When the Lord your God has destroyed the nations whose land he is giving you, and when you have driven them out and settled in their towns and houses, then set aside for yourselves three cities in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess. Build roads to them and divide into three parts the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that anyone who kills someone else may flee there. This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. This is why I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities. Deuteronomy 19:1-7

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.” Matthew 5:21-24

Point by Point

  1. Capital punishment is under fire today as a barbaric practice
  2. In Israels law it was a cutting edge improvement over previous customs
  3. The law required a judgment by the elders that a murder had occurred before an execution could happen
  4. Israel was also required to distinguish between murder and manslaughter
  5. Israel established safe havens (cities of refuge) for those who had killed “without malice aforethought”
  6. Jesus ups the ante on murder to include all severing of ties between people
  7. Jesus is looking to the future and his new-creation community
  8. The new covenant people will need to be a reconciling people if they are to change the world
  9. It is good to not murder, but Jesus calls us to something greater
  10. How are we doing at helping those at the margins of society live?

Details, Details!

  #6. You shall not kill! 3500 years after the establishment of this law (and those elsewhere in Torah which flesh out its meaning) it is hard to see Law-Word Six as a radical innovation. If anything, most of the world looks askance at nations which answer murder with execution. In fact, to keep Torah as it was written way back toward the beginning of God’s story would be an incredibly regressive way of living now. However, some things have changed for the better since then and this murder law was radically progressive back then: (see the July 22 post, We Are the Problem with the Old Testament [https://gracetracer.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/] on this subject). One of the issues which had caused God to be sorry he had created humankind (Genesis 6:5-6), was the rate of human murder in that time, reflected in the text of Genesis, chapters 3-6. The basic method which humans used then to deal with murder was a system of vendetta or blood revenge which actually made it all much worse. How it worked: If someone killed my relative, my family was to exact revenge on the family of the murderer, sometimes at a rate of seven to one. Of course, then the other family would seek revenge for all seven of those deaths at some similarly exaggerated ratio. It was a slaughter, a blood bath.

Although Gods covenant with Noah had reduced the rate of revenge to one to one (Genesis 9:5-6), vendetta was still automatic when anyone died under the least suspicious circumstances. After Law Six, however, vendetta was no-longer automatically sanctioned in Israel. In the law there were sanctioned causes for killing, especially in time of war, for which no vengeance could be taken and any murder charge required an intermediate step before punishment could be meted out. The earliest form of due process was required and a guilty verdict from the elders of a town or city was necessary before a family could legally execute one who had allegedly perpetrated a capital crime against their family. This due process thing was an entirely new concept. Thereafter, a revenge killing which was not sanctioned as just retribution by the elders was itself considered murder.

Moreover, to cause the accidental death of another, what we call manslaughter, was separated in Torah from the intentional, non-sanctioned taking of human life (Exodus 21:12-14, Numbers 35). This was also an innovation. Manslaughter still carried a penalty, a period of exile, essentially incarceration in a city of refuge, but no vendetta could legally be taken against one found guilty in court of this lesser charge. In all these new laws God sought to raise the level of civil society among his people from the brutal standards which existed in the other nations.

Another striking difference between the biblical legislation and that of other cultures was the almost complete absence of different penalties for murder, based on social class, such we find in the Codex of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code from about the same era. In Israel in most matters it was one law for everyone regardless of social station. This, too, was previously unheard-of, but it moved Israel toward the public justice/righteousness which God wanted then and wants now for all people everywhere. In God’s covenant with Israel, the Lord sought to move his people toward blessing and away from curse.

When Jesus looked at this old law some 1500 years after Israel’s flight from Egypt, he taught it in a way which pushed human behavior toward even more civil and just ends. Said Jesus, not only is killing a person murder, but any means one might employ to kill a person in one’s mind, to cut off one’s relationship with him by calling him stupid or dismissing him as a fool is tantamount to murder.

Jesus’ point: murder surely destroys a society but so does hatred; so does dismissal. When we write someone off, we break fellowship with her and thus harm our community. This was very important to Jesus who had, after all, just announced that the gospel of the kingdom of God had come to be in the midst of their society and would thereafter be present on the earth. The point of the kingdom was (and is) to build a community of the “low and despised” which will eventually “bring to nothing the things which are,” (I Corinthians 1:28b). At its inception, the new community existed to disciple all the nations and to do that it needed to model fellowship in order to undermine the entire evil, oppressive Roman hegemony. The kingdoms weapons were forgiveness, humility and generosity! But if that was to be so, then hatred and dismissal among “the low and despised” could hobble the good and blessed aims of the kingdom community as surely as would murder in its midst.

Everyone in Jesus’ movement was to be brought along together; not a few superstars and golden boys who dazzle most and dismiss the rest. That star system was the Roman model which the Jews had also adopted as their own, centuries before. Jesus’ new community was a virtually flat organization which needed everyone working together, of one mind and spirit. Murderous thoughts about others in the new community were strictly out of bounds. Violence of any kind was and is a work of the devil where kingdom building is concerned.

