Exodus 20:13-A Translation Exercise (part 1)

I’d like to try a translation exercise which will require everyone’s participation. So, please join in with your comments. This is the first posting in a multi-part posting.

What are the ways one can translate Exodus 20:13, the 6th commandment?

That’s a fairly opened ended question (as it is stated). There really are no wrong answers. What do you suggest?

26 thoughts on “Exodus 20:13-A Translation Exercise (part 1)

  1. thislamp says:

    I believe murder is preferable to kill as the former better represents ratzach, that is, the unauthorized taking of human life. There is a huge distinction, obviously.

    I looked at a number of translations of this verse out of curiosity, and I find the Message to be very literal (!) but also very accurate here with simply: “No murder.”

  2. Bob MacDonald says:

    It’s not an easy one, is it?

    Being the first of three short sharp jabs, is the command to be seen as something that God enters into to allow us to achieve the desired result? I have been known to look on commands this way – as the future in English can also be seen as command or promise. Because this is teaching, I think it is impossible to accomplish without the prevenient grace. And it would seem that there is yet another ‘failed’ promise, then. How to escape the Holy pugilist who so dominates our life!

    You will not kill. You will not steal. You will not be adulterous.

    There is no English word for the last one – too bad. This is the essence of Job 31 and underscores for a man the need for intercessors that the desired end of the command might be achieved. So Job also explores the need for advocate and referee, a role Elihu focuses and Job ultimately refuses and which God implicitly takes up. Of course, by the Spirit, for the anointed of all times and places, we have anticipation and even human pre-knowledge of the means that God uses in the incarnation to effect the establishment of Torah.

  3. John Hobbins says:

    You realize, Mike, that the 6th commandment is “You shall not kill” for Jews and some Christians, and “You shall not commit adultery” for Catholics and Lutherans.

    I am not in favor of disambiguation in the target text if the source text is ambiguous.

    “You shall not kill” is better than “you shall not murder.” The first translation is open to broader application than the second. That is a point in favor of the first, since the trajectory of interpretation of the passage was, in Jewish and Christian tradition, toward a broader application of the prohibition.

    The first is more in line with the radicalization of this commandment by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was a rigorist on this topic (though he did not criticize the coercive justice of the state).

    Does this matter? Yes it does, if you wish to translate the Bible as the Bible, a canon whose various parts are meant to be read in light of each other, a canon at the service of the people it calls into existence, a criterion, a sounding board, and compass for its life and the life of the world.

    If the Bible is translated with that in mind, its “inner” and “outer” tradition of interpretation will be taken into account.

  4. Joel H. says:

    I spend much of a chapter on this in And God Said, where I present the case that neither “kill” nor “murder” is right for ratsach.

    “Kill” is too broad, I claim, because ratsach didn’t refer to all kinds of killing.

    But “murder” is too narrow, because ratsach included what we would now call “manslaughter” and other kinds of homicide.

    I find the most instructive text to be the detailed discussion of various kinds of illegal killing in Numbers 35. There we see that punishable killing is ratsach’ing, as opposed to killing more generally, which is expressed by the verbs harag, heimit, or the even more general hikah.

    So I think that both “don’t kill” and “don’t murder” are wrong enough to be disqualified as accurate translations.


  5. Mike Sangrey says:


    You’ve stated what you believe to be wrong. But, what do you suggest is right?

  6. John Hobbins says:

    Also, in reply to Rick Mansfield (This Lamp).

    I’m sure he found the gist of his comment – that ratzach refers, not to killing tout court, but a particular kind of killing only – in a commentary or Bible dictionary. Nonetheless, the comment is a bit misleading. Take a good long look at Deut 4:42. Ratzach simply means to slay or kill. Authorization / non-authorization is irrelevant in Prov 22:13 as well. The corresponding noun in Ez 21:27 simply means “slaughter.” Further specification if any is provided by context.

    Bible dictionaries, like many translations, want to be helpful and engage in over-translation on a regular basis. Just saying. It’s a self-defeating process.
    For the Torah, all killing was forbidden – except in circumstances in which, and this is not spelled out here, killing is commanded by God – which it is in a variety of circumstances according to the same Torah.

