Exodus 20:13 is famously rendered in many English translations as either

"You shall not murder" or "You shall not kill."

This variation in translation leads to questions regarding the original intent and scope of this commandment within its biblical and historical context.

Key Questions:

Linguistic Clarity: What is the most accurate translation of the original Hebrew word used in Exodus 20:13, and what are its implications? Does the original language differentiate between "murder" (an unlawful killing) and "kill" (a broader term encompassing the taking of life, lawful or not)?

Scope of the Commandment: Is the commandment's prohibition exclusively human-centric, applying only to the act of killing another human being, or does it extend to all living beings, including animals and plants? How have various theological traditions interpreted this scope?

Cultural and Historical Context: How did contemporary understandings of life and the value of living beings during the time of Exodus influence the interpretation of this commandment? Were there distinctions made between different forms of life (e.g., humans, animals, plants) in ancient Hebrew law and ethics?

Theological Implications: For those traditions that interpret this commandment as applying solely to human life, how do they justify the consumption of plants and animals? Additionally, how do interpretations of this commandment address actions like self-defense or capital punishment?

I am seeking insights that delve into the original Hebrew text, as well as interpretations from various Jewish and Christian perspectives. Understanding the breadth of interpretation and application of this commandment could enrich our comprehension of its ethical implications for believers past and present.

Thank you for sharing your expertise and perspectives on this nuanced topic!


1 Answer 1


The pertinent Hebrew word is רָצַח (ratsach) which is murder, or more precisely, illegal killing of a human. There are several Hebrew words for killing, but this one refers to murder or unauthorized killing.

Now, in some circumstances, killing a human is legal (eg, judicial execution, or, death during a valid war, etc) and by definition such killings are not murder.

However, the commandment prohibits illegal killing of humans, which usually means that apart from either

  • judicial executions and
  • death during a valid war
  • accidental death by misadventure

almost any other killing would be illegal and so a murder. That is, murder is unauthorized killing. Of course, Jesus greatly expanded the scope, or more precisely taught the true scope of this commandment in Matt 5:21, 22.

You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘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. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to the fire of hell.

We have something similar in 1 John 3:15

Everyone hating his brother is a murderer; and you know that any murderer does not have eternal life abiding in him.

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