I was rather disappointed recently when a generally well-respected Foxnews religious commentator, Fr. Jonathon Morris, quoted an infamous mistranslation of Scripture in his repeated reference to a particular Biblical commandment. He quoted ‘you shall not kill’ when, in fact, the original Hebrew states ‘you shall not murder’. This is neither minor nor trivial… it really does matter…. Mistaken translations skew the teachings that follow, and this damage our ability to have a properly formed conscience. In counseling both Law Enforcement officers and former Military personnel, I’ve witnessed just how destructive this particular mis-translation and and its abuse of Biblical context truly is… The inappropriate guilt created by the erroneous teachings caused by this simple mis-translation can and does, in fact, destroy lives!
My two favorite scripture professors, a Benedictine monk and a Jesuit, routinely reminded their students that God’s Word could be understood most profoundly and most accurately in the original languages, and that too many Bible translations sacrificed accuracy in favor of ease of reading or culture-friendliness. With that in mind, they were very particular about which Scripture translations they considered acceptable in class. Along with an Orthodox Rabbi friend of mine, many years later, they shared a quick and simple test for a good translation; specifically, how a particular command in Exodus 20 was translated into English… Did it forbid “killing”… or did it forbid “murder”? They also shared a particular fondness for Oxford’s Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. The RSV translation team included a variety of well-respected Christian and Jewish scholars and easily passed both this and other litmus tests for accuracy of translation.
The Hebrew verb רצח (r-ṣ-ḥ, commonly transliterated ratzákh) refers to the killing of an innocent or to killing without sufficient cause. Biblically, a non-forbidden “killing” might be due to combat during war, properly authorised death penalty, guardians protecting us from violence, or even self defense. This is why, unless we ignore the Biblical context, it is always properly translated as “murder”. It is a simple truth that the ancient Hebrew texts consistantly delineate between the prohibition against shedding innocent blood vs. authorised taking of life. This is illustrated by the clear distinction between “harag” (Hb: הָרַג – killing, in general) and “ratzakh” (murder).
Matthew 18:6 reminds us that teachers have a profound obligation to teach rightly. So, the path of tendentious exegesis is clearly a perilous one. In seeking accurate teaching, we need to recognize that it’s a lexical misunderstanding to claim that Harag and Ratzákh are synonyms with minimal distinction; this inappropriately conflates similarity with sameness. The difference between them may indeed be subtle… but that ‘subtle’ difference is profoundly important, for they do not carry the same meaning.
The Creator designed our conscience to help us understand when we have failed ‘to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with (our) God.’ (Micah 6:8) Unfortunately, a conscience can only work correctly when it is properly formed, and being properly formed requires good teaching. There is a profound difference between appropriate guilt and inappropriate guilt, but a poorly formed conscience gets them confused. It is absolutely true that all human life is made in the image of God and is, therefore, precious. Without writing the treatise that this subject deserves, the spilling of blood… the taking of a life… should always be a sad and, hopefully, rare occasion. Yet it is also true that the revealed and codified Word of God which we call the Bible, teaches that there is an important difference between the just and unjust taking of a life.
When we, as teachers, fail to rightly distinguish between killing and murder, we risk destroying lives by burdening people with false guilt. This is especially true of our guardians; police, soldiers, etc. When an officer or a soldier has to kill someone in the line of duty, it is no more murder than if it were simple self-defense. Yet, due to poor teaching (caused by bad translation leading to bad exegesis) and the belief that Scripture forbids all killing, they too often carry an unnecessary burden of guilt from that point onward. Neither the New Testament nor the Old Testament ever encourages our police or soldiers to lay down arms. The truth is that guilt is only appropriate when the taking of a life was unjust. This is why that seemingly-subtle distinction between killing and murder is so important.
As teachers, we must correctly explain the difference between murder and other killing, we must follow the model of John the Baptist (Luke 3:14) to guide our Protectors in the path of righteousness, and we must minister to them in kindness if/when they ever have to cope with the brutal sadness of having to justly take a life.
‘Offered for your prayerful consideration….
Shalom, Christ’s peace!! — Michael+, MSJ