What we know as the sixth commandment is a verse made up of only two words in its original Hebrew context. Do not murder—an imperative command. We can easily understand the meaning of this phrase as a command that forbids God’s followers from carrying out destructive behaviors against another individual. It is important to recognize that this command stands apart from other legal precedents.
Previous codes of law, such as Babylon’s ancient “Hammurabi’s Code,” provided an “if …., then …” qualification and a consequence for murder. People were free to make their choices and then required to stand in judgment based on these codes. Often times, an act of violence would require monetary compensation. Because of this, an act of murder could easily be forgiven legally by way of payment. Those who had wealth could control the population as they saw fit, eliminating whoever they like for a cost.
The Biblical commandments come in a form that is absolute, preventing any form of compensation or reprieve for murder. The implication is that these commands must be followed as they are essential to the way of life ascribed by God for his followers. The sixth commandment is absolute: Do not murder.
In a more natural time, before laws were written down and adopted, people may have been more animalistic, finding self soothing satisfaction in personal vengeance through murder. The opening chapters of the Bible provide an example of this kind of action. Cain’s jealousy toward Abel led him to commit an act of murder against his own brother in Genesis 4. In later times, tribal groups were in constant strife with neighboring enemies. The chapters in Judges demonstrate these sort of conflicts even among the tribes, or “brothers” of Israel. By the time Hebrew laws came to the people of Israel in writing, the notion of a direct commandment was acceptable. The Hebrew people understood that in order to maintain a strong position in their ancient world, they needed to preserve their community. And they knew it was best to preserve their community in God’s way.
After Jesus comes, as we see in the New Testament, God’s community grows in a new and more abstract way. The church, as a community of believers, was learning to exist as God’s community. According to the New Testament writers, Jesus sheds light on Old Testament laws that may have seemed culturally and temporally distant from the new church.
Jesus redefines who the enemy is and is not. “Love your enemies,” he says. “Pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44, Lk. 6:27, Lk. 6:35). In traditional reasoning, an enemy does not fall under protection of the commandments. Jesus’ followers may have asked, how can one’s enemy belong to one’s own community? In this way, the commandment do not murder applies not only to family and known community, but also to extended community, even unto one’s enemies.
Jesus also redefines the moral imperative of the Old Testament commandments. Jesus states that murder may be committed within the heart, or in the intention of one’s own mind.. For example, the text reads: “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council (for murder)… if you say ‘you fool’ you will be liable ….”(Mt. 5:21). Even angry attitudes or actions can be considered murder. Jesus also said what proceeds from the heart is what defiles a person—whether it be an evil intention of murder, adultery, fornication, theft, etc. (Mt. 15:19). Jesus continues in the New Testament to lift up the commandments which were (and still are) widely familiar. But, he clarifies how they are to be defined for Christ followers—those who make up a new kind of faith in God, which crosses cultural boundaries and stretches us to accept outsiders (Jn. 3:16). In this context, it is not only actions which are held accountable, but even the thoughts and attitudes hidden within the heart that are held accountable.
How can an understanding of this commandment help us in our own modern context? Clearly, we are expected not to commit murder, which can be interpreted as an attitude or action of selfishness, jealousy, or vengeance. Our selfish actions or thoughts can be destructive to God’s community. In order to preserve community and human relationship, the commandment do not murder forbids destructive conflict. In order to live out this commandment actively, our main concern should be in the effort of building honorable relationships with one another. So that we encourage and lift up each other in the community of believers.