Last month, Pope Francis gave a speech where he called for an end to the death penalty worldwide. It’s not my purpose here to discuss that broader issue, but just to make a small point about the biblical argument the pope used.
“The commandment ‘You shall not kill,’ has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty,” the pope said. If that’s true, it certainly is a knock-down argument in favor of abolishing the death penalty, as far as Christians are concerned.
But is it true?
The commandment is found in Exodus 20:13. Numerous bible versions give the translation the pope offered, “You shall not kill”, or similar, (RSV, ASV, DRA, KJV, CEB, BRG). However, it is much more often translated “You shall not murder”, or similar, (ESV, NIV, MEV, NET, NASB, WEB, etc). The reason why is easy to see.
When God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai, He didn’t just give the Ten Commandments, He said a great deal more. And in the very next chapter of Exodus, God who had said “You shall not kill” goes on to say “But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death” (21.14), “Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death” (21.15), “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death” (21.16), and so on.
I’m not trying to address the question of how the Mosaic law applies to modern American society any more than I’m trying to address the death penalty. What I simply wish to point out is that the command “You shall not kill” is certainly not absolute, and certainly does not apply to the guilty as well as to the innocent. God’s command spoke of murder, not of capital punishment nor of killing in war–which are both instances of killing that God commanded, at least in that particular context.
When we read the bible, we must read passages in their context. If we do not, we risk misusing the Word of God to promote our own agenda, rather than humbly aligning ourselves with what the Word of God actually says.