The Hebrew versus the English Concept of Murder

Posted by on Jul 31, 2022

In English, a very clear distinction exists between murder and manslaughter. The legal term “murder”, as in “You shall not murder”, is defined as an unlawful premeditated killing of a human being by a human being, wherein “killing” is the act of terminating a human life.

The Covenant

The Covenant of YHVH: “You shall not murder”.

The English translations of the Tanak render the Sixth Commandment of the Covenant by using the English words “murder” or “kill”: “Thou shalt not murder” (JPS), and “Thou shalt not kill” (KJV).

These English words are mistakenly taken to have two different meaning, i.e., to murder is considered to take life intentionally, while to kill is to cause to die unintentionally.

Some even suggest that killing is a general term, which may refer to homicide of any type, while murder is a narrower term, referring to unjustifiable taking of a human life. However, not all the evidence within the Torah supports this distinction.

Unlike “murder” and “killing”, the legal terms “homicide” is the taking of a human without making a reference to the intent, and “manslaughter” is homicide without criminal intent behind a wrongful act of taking human life, i.e., without malice aforethought.

This clear distinction between murder and manslaughter constitutes the legislation in regard to capital punishment in the Anglo-Saxon judiciary; “murder” is defined as any act that takes life intentionally and with premeditation and therefore liable to capital punishment or life sentence, while “manslaughter” is defined as causing to die unintentionally or by mistake.

But as we will see in the following, the things are much deeper; while overall English translates correctly the Hebrew text from the viewpoint of the language and culture, Hebrew uses the word for “murder” differently.

And if we want to understand what the commandment “You shall not murder” means, we must pay attention to how the Hebrew language and culture defines “murder”. This raises the inevitable question: What has the Legislator intended to say in His Covenant?

The Hebraic concept of “murder”

But how does Hebrew define “murder” and “manslaughter”? The things become complicated in Hebrew. This is the interlinear translation of the Westminster Leningrad Codex (WLC) in English, which reads,

לֹא תִּרְצָ͏ח

lo tirtsach  

You shall not murder

The Hebrew word in WLS rendered “murder” is רָצַח ratsach; second person singular will be tirtsach. Ratsach is a primitive root, which properly means to dash in pieces, that is, to kill (a human being), especially to murder, but also to put to death, to slay. Ratsach is also a word for “murderer”, “killer”, and “slayer”. A related word to ratsach is רֶצַח retsach, a crushing, specifically a murder, slaughter.

Ratsach sometimes refer to unjustified homicide (i.e., murder) and sometimes to justifiable homicide. Thus, its use in the Torah gives the impression that this word relates not only to a murder case (Num 35:16-19, Num 35:21, Num 35:30-31) but also to a manslaughter like in Num 35:11 and Jos 20:3. How could that be? Let us examine two of the verses.

But if he smote him with an instrument of iron, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. (Num 35:16)

Here it is clear from the plain reading of the text that perpetrator is a murderer. However, a few verses earlier we find the same word used in a quite different situation of manslaughter,

then you shall choose cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the murderer (ratsach) who murdered (ratsach) someone mistakenly shall flee there. (Num 35:11)

The translators have noticed this difficulty and facing with dilemma as to how to reconcile the controversy in English they decided to use words such as “manslayer” or ‘killer” as substitutes for “murderer”, and “to strike” and “to kill” for “to murder”. This is how JPS translates this verse,

then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer that killeth any person through error may flee thither. (Num 35:11 JPS)

While such translations may work for English, Hebrew is not completely satisfied.

Cities of exile for the murderer

The first murder when Kayin took the life of his brother.

The first murder when Kayin took the life of his brother.

According to the Torah, a person who killed another person intentionally or by mistake can escape into one of the six cities of refuge and stay there until the verdict (Num. 35:11-28), or face death by the hand of the avenger. If he had killed intentionally, the city of refuge does not afford him any refuge even if he had already reached it. He would be removed from the city of refuge, even from the Altar in the Temple in Jerusalem (see Exo 21:14) and convicted according to the Torah. We find that this was precisely what happened to Yoav, King David’s commander-in-chief, Yoav, who fled to the Tabernacle to seek refuge there, but he was forcefully removed and executed (1Ki 2:28).

If one had smitten the victim with an iron or wooden instrument, or stone, and the victim dies, the Torah considers the perpetrator a murderer and the punishment was death executed by the avenger (Num 35:16-19).

In such cases Torah assumes that anyone who strikes a blow with such lethal weapon has murderous intentions, because iron instruments, even if they are small, are capable of causing death. If less lethal object has caused the death, the court is to assess if the infliction is motivated by hostility and malice as factors (Num 35:20–21).

But if the victim was hit unintentionally with some object not generally used as a weapon, or suddenly in an accident (i.e., the killer was close to the victim and he did not have a chance warn him), then the killing is considered manslaughter (Num 35:22–23), if the killer was not known to have hostility against the victim.

