R. C. SmithEssays

Thou Shalt Not Kill

(I’ve mentioned “Thou shalt not kill” in my essay The Morality of Amorality. This is my reply to the objection that the Biblical commandment should correctly be translated as “Thou shalt not murder,” giving it an entirely different meaning.)

For many centuries, “Thou shalt not kill” has been one of the undisputed divine commandments, and even among those who do not believe in the deity that allegedly has issued them, it has had a reputation of being a cornerstone of human civilization.

Being undisputed as a commandment does not mean that it is always heeded, but “Thou shalt not kill” is a very powerful statement. And, it is one that stands out from the other nine of the often hailed Ten Commandments.

Let’s omit the ones in which the deity declares that, and how, it demands to be worshipped — this leaves six, which are a rather mixed bag of dos and don’ts.

– Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

– Thou shalt not kill.

– Thou shalt not commit adultery.

– Thou shalt not steal.

– Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

– Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

If these commandments are meant to serve as rules for a peaceful and just society they seem a bit arbitrary, there are notable omissions, and, for instance, it isn’t clear whether and how far the reference to “neighbours” in the final two commandments is meant to restrict their scope. But, this doesn’t need to concern us here.

“Thou shalt not kill”, this stands out from among the other commandments, by the sheer power of its words.

Recently, though, the word kill has begun to be disputed, by those who feel it interferes too much with killings they deem necessary — should there be no executions, and no wars? These are restrictions not everyone wants to accept. No God-given right to kill your, or your God’s, enemies?

For those who want to be justified in taking lives when they deem it necessary or appropriate, who want to go to war or send others to war, without violating God’s commandments, there is now a way out. Since the second half of the 20th century, an increasing number of theologians and bible scholars have been telling us, increasingly getting listened to, that killing is not forbidden after all — that, correctly translated from ancient Hebrew, the commandment says, “Thou shalt not murder.” (If you are interested in their arguments, search the Internet for Thou shalt not kill murder, you will find ample.)

“Thou shalt not murder,” instead of “Thou shalt not kill.” How much more convenient that is, except for those who need their lives to be protected. But what a paltry commandment it is. Seriously, who needs to be told not to murder? What does this God think of the creatures he has created in his likeness, that it is necessary to tell them this? What challenge to human morality and spirituality does this pose — do humans really need to have laid the threshold of acceptable behavior so low?

“Thou shalt not murder” — murder, we are told, is the “unlawful killing” of another human being. Unlawful. Against the law. But, which law? The law that, depending on when and where you are, allows, for instance, the killing of slaves, heretics, infidels, apostates, blasphemers, witches, horse thiefs, traitors, rebels, deserters, adulterers, homosexuals, indigenes, enemy soldiers, and, as long as they are collateral damage, the inhabitants of enemy territories? And when the law allows it, or even demands it, no commandment admonishes or encourages you to refrain from killing? And when you are among the ones who write the law, or have it written in their favor, you can have written into it the permission to kill anyone whose death will profit you, and “Thou shalt not murder” will give you your God’s blessings?

This is it? This is supposed to be the divine commandment? Nothing more than what any lawyer could tell you?

That “murder” may be a more correct translation of the ancient Hebrew word in the Torah than “kill,” may be the case. It is also true that in the “Old Testament” God himself orders his followers to kill their enemies, and himself repeatedly kills those who displease him. But how relevant is that for us, when we can chose between not to murder and not to kill?

The two most authoritative versions of the Bible in English and in German, for many centuries, have said “Thou shalt not kill” (the King James version), and “Du sollst nicht töten” (Martin Luther). This has been the teaching, this has been how it was understood. In theory, that is — it never worked in practice, and was never intended to work in practice, but it is the theory, the vision, the ideal, that we are talking about here. The ideal that commands our attention.

“Thou shalt not kill” urges us to think further, far beyond where “Thou shalt not murder” could take us.

“There are many ways to kill. You can drive a knife into someone’s guts, deprive them of bread, not cure them of a disease, put them in miserable accomodations, work them to death, drive them to suicide, lead them to war, etc. Only few of these things are forbidden in our state.” (Bert Brecht — “Es gibt viele Arten zu töten. Man kann einem ein Messer in den Bauch stechen, einem das Brot entziehen, einen von einer Krankheit nicht heilen, einen in eine schlechte Wohnung stecken, einen durch Arbeit zu Tode schinden, einen zum Suizid treiben, einen in den Krieg führen usw. Nur weniges davon ist in unserem Staat verboten.”) This list could easily be made much longer.

“Thou shalt not kill” — taken seriously, this also means Thou shalt not, through your actions or inactions, intentionally or through negligence, let others lose their lives. Or, going one obvious step further, not let others come to harm. (Yes, I’m paraphrasing Asimov’s first “Robot Law.”) In some parts of the world the law allows you to watch someone die, when you could easily save them. Where I live, that’s a crime for which you could go to jail. It’s not murder, though. “Thou shalt not murder” does not apply. Is that what you want?