    In the final analysis, commandments are related to each other in a hierarchy of truth such it is sometimes necessary to break one in order not to break another. Thus, the midwives in Exodus 1 break one commandment – do not bear false witness – in order not to break another – do not kill. Note: the killing the midwives did not do was authorized. That didn’t make it right.

    This is also true in war. A soldier, even if he acted on orders from a superior, can be court-marshalled for violating military law (which protects innocent life under specified circumstances).

    The chief if not the entire justification for killing, furthermore, including illegal killing, is to stop greater killing.

    If you don’t think so, you can stand up on Judgment Day and accuse Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends of violating the 5th commandment in their assassination attempt on Hitler (remember, B and his friends are Lutherans, so don’t confuse them by speaking of the 6th commandment on that occasion). He will reply, I imagine, in the following way, “Yes, we aimed to break the 5th, in order to keep it.”

    Real-life ethics is that paradoxical in extreme cases.

  7. Joel H. says:


    You sound like my editor at St. Martin’s 🙂

    If forced to come up with a translation, I would go with something I consider least-bad: “don’t break the law and kill” or “don’t kill illegally.” (Surprisingly, we don’t have a verb for that in English — or, if we do, I can’t think of it.) For me, it’s more important to express the correct semantic range of the verb than it is to replicate other aspects of the commandment, like the pithiness and style of using just one verb.


  8. asiabible says:

    When translating one also needs to consider the genre of the text, I’d argue this is apodictic not casuistic, so expresses a goal rather than a law (in our everyday sense of those terms) so “Do not kill!” since the negated future here acts as a command. That this is a goal is probably sufficient to cover the “illegally” bit which would otherwise spoil the stylistics 😉

  9. Bob MacDonald says:

    apo-whatever – nice word – yes – I like the goal directed concept and I figured that one out without scholarly help over many years. But if kill is a specific thing – then maybe those other words that Joel mentioned should not be translated as kill. Then kill would be redefined. Personally, I don’t find this convincing at all. Kill is kill. It is to take life for one’s own ends or convenience. Like adultery is for one’s own rather than out of respect or love for an other. Seems to me that the ten are a no to ‘me first’. So I would stick with the promising goal-directed behaviour modification policy.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Joel, the problem with your suggestions “don’t break the law and kill” and “don’t kill illegally” is that they are tautologous and so meaningless. This is a law so it cannot be self-referential to the law in this way. The point is of course that this makes no attempt to define what killing is illegal and so does not clearly prohibit even the most outrageous forms of murder.

    I’m not sure I have a better suggestion, but perhaps “Do not commit homicide” would be more precise. Or perhaps “Do not kill without proper authorisation”, which would allow capital punishment and killing in war.

  11. Theophrastus says:

    I like Everett Fox’s translation:

    You are not to murder.

    @Bob: the verb you are looking for is “to adulter” as in “You are not to adulter.” The intransitive verb “adulter” is so well established that it is used in the most famous dictionary of all, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.

    Also @Bob, please note that you have the seventh and eighth commandments in inverse order. You have also made the classic shall/will substitution error.

  12. Patrick says:

    I would translate it as ‘Do not kill.’
    I know this word is to broad for its meaning. But is that really bad? If I understand well enough what happens when we communicate, I can imagine that the (cognitive) context can help us understanding this more specific. The 10 Words are part of a system in which deathpenalty is a punishment. So I think people would understand that capital punishment is not forbidden here.
    Also, I can imagine that people would understand it has talks about people, not about animals.
    Homicide could be better, but as a Dutch speaker, I don’t understand its field of meaning and its use well enough.
    I am not sure if we can read the ‘promising goal-directed behaviour modification policy’ in this Hebrew verb form (I couldn’t find this in my grammar, so maybe Bob could explain this to me where this ipf could be translated like that (with examples from other OT texts). If we go into that direction we might think also in the sense of ‘human life should be protected’.

  13. iverlarsen says:

    There are already many good comments, so I don’t have much to add. I agree that murder is too narrow and kill is too broad. However, meaning is not derived from the word alone, so I would go for “Do not kill” and let the reader interpret it in context.
    In Danish we said something like “Do not commit homicide” as Peter suggested, but “homicide” is a rather technical word in English, unlike our corresponding Danish word, so I am not too keen on this for English.
    The Greek word used in the LXX here is also used in James 4:2, but that verse is a somewhat different translation challenge. There we said, “You destroy one another’s lives.”

