You Shall Not Murder

"You shall not murder" (Deuteronomy 5:17).

Would you like to hazard a guess as to the name of the first murderer? Did you say "Cain?" Yes, he is the first one that comes to most of our minds, but there was a murder that preceded Cain's. Recall Satan's temptation of Eve in the garden while he was in the form of a serpent. What did God warn would happen if man ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? "For in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17). Satan was able to convince Eve to eat and thus opened the door to both physical and spiritual death. Hence, Jesus stated that Satan "was a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44).

From that ignoble beginning, murder has been occurring among men ever since. Cain killed his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:8). Lamech boasted that he killed a young man because he had wounded him (Genesis 4:23). Even prior to the Ten Commandments, God instituted commands in His covenant with Noah to deal with murders. "Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man" (Genesis 9:5-6).

Here we are given the first reason why murder is wrong: man is not a beast. He was formed in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This is not to say that God looks like a man, but that man was given a spirit like God's (John 4:24). The life of man cannot be treated casually or as if it was of no consequence. You will find a few who desire to include animal life in God's forbidding of murder. Yet this cannot be as only man was made in the image of God. Animals have life, but that are not said to possess a spirit like God or man. Besides, in the same covenant with Noah, God said, "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood" (Genesis 9:3-4).

Some claim that God's command to not murder forbids all killings. This leads to a self-contradiction because God's command to Noah included a death penalty for those convicted of taking another person's life. If all deaths were forbidden by this command, then the command could not be carried out. The same problem is faced in the Mosaical law. Each of the ten commandments carried a death penalty in certain situations when the command was violated. How could these penalties be applied if all killings were forbidden? In addition, to claim all killings were forbidden would lead to claiming that God contradicted His own commands because God told one group of people to kill another. For example, Saul was commanded, "Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey" (I Samuel 15:3). How could such a command be given if all killing was wrong?

In the Law, a distinction is made between different types of death. Exodus 21:12 gives the general principle, "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death." But it is followed by an exception, "However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee" (Exodus 21:13). Hence, there is a difference between premeditated murder and accidental death.

Nor was God only interested in the person who physically did the deed. "But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die" (Exodus 21:14). An indirect death is equivalent to direct murder. A man could not claim, "I can't be held responsible if he fell into that trap that I dug on the path that he takes every evening." A murderer doesn't have to be present at the scene to be charged with murder.

Another law takes this a step further: "But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:29). In other words, an indirect death caused by the knowing negligence of another is cause for the death penalty.

Yet, how were the Israelites to distinguish between a premeditated death and an accidental death? After all, we cannot read the minds of other men. "For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?" (I Corinthians 2:11). In the instructions to the judges of murder cases, the judge is to determine if there were indications of hatred involved or even advance planning of the death. "If he pushes him out of hatred or, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies, or in enmity he strikes him with his hand so that he dies, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death. He is a murderer."

Even an accidental death was punished. "However, if he pushes him suddenly without enmity, or throws anything at him without lying in wait, or uses a stone, by which a man could die, throwing it at him without seeing him, so that he dies, while he was not his enemy or seeking his harm, then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments. So the congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge where he had fled, and he shall remain there until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil" (Numbers 25:22-25). The punishment was confinement to the city of refuge until the death of the current high priest. Depending on the age of the high priest, it could be a long or a short sentence.

The chief difference between murder and accidental death was hatred. A death that showed planning demonstrated that hatred was involved. Even when a death was caused by negligence, the fact that a danger was known, but not remedied, showed a general contempt for human life. Thus, when we look into the law of Christ we learn that the key to preventing murder is to deal with people's hatred. "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:20-21). Jesus takes the Mosaical law to its logical conclusion. Hatred is the root cause of murder, thus we must not hate people nor give the impression of hatred through name calling.

"We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth" (I John 3:14-18). Notice that the new Law includes consideration of negligence. If we neglect to aid a brother when we have the ability to come to his aid, we are demonstrating a general hatred for our fellow man. Thus this too is an application of "you shall not murder."

One of the reasons capital punishment was sanctioned is that those so punished were not innocent. People were not arbitrarily killed; judgment was first required. God was especially concerned with the treatment of innocent people. "These six things the LORD hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, ..." (Proverbs 6:16-17). Jonathan pointed out to his own father that there needed to be a cause to seek someone's death. " Why then will you sin against innocent blood, to kill David without a cause?" (I Samuel 19:5). God destroyed whole nations because they shed innocent blood (Joel 3:19). It was one of the contributing causes to the downfall of Israel (II Kings 21:16). "Their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways; they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace" (Isaiah 59:6-8).

Some in government will go so far as to pass laws to justify their slaughter of the innocent (Psalm 94:20-21). Government are ordained by God to protect the righteous and punish the evildoer. "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. or he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil" (Romans 13:3-4). It is unfortunate that we must deal with governments who have passed laws justifying abortions and euthanasia. Such laws show a contempt for the value of human life and condemn to death those whose only "crime" is the inconvenience of others.

The governing principle of "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). is clearly seen in the laws against murder. "For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:9-10). As followers of Christ, we must learn to love all of our neighbors. "If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also" (I John 4:20-21).

Too often people are motivated into action by hatred, but as children of God our motivation must be concern for our fellow man. "Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17-21). Jesus put it this way: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:43-48).


  1. Find passages proving that each commandment carried a death penalty in certain circumstances.
  2. A man is told that he really needs to fix his top step. "It is so loose that someone will stumble over one of these days and get hurt or killed." The owner never got around to fixing the problem and sure enough a year later an elderly woman fell and was killed. How would you apply the Old Law to this situation? Would your answer change if the death occurred a day after the warning? Would it change if the person who died was a young man instead of an elderly woman?
  3. A dog injures a child, who dies a few days later. What information would you need to determine the responsibility of the owner under the Old Law?
  4. A man is taking down trees on his property to use for firewood. He doesn't see a neighbor walking by and the tree he is chopping down falls on his neighbor, killing him instantly. What would happen to this man? What information would the judge in this case be looking for?
  5. Would suicide be considered murder? Why?
  6. If a person is severely ill, should he have the right to decide to end his life early? Should someone be given the right to decide to end a life because a cure is not likely to be found? What passages would you use to support your position?
  7. Abortion is generally justified by stating a woman has a right to decide if she wants to give birth to a baby.
    1. Is an unborn child a human life? What passages could you use to prove this?
    2. When does a woman have the right to decide to have a child?
    3. How should the concepts of "innocence" and "hatred" be weighed in the discussion of abortion?
    4. What about in the case of rape? Does the crime of another permit the ending of an unborn child's life?
    5. Though rare, it is sometimes argued that allowing a child to be born would affect the health of the mother. How should such cases be handled? What should be the determining factors?
  8. Does warfare fall under the command to not murder? What passages would you use to prove your point?
    1. How should the concepts of "innocence" and "hatred" be weighed in the discussion of war?
    2. Was violence permitted in the protection of a person's family or property under the Old Law? Is this a factor on a national level?