Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Thou Shalt Not KILL?"

I was talking with a colleague who knows Hebrew more than I (i.e. he knows Hebrew and I don't) about the Hebrew meaning of the term "kill" in the Ten Commandments. I was curious if there were a good English equivalent of the term, since I either hear things like, "It says, 'Thou Shalt not Kill,' therefore, pacifism" or "Thou Shalt not Murder," hence manslaughter is permissible.  But I hear much more of the former.  I don't know how many times I've heard from the more pacifist crowd, "Thou Shalt not KILL" (even from professors who should know better) which take the verse to prohibit all killing.  Of course, if it prohibits killing in general, that's a prohibition against killing fish, bugs, and plant life.  This, of course, is absurd, since the Old Testament in surrounding contexts permits (and sometimes commands) some killings.

His response:  "[The Hebrew word] is ordinarily restricted to use with humans as the object.  It seems to be used for both voluntary and involuntary killing, so the commandment seems to be urging care not to kill as well as simple prohibition of murder.  In the culture of the time, of course, there was a whole class of sanctioned killing (capital punishment, war) that would not have been included here."

My response: There doesn’t seem to be a good, single English equivalent word, then, at least that I can think of off the top of my head.  “Kill” is far too broad.  “Manslaughter” is too narrow (it includes reckless killing but excludes intentional killing like murder.)  “Murder” is too narrow (since it includes only unjustified, intentional killing of an innocent.)  “Homicide” is too broad (since there are justifiable homicides in self-defense, etc.)    

However the legal term “negligent homicide” seems pretty close, though it’s a lesser offense than murder, so it’s still inexact.

The Latin Vulgate is “Non occides.”  Roughly, don’t kill/slay (but can mean don’t murder in certain contexts).  It might be broader, though, than “interficio.” This is speculation, but if “occides” has a broader semantic range perhaps the Vulgate use had some influence in the choice of the English word "kill." 

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