During the dissemination of the Ten Commandments in Exodus, the 6th commandment says You shall not kill, but in Leviticus, Moses is given a list of rules to give to the people again, but this time seemingly encouraging the killing of people who break certain rules, e.g. A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them.

Are there any contexts or linguistic nuance that explains why both of these are contrasting?

Edit: This is different from the other question Is "kill" a valid translation for Exodus 20:13 (Thou shalt not kill)? which deals with the word "murder" vs "kill". Killing and murder are synonymous, but what I want to know is why the disconnect between the Decalogue and the other parts mentioned? Did this also mean that generally people were not allowed to kill, but a person acting on behalf of the community can kill a person who violates the laws?


4 Answers 4


Question: Did this also mean that generally people were not allowed to kill, but a person acting on behalf of the community can kill a person who violates the laws?

Short Answer: Yes, that is one way to put it.

As you noted, many will argue for the mistranslation of the Hebrew of Exodus 20:13:

"Thou shalt not kill" is actually a mistranslation of the Hebrew, "You shall not murder. The two statements are not synonymous [a]

So this is often interpreted as prohibiting unjustified or unlawful killing. This makes sense given the context. A number of sins were considered to be worthy of the death penalty, including:

To me, it wouldn't make any sense for God to command "no killing," then give many commands that include the death penalty which requires killing.

Primarily, it is a legal distinction. All murder involves killing, but not all killings are considered murders. Murder represents an unlawful killing. Soldiers who kill in combat during the course of a war, for example, kill their enemies, but such killings have not typically been considered murder. Similarly, a state may kill/execute murderers for their crimes, but the representatives of such states would not see their execution as equivalent to what the murderer did. In both of these examples, the killing is done by representatives of the state and is therefore, technically, legal. There is also a moral distinction. In some cases, private citizens can kill someone without charge. A car driver may accidently hit a jaywalking pedestrian, killing them, but this is not seen as “murder.” Similarly, a woman may shoot an attacker in self-defense, killing him, but of course killing in self defense is not typically seen as murder. [b]

Deuteronomy 7:16

Also you shall destroy all the peoples whom the Lord your God delivers over to you; your eye shall have no pity on them; nor shall you serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you.

Another example is, in the story of Exodus, it is told that the people strayed from their faith while Moses was receiving the commandments from God on Mount Sinai. When Moses returned and saw the idolatry with the golden calf, he called upon the Levites to take action. The Levites followed his orders and ended up killing around three thousand individuals who had participated in the worship of the calf. Moses acknowledged the Levites' sacrifice and declared that they had earned a blessing that day, even though it came at the expense of their own kin. (Exodus 32:1-6, Exodus 32:25-29)

An important point. For individuals who are rightfully put to death as retribution for their misdeeds, the Bible says that "their blood will be on their own heads." It will not be held against him who enacts judgement. (Leviticus 20, 2 Samuel 1:16, Ezekiel 18:13)

Question: What I want to know is why the disconnect between the Decalogue and the other parts mentioned?

Scripture says in Exodus 21:23–27:

23 But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

26 “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. 27 And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.

My final point: The prohibition against killing/murder (whatever one wants to say) was meant to represent the moral imperative that govern individual behavior toward others. God clearly cares for the sanctity of human life and the principle of not unjustly taking another person's life. In contrast, God is also just. The laws found in Leviticus and other parts of the Torah therefore provide regulations for maintaining order and justice within the community. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and yes, life for life.


In English, the difference would be expressed as, "Murder", vs, "Legal execution".

In Hebrew, different words are involved:

  • In Ex 20:13 we have רָצַח (ratsach) = "illegal killing", ie, "murder". This is precisely why most modern versions translate "murder" rather than "kill".
  • In Lev 20:27 we have מוּת (muth) = death by natural causes, or, a legally sanctioned death as punishment for crime

Thus, no contradiction is involved. Almost all civil societies have sanctioned death, according to due legal, defined process under prescribed circumstances including during war, or as punishment for some crimes. Ancient Israelite society and jurisprudence was no different in this respect.


Semantic Drift

In early modern times, the words meant something different.

When they meant what we mean by "kill" they used "slay."

When they meant what we mean by "murder" they used "kill."

When they meant what we mean by "assassinate" they used "murder."

"Thou shalt not kill" is an old translation.


The Hebrew word for kill in Exodus 20:13 is RATSACH. I am spelling it with English letters and endings because I am not fluent in Hebrew and can't make the Hebrew alphabet. For murder, I am putting RATSACH. For murderer I am putting RATSACHER and for murdered I am putting RATSACHED, and so forth.

Dan Barker of the Freedom from Religion did an entire chapter on this topic back in 1992 and the book was entitled LOSING FAITH IN FAITH and the chapter was titled "Murder He Wrote" (pp. 206-209).

Exodus 20:13 declared thou shalt not RATSACH. RATSACH is used 47 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is used for Slay 23 times, murder 17 times, kill 6 times and be put to death once. This is from the KJV. Other translations translate RATSACH differently.

In Deuteronomy 4:42 slayer is used with RATSACHER and that the RATSACHER might flee to the city of refuge which should kill (RATSACH) his neighbor unawares. This is clearly not premediated murder but manslaughter.

Numbers 35:6-34 for context and vs. 11 to appoint cities of refuge from the avenger that the slayer (RATSACHER) may flee thither that RATSACHS anyone unaware.

The Bible also says he that smote him shall be put to death for he is a RATSACHER (vs. 21). Also, if one smote someone unawares (vs.22-24) the congregation shall judge between the slayer (RATSACHER) and the revenger of blood…

Verse 27 “if the revenger of blood kill (RATSACH) the slayer (RATSACHER) he shall not be guilty of blood. Verses 30-31 whosoever kills any person, the murderer (RATSACHER) shall be put to death (RATSACHED) by the mouth of witnesses. Moreover, ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of the murderer (RATSACHER), which is guilty of death: but he shall surely be put to death.

Proverbs 22:13 says “The slothful man says, “There is a lion outside, I shall be slain (RATSACHED) in the streets."

RATSACH can mean murder, but it can mean manslaughter and the person or persons who put a murderer to death.

So, this is how RATSACH can be used in the Hebrew.I hope this can be of some use to you even though the person who dug this out is an atheist and an unbeliever.

There are about ten Hebrew words in the KJV that are translated as “Kill” and the five most common are:

MUTH (825) die, slay, put to death, kill

NAKAH (502) smite, kill, slay, beat, wound, murder

HARAQ (172) slay, kill, murder, destroy

ZABACH (140) sacrifice, kill

RATSACH (47) slay, murder, kill, put to death

Let’s see how NAKAH is used in Numbers 35:11:

When ye shall appoint cities for refuge from the avenger, that the slayer (RATSACHER) may flee thither, which killeth (NAKAHS) any person unawares. Numbers 35:21

So, RATSACH and NAKAH can be interchangeable for manslaughter.

He that smote (NAKAHED) him shall surely put to death (MUTHED), for he is a murderer (RATSACHER).

More on this later.

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