Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, wrote a post for the Belief Blog published by CNN in which he offers five biblical passages for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Both Bachmann and Perry are Republican presidential candidates.
In his post, “My Take: 5 biblical passages for Bachmann and Perry,” Prothero suggests five biblical passages to the candidates in order to see how they would deal with the issues raised by these texts. As Prothero wrote:
I presume both candidates will acknowledge that these passages are, in fact, in the Bible. And I take it for granted that, as self-professed Bible-believing Christians, they believe these passages are true. But what truths do they teach? And what import, if any, do those truths have on their public policies?
Four of the five passages are taken from the New Testament. Since my focus is on the Old Testament, I will allow New Testament scholars to deal with them. My goal in this post is to deal with the passage from the Old Testament that Prothero addresses to Rick Perry. Prothero used the sixth commandment to speak to Perry. He wrote:
3. “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:12).
Part of the Ten Commandments, this passage has been used by many social conservatives to argue against Roe v. Wade and abortion rights. After all, if God said, “Thou shalt not kill” then why are we taking lives inside the womb? But if God said, “Thou shalt not kill” then why are we allowing capital punishment?
I would like to hear from both Perry and Bachmann about how they read this passage, and how it can simultaneously justify opposition to abortion rights and support for the death penalty. (During his term as Texas governor, Perry has overseen 234 executions. Bachmann’s position on the issue is unclear.)
Before I address the issue raised by Prothero, let me say a few words about the plight faced by committed Christians running for political office. Secular people are paranoid about Christians running for political office.
Secular people who do not understand the meaning of Christian commitment and who reject God, faith, and religious values demonize Christians who aspire to political office and see conspiracy behind every word spoken by a Christian and find an ulterior motive in every thing a Christian does.
For instance, Michelle Goldberg writing for the Daily Beast said that “Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry aren’t just devout—both have deep ties to a fringe fundamentalist movement known as Dominionism, which says Christians should rule the world.”
Forrest Wilder, writing for the Texas Observer wrote that Rick Perry is part of “[a] little-known movement of radical Christians and self-proclaimed prophets [which] wants to infiltrate government, and Rick Perry might be their man.”
I believe the real reason secular people are afraid of committed Christians is because Christians stand for values that many secular people reject. It is interesting that Prothero uses the imperatives of the Ten Commandments to address Perry, since the Ten Commandments is one of those biblical passages that most secular people love to hate.
Now, to Prothero’s biblical passage to Perry. First of all, let me say that the text Prothero cited, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:12), is not found in Exodus 20:12; it is found in Exodus 20:13.
Second, Prothero does not understand the real meaning of the sixth commandment. The Hebrew word translated “kill” in the King James Bible is רָצַח (rāṣaḥ), a word better translated murder as in the NIV: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
There are eight different words for killing in the Bible. The word used in the sixth commandment, rāṣaḥ is never used for killing in war or killing an animal. The word is used in the Bible to refer only to the unlawful killing of a human being. Thus, the sixth commandment forbids “the unjust taking of a legally innocent life.”
In citing the sixth commandment, Prothero mentions both abortion and capital punishment, but he makes no distinction between the two. Abortion is the killing of babies in the womb. Since Christians believe that a baby in the womb is a viable life, Christians believe that the killing of babies is murder, thus, a violation of the sixth commandment.
Capital punishment, when administered by the authority of the state, is a form of lawful killing. Even the Bible sanctions capital punishment: “If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands” (Genesis 9:6).
As a Christian, I may not accept the imposition of capital punishment, but the state has the right to impose the sentence of death as a form of retributive justice. As the apostle Paul wrote, “The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong” (Romans 13:4).
People living in our country today encounter much rage and violence. Murder happens every day in most American cities. Thousands of innocent lives are taken every year in a heartless disregard for the value of human life.
Christians value human life. This is the reason they oppose abortion. Abortion is a crime against humanity because the unborn is a person created in the image of God. This is also the reason some Christians support capital punishment because murder is the killing of a human being created in the image of God.
Prothero’s question to Rick Perry is not unfair because if the voters are going to select an individual who is a Christian, they have the right to know how the faith of that individual will influence his or her political decision.
What is unfair in these questions is that the texts are taken out of context in order to trap an individual into supporting a political agenda. Take for instance Prothero’s reference to Jesus’ words about the poor: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Prothero wrote:
This Lukan passage is a key source in the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church for the so-called “preferential option for the poor”—the notion that Christian communities have a particular responsibility to take care of the poor in their midst.
How do Perry and Bachmann read this passage? Did Luke mess up by leaving out “in spirit”? Or did Jesus really say “Blessed are the poor”? And if he did say that, what did he mean by it? Do his words carry any meaning for us today, and to the way we craft our federal budget?
The question we must ask is: who is responsible to take care of the poor in our midst? Christian communities or the federal budget? The implication in Prothero’s question is that Christians are not concerned for the poor.
According to the Wikipedia, “Prothero describes himself as ‘religiously confused.’” This is the kind of treatment Christians receive from people who do not understand Christians.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
If you are unable to see the Hebrew letters in the essay, download the Biblical fonts and install them on your computer. Download the fonts here.