  14. Joel H. says:

    Joel, the problem with your suggestions “don’t break the law and kill” and “don’t kill illegally” is that they are tautologous and so meaningless.


    I don’t think so. I think the point of the Ten Commandments is to list laws that have moral content.

    Again, I go through this in great length in And God Said, but as a summary I would contrast the modern laws that prohibit (a) parking at a meter but not putting money into the meter; and (b) killing your neighbor because you’re in a bad mood. They are both illegal. Surprisingly, American law doesn’t differentiate the two beyond that. (I don’t think British law does either.) There’s no notion that one action is also immoral.

    By contrast, the Ten Commandments lists actions that have a moral component in addition to their legality.

    (And incidentally, for people who may not have been paying close attention when they took Introduction to Legal Principles in school, I’ve added “apodictic” and “casuistic” to my Glossary. The former refers to laws that, like the Ten Commandments, do not prescribe consequences, while the latter is the opposite.)

  15. Bob MacDonald says:

    Thanks for all the clarifications. I have no idea what possessed me to reverse the order of these verses. Shall/will – I don’t know that I make a distinction between them. And promise versus commandment which I somewhat teasingly phrased as ‘goal-seeking’, having misunderstood the apodictic word, needs more teasing out but I think has some applicability. The human question is whether sin can be overcome.

  16. Theophrastus says:

    @Joel H.:

    I am not sure what distinction you are trying to draw here; when you say the Ten Commandments have a “moral” component in addition to their legal component, are you distinguishing the Aseres haDibros over the 613 mitzvos? If so, I don’t follow; since many of the mitzvos appear to have a “moral” component — moreover, other commandments, such as Shabbos, at some level to seem to be as arbitrary as the commandments Rambam indicated that we could not find a reason for (e.g., the red heifer). Pirkei Avos 2:1 advises us to treat the mitzvos “equally”.

    Alternatively, if you are distinguishing Biblical law and secular law, I also don’t understand. Murder in the first degree is a felony and a parking ticket is an offense (not even rising to the level of a misdemeanor.) This suggests a difference in severity and a moral infrastructure. Other laws are strongly moral — e.g., treason; as a citizen, I can commit treason; but the same action taken by a non-citizen abroad does not constitute treason. This implies a moral notion of patriotism which is not universal but relative to one’s country.

  17. Joel H. says:


    I’m referring to the role of the Ten Commandments in the Bible. The “613 commandments” came later (and, for that matter, don’t appear in a list). My contention is that some of the illegal activities in the Bible (killing, e.g.) rose to a level that warranted their inclusion in the Ten Commandments, while others (say, tithing) didn’t.

    As for the difference between felonies, misdemeanors, etc.: These are purely technical quantitative distinctions, not qualitative ones. There are Class A felonies, Class E felonies, Class A misdemeanors, etc. In many ways, a Class E felony is more like a Class A misdemeanor than a Class A felony.

    Also, my understanding is that misdemeanors can combine to become felonies: steal $900 in NY, and it’s a misdemeanor; do it again, the next day, it’s another misdemeanor. Steal $1,800 at once, and it’s a felony. I’d be surprised to find anyone who thinks that the moral severity of stealing $900 twice is less than stealing $1,800 once.

    Most people think of certain felonies as more serious than others, but I think that when they do they are imposing their own (often religious) sensibilities on the law.

  18. Kirsty says:

    It may be obvious to us that “do not kill” means humans. But it would not be obvious to everyone. Buddhists, for example, have a “do not kill” law which includes animals.

    I think “do not murder” is better. Because otherwise capital punishment and war do seem to contradict it.

    While “murder” may be a little narrow, “kill” seems far too broad. And you can’t commit manslaughter on purpose, anyway.

  19. asiabible says:

    On words: Murder will not do at all, since the verb is used of (tribal) judicial killing by the Redeemer (“blood avenger” often in English). If you are happy with old/literary/cheap paperback words “slay” might do.

