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Kill or Murder: Does It Make a Difference?

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Barry W. Lynn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, a lawyer, and the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In his latest book Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom, Mr. Lynn levels a left-wing attack on biblical ethics. Consider his discussion of the Sixth Commandment:

The Sixth Commandment states, “You shall not kill”—although some versions read “murder” (by no means a trifling difference). At last we have a commandment that is clearly reflected in the secular law. But even here we are not without problems. Again, the issue of exceptions is raised. Should you never kill? What about self-defense? What about war?[1]

In 1973, Mr. Lynn received a Theology Degree from Boston University School of Theology. I’m sure he learned, or at least he should have learned, that the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in Greek. Certainly he knows that vernacular translations are based on these original languages. The Hebrew word used in Exodus 20:13 is raw-tsakh, a word that generally refers to premeditation (e.g., Judges 20:4; 1 Kings 21:19; Job 24:14). Killing in terms of raw-tsakh means to kill in a predatory manner similar to a lion lying in wait for its prey (e.g., Prov. 22:13). There are a number of Hebrew words used for “kill.” The context is helpful in determining their precise meaning. Modern translations often make these translation distinctions.

If Lynn doesn’t know this, then he should not be writing on theological subjects. Mr. Lynn is also trained as a lawyer. He has studied rhetoric and knows how to argue a point. He also knows that no lawyer gets a free pass in a court of law. There is always cross examination.

In consideration of his comments on the Sixth Commandment, let’s see if they stand up to cross examination. First, let’s assume that the proper translation is “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13), as the KJV has it. We use the word “kill” as a generic word that means “to put to death.” Generally, most people understand that “kill” is often used when the more precise word should be “murder.” Is it any less accurate to say that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy when he actually murdered him? Carl Oglesby has written a book with the title Who Killed JFK?[2] Is the title inaccurate? A search on Google brought up 54,000 articles that carry the question “Who killed JFK?” All murders are killings, but not all killings are murders.

The Ten Commandments is a prologue to more specific commandments. A summary does not nullify what it summarizes. Mr. Lynn only had to read a few chapters beyond the Decalogue to realize that the Bible makes distinctions between murder, self-defense, accidental death, and war. In fact, in the very next chapter we read, “And he who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 21:16). A hierarchy of punishment is set forth in Exodus 21:12–15, with capital punishment being the most severe. Provision is made for self-defense (Ex. 22:2). All the elements required by Mr. Lynn are present.

Mr. Lynn continues his argument against the Ten Commandments by asserting that the law does not need to be carved on stone to be law.

And while this commandment has been reflected in the law today, it by no means made its first appearance in the Ten Commandments. The state bans murder because it is an inherently evil act that destabilizes society. It was prohibited long before being carved onto the Ten Commandments.[3]

The law against murder, like so many laws, is a creation ordinance. Cain knew it was wrong to kill (murder) Abel. No one would argue with Mr. Lynn on this point. He does not explain, however, why murder is wrong given evolutionary assumptions. Remember, Americans United supports teaching a naturalistic view of origins in public schools. There is no way to get an “ought”—murder is wrong—out of an “is”—the universe evolved by chance.

Is it the written nature of the Ten Commandments that bothers Mr. Lynn? Is he afraid that people might actually obey them? If writing and posting a law is the problem, then what should we do with the following from the Georgia Legal Code regarding murder?

(a) A person commits the offense of murder when he unlawfully and with malice aforethought, either express or implied, causes the death of another human being.

(b) Express malice is that deliberate intention unlawfully to take the life of another human being which is manifested by external circumstances capable of proof. Malice shall be implied where no considerable provocation appears and where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.

(c) A person also commits the offense of murder when, in the commission of a felony, he causes the death of another human being irrespective of malice.

(d) A person convicted of the offense of murder shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life .[4]

Mr. Lynn wants God out of the picture. Of course, once this happens, then we have created a legal free-for-all where the State defines what constitutes murder. Mr. Lynn, in addition to taking refresher courses in theology and law, should bone up on his history as well.


[1] Barry W. Lynn, Piety and Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom (New York: Harmony Books, 2006), 92.
[2] Carl Oglesby, Who Killed JFK ? ( Odonian Press, 1991).
[3] Lynn, Piety and Politic , 92.

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