Q: #534. What is the difference between killing and murdering in the Bible?
A: Have you ever asked, “Why does the 6th commandment state ‘thou shalt not kill,’ but then God kills, or orders the killing of thousands?” This seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? In truth, there is no contradiction, but rather, a failure to understand that there is a difference between the words “kill” and “murder.” If you look in Webster’s Dictionary, you find this definition for “murder” – “To kill (a human being) unlawfully and with premeditated malice.” For “kill,” the definition is simply “To deprive of life (or) to slaughter (as a hog) for food.” These phrases that I saw on the Answers In Genesis website are also important: “All murder is killing, but not all killing is murder,” and “Murder is the unlawful taking of a life, while killing may be lawful or unlawful.”
We can kill anything that lives: a bug, an animal, or a plant, but this is not “murder.” We can also kill a person, but this is not necessarily “murder” either. Killing becomes “murder” when a person “unlawfully” takes a life, when it is done with “premeditated malice.” We can also “murder” when we take innocent life. This is why abortion is murder.
Now, let’s go to the Bible. When you look at the Hebrew word for “kill” in the 6th Commandment in (Ex 20:13)(Deut 5:17), the word “ratsach” is used. This word is 47 times in the Old Testament, and it is one of many Hebrew words used for “kill” in the Old Testament. However, when you look at the times “ratsach” is used, it is almost always used for unintentional killing, and not “murder.” For example, many times it is used in speaking about “Cities of Refuge.” In short, these were 6 cities that God ordered the Israelites to set up so that a person could flee there for safety if they unintentionally killed a person. (I explain this in detail here.)
However, ratsach is also used in some places for premeditated murder, or the taking of innocent life. For example:
(Judg 20:4)(NASB) So the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered (ratsach), answered and said, “I came with my concubine to spend the night at Gibeah which belongs to Benjamin.
(Job 24:14) The murderer (ratsach) rising with the light killeth the poor and needy, and in the night is as a thief.
(Jer 7:9-10) Will ye steal, murder (ratsach), and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; (10) And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?
(Also see: 2 Kin 6:32, Ps 94:6, Isa 1:21, Hos 6:9)
So, “ratsach” is used for both unintentional killing AND for murder in the Old Testament. However, in the 10 Commandments “ratsach” is clearly speaking of “murder.”
The primary way we can know this is by looking at the New Testament. In the New Testament, the 6th Commandment is repeated 6 times (Mt 5:21)(Mt 19:18)(Mk 10:19)(Lk 18:20)(Rom 13:9)(Jas 2:11). In each instance, the Greek word “phoneuo” is used. The definition for “phoneuo” is “to be a murderer.” This is VERY helpful in clearing things up. “Phoneuo” is used only 12 times in the New Testament, with 8 of these uses being in verses repeating the 10 Commandments. This being the case, we can clearly see that the authors of the New Testament saw the 6th Commandment as pointing to “murder,” rather than “killing.” The 4 other verses in the New Testament that use “phoneuo” also point to murder (Mt 23:31,35)(Jas 4:2)(Jas 5:6).
We can also see in the Old Testament that God made a clear distinction between killing and murdering in the punishments that were to be administered to those who did each. If a person murdered another person, they were to forfeit their own life. However, for those who killed unintentionally, there were other punishments. For example, let’s look at the Cities of Refuge again.
(Num 35:15) These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth any person unawares may flee thither.
Here, we see unintentional killing. However, notice what the following verses say in (Num 35:16-21).
(Num 35:16) And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.
(Num 35:17) And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.”
(Num 35:18) Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.
(Num 35:20) But if he thrust him of hatred, or hurl at him by laying of wait, that he die; (21) Or in enmity smite him with his hand, that he die: he that smote him shall surely be put to death; for he is a murderer:…
These 4 verses show examples where God considered a person to be a murderer. In these instances, that person was to be put to death. However, in verses 22-25, God says this:
(Num 35:22-25) But if he thrust him suddenly without enmity, or have cast upon him any thing without laying of wait, (23) Or with any stone, wherewith a man may die, seeing him not, and cast it upon him, that he die, and was not his enemy, neither sought his harm: (24) Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the revenger of blood according to these judgments: (25) And the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the revenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil.
In these verses, God gives a few examples of unintentional killing. Notice, that even though one man killed another, it is not called “murder,” nor is the person who killed to be put to death. He was sent to the City of Refuge, where he was to stay until the “death of the High Priest.” (Also see: Deut 19:4-7,11-13, Josh 20:3-5, Deut 4:41-42)
It should also be noted that God made a distinction between murder and self-defense (Ex 22:2)(Neh 4:11-14)(Lk 22:36).
So, we have established that there IS a difference between killing and murdering, but how does this answer our question about “God killing, or ordering the killing of thousands?” Remember the primary things in our definition of “murder,” (1) unlawfully taking a life, (2) done with premeditated malice, (3) taking innocent life. None of these applies to God when He took life in the Bible. When God took a life, or lives, the people were evil, had broken God’s laws (God is the law-giver), and were not innocent. In addition, He did not take a life out of malice, but justice (God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked: Ezek 33:11, Ezek 18:23,32). We see this over and over throughout the Bible. God giving reasons, then taking life.
(Gen 6:5-8) “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (6) And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. (7) And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. (8) But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” Then, God destroyed the Earth in a flood.
(Num 4:15) God warned the sons of Kohath not to “touch any holy thing, lest they die.” Uzzah touched the Ark of the Covenant, and God “struck him down” (2 Sam 6:6-7).
(Lev 10:1-3) Nadab and Abihu broke God’s rules for offering incense, and God killed them.
(Num 16:41-50) The Israelites failed to trust in the Lord, so God sent a plague that killed 14,700 of them.
(Acts 5:1-11) Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit, and God took their lives.
(Acts 12:21-23) Herod did not give glory to God, and an angel of the Lord struck him so that he was eaten by worms and died.
For other examples, see: (Gen 38:6-10)(Gen 19:17,26)(Num 16:1-40)(Deut 20:16-18)(Deut 9:1-6)
Again, notice that none of these who God killed were “innocent,” nor was it “unlawful” for God to take their lives.
However, what is HARDEST to understand is when God took the life of an infant, or ordered it to be done. Surely, they are innocent, right? I believe this is where we need to turn to God’s omniscience. In God’s all-knowing ability, He knows what we will ALL become in the future. This includes infants. He knows who will turn to Him (foreknowledge – 1 Pet 1:2, Rom 8:29, 2 Th 2:13-14), and who will not. Therefore, if He knows that whole cultures will not turn to Him (including infants when they grow up), then they are “guilty” and “not innocent.” If you don’t believe whole cultures could be evil, take a look at when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and how He said He would not destroy them if even 10 “righteous” people could be found (this included Lot’s family) (Gen 18:18-33). Also, keep in mind what we said above, that God destroyed everyone on Earth in the flood, except for Noah and his family, because all of the Earth was “wicked.”
Finally, let me close by saying that today God has granted government the right to punish those who break the law (Rom 13:1-4)(1 Pet 2:13-14)(Acts 25:11). The have the right to punish those who murder (the death penalty, which I speak of here), commit manslaughter (unintentional killing), or any other crime. We are told to submit to our government and its authority. In addition, the military also has the right to carry out justice (killing) when ordered to do so by the government.
So, when you read or hear the 6th Commandment, realize that the proper translation should be “thou shalt not murder,” not “thou shalt not kill.”