept of striking or slaying by hitting. There are a number of Hebrew words for the English concept of killing but it is not easy to point to specific differences, although all the words have their own nuances.
An example is the story of Cain killing Abel in Genesis chapter 4. In the New Testament 1 John comments, “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother.” I would categorize Cain’s actions as murder. Yet the Genesis author uses the verb hawrag and not ratsakh. To make a distinction, as some Christians are apt to do, between murder and killing in Old Testament passages, is not a simple matter. The commandment, “You shall not murder,” was not meant to be limited to killing with intent only.
We are to consider deeper meanings in the mandates of Exodus 20. As Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:21-24) The commandments are meant to have us examine the actions of our own lives and not just provide restrictions upon society for legal purposes. We should not hurt nor harm others, but help and support them. That gets to the essence of, “You shall not murder.”
Addendum: We use the word murder in other ways also. Traffic was murder today. Meaning something very difficult or dangerous. She always seems to get away with murder. Meaning something outrageous or blameworthy. A group of crows is called a murder. Could it be because the appearance of crows has been considered an omen of death? Likely, as the phrases “a knot of frogs, and a skulk of foxes,” it was just picked as a colourful and poetic name for crows.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.