The Ten Commandments

The 6th commandment.

“You must not murder.”  [ King James version, “Thou shalt not kill”.]

What’s the difference between killing and murder? Killing is murder if it breaks the law. There are religious laws, however, like the Old Testament ‘lex talionis’, which demand an ‘eye for an eye’, a life for a life. Killing is also held to be murder if it is premeditated, i.e. with ‘malice aforethought’, as opposed to what our French friends refer to as a spontaneous, uncontrollable ‘crime passionnel’. Nothing’s ever simple!

The 6th commandment, being in the Old Testament, cannot be an injunction against killing as such. In the book of Genesis, God is said to kill every living thing in the world, except for a favoured few, with a universal flood. In the book of Joshua, God demands that his ‘chosen people’ kill all the inhabitants of Canaanite cities, men, women and children, and even their cats, dogs, sheep and goats! In 2 Samuel 6:7, God ‘zaps’ someone from on high for, on the face of it, an innocently well-meaning action. And to cap it all, having selected Moses to be the deliverer of his people from Egypt, Exodus 4:24 tells us that God “met Moses and tried to kill him” – it’s just as well his wife was with him to put a stop to that !

It’s definitely murder, however, that the 6th commandment prohibits. It doesn’t apply to killing in wars (which unfortunately, in the view of some, includes so-called ‘holy’ wars). It can’t be held to apply to the killing of animals, since God required an endless supply of carcasses to be offered on his altars of sacrifice. It should not apply, in my view, to ‘assisted dying’ for the terminally ill, which does not initiate death but simply gives a dying person a measure of personal control over an unstoppable process already underway.

Perhaps the best thought to take away from this commandment, is given to us by Jesus of Nazareth. He gets to the heart of things by inviting us not only not to murder, but also not to hate, which is to murder others in our thoughts, even if not in our actions. We’re living in the era of the inescapably intrusive and powerfully persuasive world wide web, with its toxic cocktail of malicious disinformation, anger and resentment, ‘alternative facts’ otherwise known as lies and deceit, bigotry, fanaticism and hate speech etc. etc. We need to be on our guard to detect and repudiate the first stirrings of anger, envy, resentment or hate, lest they begin to corrode the hopefully fundamental decency of our innermost beings.

The poet William Blake wrote about the ‘worm’ that finds its way into the heart of the rose, with its poison that initially seems to offer a dark, secret pleasure:

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