Can we push the ‘don’t kill law’ further than Jesus did, this law about not cutting ourselves off from the lives of our adversaries? Yes, because we have yet to look at the law, positive, power-side out: Love God with all you’ve got and your neighbor as much as yourself.

How about this positive restatement:
“Live so that others may live; those who would have died if you had not been there to help.” Do you see how this reading hangs the ‘don’t kill law’ on the words, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself?!”

Have you ever been stuck on the side of the road with car trouble and wished someone would stop to help? When we are helpless and our life is dying, even in a certain small sense, if our heads are screwed on right, we put up our proverbial trunk hood and we hope someone will be our neighbor, our rescuer, our goel (Hebrew, for kinsman-redeemer). And when the shoe is on the other foot, Jesus, who is our ultimate goel, wants us to behave toward others as we ourselves would hope to be helped (Matthew 7:12). He wants us to go out of our way, to willingly stop, to waste some time, to take a risk, for those who, for whatever reason, cannot do things for themselves.

As Jesus made clear in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), it is not enough to avoid the negative, to stay clean and away from blood. The Holy Spirit was not given just to keep us out of trouble. We are empowered by God to risk getting involved and so to change the world for the better.

Further, we see the importance of our verbal witness of God’s love to others in the positivization of this commandment. In the Revelation the distinction is made between the first and the second death (20:6-14). When one is saved from the first death, the inevitable is just postponed; one is still going to die eventually. But if someone meets Jesus through our testimony she will truly live, she will escape the second death and be empowered to join us in the transformation of all the earth. It was for this reason that John said he wrote his first letter:
…we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. I John 1:3-4

Jesus wanted an end to all kinds of murders which destroy fellowship. John says true fellowship only happens when we extend true life to one another. It is good to not murder, well and good. But it is when we do more than just fail to murder, when we extend ourselves to those who are in danger of dying that our joy is made complete.

Seem a bit risky? O yes. Outside the usual comfort zone? Way out there. The very expression of what it means to belong to the King? Yup.

We’ve probably all seen the bumper sticker, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” To paraphrase it we might say, “Safe, good Christians (those who just do not murder) rarely change the world.”

So, how do I get out and do risky stuff if I am afraid? I start by spending quality time in the lap of my Abba, my Daddy-God, who holds me, hugs me, occasionally tickles me ’til I can hardly breathe. It is when I know I am safe that I can go do what seems impossible. There is a strong, strong connection between what some have called ‘piety’ and ‘apostolic action.’ And how do I know when I am being called upon to show up to do more than just not murder? If I am in community with other believers it will really become hard to miss: things people notice that fit who I am (even if I had never done them before) will just be there, needing doing. Sometimes the call of God to step out and do more than just not murder will even be verbal.

A certain person walked up to me one Sunday in 2001 and asked me to serve as a Spiritual Director on a Charis (prison) weekend. My first thought (which stayed with me until Wednesday!) was “I am not going into a prison!” Then, on Wednesday morning, I made the mistake of mentioning this “opportunity” to the mens group with whom I met regularly for breakfast. Immediately, one of the men piped up, “Oh! I have been praying that you would get to be a Spiritual Director on a Charis weekend!” The others at the table all agreed. It was then I knew I was surrounded and that I was going into that prison. And almost ten years later, you cannot get me to leave the prison. I have been as good as arrested, arraigned, tried, convicted, sentenced, processed in and incarcerated for life, by the Spirit of God. Could I have refused, could I have quenched the Spirits prompting in my fear? Yes. In fact I nearly did just that. Fortunately I failed. And looking back, I cannot imagine all the joy I would have missed! Was I prepared at first? Not at all. But during training I was told all I needed was to remember and do four things: listen, listen, love and love. O, how very true that was.

If you have not been called already, how will you be called to do what you do not have to do, which is what you must do? What does it look like? I have no idea in your case, but I suspect one or more of your ‘more than not killing’ opportunities is right under your nose today. That may be why, in fact, you are reading this post; because you are supposed to pay attention today or this week to what the Holy Observer has especially for you to do, for Gods great glory and as a joyous, beyond-measure blessing for you!


Lord, when you took poor Israel out of Egypt, they were not much. Yet you rescued them, you tested them, carried them, equipped them and even came to live with them. Then you said, “Now, go take the land!”

Our situation is not much different. We have been rescued, tested, often carried, equipped and your Spirit has even come to live within us. And you have said to each of us and all of us together, “Go make disciplined followers out of all the sad sack nations around;” that is our ‘go take the land!’ Help us realize that all we need to accomplish that goal is each other and your sure presence in our lives. You have promised to provide everything else. In King Jesus’ name! Amen.

Trace James