More Than One Way to Murder (Commandment 6)
Don’t you think world would be a better place we didn’t kill each other? Well, God thinks that too. Don’t kill each other. This week… or any week. If the band wants to come back up, let’s pray together.
Our two-year old daughter, Daphne, has a bad habit that we’re trying to address. On an average quiet day in the Davis household, Daphne will be running around playing as two-year olds do, and then she’ll notice Daisy, our one year-old, sitting up, on the floor, somewhere nearby. And on average quiet day in the Davis household, we’ll watch Daphne put her hand on the back of Daisy’s head and shove Daisy face-forward into the floor. Sometimes it will be a quick mindless thing, sometimes it will be a slow relentless push, sometimes it’s just like a drive-by shove (she’s just passing by it feels like the thing to do).
Needless to say, Daisy does not care for this, and she lets everyone know by crying. Of course she does. So we’ll pick up Daisy and make sure she doesn’t have carpet burn, and we’ll bring Daphne over and explain to her: “You cannot shove your sister’s face into the ground. We know you’re new to this—you’re only 29 months into this whole existing thing—that you’re just learning that you have agency in the world—that you can be a cause that has effect on things—but, baby, you cannot shove—thou shalt not shove your sister’s face into the ground.”
It feels like there shouldn’t have to be rule for this, but there it is—it just happened again—so now we have a rule in our house. Hopefully there will come a day when we won’t need the rule—when the girls grow up and take it for granted that part of loving means no faces shoved in carpet. That’s our hope and our heart as parents… that the rule becomes stupid and obvious as they grow up.
There might be some kind of parallel between that and the sixth commandment.
It’s the shortest commandment we’ve come across so far. The old King James Version says it in four words: “Thou shalt not kill,” and the NIV follows suit by saying: “You shall not murder.” The command is only three words in the Common English Bible: “Do not kill.” But in Hebrew it’s only two words:
It’s only two words. Two stupidly obvious words. And there’s tireless debate about what they mean. There’s debate about what Moses means in writing them. Are we talking cold-blooded-murder-in-the-first-degree? What about law enforcement? What about war? What about self-defense? What about home-defense—protecting my family in the middle of the night? What about those conspiracies to assassinate Hitler—the death of one to stop the deaths of millions? Two little words—and a lot of ink has been spilled trying to figure out exactly whose blood can be spilled.
Do not “murder” shows up in some huge translations of the Bible (like the NIV and ESV and NASB). They make it sound like “ratsach” translates directly to our concept of “murder.” But the lexical range of this word—how this word got used and what this word can mean—is far broader—far more encompassing—than Charles Manson or the Zodiac Killer or Hannibal Lecter.
For example. This word—“ratsach”—can refer to state execution—to the death penalty.
In Numbers 35v30, there’s a regulation talking about limiting when the death penalty can be used. The end of this verse drives home the primary point—no one can be executed by the state solely on the testimony of one person. There’s got to be more than one witness. But it’s interesting how an execution is described at the beginning of the verse… No one can be “put to death as a murder.” (I’ve highlighted the word “ratsach” in green so we can all easily see it.)
What the Hebrew literally says is no one can be ratsach-ed as a ha-ratasch.
If “ratsach” always and forever meant “murder” in a Jack-the-Ripper-hatchet-in-my-hand-kind-of-way, then we would have to translate this: no one can be murdered as a murderer…unless there’s sufficient evidence. “Murder” doesn’t work in both places. “Ratsach” must mean more than just “murder.” Because murdered as a murderer doesn’t quite work, does it? Slain as a slayer or killed as a killer or terminated as a terminator might work. But murdered as a murderer doesn’t quite capture the meaning here. So when Moses says thou shalt not “ratsach,” there’s debate about what Moses means. I mean, it can be used to talk about killing a killer.
Or take Deuteronomy 4 as another example. It describes legislation where sanctuary cities are established for people who accidentally killed someone. You accidentally hit someone with your car, you swing your axe to chop down a tree and hit your friend… however it happens you accidentally “ratsach” someone. You accidentally “ratsach” someone, and you want to be safe from persecution and mobs with pitchforks and torches. So you can can go to one of these three cities and find refuge from criminal charges.
But the word “murder” doesn’t quite work here, does it? You can’t accidentally murder someone. Accidentally kill someone, sure. Inadvertently slay someone, yeah. But there’s no such thing as accidental murder. The english word “murder” implies something else, doesn’t it? “Murder” implies malice—and anger and contempt and “I-want-them-dead.” Murder is tied up in motive; murder has to do with “why.” That’s what any detective story or criminal prosecution is hunting for: “What’s the motive? What’s the why?”
To be sure, the most frequent usage of “ratsach,” has to do with angry, illicit, unjust killing by force… but Moses uses a word that can sometimes be broader than “why” or “motive.” Ratsach can be accidental. Ratsach can even be criminal justice system. In Proverbs 22, ratsach can mean be “killed by lion.”
And so there are big important questions about big important issues—like “is there ever a just war?” or “self-defense and defense-of-the-vulnerable” or “could violence end violence”and these question don’t get answered definitively by these two Hebrew words. There’s an open debate about what Moses means. And so—as in all things—we look to Jesus for clarity on what can be confusing.
If we want clarity on who God is, and what humanity is, and what the law means then we should probably listen to God-made-human.
