The Israelites were commanded in Exodus 20:13 not to “kill” (KJV), or, as it says more precisely in the NIV and ESV, “You shall not murder.” The Hebrew word here is רָצַח (rāṣǎḥ), which means to take the life of another so as to cause their death. It can refer to accidental murder, manslaughter, premeditated murder, or governmental execution. The point of the law is to ensure that no Israelite—acting on his own—would decide that he had the right to take someone else’s life.
No penalties or qualifications are attached to the sixth commandment, but the issue is addressed more fully in cognate laws beyond the Decalogue (Exodus 21:12-14; Numbers 35:16-24, 30-34; Deuteronomy 19:4-7, 11-13). These laws call for the death penalty for first-degree murder (i.e., intentional homicide, or murder with malice aforethought), and lesser penalties when the murder was determined to be accidental or unintentional.
Such a person could flee to a city of refuge—thus protecting him from revenge killings by the families of the fallen—until the death of the high priest; then he could go free. On the other hand, if a man is convicted of intentional homicide, his punishment is unequivocal: he is to face the death penalty, and no ransom is to be accepted as a substitute (Numbers 35:31-32). This ruling harkens back to Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God was man made.”
Together these laws indicate that it was absolutely forbidden in Israel to plan someone’s death and then carry it out. To do so was to forfeit one’s own life. The reason for the ultimate penalty in this case is that human beings are made in the image of God. To murder a person with malice aforethought is tantamount to killing God in effigy. That’s why God’s people are to regard human life as sacred.
Clearly, the God who issued these laws views every human being—rich or poor, slave or free, male or female, Israelite or non-Israelite—as having supreme value. He loves and cherishes every human being. He does not want any person to murder another person. Indeed, every human being is so valuable to God that there is no conceivable payment that could adequately compensate for the murder of one of them. Thankfully, God takes motives and intentions into account. Accidents happen, even accidental murder, and those cases receive lesser penalties.
Now, murder goes much deeper than deliberate acts of terminating someone’s life. Jesus said in Matthew 5:21-22, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” By that definition, most people have committed murder. Was Jesus just using “preacher’s hyperbole” to make a point, or was he wanting his followers to take a new look at where murder really begins? Unjustified anger, he says, is murder begun. All, then, need divine grace.
Quite significantly, Moses committed murder. King David arranged a murder. And Saul—before he became Paul—encouraged murder. Yet all received forgiveness from God and ministries beyond their misconduct. That’s because there is one payment in this world that’s enough to compensate for lost human life—the blood of Jesus Christ, which was shed for us on the cross for us. With the death of this high priest, sinners can be released by faith in him. “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
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