Quibbling Over Words

It’s common among Christians to quibble over supposed distinctions between Hebrew words meaning “killing” as opposed to “murder.” Thus, they say, the commandment prohibits “murder,” but not other forms of killing.

Rabbi Marty Lockshin says, no. All the words are used in multiple senses, “to teach us to abhor all killing of human beings.” Wilma Ann Bailey argues in a similar vein–those who argue for a hard and fast distinction between different words used in the Hebrew Bible are expecting too much simplicity in how languages work.

And why do some people insist on these verbal distinctions? Because they want to argue that killing is OK as long as you don’t murder. They are defending combatant military service, self-defense, and capital punishment as good, and condemning pacifism as simplistic or dangerous.

If we look at what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, all such parsing of verbs is rendered moot.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Mt 5:21-22)

“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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mt 5:38-39)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:43-48)

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount transcends all the casuistry of the rabbis and the concession to human weakness made by Moses.

I’ve made this point in sermons and had the occasional angry person say, “But Jesus said it was OK to kill in the OT. He told Israel to kill their enemies. He told them to slaughter the children and women and livestock of their enemies. So how dare you say Jesus says something different here?”

Because Jesus says something different. He says repeatedly through this sermon, “You have heard it was said in the past, but I say to you now.” He overthrows all the excuses and rationalizations and defenses and lays before the people a new standard: the rejection of violence and the love of enemies.

This takes on renewed importance for Christian ethical reflection after 9-11. Many Christians in America were caught up in the grief and anger that consumed the nation. They justified and encouraged military retaliation. I know I did. They clung to reasons like the supposed distinction in Hebrew verbs as their justification.

Over seventeen years later, in the second generation of the Global War on Terror, as recruits get inducted into the military who were born after 9-11, and we think of the combatants killed on each side, and the far larger number of non-combatants, and the destruction of multiple countries, and the erosion of human rights and the rise of hate and division, I’m led to wonder — what if Christians had acted differently? What if we had treated this not as war but as a criminal act? What if we had let it be handled by law enforcement agencies rather than the military? What if Christians had responded through love and non-violence?

I suggest the world would be a much different place today. A much safer place.