A Case of Uncertain Murder

On Language

By Philologos

Published November 14, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
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Rabbi Michael Lotker of Camarillo, Calif., writes:

“Some years ago I heard a Christian minister say that the King James translation of the fifth of the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew lo tirtsaḥ, as ‘Thou shalt not kill’ rather than ‘Thou shalt not murder’ was an accurate translation for its day. His claim was that when the King James Version was published, the English word ‘kill’ meant what we now mean by ‘murder,’ whereas the English word ‘slay’ meant what we now mean by ‘kill.’ Is this true?”

Having once written a column on the linguistic aspects of the Fifth Commandment, I’ll try not to repeat myself. Nor do I have to, the argument cited by Rabbi Lotker being new to me. Does it hold water? Not entirely. It did, however, make me rethink the entire question of “Thou shalt not kill” vs. “Thou shalt not murder.”

The conventional wisdom on the Jewish side has been that Christian translators preferred “Thou shalt not kill” for religious reasons: namely, that as representatives of the religion of “turn the other cheek,” they were uncomfortable with the distinction made by the Hebrew Bible between murder, which is the forbidden taking of human life, and killing, the sometimes permissible taking of human life in self-defense. In the past, I, too, assumed this to be the case. A bit of research undertaken because of Rabbi Lotker’s letter, though, has caused me to change my mind. If the King James Version renders the Hebrew verb ratsaḥ in the Ten Commandments as “kill” rather than “murder,” this now seems to me more a result of Hebrew ambiguity than of Christian ideology.

One commonly hears it said that the Hebrew verb for “kill” is harag and that had God wished to say “Thou shalt not kill” rather than “Thou shalt not murder” in the Bible, He would have said lo taharog and not lo tirtsaḥ. And yet this is more a back-projection of these words’ meaning in later Hebrew than a correct analysis of what they meant in biblical times. What, according to the Bible, is the human race’s first murder? We all know the answer: It’s Cain’s of Abel. And what is the Hebrew for it? Vayakam Kayin al Hevel aḥiv vayahargehu — “And Cain rose up against his brother Abel and murdered [killed?] him,” using harag and not ratsaḥ. And conversely, when the book of Numbers tells us that a man who accidentally kills another man is entitled to seek safety in a city of refuge, it calls him a rotseaḥ b’shgagah, using the verb ratsaḥ and not harag. The biblical distinction, if there is any, between harag and ratsaḥ is far from clear-cut and is certainly not the same as our modern distinction between “kill” and “murder.”

This is why, I now believe, the King James never uses “murder,” a verb stemming from an ancient Indo-European root signifying death and dying (as in Latin mors, which gives us English “mortal”), for either ratsaḥ or harag. After all, how could the book of Numbers have called an accidental rotseaḥ fleeing to a city of refuge a “murderer”?

Instead, as Rabbi Lotker’s minister observed, the King James uses the verbs “kill” and “slay” — the former almost always for ratsaḥ and the latter almost always for harag. Yet, as is the case with ratsaḥ and harag, there was no clear distinction between “kill” and the now archaic “slay” in the spoken English of the early 17th century, when the King James translation was undertaken. In fact, the two words have very similar histories. “Kill” comes from Old English cullen or killen, which originally had the meaning of “to hit” or “to strike.” (As late as the year 1400, we find a Middle English text, “The Destruction of Troy,” putting into the mouth of a Trojan the words, “The Greeks kyld all our kynnesmen unto colde death,” which indicates that it was still considered possible to “kyl” without causing death.) “Slay” comes from Old English slean, which also means “to deliver a blow.” Indeed, its German cognate of schlagen still has the latter meaning, so that “to kill” in German is totschlagen, “to strike dead” — an exact parallel of “to kyl unto death.” And although by the time of the King James, “slay,” like “kill,” necessarily referred to the taking of life, it still sometimes retained its older meaning into the 15th century.

This is not to say that “kill” and “slay” in the age of the King James were entirely synonymous. “Slay” may have suggested a slightly greater degree of violence and/or intention. (A 17th-century Englishman would have said that someone was “killed” by falling off a horse, but probably not that that person was “slain.”) About this, our minister is wrong. But he is right, I think, in maintaining that the King James Version was not trying to push a Christian interpretation against a Jewish one. Rather, it was seeking to find consistent equivalents for two Hebrew words between which the difference was fuzzy, and it succeeded by coming up with two English words of which the same could be said.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philogos@forward.com.


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