The sixth commandment, Thou shalt not kill (KJV, ASV, GNV), is commonly also translated, You shall not murder. (ESV, NASB, NIV, YLT) The Hebrew is רָצַח, ratsach, meaning kill, slay, murder, so either translation might be reasonable. Which translation is best, or does it matter?
Murder is defined as “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another” (emphasis mine); it implies the perpetrator acted with malice aforethought, without justification or valid excuse.
Kill has a much broader definition: taking a life regardless of motive or circumstance. The impact of the translation here seems significant, on a deeply fundamental precept.
In societies where euthanasia has been legalized, and/or killing in self-defense, it’s acceptable to take a human life on purpose under certain conditions. In such cases, the command, You shall not murder isn’t violated since the act is lawful; however, these acts do violate, “Thou shalt not kill”; so, the translation does matter.
According to Torah, when is it acceptable for an individual acting on their own volition (not as an agent of the State enforcing capital punishment, or in the military) to intend to take another person’s life?
As a general baseline, consider laws regarding involuntary manslaughter (De 19:1-13): taking a life entirely accidentally, without any malice, forethought or criminal negligence (De 22:8), has severe consequences in Torah. If the perpetrator wishes to live he must flee to the nearest city of refuge, and forfeit the comforts of his home, community and way of life for the foreseeable future. The slayer is effectively imprisoned within the walls of this city until the death of the high priest, which could be decades.
If accidentally taking a human life, which certainly isn’t murder, carries such a penalty, effectively treated as if it were a significant Torah violation, what law does it violate, if not the 6th commandment?
What about other scenarios we would not consider murder?
Mercy killing, or euthanasia, for example, evidently violates Torah, though it’s not considered murder when legalized. Consider David’s reaction when a soldier killed King Saul, after Saul was already mortally wounded, to spare him the cruelty of being abused by the Philistines. Though the young man obeyed his king’s direct command, apparently in loyalty, mercy and kindness, even at further risk to his own life, he was promptly executed for doing so. (1Sa 1:1-16) If this act of obedience, bravery, kindness and loyalty did not violate Torah, David would have been guilty of shedding innocent blood himself and held accountable. Euthanasia evidently does violate God’s law, but not, You shall not murder, yet we don’t see any other laws besides the 6th commandment which cover this case.
Further, though taking a life in self-defense is legal in many societies, and therefore not considered murder, this is also not generally allowed in Scripture and is punishable by death. (Ex 21:12) Self-defense, though it is generally not premediated or malicious in nature, is only allowed in a very limited context; Torah is much more limited than what’s legal in many societies.
Taking a life in self-defense is evidently only allowed in the case of a thief killed in the act at night. (De 22:2-3) In this case, in breaking and entering a home at night, the thief positions himself as a threat to an entire family. A man’s home is sacred; no one but family enters without permission. (De 24:10) So, breaking and entering a domicile under cover of darkness is especially threatening; apparently only in this very limited context is there sufficient grounds for proactively taking a human life.
Taking a human life as an independent free-will agent is an extremely serious matter; there is always a severe consequence, regardless of the motive, unless lives are being threatened and there’s no other way to manage the scenario safely. This moral precept is not sufficiently captured by, You shall not murder; it requires, Thou shalt not kill.
This principle of the inherent dignity of human life is rooted in Man being made in the image of God (Ge 9:6); it is foundational to a righteous society. Translating this text correctly is therefore extremely important.
One might argue kill is too general since technically this includes animals and plants, which contradicts other scriptures. Using murder does solve this problem, but then fails to properly classify several classes of unscriptural behavior as sinful, and there is no other command to account for them. This tells us we need to use the word kill here and understand from context the focus is on behavior towards people, not animals and plants.
Given the fact scripture indicates that several types of deliberate killing are forbidden which are not equivalent to murder, as in euthanasia and many cases of self-defense, it appears the classic KJV translation of the 6th commandment is indeed the correct one: Thou shalt not kill.