    On genre: please, please note this is NOT casuistic law, it is apodictic command. ALL talk about this text as “law” in modern parlance misses the point!

    Casuistic laws have exceptions and conditions (all the talk about stealling the same amount in one or two installments etc.) and such discussion is appropriate for them. Apodictic commands are statements of principle and such casuistry is NOT appropriate. The question to ask is am I heading in this direction. Thus “kill” is perfect here, because the principle is “No killing!” See: Matt 5:21ff. Jesus understood how the genres of the Hebrew Bible worked and interpreted well 😉

  20. Peter Kirk says:

    Joel, I think you are imposing your modern categories on the law. I don’t see any distinction between immoral actions and merely illegal ones in the Old Testament law any more than in US or English law. If the commandment had been something like “Illegal killing is immoral” or “Illegal killing is an abomination to YHWH”, then you would have a point. But it is a simple prohibition with no explicit moral dimension. And that is why I still think your version of it is tautologous.

  21. J. K. Gayle says:

    Jesus understood how the genres of the Hebrew Bible worked and interpreted well

    Maybe Matthew translating Jesus’s spoken Hebrew Aramaic understood. He is, of course, quoting the Jewish-Greek translation (from LXX “Exodus” 20:15 to Mt 5:21): οὐ φονεύσεις /ou phoneuseis/. And he has Jesus using Jewish-Greek (translational) rhetorical (subjective, spoken) hyperbole to expand the meanings of the prohibition (in Mt 5:22): πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ /pas ho orgizomenos to adelpho autou/.

    Compare this with how the Greek word for “slaying” is so often opened up in association with profound “anger” in Greek dramatic plays:

    [Φονέα] I say that you are the killer of the man whose slayer you seek.

    Now you will regret that you have said such dire words twice.

    Should I tell you more, that you might get more angry? [ὀργίζῃ]”
    -Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus (362-364)

    “Let manifest justice go forth, let it go with sword in hand, slaying [φονεύουσα] through the throat this godless, lawless, unjust, earth-born offspring of Echion. Whoever with wicked mind and unjust rage [ὄργια] regarding your rites, Bacchus, and those of your mother, comes with raving heart and mad disposition violently to overcome by force what is invincible—death is the discipline for his purposes,…”
    -Euripides, Bacchae (992-999)

    “… and induced Hippias to give him his right hand as a pledge of good faith, and when he grasped it he taunted him with giving his hand to his brother’s murderer [φονεῖ], and so enraged Hippias that in his anger [ὀργῆς] he could not control himself but drew his dagger and made away with him.”
    -Aristotle, Athenian Constitution (18:6)

    The point here is that the Hebrew word for “murder,” “manslaughter,” “killing,” “slaying,” that is so rare in the context of the Hebrew scriptures is opened up by the Hebraic Hellene translations. Matthew has Jesus, in particular, as the mouthpiece for opening up the prohibition to include anger, and the emotion of and the acts of anger are so often in Greek tragedies played out in murderings. (Is this the context and the narrow meaning of Moses and of G-d in the 10 commandments? Probably not. But the contexts and applications are expanded and opened up after the desert wanderings).

  22. David Ker says:

    Why do I feel like Mike is leading us innocent lambs to the slaughter?

    We were just talking about this yesterday at home. I suspect that people will define this word as tightly or as loosely as necessary according to their feelings on “justified killing.”

  23. Gary Simmons says:

    “To slay” feels accurate, even if archaic. “Do not slay another person.” I’ll admit it’s awkward and could stand revising. “Do not slaughter” might seem a bit more natural. It’s not exactly a common English verb, but we use it.

    As a Christian of pacifist leaning, I would contradict David Ker’s statement above and refer to this in the basic sense Joel puts forth. The context would not support saying that warfare and capital punishment are forbidden in this commandment. That is simply a given. How I as a pacifist handle that is non-sequitor.

    Kurk, I always find your classical examples fascinating. It just clicks to hear anger and slaughter juxtaposed like that. So the idea of ὄργια is essentially rage or murderous intent. Interesting. I take a Greek primacy approach on the Sermon (how do you handle the “eye is the light of the body” in Aramaic?), so this gives me something to chew on.

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