A key indicator of the health of a society is whether that society is just or unjust. And a key indicator of a society’s level of justice is whether that society values human life.
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road, is the story of a father and son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world—in a world that’s dying and, with it, its humanity. Animals, birds, and fish are all but extinct. Groups of people roam the streets and woods like packs of dogs, looking for food. Their main diet is the meat of men—they’re cannibals.
In the nuclear fallout, the boy has never seen blue skies or green grass, or autumn leaves. Nor has he known what it’s like to live in peace, to trust another human being other than his father.
The father struggles to keep the hope of humanity alive for himself and his son. At one point, the father tells the boy, “You have to carry the fire”—his way of saying the boy not only needs to live but to live nobly. In the midst of a world filled with humans who no longer value human lives but for the meals they provide, the father tells his boy to live in such a way that his life and the lives of others are kept precious.
That novel reminds me of another story—a true one. It took place within a broken society where “every intent of the thoughts of [mankind’s] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). God was “sorry” He had created human beings and was “grieved” by their sin (v. 6). He decided to “blot out” every man, woman, and child, along with the rest of creation (v. 7), with one caveat: Noah and his family would survive. They carried the fire and “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” because “Noah walked with God” (vv. 8–9).
You know the story. Noah built an ark to save his family, along with a male and female pair of every animal the Lord chose, from the coming deluge that would flood the earth. What you may not know is the reason God decided to destroy the earth. Yes, there was immorality and corruption, but God focused on the fact that “the earth was filled with violence” (v. 11). The people of Noah’s day, just like the people in McCarthy’s novel, had no regard for human life.
After the flood subsided and Noah and his family emerged from the ark, God made a covenant with Noah never to destroy the earth again by flood (9:11). The Lord also instructed Noah, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). Later, this covenant was incorporated into the covenant the Lord made with the nation of Israel, which was governed by a set of laws. One in particular dealt with the value of human life—the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
In the original Hebrew, commandments six through eight are conveyed as two-word imperatives: “No murder.” “No adultery.” “No theft.” Each concern how we value other human beings: their lives, their marriages, and their possessions. We’ll look at each in turn, but for now, let’s look at the command to preserve life by answering three questions and applying one challenge.
1. What Does the Sixth Commandment Say? (Exodus 20:13)
The translation of Exodus 20:13 in the King James Version of the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” In Hebrew, it’s simply ratsach.
However, the translation “kill” fails to capture the precise meaning of the Hebrew word ratsach. Within the larger context of Hebrew literature, ratsach doesn’t mean “kill” per se. That wouldn’t make sense, as God doesn’t forbid all killing. He made allowances for capital punishment, even before the Mosaic law was given to Israel (Genesis 9:6), as well as just warfare (Deuteronomy 20:10–18). These two forms of killing are, at least in theory, sanctioned under law and controlled by the state.
Therefore, the sixth commandment doesn’t refer to state-sanctioned killing (capital punishment and just warfare) or killing as a result of self-defense. So what is included under the sixth commandment?
Based on how ratsach is used in other Hebrew passages, I believe the sixth commandment prohibits premeditated killing—murder. The New American Standard Bible (and other modern versions) is correct in translating Exodus 20:13 this way: “You shall not murder.”
2. What Does the Sixth Commandment Cover?
The sixth commandment prohibits the taking of human life without divine authorization. All life belongs to God. He is the Giver of life, and He is the only one who has the right to take life—or to make legal and moral provisions for the taking of life. The murderer, then, commits an extreme act of arrogance since he or she, a mere creature, assumes the position of the Creator God, co-opting a right that belongs to Him alone.
Acts of Murder:
Attitudes That Lead to Murder:
Activities Short of Murder
- Besides the acts and attitudes of murder, the sixth commandment also covers cruelty and general violence that can eventually lead to murder. Let’s be clear; God hates violence or cruelty of any kind because they represent an assault on those who have been made in the image of God.
3. Why Is the Punishment for Violating the Sixth Commandment So Severe?
When it came to the outright act of murder, there was no wiggle room on whether someone ought to go to court and, if found guilty, be punished. In Israel, murder was a capital offense.
The Lord said, “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. . . . If . . . a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die” (Exodus 21:12, 14).
Why such a severe penalty? The answer is simple: because human life is valuable—it is a gift from God, and we bear His image. If God didn’t prescribe capital punishment for murder, He would devalue the life of the victim and could no longer call Himself the Lord of justice. Likewise, if a society doesn’t prescribe capital punishment for murder, it devalues the life of the victim and can no longer call itself just.
4. How Can You Keep the Sixth Commandment?
We’re living in a world where human life is cheap. And while we have little power to do anything to make the world see the value of life, we have enough power in our individual lives to value those made in the image of God—to preserve life and “carry the fire.” Here’s how:
- If you’re in a physically and perpetually abusive situation, for the sake of yourself and that of your children (if you have them), get out as soon as possible and find help.
- If you struggle with thoughts of suicide or you’ve attempted to take your life, seek help immediately. Speak with a close and trusted friend, a pastor, or a counselor. If you have nowhere else to turn, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255 or the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988.
- If you’re able, give your time and money to shelters that care for abused women and mothers or pro-life organizations that provide help not only for the baby in the womb but also for the mother who carries the baby and the father who conceived the baby. Being pro-life is more than just picketing abortion clinics; it’s supporting families after the baby has been born.
- If you’re able, volunteer or give money to support relief organizations that provide medical services, bring healthy food and clean water, construct homes, and provide other services to those in need.
- If you have elderly neighbors, make sure they’re cared for—that they have food, their lawn is mowed, repairs to their house are attended to, and anything else that is necessary for their well-being.
- If you are bitter at a parent for mistreatment, a spouse for unfaithfulness, or a friend for betrayal, then root out that bitterness. Ask God to do some gardening in your heart—to prune you and make you more like Christ. I can tell you, there’s nothing more Christlike than a wronged Christian who forgives the wrong.
In short, to fully obey the sixth commandment, we must “carry the fire” and preserve life.
Full Passage: Exodus 20:13