In case of manslaughter, the assembly of the nearest city of refuge is to rescue the manslayer from the avenger, where he must stay in exile until the death of the high priest. This does not mean that the person is acquitted of the charges, but it simply means that the assembly must provide its city as a “city of refuge” which in a way becomes a city of exile.

The city of refuge also functions as a jail, protecting the killer from being killed the mob or the avenger before the trial (Num 35:11-12). If the manslayer is acquitted in the court but leaves the city of refuge, the avenger has the right to execute him without guilt of blood.

In case of capital crimes, Torah requires at least two witnesses (see Num 35:30, Deu 17:6), and two or three in the case of every crime (Deu 19:15); one witness does not bear witness in a case of capital punishment. And if the witnesses are proven to be false, then what they have meant to be done to the accused the same is to be done to them.

The prohibition of “bail bond” arrangements

The Torah forbids (Num 35:31-32) the relatives of the victim or anyone to take redemption money, neither for the life of the murderer, nor for letting him flee into the city of refuge, or to return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest.

That is to say, the murderer or manslayer is not allowed to come to terms with the relative of the victim by the payment of money to save his life. Nor is the manslayer allowed to purchase permission to return home from the city of exile, by the payment of a monetary compensation.

In the criminal law of some countries like the U.S., however, such “justice” is not only allowed but practiced; it is called “bail bond”. Bail bond is the money that must be forfeited by the person who pays the bail, if the accused person fails to appear in court for trial. The legal system of the U.S. allows an accused person to be temporarily released from custody (usually on condition that a sum of money (bail) guarantees his or her appearance at trial). This however is not how to be in Israel.

Another thing that is prohibited in the Torah is the justice of the people. It is suitable to bring up again the legal practice in the U.S. In the legal system of the U.S., jury is a body of citizens sworn to give a true verdict according to the evidence presented in a court of law. To serve on a jury is considered a civic duty in the U.S.

The judge who presides the court does not give a verdict, the jury does. The judge as a public official authorized to decide questions brought before a court of justice is in the court to assure that both sides of a dispute are equally and fairly presented. But it is the jury that convicts or acquits in case of criminal charges, not the judge. This too is prohibited in the Torah. As we argued in the article Law, Order, Judges, and Police in the Bible – Time of Reckoning Ministry, the judges play an important role in the Biblical judiciary.

By these laws of the Torah justice therefore must be delivered by the court, not by the mob or the personal vendetta of a family member. Yet it is not the court who executes the murderer but “the redeemer of the blood”, who can be the closest relative of the victim.

How Hebrew sees the controversy

While the Torah has made it crystal clear on the issue of addressing and treating the various cases of taking a human life, we are still faced with the same problem: a murderer who murdered by mistake. We read the literal translation from Hebrew,

… for a murderer to flee there, he who unknowingly murdered his neighbor, without having hated him in time past, and might flee to one of these cities and live … (Deu 4:42)

Regrettably, this translation is easy to read nonetheless perplexing. We need to analyze the meaning of this verse. A closer look at the text will convince the English speaker that, according to the plain meaning of the text, a murder can be unintentional. But why does the Torah wish to associate the term “murder” with lack of intent which may lead the reader to conclude that it is an accident.

This is not so, because Scripture does not come to make things obscure but to explain. We must therefore view this verse as telling us something else.

Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir) argues that ratsach always means “murder”. According to him the verb רָצַח ratsach always refers to unjustified homicide. He argues “concerning the use of the word, murderer, in Deu 4:42 as applicable to someone who killed inadvertently, the reason why the Torah used the same term there was only because in the same context deliberate murder was also discussed” (Numbers 35:16 with Rashbam on Exodus).

But Rashbam knows that not all the occurrences of this word within the Torah supports the distinction he makes. This argument from silence is weak.

If ratsach means exclusively “murder”, then Num 35:11 and Deu 4:42 use the same verb in a surprising way for the English-speaking person: “a murderer who has murdered someone unintentionally”. This seems self-contradictory. All this is obvious, for it is illogical to say that the Torah establishes confusion and controversy.

Some English translations, recognizing the controversy that someone who kills unintentionally cannot be called a murderer, translates the Hebrew word in question as “manslayer”. That may solve the ethical problem in English but not in Hebrew; Hebrew still refers to murdering and killing by the same term: ratsach. Therefore, such translations create more problems than they solve. If murder is unintentional, then it can be tolerable as a part of life.

So, is this the first case, we are dealing with, wherein the translation works better than the original language, or there is something in Hebrew that we do not understand? Or perhaps, there is something in the will of the Legislator concerning the ending of human life that we do not understand. Can we rethink the case of murder in its proper context? Here is the deeper insight.

The letter of the Law and the intention of the heart

The letter of the Law says, “You shall not murder”. Moreover, here is what the Word that became flesh says,

You heard (Ed. at Sinai) that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder” and whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. Moreover, I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be liable to judgment(Mat 5:21-22)

We should immediately notice how our teacher draws parallel between “whoever murders” and “whoever is angry”, and the same one is “liable to judgment”. What does that mean?

