Deuteronomy 5:17

The book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and last book of the Torah (“law”). It continues the story of the first 4 books and picks up exactly where the book of Numbers ends (with the people on the plain of Moab). Therefore, as we set the context for the book of Deuteronomy, it is important that we briefly summarize the theme of the previous books to see how the story of God unfolds.

Genesis describes God’s plan to bless the Israelites and the world through one man named Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Exodus focuses on God’s loving act by which He rescued the Israelites from Egypt in order to have a covenant relationship with them. Once the children of Israel are redeemed, Leviticus instructs them to live a holy life that reflects the life of their covenant redeemer (cf. Lev. 19). Since the first generation of the Israelites failed to obey God wholeheartedly, the book of Numbers displays a strong contrast between God’s faithfulness and the nation’s failure. That is why the book of Deuteronomy reiterates and expands on the covenant to a new generation of Israelites poised to enter and conquer the Promised Land. The message of the book is centered around two key terms: love and loyalty (Deut. 6:4-5).

Deuteronomy 5 begins the exposition of the covenantal principles by which the Israelites were to live in the Promised Land as vassals or servants of Yahweh. This chapter is divided into three parts.

• The first part deals with Moses’s exhortation to Israel to obey God’s commandments. Here, Moses reminds the people of God’s manifestation at Mount Horeb (Sinai) where He established a covenant relationship with them and promised that if they walked in obedience as a nation, they would serve a priestly function to other nations (vv. 1-5).
• The second part deals with Moses’s restatement of the Ten Commandments God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai after redeeming them from bondage in Egypt (vv. 6-21).

• The third part focuses on exhorting Israel to fear God and walk in obedience by reminding them of the time when their elders asked Moses to be the mediator between the LORD and His people, because the Israelites were afraid upon hearing God’s voice from the midst of the fire at Mount Sinai (vv. 22-33).

Essentially, this chapter serves to encourage Israel to be loyal to their Suzerain (Ruler) God by reminding them of their past commitments with Him at Mount Horeb (Sinai). It provides assurance that God will keep His part of the bargain and see to their success if they will walk faithfully, as well as reminding them that they experienced that God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24).

It also reminds Israel of the three pillars of self-governance set up by God as the social order for His priestly nation: rule of law, private property, and consent of the governed.

The Sixth Commandment

The Israelites are commanded not to commit murder.

In the ancient world, the taking of a human life was a major crime in every society. This was true for the ancient Near Eastern cultures including the nation Israel. However, not all cases were treated equally. For instance, the Hittite Law, which distinguished between intentional killing and negligence, stated that if a man killed his wife because she was engaged in adultery, he should not be judged or punished. That is, the man’s act was justified. However, if someone decided to push another person into fire and killed that person, the guilty man should deliver his own son to be killed.1

It was amid this ancient Near Eastern context that the LORD said to His people, “You shall not murder.” The verb “to murder” refers to illicit killing, whether it is intentional or accidental (1 Kings 21:19; Deuteronomy 19:3-4; Deuteronomy 4:41-42). In its broad sense, the verb refers to any violence done against someone — out of anger, deceit, hatred, or for personal benefits — that might result in death, regardless of the methods used. This does not include capital punishment or killing in warfare, though.

Nevertheless, while the same verb can be used for both intentional and accidental killing, Numbers 35 does establish a clear distinction between the two, and therefore sheds light on the intent of this law. According to Numbers 35, if a deadly tool of iron, stone, wood, or hands were used in enmity, the killing was premeditated (Numbers 35:15-21). If it was not used, the killing was accidental.

Thus, a manslayer (manslaughter) was defined as someone who commits an accidental act of killing (Numbers 35:22-24; Deuteronomy 19:11-13). The manslayer was supposed to flee from one of the six cities of refuge in order that he might live (Numbers 35:13-15). He had to remain there until the death of the high priest. Once the high priest died, the manslayer could return home safely (Numbers 35:26-28).

In contrast, a murderer is the one who intentionally kills a person (with an iron object, etc) either because of hatred, malice, or for personal gain (Numbers 35:16). Such a murderer was to “be put to death” (Numbers 35:17). In sum, since the LORD had made provisions for accidental killing and since it is not possible to prohibit any accidental act, the sixth commandment that prohibits murder refers to intentional killing.

God issued this prohibition in order to protect human life because He created “man in His own image” (Genesis 1:27). As such, He wanted His people to show respect to human life. God’s prohibition against committing murder is plainly stated in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” A human being is a special creation from God. In Genesis 9:6 God granted moral authority to humans to take the life of a murderer in the context of the judgement of Noah’s flood. God destroyed the world at that time (2 Peter 3:6) because it had filled with violence (Genesis 6:11). The purpose of capital punishment is to deter violence.

Jesus Christ expanded this commandment in his Sermon on the Mount. He said, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court” (Matthew 5:21-22). Jesus made the point here that while man judges actions, God judges the heart. And ultimately the actions of man stem from the thoughts of the heart.

The book of John also connected hatred as the root of the act of murder: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). Murder is a violation against the dignity of life.

Biblical Text:

17 You shall not murder.

1 For more information, see Raymond Westbrook, ed., A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, 2 vols. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003), 1:415-16, 644.

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