God Is Moral Part Seven

Previously we examined five ways in which God revealed that murder violates and perverts His moral absolutes and fixed order of moral law.

The fifth way was through God giving Israel the following commandment: “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13). Some versions of the Bible use the word kill instead of murder. But since the Bible indicates that some killings are not murder but are permissible and, in some cases, required by God, “You shall not murder” is “a more precise reading than the too-general…‘thou shalt not kill.’”1

Biblical Distinctions
The Bible reveals that murder of a human being is an unlawful killing.

Furthermore, the fact that God instituted and commanded capital punishment for murderers signifies that executing murderers is not only lawful, but also required by God. The biblical concept that a murderer’s personal blood is on his own head indicates that he, not his executioner, is “morally accountable for the shedding of his own blood” through capital punishment (2 Sam. 1:16; cf. 1 Ki. 2:32–37).2

In addition, God’s Mosaic Law required Israel to execute a man who raped a helpless, betrothed woman (Dt. 22:25–27); men and women who had adulterous relationships (vv. 22–24); women involved in harlotry (vv. 20–21); men who had homosexual relationships (Lev. 20:13); men and women who had sexual relations with animals (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 20:15–16); false prophets (Dt. 13:5; 18:20); idolatrous and lewd people (Ex. 32:19–28; Num. 25:1–16); people who influenced others to worship false gods (Dt. 13:6–18); a person who struck or cursed his father or mother (Ex. 21:15, 17); a person who kidnapped a man and sold or kept him (v. 16); every person who defiled or worked on the sabbath (31:14–15); Israelites who sacrificed their children to the pagan god Molech (Lev. 20:2); a man and his stepmother who had sexual relations (v. 11); a man and his daughter-in-law who had sexual relations (v. 12); spiritist mediums and other practitioners of the occult (v. 27); and anyone who blasphemed God’s name (24:16).

The fact that God required Israel to administer capital punishment to people guilty of these actions indicates that this type of killing was lawful.

God also commanded the Israelites to kill people in conjunction with war. The Lᴏʀᴅ said to Moses, “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the children of Israel” (Num. 31:1). Moses told the people,

“Arm some of yourselves for war, and let them go against the Midianites to take vengeance for the Lᴏʀᴅ on Midian. A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war.” So there were recruited from the divisions of Israel one thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. Then Moses sent them to the war….And they warred against the Midianites, just as the Lᴏʀᴅ commanded Moses (vv. 3–7).

The Israelites killed the adult males, including the kings of Midian and Balaam the son of Beor (vv. 7–8), the male children, and all the women who were not virgins (v. 17).

When two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, came with their people to fight against Israel, God delivered them and all the people in their cities to be killed by the Israelites (Dt. 2:30–36; 3:1–11, 21–22).

Through Moses, God instructed the Israelites concerning the cities He had determined to give to them as an inheritance:

You shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lᴏʀᴅ your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lᴏʀᴅ your God (20:16–18).

In obedience to this instruction, Joshua led Israel to kill all the inhabitants of Jericho except Rahab and her relatives (Josh. 6:2, 17, 20–25) and the inhabitants of Ai (8:1–2, 24–26, 29). Later they did the same to the inhabitants of many cities farther south in the land (10:28–39). They “utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lᴏʀᴅ God of Israel had commanded” (v. 40). Then they did so to inhabitants of cities farther north (11:1–14), “as the LORD had commanded” (v. 15). The Lᴏʀᴅ hardened the hearts of the kings and inhabitants of these cities “that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might utterly destroy them” (v. 20).

Because Amalek abused Israel, God required King Saul, together with Israelite soldiers, to “attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child” (1 Sam. 15:3).

The fact that God commanded Israel to kill people in conjunction with their wars indicates God regarded these killings as lawful and not the same as murder.

The Mosaic Law also signified that a property owner who killed a thief who was breaking in to rob was not guilty of murder. Killing to prevent stealing of property was lawful. However, a property owner was guilty of murder if he killed a thief after the person successfully completed a robbery and got away. That was not killing to prevent stealing of property (Ex. 22:2–3).

The Hebrew word rasah, translated “murder” in the Sixth Commandment, is used almost exclusively for murder—unlawful killing. Wrote Old Testament scholar F. L. Hossfeld: “It is noteworthy that rsh [rasah] is never used for killing in battle or for killing in self-defense. Neither is it used for suicide.”3 He continued:

An animal is never the object of rsh. For the killing of animals (“slaughtering”), the verb sht [shahat] or tbh [tabah] is used….Deissler [a reference to A. Deissler, Ich bin dein Gott, der dich befreit hat (1975), 102] says that rsh has overtones of the “private sphere” in which the killing in question takes place, thus distinguishing it from lawful execution and killing in battle, which are allowed or even required.

Deuteronomy requires the destruction (herem) of enemy peoples that are conquered in a holy war to win the vital land (Dt. 7:2; 20:17; cf. Josh. 8:26; 1 S. 15:3). The verbs used for ‘kill’ in this context are nkh [nakah] hiphil and hrm [herem].4

Thus the Bible distinguishes between murder (unlawful killing) and lawful killing. But it also draws a distinction between two types of unlawful killing: murder and manslaughter.

God commanded Israel to set up cities of refuge at strategic locations throughout the nation to protect the “manslayers.” A manslayer was someone who killed another accidentally or unintentionally, not out of prior hatred (Josh. 20:1–6). Because a manslayer was innocent of premeditated murder, he did not deserve to die (Dt. 19:4–7). A city of refuge would protect him from being executed by an avenger. God thereby distinguished between manslaughter and premeditated murder. Because God did not command these types of killings, both were unlawful. But because manslaughter was accidental or unintentional, the perpetrator did not deserve capital punishment.

Legal Definitions of Murder
Governments historically have developed legal definitions that distinguish murder from other killings. For example, The Oxford English Dictionary, the recognized authority on English-language definitions, states the following concerning “murder”:

The most heinous kind of criminal homicide….In English (also Sc. and U.S.) Law, defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought; often more explicitly wilful [sic] murder….In British law no degrees of guilt are recognized in murder; in the U.S. the law distinguishes “murder in the first degree” (where there are no mitigating circumstances) and “murder in the second degree.”5

By contrast, The Oxford English Dictionary defines manslaughter as follows:

Law. A species of criminal homicide of a lower degree of criminality than murder; now defined as criminal homicide without malice aforethought….According to the modern interpretation, manslaughter is committed when one person causes the death of another either intentionally in the heat of passion under certain kinds of provocation, or unintentionally by culpable negligence or as a consequence of some unlawful act.6

Likewise, Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language states the following concerning murder:

The offense of unlawfully killing a human being with malice aforethought, express or implied. At common law there were no grades or degrees of murder, but by statute in many States of the United States the offense is divided into two degrees, murder of the first degree being the more severely punished and restricted to those cases where the killing was willful, deliberate, premeditated, or especially cruel, or where it was done in the commission of some heinous felony, as arson, rape, etc. Murder is intentional and unlawful homicide.7

By contrast, it defines manslaughter as follows:

Law, the unlawful killing of a human being without malice express or implied;—called at common law: involuntary manslaughter, when the killing results from the commission of an unlawful act not a felony or the doing of a lawful act in an unlawful manner, as in culpable negligence; and voluntary manslaughter, when resulting from an act done upon a sudden heat or passion due to sufficient provocation.8

These dictionary records of legal, governmental definitions indicate that governments have concluded (1) there are unlawful killings of human beings (murder and manslaughter) and (2) there are lawful killings. The fact that governments call murder and manslaughter unlawful implies they recognize there are lawful types of killing.

Thus the Bible and human government both distinguish between lawful and unlawful killings.


  1. William White, “rasah,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 2:860.
  2. The Nelson Study Bible—New King James Version, Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald B. Allen, and H. Wayne House (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 508 n. 1:16.
  3. L. Hossfeld, “rasah,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, trans. David E. Green (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 13:632.
  4. Ibid., 633.
  5. The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), s.v. “murder.”
  6. Ibid., “manslaughter.”
  7. Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged, 2nd ed. (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1939), s.v. “murder.”
  8. Ibid., s.v. “manslaughter.”

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