There are parts of the world where, when you are ill, you do not get the medical treatment that you need, but only that which you can afford. There are places where, when you cannot afford the basic necessities of life, you die from lack of them. Charity may occasionally bring relief, but when “Thou shalt not kill” is taken seriously to mean “do not let others lose their lives,” universal health care and universal basic income are the logical and necessary consequences. Nothing, though, follows from “Thou shalt not murder.”

And finally, “Thou shalt not kill” — do not take a life, do not cause death, do not allow death to happen when you can prevent it — does not explicitly refer to humans, it admonishes you not to kill animals either. Not wantonly, at least, not more than cannot be avoided.


There is one religion, and only one, that sets the value of life absolute, forbids all violence, and forbids to kill any living being — that is Jainism. Plants are excluded, but any other living beings, no matter how small, are not. For pious Jains, agriculture is not permissible — you cannot plow a field, you cannot harvest the crop, without killing earthworms and insects — but also profiting from such acts, eating the food for which living beings were killed, would make you an accomplice. And, going one stap further, already two and a half thousand years ago Jainism postulated the existance of living beings that are ubiquitous but too small to be seen — we are now able to see them through our microscopes, and know that they actually exist. And, Jainism explicitly states that these must not be killed either. In practice, of course, Jains compromise, by eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, but there are those, even today, who take the need to protect all life so seriously — you cannot eat without killing something — that they starve to death. Which, of course, leads to a tragic paradox — they kill themselves, including all the microbes that live inside their bodies.

It has been suggested that Christian teaching, which draws from many sources, has been influenced by Jainism. Turning the other cheek, not throwing the first stone, not taking the sword, forgiving those who are indebted to us — those ideas, indeed, seem closer to Jainism than to any other antique philosophy or religion. A connection, even a direct one, is possible, but, to my knowledge, has so far not been established.

The “Old Testament,” of course, speaks a very different language — again and again the God it describes kills, and urges his followers to kill. It might be said that “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not murder” represent two different traditions which Christian doctrine has never succeeded to properly align, but I am not really interested here in theological arguments. For all the non-violent parts of their teachings, Christian churches of all denominations have not hesitated to burn witches and heretics, and not hesitated to call for holy wars.

“Thou shalt not kill” is a commandment that, when taken literally, cannot possibly be obeyed. And as a moral rule, it has never worked, easily pushed aside by material and emotional interests, greed, fear and hate in all their many all too human forms and guises. But, “Thou shalt not murder” — what a sterile maxim this is in comparison. The great majority will obey it without effort — but this commandment opens no vistas, it provokes no contradictions — at best, it allows for legal arguments about the definition of murder. What merits can be won by obeying it? “Thou shalt not kill,” on the other hand, this needs our response — how do we relate to it?

Can we feel the desire, the urge to kill? For someone to be killed? Yes, we can, it’s how the human mind works. Can killing be necessary? unavoidable? acceptable? Yes, it can be. Can we set up rules for when it is justified to kill? No, we can not. If we did, we’d only say “Thou shalt not murder” by some other words, and any such rule would necessarily reflect the values and serve the interests of those who make it, or choose to follow it.

Can we, depending on circumstances, understand the act of killing, accept it, shrug it off, forgive it? Yes. Can we even enjoy it? Yes, we can — though, as Abigail says in The Journey, enjoying something doesn’t make it right. Can “Thou shalt not kill” serve as an unbreakable rule? No — nothing can, and nothing should. Unbreakable rules, however well meant (and often they aren’t), tend to do more harm than good.

But imagine yourself standing on top of a mountain, ready to speak four words, in a voice that will echo around the globe and through the ages — four words by which you may be remembered, four words by which you may leave your mark on human history, four words that, as you see it, contain the essence of people’s responsibility for each other and for the planet — which words will that be? When you have already said “Thou shalt not” — which word would you speak next?



And now let’s listen to Eric Burdon’s “Sky Pilot” — www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0JMCaKwOUY

(“Sky pilot” is a term for military chaplain.)

In the morning they return with tears in their eyes

The stench of death drifts up to the skies

A young soldier so ill, looks at the sky pilot

Remembers the words “Thou shalt not kill”


In my essay The Morality of Amorality I have stated that I neither believe in divine commandments nor in the virtues of morality. On what grounds, then, do I argue in favor of “Thou shalt not kill”? It follows from the principle, one of the two that seem irrefutable to me, “Take what you need, and leave the rest.” Taking a life will almost always be taking more than is needed, whatever name the law applies to it. No need for religion, no need for morality — as a guideline, this is simply a basic necessity.


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