Killing Human Beings

“Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Genesis 9:6).

In his discussion of Genesis 9:6, Terence E. Fretheim, the Elva B. Lovell Emeritus Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote (2005: 51):

The concerns of Genesis 9:6 link image of God with the sanctity of human life, and this verse is bracketed in part by a repetition of the command to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:1, 7). Murder means that human beings, who carry the divine image, would be in danger of no longer perpetuating themselves, the divine image, into the future.

That the Cain and Abel story is the first story is not fortuitous (followed shortly by Genesis 5:1-3); it says something crucial about the perpetuation of the human species.

That is one of the primary forms of evil manifest in the world: the killing of human beings, which is the killing of an image of God.

Although Fretheim is discussing the issue of the death penalty, his comment also applies to the problem of killing the unborn.

In his article “Divine Creation and Human Procreation: Reflections on Genesis in the Light of Genesis,” David Heyed said that murder is “a diminution of God’s image.” He wrote (1997: 65-66), “Taking the life of an individual entails the non-life of all his potential descendants, the destruction of life to an almost infinitive degree (in Abel’s case, exactly half of all potential human beings).” Thus, the killing of an unborn person is the loss of life of “future contingent lives” when that unborn person is killed.

From God’s perspective, the unborn is a human being that has not yet been outside of a mother’s womb, but the unborn is a person with whom God can interact.

God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose. I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

If Jeremiah’s mother had aborted him, God could not do with Jeremiah what God told him he had done. What did God do? Before Jeremiah was formed in his mother’s womb, God knew him. Before Jeremiah came forth from his mother’s womb, God selected him to be his prophet. Before Jeremiah was born, God set him apart for a special work that only Jeremiah could do. The killing of the unborn Jeremiah would entail the destruction of an individual who made an impact on his society.

Jeremiah was not called to be a prophet when he was fifteen years old or so. That was the time when he was told that he had been chosen to be a prophet. Jeremiah was not called to be a prophet the day he was born, as some scholars believe. No. Jeremiah was set apart for his sacred vocation while he was still in his mother’s womb.

There are many prophets whose names appear in the Old Testament, but Jeremiah is not the only one who was called to the prophetic ministry from his mother’s womb. The unnamed prophet whom we call “The Servant of the Lord” was also called and named by Yahweh before he was born: “Listen, O coastlands, to me, And give heed, O nations afar: The LORD appointed me before I was born, He named me while I was in my mother’s womb” (Isaiah 49:1). In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul also believed that God had selected him before he was born: “God . . . appointed me before I was born and . . . called me by his kindness” (Galatians 1:15).

God’s words to Jeremiah, a young man probably fifteen years old at the time of his call, are very revealing. God was active in the life of Jeremiah, not prior to the day Jeremiah was conceived, but after conception, while he was still in his mother’s womb, but before he was born.

In his commentary on Jeremiah, Philip Ryken (2201: 20) wrote about Jeremiah 1:5: “A fetus is a person. A person is a human being, created in the image of God, living in relationship to God. This verse testifies that the personal relationship between God and his child takes place in the womb. . . . Birth is not our beginning.”

The killing of human beings is wrong and evil because the killing of a human being is the killing of an image of God. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) says: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

The killing of a human being, this is what the killing of the unborn is all about.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Heyed, David. “Divine Creation and Human Procreation: Reflections on Genesis in the Light of Genesis.” In Contingent Future Persons. Edited by Nick Fotion and Jan C. Heller. Theology and Medicine, vol. 9. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997.

Fretheim, Terence E. God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.

Ryken, Philip G. Jeremiah and Lamentation. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001.

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