“You shall not kill.” — Exodus 20:13
he Sixth Commandment is the shortest of The Ten Commandments, and it is the shortest because it is the most serious, and self-evident.
It’s just two words in Hebrew; literally ‘No’ and ‘Kill.’ It’s like some animal shelters: No kill. We could easily make it two words in English as well: “Don’t kill,” or “Never murder.” Two words. No further comment.
And it’s the shortest because it is the most serious. God did not think it necessary to explain or rationalize this one, as God does with several of the other commandments. It is entirely obvious and completely uncontroversial, right? I mean, a person who might not scruple to shoplift a sweater from Macy’s, or lie to the IRS about her income, or let loose with a gratuitous ‘Jesus Christ!’ after double-faulting on the tennis court, or work 14 hours a day seven days a week, will probably draw the line right here.
There are a couple of reasons that the taking of life is the highest and worst taboo in every culture of every land in every time. First of all, there is the finality of it, right? Killing is irreversible. You can steal my car or sleep with my wife or tell me a dangerous untruth, and there is always still hope and life. The one thing you should never take from me is my life.
The Torah says that the transgressor of this commandment is the only one who can never be certain of forgiveness, and this is because the only one who can forgive you for taking a life is the one whose life you have taken, and of course you have just prematurely foreclosed on that possibility.
There is the finality of killing but it is also the coopting of divine prerogative, right? God alone is Lord of Life and Death. God alone can create life and God alone should decide when it is taken away.
I was at a meeting the other day with my friend Sam Gordon, the Rabbi at Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette. Sam was telling us about his Yom Kippur sermon the other day, the most important sermon of the year, because for Jews Yom Kippur is Christmas Eve and Easter all rolled into one.
He told his congregation that the whole Hebrew Bible, all 1,000 pages of the Jewish Scripture, can be summed up in five words: “I’m God and you’re not.” This applies especially to the Sixth Commandment. “I’m God and you’re not.”
“Do not murder,” says the New Revised Standard Version. But probably most of us learned the King James: “Thou shalt not kill.”
That’s a world of difference, right? “Don’t kill” is so much more comprehensive than “Don’t murder,” which has a very restrictive meaning.
Our vegan friends would say that “Don’t kill” applies to animals as well as people. Our pacifist friends would say that “Don’t kill” applies not just to individuals but to governments—to soldiers, to police officers, and to jailers. “Don’t kill”: therefore, no missiles for the Air Force, no tanks for the Army, no guns for police officers, no electric chairs for prison wardens.
I’ve forgotten about 95% of the Hebrew my Old Testament Professors so painstakingly taught me in seminary, so take this for what it’s worth, but it looks to me as if the New Revised Standard Version gets it more right.
That is to say, the narrower verb ‘murder’ is what is intended rather than the broader verb ‘kill.’ What the Sixth Commandment means to forbid is the taking of human life by intention, or malice, or negligence. It has to do with what the State of Illinois would call murder and manslaughter.
I remember the day from a couple of years ago when the morning news broke my heart. A high school student was checking and sending text messages while driving to school when she hit and killed a 40-something father riding his bicycle along the side of the road. I didn’t know whom I felt worse for: the children he left behind, or the teenager who will have to live with that single careless moment for the rest of her life. That’s the sort of unintended but still negligent activity this word refers to.
It does not mean to forbid national sovereignties from using lethal force to defend their borders and their citizens, and it does not forbid the execution of the guilty by the rule of law. You probably already knew that, because in the Hebrew Bible, God and God’s people act in very violent ways when it comes to war and capital punishment. In the Old Testament, God and God’s people are very good at both war and execution.
So how is The Sixth Commandment God’s word for you and me today? What precisely is God saying to you and me TODAY—right now—through this short passage from Holy Writ?
Because we are not the kind of folk who are likely to take human life through malice or even negligence. We mediate our disputes in more rational ways; we never text while driving—right?—and we never drive after drinking. What is God saying to the likes of you and me?
Here’s my modest suggestion. What I’ve been saying is that though eight of The Ten Commandments are negatives—eight of the ten are “Don’t’s” or “Thou shalt not’s”—they are also The Ten Best Ways to Live. In their very negativity, God is teaching us positively to live life fully and humanely.
When God says, negatively, “Have no other gods before God,” God means “Keep first things first; order your allegiances carefully.”
When God says, “Never take God’s name in vain,” God means, “Choose your words with care and kindness.”
When God says, “Don’t commit adultery,” God means “Be chaste; stay pure; keep your promises.”
And when God says, “Don’t murder,” God means “Life is precious; cherish it.”
That beautiful passage I read from Deuteronomy, for example: it turns a “Don’t” into a “Do.” “Look,” says Moses to the Hebrews on very nearly his last day, after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, standing there on the banks of the River Jordan ready to cross over into freedom and promise and a land flowing with milk and honey, “Look, I have set before you life and prosperity, and death and adversity. Therefore, choose life.”
Moses says, “Surely, this commandment is not too hard for you and not too far away.” “Children, children, children,” says the exasperated third-grade teacher after she’s showed them how to do something for the thousandth time, “this is not that hard. It is not too high for you; you don’t have to go to the moon to get it. It is not too far for you; you don’t have to sail the seven seas to find it. I know that you are not giraffes; I have not placed nourishment in the treetops; I have put the hay down where the goats can get it. I have set before you life and death. Therefore choose life.”
Choose life: What would that mean for the likes of you and me? I don’t have many answers, but I have a few questions, questions from the fringes of life.
