“Do not murder —Exodus 20:13
The Sixth Word forbids killing human beings. Period! Now, that seems pretty straightforward, but is it? Well, it is, but we need to understand that there is a rather narrow area that this commandment applies. I want you to take your pen or highliter and focus on the word murder.
This isn’t talking about merely killing someone. The Hebrew word is ratsach. Ratsch refers to an unjust killing and only unjust killing — whether intentional or unintentional. It does not relate to execution as in a lawful judicial sentence — what we know as Capital Punishment. It also doesn‘t refer to killing an enemy in a battle, or killing an intruder and defending yourself or someone else. I suppose murder is a reasonable translation.
To help understand this word, think of manslaughter. Now, the difference between manslaughter and murder is that manslaughter is a distinct crime. In legalese, “malice aforethought” must be present in murder, but it must be absent for manslaughter.
Here‘s the thing about ratsach (murder): Yahweh made it clear that He was the only one who had the right to take human life. However, the Torah explicitly gave human governments the responsibility of determining the guilt or innocence of a person who was accused of murder. He also delegated the responsibility of extracting the “blood for blood” penalty. In the ninth chapter of Genesis you find the Lord’s reason for capital punishment: “Whoever sheds human blood [unlawfully], by humans (the human judicial government) his blood will be shed, because in his image, Elohim made humans (Genesis 9:6)
Mankind came from Yahweh, so if a man is killed, His justice requires the ultimate penalty. What‘s so ironic is that as history moves along mankind thinks of himself as becoming more civilized and humane, so most societies have abolished the death penalty. However, this is a direct rebellion against Yahweh‘s laws and principles. In fact, if we don’t take the murderer‘s life, it cheapens human life. Let me make something clear: the Bible gives man absolutely no latitude in commuting a murderer‘s death sentence.
However, this isn’t new, the practice of commuting death sentences isn‘t a modern phenomenon; during the second Temple period (at the same time Jesus was alive) it was rare for Sandhedrin to impose the death penalty. Many Christian circles teach that the Sanhedrin couldn’t crucify Jesus because the Romans had taken away the right of the Jews to carry out executions, but that is not to full story. All the Jewish court had to do was go to the local Roman authority and have the Roman governor review the case. If he didn’t have any serious reservations (and as we saw with Jesus‘ execution, sometimes it didn‘t matter if he had reservations), the Romans would approve the death penalty. Then the Romans would carry out the execution for the Jewish religious authorities. In other words, the Jews were absolutely able to order the death sentence; it‘s just that the Romans had to agree with the decision and they were the ones who carried out the penalty.
This is what happened in the case of Yeshua vs. Priests. His death, ordered (or offered) by the Priests constituted a sacrifice (hence the reason Jesus is referred to as the Sacrificial Lamb). The Romans simply carried it out.
For a long time, the Jews had said that mercy was a better avenue and often commuted death sentences for murderers. In the Mishnah tractate Makkot you find a statement that in the opinion of the Sanhedrin, to hand down a death penalty, even once every seven years was too much.
A Rabbi who commented on that statement (Rabbi Ben Azariah) and said that once in 70 years was too much. Rabbi Akiva says had he been on the Sanhedrin he would never have allowed any death sentence under any circumstance. I guess, he had never studied Torah.
Rabbi Gamaliel responded by saying that it was a “perverted mindset” that had the Sanhedrin adopted this view and never gave out the death sentence. In his opinion, the amount of innocent bloodshed in Israel would increase dramatically. That is certainly what we have seen in the United States where the death penalty has been abolished in many states. Bloodshed hasn‘t decreased after we have commuted the death penalties, it has increased. The Lord‘s principle is that to take the life of a murderer is to actually protect life: innocent life.
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