Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rami on the Sixth Commandment

Yes, yes! I love what you had to say about this. And I agree that we should add these kinds of suggestions. Maybe, once we have worked our way through all ten commandments we should pause and explore suggestions before we move on the Sermon on the Mount. It might make a good transition.

For now, let’s move on to the Sixth Commandment.

The Sixth Commandment seems clear: "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). While some translations replace “murder” with the more generic “kill,” this is too broad and puts the Sixth Commandment in conflict with other divine commands.

For example, in Genesis people are allowed to eat fruits and vegetables (Genesis 1:29), and doing so implies killing them. After the Flood God allows humans to eat animals though not their blood (Genesis 9:3), and that certainly results in their deaths. And God sanctions killing other human beings both in warfare (Deuteronomy 20:1-20) and for violating certain laws such as the Sabbath, adultery, and murder itself (Exodus 21:12-14; Leviticus 24:17, 21; Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24).
From the Jewish point of view murder is the unlawful and, especially when we come to the rabbis, premeditated taking of a human life. The Torah’s antipathy to murder has to do with disrespecting the image of God: Whoever sheds human blood, humans will shed his blood, ‘For in the image of God He made humankind (Genesis 9:6).

Jesus spoke out against murder (Matthew 5:21-26; Mark 10:17-19), as did Paul (Romans 1:18, 29-32; 13:8-10; Galatians 5:19-21), James (James 2:8-11; 4:1-3), Peter (1 Peter 4:15-16) and John (Revelation 9:20-21; 21:7-8; 22:14-15). So there really isn’t any controversy here.

The rabbis noted that prohibitions against murder existed long before the Torah was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and that the earlier Book of Genesis already prohibited murder (Genesis 9:6), so why include it among the Ten Commandments?
Their answer was that the Torah is far more subtle than earlier law codes, and refers to behaviors that one might not associate with murder. For example, causing a person significant embarrassment, failing to provide travelers with food, water, and safety, causing someone to loose her livelihood, passing legal judgment without the proper training, and failing to apply your wisdom to a situation that needs it are all tantamount to murder, though none are punishable as a capital crime.

The rabbis were also troubled by the death penalty even when associated with murder. While the Torah makes it clear that the punishment for murder is death, the rabbis put so many qualifications on the act of murder as to make conviction of murder next to impossible.

For example, the act has to be observed by two credible witnesses who must interrupt the murderer to explain the forbidden nature of the crime. They must also explain to the murderer the nature of the punishment associated with murder, and the murderer must verbally affirm that he or she understands the nature of the crime and the consequences of committing it. Just to be safe, the rabbis also require that these two witnesses actually witness the murder itself. Only eyewitness accounts are admissible as evidence in a capital murder case.

And, just in case all that took place, the rabbis further decreed that a murderer can only be tried by a tribunal of twenty-three judges, and only in the Temple in Jerusalem. When the judges vote, a majority of two is necessary for conviction. If, however, the guilty verdict is unanimous and all 23 judges find the defendant guilty, the rabbis annul the judgment of their colleagues because, since it is nearly impossible to get 2 rabbis, let alone 23, to agree on anything, the unanimous nature of the verdict proves in and of itself that the defendant was denied vigorous defense counsel.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that the rabbis decreed that any court that executes more than one person in seven years is to be labeled a bloodthirsty court. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah dissented saying that the number should be seventy rather than seven.

I’ve been going on for a while, and I want to let you jump in here, Mike, but I want to suggest that we can’t take up the topic of the Sixth Commandment without at least mentioning the issue of abortion. More on that later.

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