I was doing some lexical writing today and figured I’d share a lexical refutation to the whole “God commands not to kill and then commands killing” stupid ‘contradiction’ in the Bible that many skeptics bring up. The passage in question is Exodus 20:13, and this apparently contradicts other passages like Exodus 32:27 or 1 Samuel 15:2-8.
This whole contradiction boils down to a silly and incompetent lexicographical and exegetical ability in the skeptic. Hebrew, like every language, uses synonyms. Synonyms don’t mean exactly the same thing, but often carry similar meanings with differences in semantic range or nuance. Like all words in all languages, the words for “killing” and “murder” derive their meaning and nuance from the context in which they are found. This seems to be a concept that simply escapes the understanding of many skeptics (whether consciously or not is a question though).
The word in Exodus 20:13 is רצח (ratsach), and it can mean kill, slay, murder, etc. depending on context and stem (Qal, Niphal, Piel, Pual). Hebrew doesn’t have 1 word for killing and 1 word for murder; it has multiple words that can be rendered either one.
In Hebrew, “murder” can be rendered from רצח (ratsach) or הרג (harag). Okay, that’s two words…not really a large multiple of words. Either way, Harag is a much more common term, occurring 167 times in the Old Testament verses the 47 occurrences of ratsach.
Ratsach has a semantic range in the verbal form of “to murder, slay, kill” and carries a connotation of taking a life, or one who takes life. It occurs, by far the most, in the nominal form as opposed to the verbal form, and this nominal form is almost always translated along the lines of “slain” (as in a person[s] who is killed) or “murderer” (one who has killed another person[s]). This is the verb appearing in Exodus 20:13.
Harag has a semantic range in the verbal form of “to kill, slay, murder, destroy” and carries a stronger connotation than ratsach, one of violent death (due to sword, attack from wild beast, etc.), often in the context of battle. The verbal form is more frequent than the nominal form, and this is the verb appearing in Exodus 32:27. in a nutshell, ratsach carries more of the nuance of “murder/manslaughter” where as harag carries more of the nuance of “murder/kill in anger/kill in battle”, and ratsach usually describes the person committing harag.
Lots can be said, but essentially 2 different words in 2 different context is not a clear and obvious bible contradiction, especially given their semantic ranges.
Also, in Hebrew “kill” can be rendered from:
זבח (zabach) – mostly carries connotation of “sacrifice/offer sacrifice”
חלל (chalal) – mostly carries connotation of “slay/fatally wound” (generic term)
טבח (tabach) – mostly carries connotation of “slaughter/butcher/kill ruthlessly”
מות (mot[h]) – mostly carries connotation of “die/kill/put to death”
נכה (nakah) – mostly carries connotation of “hit/beat/strike/attack”
קטל (gatal) – only appears 3 times in the OT, but mostly carries connotation of “slay”
שחט (shachat) – mostly carries connotation of “kill (a sacrifice)”
Hebrew has no shortage of words that could be translated “kill”, though the nuances of the words varies and depends on context, but likely because death was no stranger to Ancient Near Eastern life. What this boils down to is that God didn’t outlaw all killing in the OT in Exodus 20:13. There was still wars, still temple sacrifices, etc. What God outlawed was the unjust taking of one person’s life by another person.
We understand this difference in modern times. Nobody would confuse the difference between the taking of life by the man who beats his wife to death and the taking of life of the police officer who arrives on scene, is attacked himself and shoots the assailant, fatally wounding him.
The assailant committed tabach (or nakah), but the policemen committed harag.
The assailant is a ratsach, but the policeman is not.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “The Armchair Theologian” Unger