Ask almost anyone to recite the commandment in the Ten Commandments that prohibits taking a life, and you will be told, “Thou shalt not kill.”
That is the King James translation of the Sixth Commandment. Overall, it is a magnificent translation. But this one has led to much moral confusion.
The reason we made these video courses is that I believe that everything we need to make a good world and rid ourselves of evil is contained in the Ten Commandments.
For the next few weeks, my column will be selected transcripts of the courses, all of which I present.
Here is the text of Commandment Six — explaining why the King James translation is wrong:
You would think that of all the Ten Commandments, the one that needs the least explaining is the Sixth, because it seems so clear. It is the one that the King James Bible, the most widely used English translation of the Bible, translates as “Thou shall not kill.”
Yet the truth is the quite the opposite. This is probably the least well understood of the Ten Commandments. The reason is that the Hebrew original does not say, “Do not kill.” It says, “Do not murder.” Both Hebrew and English have two words for taking a life — one is “kill” (harag, in Hebrew) and the other is “murder” (ratzach in Hebrew).
The difference between the two is enormous. Kill means:
1) Taking any life — whether of a human being or an animal.
2) Taking a human life deliberately or by accident.
3) Taking a human life legally or illegally, morally or immorally.
On the other hand, murder can only mean one thing: The illegal or immoral taking of a human life. That’s why we say, “I killed a mosquito,” not, “I murdered a mosquito.” And that’s why we would say, “the worker was accidentally killed,” not, “the worker was accidentally murdered.”
So why did the King James translation of the Bible use the word “kill” rather than “murder”? Because 400 years ago when the translation was made, “kill” was synonymous with “murder.” As a result, some people don’t realize that English has changed since 1610 and therefore think that the Sixth Commandment prohibits all killing.
But, of course, it doesn’t. If the Ten Commandments forbade killing, we would all have to be vegetarians because killing animals would be prohibited. And we would all have to be pacifists — because we could not kill even in self-defense.
However, you don’t have to know how the English language has evolved to understand that the Ten Commandments could not have prohibited all killing. The very same part of the Bible that contains the Ten Commandments — the Five Books of Moses, the Torah as it is known by Jews — commands the death penalty for murder, allows killing in war, prescribes animal sacrifice, and allows eating meat.
A correct understanding of the commandment against murder is crucial because, while virtually every modern translation correctly translates the commandment as “Do not murder,” many people cite the King James translation to justify two positions that have no biblical basis: opposition to capital punishment and pacifism.
Regarding capital punishment and the Bible, as I note in my Prager University course on capital punishment, the only law that appears in each one of the Five Books of Moses is that murderers be put to death. Opponents of the death penalty are free to hold the view that all murderers should be allowed to live. But they are not free to cite the Bible to support their view.
Yet, many do. And they always cite the commandment, “Do not kill.” But that, as should now be abundantly clear, is not what the commandment says, and it is therefore an invalid argument.
As regards pacifism — the belief that it is always wrong to kill a human being: again, anyone is free to hold this position, as immoral as it may be. And what other word than “immoral” can one use to describe forbidding the killing of someone who is in the process of murdering innocent men, women, and children, in, let’s say, a movie theater or a school?
But it is dishonest to cite the commandment against murder to justify pacifism.
There is moral killing — most obviously when done in self-defense against an aggressor — and there is immoral killing. And the word for that is “murder.”
The Ten Commandments are portrayed on two tablets. The five commandments on the second tablet all concern our treatment of fellow human beings.
The first one on that list is “Do not murder.” Why? Because murder is the worst act a person can commit. The other four commandments — prohibiting stealing, adultery, giving false testimony, and coveting, are all serious offenses.
But murder leads the list because deliberately taking the life of an innocent person is the most terrible thing we can do. That is why it is so important to understand that the commandment prohibits murder, not all killing. When people liken killing in self-defense to murder — such as when they equate killing the terrorist who is murdering people with the murders that the terrorist is committing — all they are doing is reducing the evil that murder is. And when they use the Ten Commandments to justify that position, all they are doing is making the Ten Commandments, the moral foundation of Western Civilization, morally irrelevant.
The next time you hear someone cite “Do not kill” when quoting the Sixth Commandment, gently but firmly explain that it actually says “Do not murder.”
— Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. His most recent book is Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph. He is the founder of Prager University and may be contacted at dennisprager.com.