The legislation of the Torah explicitly takes a firm stand that no one should ever commit idolatry, murder, adultery, and other forms of sexual immoralities, by enforcing severe penalties.

The Torah prohibits “coveting”. This is the only prohibition mentioned twice in the entire Covenant, namely, in the Tenth Commandment. The coveting is the base of all iniquities, from which all actions of the heart flow. Why else does one murder, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness but to covet what the heart desires?

But coveting is not merely a desire; if it were, how can the Torah prohibit a desire? The coveting is the impulse that urges to actions. Hence, the desire of the heart does not violate the law of coveting unless there is an action to obtain what is coveted. Hence, the coveting refers to the first step in the process of sinning and transgressing the Torah of YHVH. Thus, it is not the thought of coveting that is forbidden in the Tenth Commandment, but rather the plan and the action to actualize the sinful thought.

In the case of taking a human life it is the premeditation that determines the judgement; one covets something, and it is out of reach, he steals it; if he cannot steal it, he murders to have it.

Therefore, we can identify three steps of sinning: (1) desiring something that someone else has, (2) coveting, which includes planning, and (3) the action to acquire what has been desired.

Yeshua’s emphasis on coveting as an action is reflected in His Sermon on the Mount. In it the Messiah goes on to give six interpretations of the laws in the Torah by using the pattern, “You heard what was said in the Torah. Moreover, I say to you”.

He argues that not only is murder a punishable sin, but even feeling anger toward someone is a punishable sin. Yeshua thus goes even beyond the letter of the law to warn that anger can lead to even worse: a murder.

So, why do we not understand why the Torah uses one word for intentional and unintentional homicide? Because we try to understand the Word from a human point of view. We reason that since the real life is not ideal and bad things happen [even to good people], there must be justification of bad actions; since there are killings that are unjustifiable, but there must also be killings that are inevitable in the real life, i.e., accidents. Hence, the former ones are called “murder”, and the latter: “homicide”.

But how does the Creator of life see the murder of a human being whom He has created?

There are three co-creators

With that said, we can look into how the Sages have addressed the issue of murder. Ibn Ezra defines “Do not murder” in the Covenant by associating “You shall not murder” and “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow” thus equating a false or even incomplete testimony to a murder,

“You shall not murder”: With your hand or your tongue, that is, by giving false testimony which results in having someone executed, or by tale bearing, which results in someone’s death or by wickedly giving someone counsel which you know will result in his death, or by not revealing a secret which you are aware of, to someone who would be saved if he knew what you know. If you do not reveal the secret, you are a murderer.

As Ibn Ezra has found the connection between the Sixth and Ninth, so has Ramban linked “You shall not murder” with “Honor your father and your mother”, which is the only commandment with a promise: “so that your days are prolonged upon the land which Yehovah your Elohim is giving you”.

In Ramban’s comments on Exodus 20:13 with Ramban, we read,

He is stating: “Now I have commanded you to acknowledge in thought and in deed that I am the Creator of all, and to honor parents because they joined Me in your formation. If so, guard against destroying the work of My hands and spilling the blood of man, whom I have created to honor Me and acknowledge Me in all these matters.”

Furthermore, Talmud, Kiddushin 30b, states that there are three partners in forming a person: Elohim, who provides the soul, his father, and his mother. When a person honors his father and his mother, Elohim says: “I consider it though as if I had dwelt among them and they had honored Me as well”.

And the One who says, “You shall not murder” also says, “Every man shall fear his mother and his father and guard My Sabbaths. I am Yehovah your Elohim” (Lev 19:3), thus placing the Fifth right after the Fourth: “Remember the Sabbath Day to set it apart”. Because he who fears and honors YHVH Elohim (Deu 6:13) also fears and honors his father and his mother, for they are all equal co-creators of life. For knowledge on the matter of dishonoring the parents, the reader will do well to read what we have written in the article Euthanasia: Children killing their parents – Time of Reckoning Ministry.

When we reflect on what we have written above, we will find that a solid foundation is thus established for the conclusion of our study. We understand that the literal meaning of ratsach is “spilling the blood of human” whether intentionally or unintentionally. This is the reason why the commandment not to murder comes right after the commandment to honor the father and the mother: because they are equal “co-creators” of human life.

The absence of any qualifying adjectives or adverbs in the commandment “You shall not murder” means that any spilling of human blood is equally forbidden; it is murder. Whether murder is intentional or not, it is equally evil in the eyes of the Creator and Sustainer of life, and this is how He sees it: destroying the work of My hands.

But because in the real life a person can take the life of another person unintentionally or by mistake, the Merciful One has set the rules how such cases, even though undesirable, must be handled without violating other laws in the Torah. And He gave us the laws in Numbers 35.

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