First I agree that Prothero has more than a few problems. Even as someone who is secular by almost any definition, and who does not think that, unless accompanied by other material from other traditions including secular traditions, the Ten Commandments should be associated with government in any form, I do think that the kind of game Prothero is playing has no positive value to anyone. If it turns out that abortion is ever morally justified (and I think it is) or that execution is not morally justified, those moral conclusions will rest on ethical considerations other than the Ten Commandments.
In the context of the Ten Commandments, I think that you are correct that meaning of tirṣaḥ in Ex 20:13 tends to be within the semantic range of what we would call “murder.” I do worry that words like “murder” that have a modern, in this case legal, context are also, at least in part, modern constructs that should at least give us pause.
That said, I am not so sure that the semantic range of rāṣaḥ and derivatives is limited to murder in all cases. Dt 4:42 specifically mentions unwitting killing, hardly murder and provides protection for the unwitting killer. Or look at Dt 19:3-6 to take another example from Deuteronomy (or Jos 20:3-6 as well as many other places). All I am saying is that even in Ex 20:13 we need to be rather nuanced in our understanding. Examples like Dt 4:42 provide such nuance that I worry is often missing from our discussion of the difficult moral questions that Christians and other people of faith as well as secularists face.
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You and I agree that what Prothero said has little value in the political arena. Now, let me discuss the use of meaning of tirṣaḥ.
Koehler-Baumgartner in their Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament said this about the Hebrew verb: “The verb, with the exception of Nu 35:30, denotes illegal behaviour against the community which is always directed against an individual.” The passages that you mentioned in your comment refer to killing without premeditation, but in all cases the texts refer to the killing of a fellow countryman and they are also related to the cities of refuge for the one who has committed homicide. Since the killer is not found innocent until he is declared to be so, I think that the word in these texts still apply to the fact that the killing is the unlawful killing of a human being.
It seems that the commandment against murder is a prohibition against individuals taking life, while the authority to execute murderers is left to society, acting as God’s agent. Abortion is ultimately an individual choice, thus falls under the murder, not execution, provision (provided you think embryos are human beings).
I seem to recall the traditional Jewish take is that any of the commandments may be broken to save a life, except the commandment against taking a life. I also seem to recall early Jewish writings claiming the Jewish participation in Jesus’ trial and execution is unlikely because Second Temple legal authorities had switched to fines for most of the legal penalties in the Torah and almost never endorsed the death penalty.
More scholarly heads that mine would have to confirm or deny these.
Thank you for your comment. I have two observations:
1. I agree with your first statement. As whether an embryo is a human being, this issue is debated in our society. I would say that most people, Christians and non-Christians would agree that an embryo is a human being.
2. I have never heard about what you wrote in your last statement, about Jesus’ trial. You must remember that in John 8 a woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned to death, according to the laws of Moses. This would contradict the view that the Jewish authorities had changed the death penalty to fines. In any case, Jesus was crucified because he was perceived to be an enemy of Rome. Maybe I need to do some research on this issue.
Thanks for the interesting response. My point was simply that I doubt that the semantic range of the classical Hebrew rāṣaḥ maps one to one with the semantic range of the modern English word “murder” (as a verb or otherwise). I’m not so sure that the examples I cited refer simply to killing without premeditation. This rests on exactly what בבלי־דעת means. Something I’m a little too lazy to jump into just now.
Since you were “a little too lazy” to do the research, I did it for both of us. The expression בְלִי־דַ֙עַת appears five times in the Hebrew Bible: Deut. 4:42, 19:4, Josh. 20:3, 5, Job 35:16. In the first four texts, the word refers to involuntary murder. The expression is translated as unaware, without designing it, unknowingly, without cause, unintentionally, without premeditation, and so forth. In the case of Job, the expression is translated as without knowledge, ignorantly.
I still believe that the word רָצַח refers to the killing of an innocent person.
Thanks for looking at בְלִי־דַ֙עַת. What you say conforms to what I imaged. But “unaware” to “not premeditated” is a rather large semantic range. I’m just not sure where in that semantic range we should put the phrase in Deut. 4:42, etc.
Actually, your understanding of רָצַח sounds about right, but that still doesn’t map one to one to our modern use of the word murder. Under most modern understandings of murder, the victim doesn’t need to be undeserving of being killed. What is required is that the killing not be an accident, in self-defense and not be government sectioned (ie. war or capital punishment). Unless I’m reading it wrong, in Nu 35:27b it appears the that it is allowable that the blood-avenger kill (רָצַח) the רֹצֵחַ outside the city of refuge. I think that would be murder in any US court.
Claude, I’m not trying to dispute that רָצַח means something in the neighborhood of “murder” in most contexts including Ex 20:13. It is clearly something more complicated than just “kill.” There is a strong element of unsanctioned killing in the word. All I’m trying to say is that it is not clearly identical in meaning to our word “murder.” My claim is actually quite modest. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it is correct.