Here’s what Jesus says as he talks explicitly talks about this commandment:
“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. (Matthew 5v17)
In other words, if we want to see what the Law really, truly, authentically means, we watch Jesus…
“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. (Matthew 5v21-22a)
Wait—what…? Jesus is jacking up all our debates about the sixth commandment.
It’s almost like Jesus can hear the technical debates that swirl around commandments in the first century or the twenty-first…
“I think it means kill…”
“Well, I think it means murder…”
…and he’s bypassing all of it and cutting straight to the heart of things.
If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ (Matthew 5v22b)
…the word there, of course, is “raca”—it’s like a dehumanizing spit in the back of the throat—calling someone“trash” or “garbage”…
…if they say, Raca (’You fool’), they will be in danger of fiery hell. (Matthew 5v22b)
Suddenly the most stupidly obvious command that most of us have never seriously thought about breaking has become something we all struggle with. It’s less about a hatchet in our hands and more about a hatred in our hearts. It’s like Jesus is saying to us—warning us—that there’s more than one way to murder someone: “You don’t need a gun or a bomb or a knife—you don’t have to cut them to kill them.” Jesus asks us about the sixth commandment this way: Are there people who are dead to you? Who have we killed in our hearts? Because hatred in our hearts is the place murder starts.
Most of the time it’s a killing no one sees… but it’s violent and terrible and dangerous all the same. Who are the people dead to us? We’re talking, of course, about that person that you can’t stand when they talk. And it’s not a superficial thing—it’s not just that you find something annoying on the surface, like their facial expressions are a little odd or their voice is a little weird. It’s that thing we’ve all experienced where they didn’t used to bug us, but now—after that experience, after this past year, after the way things have gone—now they do:
I can’t stand when they talk. I hate it when they talk. If I got honest, I can hardly stand to be in the same room with them. And I kind of enjoy not being able to stand them… there’s a kind of energy in it.
(“There’s more than one way to murder someone.”)
We’re talking about that person about whom in private conversation we say: “They’re dead to me.” Not just as a quick outburst, not just struggling with the relationship, not just us processing fresh anger…“They’re dead to me”and it’s because fresh anger never left our hearts—it never got cleaned off the table or rinsed out of the sink—and it’s rotting. Plate after plate of anger just rotting and stinking inside of us. And if they come up in conversation, we can’t even be bothered…“they’re dead to me.”
It’s that person that we want to spit at. Maybe that group of people—that group of voters—that we despise. Perhaps we see people saying: “Black Lives Matter” and we’re absolutely furious about law enforcement being disrespected. Or we feel white hot anger when we see signs saying: “All Lives Matter” because they’ve totally missing the point about systemic injustice. Wherever you fall on social issues—if you got honest—there are people that we don’t really give a rip what they’re saying because they can’t have a single cell in their brain. They support that cause and that candidate, they post that on Facebook, they watch that news network… Let’s be honest, they and their thinking are not even worth considering.
(“There’s more than one way to murder someone.”)
That energy we feel as we entertain hatred in our heart—because that’s what it really is—that energy is NOT the life-giving fire of God’s Spirit. Jesus is right: we’re in danger of fiery hell consuming us from the inside out. Sometimes that hatred in the heart becomes a hatchet in the hand. Or a bullet. Or a bomb. The kinds of things where hellfire erupts onto the earth.
But even if the hatchet never gets picked up… there’s another danger. The danger is that our hatred eventually murders us. Because our hatred sometimes murders others and always murders us. My hatred always murders me. And here’s the thing: God doesn’t want us dead. God always wants us alive—fully and forever alive. More alive than we ever dreamed. And so Jesus goes on immediately from the danger of fiery hell and says:
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.
Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny. (Matthew 5v23-26)
There might be debate about what Moses means, but there’s no debate about what Jesus means: “You want to be alive—? Try this. Go—make things right. Make friends quickly. Go above, go beyond, be reconciled. That’s what true life is like because that’s what God is like.” The life of Father, Son, and Spirit is forgiveness, is self-giving, is vulnerability, is love love love pursuing reconciliation even when they don’t deserve it.
“Here’s my Spirit,” Jesus says,“be like that.”
The sixth commandment is a lot like not shoving sister’s face into the ground. It’s a great starting place but it’s nothing like a finish line. And if we go around saying: “Well I’m not shoving her face—I’m just yanking on her hair,” it’s a lot like saying, “I’m not killing them with a hatchet—I’m just stoking the fires of hell in my heart.” Can we not realize that we’re nowhere near the heart of the Father?
The Father’s desire is that the sixth commandment would become stupid and obvious as we grow up… and Jesus is inviting us to do just that. To grow up. Grow up in love. To forgive. To get vulnerable. Don’t just put away the hatchet… put away the hatred. Again and again and again. To run towards the finish the line—and the finish line is love. Sure, we can’t force reconciliation to happen. We can’t make every relationship suddenly OK. But the world is at stake that we desire it.
(Oh that we ache for it—!t That we ache to be made right with them—above all things! And that we do what we can to make things right!)
That’s when our hearts start lining up with the grain of the universe. That’s when we start believing and living the gospel. We’ll actually trusting the God who says: “Despite all you’ve done… I will not attack you, I will not kill you, I will not shove your face into your sin. I bear the scars of your hatchets and hatred and I. do not. hate you.”
That’s the life of the kingdom—that’s the heaven of God’s life—and that’s the only place where we all come alive. There’s more than one way to murder someone, and there’s only one way to find resurrection. And that way means repenting of our hatchets and hatred, taking up the cross, and following Jesus. That’s where we all come alive.