What does it mean to choose life for a free and powerful nation that has been at war in two places in the Middle East for 15 years? Drone pilots in Arizona target bad guys 10,000 miles away, but sometimes innocent lives are lost.
There were almost four million births in the United States last year, and almost a million abortions: one for every four. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church, has been pro-choice for almost 40 years, almost since Roe v. Wade. I am proud of that, but haunted too.
Right now, in the Netherlands, probably the most progressive nation in the world for at least the last 400 years, they’re considering a referendum that will allow healthy people to end their lives when they choose to do so. Not just sick and suffering and terminal people, but healthy people. I get it, but I’m troubled; is that choosing life or death? I don’t know.
At the beginning of life and at its ending, we sometimes stand torn between two indispensable convictions: (1) Life is sacred, and (2) our bodies and our lives are our own; no one can make better decisions about them than we.
In 2014, 42,000 Americans took their own lives; more of us died by our own hand than in auto accidents. The Allison Tobey Smart folks try to teach us how to companion those among us who find life not worth the living.
I’d been living in Connecticut for ten years before I even realized Connecticut had the death penalty. It’s such a liberal state; I was surprised. I’d always felt that as a Christian minister, I should be opposed to the death penalty, but then in 2007 near New Haven there was a triple rape and murder so brutal it all but changed my mind.
While I was living in the State of Connecticut, I was watching the State of Illinois. In 2003, Governor Ryan took 167 people off death row. He did this, he said, because he could not be absolutely sure that every one of them was guilty. In 2011, Governor Quinn ended capital punishment, perhaps for good. He’s a Roman Catholic; he was inspired by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin who pointed out that surely a sophisticated, modern democracy could find more humane ways to deal with the guiltiest.
Life is precious; cherish it. There is so much death and destruction in Syria just now, I was so moved to read this wonderful article in Time Magazine last week about The White Helmets. Do you know about The White Helmets? They wear white helmets. There’s also a documentary about them on Netflix.
Russian and Syrian planes keep bombing the civilian population of Aleppo. They frequently target hospitals. The White Helmets are the people who rush into collapsed buildings to find survivors, to see what and who they can save. Sometimes after dropping their bombs, the Russian and Syrian planes loop back around and strafe the rescuers.
They’re volunteers. No one pays them. Last year they were teachers and tailors and cellphone salesmen; now they wear white helmets; they run toward danger and death when everybody else is running away. They remind me of the New York City fire fighters running up a hundred floors of the World Trade Center 15 years ago. The White Helmets have a motto from a passage in the Quran: whoever saves one life, saves all of humanity.
We live quieter, smaller, safer lives, you and I, thank God, but I wonder if we can be White Helmets too. I read a great story in The Cleveland Plain Dealer a while back. I want to share with you this nice thing that happened in Cleveland because of all the bad things that are going to happen in Cleveland next week.
Sarah Nagy is a 24-year-old high school teacher from the Cleveland area. A couple of years ago she fell in love with a young man named Angelo. He asked her to marry him, she said yes, they set a date way out into the future, 18 months or something.
Then Sarah’s father Scott was diagnosed with cancer, and as the months rolled by, it became clear that he was probably not going to make it to Sarah’s wedding day. She was very close to her father; since she was little girl, she dreamed that he would be the one to walk her down the aisle and hand her over to the love of her life.
So, they moved the wedding date up from March to October, and this whole little village of neighbors in Cleveland mobilized for action at the University Hospital.
When the October date rolled around, Scott had been in the hospital since August and was too weak to walk or even stand. But they bought this sharp charcoal tuxedo, and knotted his tie loosely around the tracheal tube at his neck, and raised one end of the gurney so Scott could see his beautiful daughter in her wedding dress. The leather on his dress shoes was so shiny you could see your reflection in it; it’s too bad the only thing the congregation could see were the soles of those shoes.
The day before the wedding a barber came to the hospital to cut his hair and trim his beard. This nurse practitioner named Jacky turned into a wedding planner and went to the Lutheran church before the wedding to measure the aisle to see if the stretcher would fit. On the morning of the wedding, Jacky was the one who figured out the studs on Scott’s shirt.
The local ambulance service donated a vehicle, and when the ambulance rolled up to the hospital to deliver Scott to the church on time, a doctor, a nurse, two nurse practitioners, and two EMT’s piled into the ambulance with Scott. Six medical professionals schemed together to give this gift for free to the father of the bride. They were sitting in the front row at the church when the pastor asked “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” and Scott answered, “We do, her mother and I.”
It would have been too much for Scott to make it to the reception, so he delivered his toast as the father of the bride from his hospital room via video.
I don’t know; it just seemed to me as if that efficient crew of six medical professionals were wearing White Helmets in a safer, quieter, smaller way.
There are so many merchants of death in a broken world. Some of them are human; some are viral or microbial or cellular or meteorological or tectonic. And so, we galvanize against death in every way we can; we choose life. When we are young, we find the loneliest kid on the playground and make a new friend. When we are old, we make sure no one ever dies alone. And all the years between we share what we have and do what we can wherever life is threatened. How is God calling you to choose life?
Noted by Chris Hedges, Losing Moses on the Freeway (New York: Free Press, 2005), p. 108.
John M. Buchanan, “A historic ban,” The Christian Century, April 5, 2011, p. 3.
Jared Malsin, “The White Helmets of Syria,” Time, October 17, 2016, pp. 20-26
Tom Feran, “UH nurses help a dying dad to his daughter’s wedding walk down the aisle,” The Plain Dealer, October 12, 2013.