Killing, Murder, and the Bible
Eight minutes and 18 seconds into his 15-minute opening speech during our February 12, 2009 Darwin Day debate, Dan Barker claimed that the God of the Bible cannot exist because biblical teachings regarding killing are contradictory. He stated:
In Exodus 20:13, in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” In Leviticus 24:17 a different phrasing of it with a different Hebrew word: “He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.” However, we find in Exodus 32: “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Put every man his sword by his side, slay every man his brother, his companion and neighbor.” First Samuel 6: “The people lamented because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.” The Bible is filled with examples of the biblical God committing, commanding, and condoning killing. The God of the Bible says “Don’t kill.” The God of the Bible says “Kill.” He does not exist (Butt and Barker, 2009).
Is it true that the biblical position on killing is hopelessly contradictory and can be used as evidence that the God of the Bible cannot exist? Certainly not. The biblical injunctions about killing and murder are in perfect harmony with themselves, and with the principles of justice, and cannot be used as evidence against the God of the Bible.
First, according to Dan, the command to avoid killing in the Ten Commandments is a blanket statement that includes avoiding every type of killing. Yet, we must consider that just one chapter later, in Exodus 21:12-17, we read several injunctions pertaining to capital punishment in which the death sentence is permitted for those who premeditatively murder another person due to malice, who kidnap a person to sell him, or who curse their father or mother. The original readers understood that the commandment in Exodus 20:13 did not mean that all killing was wrong, including capital punishment. They understood that certain qualifications, as are detailed in the rest of the Law, put limits, restrictions, and allowances on the term “kill.” Barker would have us to believe that whoever wrote the book of Exodus was so ignorant that he did not catch contradictory statements that are separated by less than one chapter. Yet, such an idea is ridiculous in light of the remarkable accuracy and acumen of the Old Testament instructions (see Butt, 2008) that were used by the Jewish community for almost 1,500 years, many of which were the basis for the legal codes of modern nations. The arrogance of the current atheistic community to assume that the original readers of the Old Testament were so dim-witted as to accept contradictory statements less than a chapter apart is astounding. If a statement about killing is made, and then within a few verses, the statement is qualified and expounded upon, the allegation that all killing is being included in the original instruction cannot be maintained.
Second, Barker frequently uses this alleged contradiction in his writings as well as his debates. In his book, godless, he claimed that the commandment in Exodus 20:13 cannot be translated “Thou shalt not murder,” because the Hebrew word ratsach sometimes means something other than murder. To prove his point, he listed the following five Hebrew words most commonly translated as “kill” or “murder”:
muth: (825) die, slay, put to death, kill
nakah: (502) smite, kill, slay, beat, wound, murder
harag: (172) slay, kill, murder, destroy
zabach (140) sacrifice, kill
ratsach (47) slay , murder , kill , be put to death  (Barker, 2008, p. 204).
To further “prove” his point, he listed several places in the Old Testament in which the term ratsach, means something other than murder. He cited Deuteronomy 4:42, a verse that uses the term to refer to involuntary manslaughter. He also noted Numbers 35:30-31, in which the term is used for the justifiable capital punishment inflicted on a murderer. Barker’s contention, then, is that if the term can ever be used to mean something besides murder, then it must be used that way in Exodus 20:13.
The fatal flaw in Barker’s assertion is that of equivocation. “Equivocation is classified as both a formal and informal fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)” (“Equivocation,” 2009, emp. added). [NOTE: Although Wikipedia is not usually considered a scholarly source, equivocation is a commonly used concept and Wikipedia’s wording was the most concise and clear of the various sources consulted.] Notice how Barker is equivocating in this instance. He is rightly saying that the term ratsach might be used for justified killing like capital punishment, but he is insisting that this definition must be used in Exodus 20:13. Yet, when we see the other definitions, such as murder, for the word ratsach that are available, we realize that the definition of murder fits the context of Exodus 20:13, not the concept of justifiable killing such as capital punishment. By forcing the word ratsach to have the same definition in all places, Dan alleges to have found a contradiction. Dan stated: “Modern preacher must be smarter than Hebrew translators if they claim that ratsach means “murder” exclusively” (1992, pp. 207-208). But the claim is not that the word means murder exclusively, but that in the context of Exodux 20:13 the context shows that the word means murder. In truth, Barker must be smarter than the entire Hebrew nation and all linguists since the time of the Bible’s writing to be able to prove that ratsach cannot mean murder in Exodus 20:13, when both the context and standard meanings of the word allow for such to be the case. His logical fallacy of equivocation, however, is plain to see and is inexcusable for a man who has been studying his Bible and debating for as many years as Dan has.
The only proper way to determine the meaning of a word with multiple meanings is to look at the context. In the context of Exodus 20:13 and other injunctions to avoid “killing,” the clear meaning is that some types of killing, such as premeditated murder out of malice, are forbidden, while other types of killing, such as that done by the government as punishment for certain wrong doings, are permissible.
The use of our English word “kill” provides a good example of how words can be used. Suppose we say: “It is wrong to kill your neighbor,” but then we say, “It is not always wrong for a policeman to kill his neighbor.” Are these two statements contradictory? No. Not if in the first instance we use “kill” to mean intentionally, premeditatively killing out of malice, etc., but in the second we mean the policeman may shoot his neighbor if the neighbor was shooting at him, was holding hostages at gunpoint, etc. Biblical statements about killing, murder, and capital punishment are not contradictory.
Besides this alleged contradiction, Dan and his fellow atheists also contend that it is unfair for God to be in the position to decide when killing is justifiable or not. They contend that humans should have the same prerogative about deciding who lives and dies as God should have. Thus, they say, God cannot be in a position to determine when killing is justified if humans are not in this same position—the same rules must apply to God as to all humans. Barker opined: “Why is God special?” (2008, p. 204). Atheists continually overlook, however, the concept of authorization. Not everyone has the same authority to administer punishment. While it is true that a thief might deserve 10 years in prison, an individual cannot capture the thief, lock him in his basement for ten years and be considered moral. Only the government has the right to try the thief, find him guilty, and sentence him to prison. A vigilante cannot break into a federal penitentiary and kill all the inmates on death row, even though they are sentenced to death. Why? Because that individual does not have the authorization to kill those people. God has authority over life and death because He gives it, and he knows all the thoughts of those committing crimes and all the consequences of the punishment He administers (see Butt, 2004). The atheists’ contention that God and humans have the same prerogative over matters of life and death is logically flawed.
In conclusion, the biblical instructions regarding killing, when viewed in context and not equivocated, are clearly harmonious and without contradiction. Certain types of killing, such as premeditated murder done out of malice, are easily identified from the context as forbidden killing. While capital punishment administered by the proper authority is clearly not under discussion in the biblical statements against “killing.” Alleged Bible contradictions that exhibit such poor scholarship and dishonesty should be viewed by the reasonable observer as evidence against atheism and for the Bible’s accuracy and unity.
Barker, Dan (2008), godless (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press).
Butt, Kyle and Dan Barker (2009), The Butt/Barker Debate: Does the God of the Bible Exist? (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
Butt, Kyle (2004), “The Skeptic’s Faulty Assumption,” [On-line], URL: http://apologeticspress.org/articles/2230.
Butt, Kyle (2007), Behold! The Word of God, (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
“Equivocation” (2009), Wikipedia, [On-line], URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equivocation.