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You shall not murder

Professor Berel Lang writes from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.:

“Perhaps you would give a couple of paragraphs to the misconception (and the mistranslation) of the Sixth Commandment [in Exodus 20:13], ‘You shall not murder,’ as ‘You shall not kill.’ The original Hebrew, lo tirtsah., is very clear, since the verb ratsah. means ‘murder,’ not ‘kill.’ If the commandment proscribed killing as such, it would position Judaism against capital punishment and make it pacifist even in wartime. These may be defensible or admirable views, but they’re certainly not biblical.”

Professor Lang has touched on what is, to put it mildly, a lively issue. A Google scan of the Internet comes up with 134,000 entries on the Sixth Commandment, a high percentage of them dealing with its translation! Although a sampling of these entries shows that few have anything cogent to say about the linguistic issues involved, many illustrate why the debate is so fervid. Not only pacifists and opponents of capital punishment are active in it. There are also vegetarians, anti-abortionists, environmentalists, animal-righters, and others, as well as those hostile to them, all feeling they have a stake in the question of whether the Bible forbids human beings to take life for any reason at all (“killing”), or only when there is no legal justification for it (“murdering”).

Traditionally, Christian translations of Exodus 20:13 have favored — as does the King James Version in English — “Thou shalt not kill.” Martin Luther’s German Bible has Du sollst nicht töten rather than du sollst nicht mördern, the French Louis II Bible has tu ne tueras point and not tu meurtrieras or assassineras point, and so on. This has led Jewish commentators, going back to medieval rabbis like Samuel Ben Meir and Joseph Bekhor-Shor, to accuse Christian translators of distorting the Sixth Commandment so as to make it conform to the Christian principle – honored by Christianity, alas, almost entirely in the breach — of turning the other cheek. Whereas, such polemicists have maintained, pointing to the Christian translation of lo tirtsah., Christianity preaches the impossible goal of loving one’s enemies, Judaism realistically teaches, in the words of the rabbinic maxim, that “he who comes to kill you, kill him first.”

This argument has not been taken lightly by contemporary Christian scholarship. On the contrary, it has had a great effect, so much so that the majority of contemporary Christian Bible translations into English have changed the Sixth Commandment’s “kill” to “murder.” These translations include the British New International Version (1973), the New King James Version (1983), the New Living Translation (1996), the New American Standard Bible (2000), and the 2002 Message Bible. (The earliest English Bible to do this, apparently, was the 1898 Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, which in this respect predated even the 1917 Jewish Publication Society’s The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text.) Many of the 134,000 Internet comments are the protests of Christian fundamentalists against this tendency.

And yet as is observed by a Jewish participant in this debate, Bible commentator Eliezer Segal, things are not so simple. Although lo tirtsah., as opposed to its Hebrew alternative of lo taharog, would indeed appear to mean “Do not murder,” Jewish sources themselves have not always been clear about this interpretation. Indeed, in his fourth-century C.E. Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible that set the tone for Catholic and Protestant Bibles that came after it, St. Jerome was undoubtedly influenced, in his rather ambiguous choice of non occides, by two earlier Jewish translations that also came down halfway between “do not murder” and “do not kill”: the third-century B.C.E. Greek Septuagint’s ou phoneuseis and the second-century C.E. Aramaic Targum’s lo tiktol n’fash. Some later Jewish commentators, too, have waffled. The 12th-century scholar Maimonides, Segal writes, held that “all cases of killing human beings involve violations of the command [of lo tirtsah.], even if the violation happens to be overridden by other mitigating factors,” while the 15th-century Bible commentator Don Isaac Abravanel pointed out that even in the Bible ratsah. can mean “kill” rather than “murder,” as in the laws of permissible blood vengeance in Numbers 35.

In the final analysis, I would agree with Segal’s conclusion that “the translation ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was not the result of simple ignorance on the side of Jerome or the King James’ English translators. Rather, it reflects their legitimate determination to [translate] accurately the broader range of meanings of the Hebrew root.” This is not to say that “Thou shalt not kill” is the better or more accurate translation. It is simply to say that, first of all, not all languages make an absolutely clear distinction between killing and murdering, and secondly, that, as is often true of translation, one’s interpretation depends on prior attitudes. To an opponent of capital punishment, killing a murderer is murder too; to a proponent of abortion, killing a fetus is not. It is not the meaning of the Sixth Commandment that will in most cases determine how we think about such things. It is how we think about them that will determine what we make of the Sixth Commandment.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].


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