A recent article published in The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky called my attention because of a misinterpretation of a very controversial statement in the Old Testament. Below is an excerpt from the article and the quote that called my attention:
In defiant, obscene and sometimes startling testimony Monday, convicted murderer Joshua Gouker testified that he killed his 14-year-old stepson on May 11, 2011, by beating him to death with a pipe, saying “it just felt right.”
But Gouker told a Jefferson County jury that his son, Joshua Young, had no involvement in the slaying of Trey Zwicker.
“Nobody helped me,” Gouker said.
Testifying during the second week of 17-year-old Joshua Young’s murder trial, Gouker said he was angry that Trey’s mother had aborted his child. “I know it sounds monstrous . . . but if we were in the Old Testament, it would be the same thing.”
Gouker, who is serving life in prison for Trey’s murder, said he took the boy to a creek behind Liberty High School on East Indian Trail to confront him about stealing a lighter and a plate of food, then killed him with a pipe that he rinsed in the creek.
This statement by Gouker reflects the attitude of someone who does not know the Old Testament and does not understand its teaching. In his statement, Gouker is referring to the law of the lex talionis or the law of retaliation:
“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod. 21:22-25).
The lex talionis contains the principle that when a person has injured another person, then the person who was injured should receive the value of the injury in compensation. According to Jewish tradition, the victim should receive a financial compensation for the injury. The law does not demand the mutilation of the offender; rather, it requires the offender to compensate the victim for the injury suffered.
Gouker interpreted the lex talionis literally: “life for life.” His wife killed his son by aborting the baby, so he killed her son by murdering him.
Jesus quoted the lex talionis in the Sermon on the Mount. He said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer” (Matt. 5:38-39). In quoting the law, Jesus omitted “life for life” because the law only requires financial compensation and not the killing of the offender.
By taking the life of the boy, Gouker violated a more important law. The sixth commandment clearly says: “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13). Our society does not approve of taking the life of an innocent person, nor did the society of ancient Israel. The taking of human life is universally condemned and every nation has laws prohibiting murder.
It is unfortunate that the King James Bible mistranslates the sixth commandment of the Decalogue. The KJV translates Exodus 20:13 as “Thou shalt not kill.” But this is not the true intent of the sixth commandment. The NRSV has a better translation: “You shall not murder.”
What the sixth commandment prohibits is not the kind of killing done by people working under the protection of a legal system or killing done by those in the military. The sixth commandment forbids the unlawful murder of a human being. The sixth commandment forbids the premeditated killing of an innocent life, and this is what Mr. Gouker did. His action was murder in cold blood.
If the legal system that sent him to jail for life was going to apply the same Old Testament principle that Mr. Gouker uses to defend his action, he would not be facing life in prison. His sentence would be completely different. This is what the Old Testament says about someone who takes innocent life: “If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands. For God made human beings in his own image” (Gen. 9:6 NLT).
Although many people today are opposed to capital punishment, the truth behind the allowance for capital punishment in the book of Genesis is the fact that the law was designed to preserve the sanctity of human life: whoever kills a person unlawfully, that person must also forfeit his life.
Writing on Genesis 9:6 John Calvin said: “No one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself. God so threatens and denounces vengeance against the murderer, that he even arms the magistrate with the sword for the avenging of slaughter, in order that the blood of men may not be shed with impunity.”
Mr. Gouker should be happy that this Old Testament law was not applied to his case.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary